Tag Archives: culture

Making My Peace with Hongbao Culture in China

As of writing this article, the population of China is just over one and a quarter billion people. That makes it the most populous country in the world. It also makes it hard to get special attention or treatment for any problem you might have. 

dragon and boy

Chinese have developed a way to get that attention and its called the hongbao (red envelope stuffed with money).  This is both literal (yes sometimes you have to bribe people), as well as metaphorical (more often the case that your “hongbao” will look like a special gift or service). 

As a foreigner, I naturally stand out and therefore receive special treatment more easily than others. However, I also see the constant exchange of this both literal and figurative hongbaos as I mentioned above. 

They are given to people like doctors, teachers, policemen, and government officials in exchange for things like heightened attention on a loved one or the expedition of an important document.

For outsiders, and even for many Chinese themselves, this practice can be particularly hard to live with. It undermines the law and seems unfair. However anyone who stays here for a longer period of time must understand and adapt to this practice or else risk insanity.

For the time being, it is a part of life in China.

Hongbao Plus One

This past weekend my girlfriend received a red envelope in the form of an invitation to a resort in the north of the city: on the border of Beijing and Hebei. The parents of some students in her class wanted to solidify their relationship with their children’s caregivers and therefore offered the invitation to the student’s homeroom teachers. I went as the plus one.

The resort was the recently opened water town called Gu Bei Shui Zhen (古北水镇), which is basically a replica of a water town that you might find in the southern city of Suzhou.

For people not familiar with China, this is like saying that somebody built a replica Virginia tobacco farm in upstate New York. I don’t really like these kinds of places. They feel very fake, like the very soul of the place is missing.

Normally when I travel, I like to visit local places. I don’t stay in fancy hotels, and opt for budget accommodation like a hostel or cheap hotel. I like to focus my time and resources on visiting places, rather than staying in my room. To me this is what traveling is all about- talking and experiencing life as the locals would see it- rather than an airbrushed resort version. 

Chinese, and coincidentally enough my girlfriend, are the opposite. They don’t mind if something was made particularly for them. The most important thing is that it’s beautiful. If a place’s architecture doesn’t match the geography and history of an area, well, so what!

At least there is a nice pool. 

Moreover I found the entire situation slightly unnerving. The parents essentially decided the schedule and, even though they were very nice people, it felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells around them. It’s not that I don’t think it was very generous of them, it just felt a little odd to me.

The differences in our expectations of teacher-student relationships as well as travelling experiences tell us a lot about Chinese and American culture.

I would never choose to go to a place like Gu Bei Shui Zhen on my own. As I said above, something about its in-authenticity repels me.

I would also never invite my child’s teacher on vacation with me. Just like Gu Bei Shui Zhen, it feels slightly unauthentic and uncomfortable. 

How to Develop Cultural Literacy

The challenges posed by a clash of cultures here is a great metaphor for the challenges of living in another country. When confronted with these types of situations, the best thing you can do is to adapt- if only for the sake of preserving harmony- which is perhaps the most you can hope for when living abroad.

Even though I often feel like speaking out against these types of cultural practices in china (specifically the practice of giving envelopes and superficial relationships), doing so would accomplish nothing. In fact, it would make me more stressed out.

In the end I am not in China to change it. I am here as a visitor. I hope that my presence and interactions help to open them up a little bit to outside ideas; but ultimately I don’t plan on naturalizing.

The Result

As a result of practicing this cultural literacy I was able to lay back and relax with my girlfriend. Even though I did have the urge to criticize both the resort and circumstances under which I had come, I restrained myself and am very happy that I did. The most important thing was that she enjoyed herself and the parents felt like we were being reciprocative of their generosity.

This experience served as further proof that I rarely have all of the answers, and my own expectations are often wrong. I can’t change the way I feel about these types of places and relationships, but I can seek first to understand and not to be understood.

Yes, that is a Stephen Covey line. And while I am not promoting his whole system, I do think it is an important building block of living in another culture happily.

Evolution

Time and money.

We always want more. And when we get more, it’s never enough.

“Wow! How did you do that? How did I ever live without…

a food delivery service app,

a ride sharing service,

coupons?”

But what happens when we give people too much time? Too much money? We have to change and adapt.

We have to take more responsibility and evolve.

Chinese New Year; 5 Basic Points

My first Chinese New Year was all about fireworks. I got drunk with my friends and walked around throwing cherry bombs and lighting roman candles. I was young and dumb and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now I realize the importance of CNY. It is the biggest holiday in China and a time for Chinese to see their families, make dumplings, and pass out red envelopes full of money.

Like many things in China, this holiday is very difficult for outsiders to understand. However, the longer I have stayed and worked in China, the more I have fully grasped the importance of the holiday. To understand CNY and its relationship to Chinese culture is important for anyone wishing to understand or do business in China.

The following five points provide some good background information about CNY. While reading them will not replace actually experiencing it, it is a useful resource nonetheless.

Lunar Calendar

Chinese New Year is the Chinese festival that celebrates the end of the start of a new Lunar year. That is why Chinese New Year and the western new year fall on different calendar dates in the Roman Catholic calendar. Chinese have up until recently followed the lunar calendar.

Ghost Town

Chinese cities become ghost towns during this festival because many Chinese make the journey back to their ancestral homes. The word lao jia, Chinese for hometown, takes on a special meaning for this reason.

Jiaozi

One of the most popular traditions during the Chinese New Year festival is to make jiaozi, Chinese for dumplings. If you are lucky enough to attend a Chinese friend’s party, then there will most certainly be plenty of jiaozi.

Annual Bonus

Traditionally Chinese businesses hand out yearly bonuses before the Chinese New Year. In this way, employees have a nice red envelope to present to their parents when they go home. This is usually between one to three months worth of wages.

Many ESL teachers and other foreigners new to China will not be included in this system. In a standard ESL package, teachers receive the equivalent of a cheap plane ticket back home, (around 6-7 thousand RMB). Of course, it is better to work within the Chinese system because you will earn much more.

Therapeutic Festival

Chinese New Year is a much needed cooling off period for those working in the middle kingdom. Often you will find that bosses and such will quarrel with one another the closer the holiday becomes. This is because it is the time when employees receive their annual performance reviews.
An old China hand once told me, “Just leave it for now. Everyone will be more chilled out after the New Year.” and he was right. My boss was fighting with her boss and I was somehow stuck in the middle of it all. In the end, the vacation and therapeutic nature of the festival cooled everyone down.   

How to Develop Good Relationships in a Chinese Company

 

Guanxi (关系) is the Chinese word for relationship. In China, relationships are everything. The word Guanxi, is as nuanced and deep as an American’s attachment to the idea of Freedom.

The topic of relationships in China is a big one. For the purpose of this post I will just discuss it within the context of the workplace. Specifically, how to understand and manage your relationships with Chinese coworkers while working in a Chinese company.

I have worked full time in China since 2013. During this time I have made bonehead mistakes which made me want to buy the first plane ticket home. You don’t have to make those mistakes, well, at least not as obtusely as me.

Why Your Guan Xi Is Important

Did I mention relationships are important in China? Let me reiterate… relationships are very important in China. You need them to secure pay raises and better jobs. You need them to bypass troublesome corporate bureaucracy. Having good relationships in this context is like spraying a rusty nail with WD-40 before removal.  

I am not suggesting that relationships in China can replace your actual work output (although you could make that argument…). It is merely a strong suggestion that paying attention to this area throughout your China career will help to make you an effective and productive member of the workplace.

The following five points are suggestions to help you develop better relationships with your coworkers. 

  1. Choose the time and place to disagree. Know when to stay quiet and speak up.

When you disagree with a coworker, think very carefully about how to present this to him or her. The worst thing you can do is to make him or her lose face in front of everyone. One on one discussions and talks over messaging services are a great way to present your point respectfully.

You also need to understand hierarchy and your relationship to it. If causing a co worker to lose face is a bad idea, think about what it would mean to your boss. I have seen many foreigners put themselves in very awkward positions by calling out their bosses in front of everyone. Don’t try it. You are not different.

  1. Know when to say no. 

As a general observation, working in a Chinese company means that your job description is much more flexible than if you were at a western company. This means that you need to set your boundaries early on about what you will and will not do.

Early on in my career I thought the only way to get ahead was to work more than everyone else. Therefore, I always accepted the extra jobs my bosses wanted to give me.

I gained a lot of experience, but I also worked for five months straight nonstop. My personal life suffered and I almost went mental. That was how I learned the importance of setting boundaries in the context of working as a foreigner in a Chinese organization.

The silver lining here is that because you are a foreigner it is easier to duck out of these supposedly “mandatory” commitments. This is called using the “Chinese no” and I will talk about it in the next point.

  1. Learn how to give the “Chinese no”.

In America people, for the most part, understand and respect a firm no without any other excuses. However, in China it is often considered rude to simply state that you won’t or don’t want to participate in something. This goes back to face. People lose face if you tell them their activity is not worth the time.

Learning how to say no in Chinese is the best way to deal with this. Basically what I mean here is to simply make up an excuse that both of you know is not true. One that I often use is that I have a date with my girlfriend and she would really kill me if I don’t go. Another good “Chinese no” is, ironically, to say you have Chinese language class.

It is important to note here that you are not being rude. Sometimes people from the West are confused about this. That is because truth is relative to culture. Giving these kinds of excuses is just the proper way to say no in Chinese culture.

  1. Help your coworkers with English.

As a foreigner, a lot of times I feel my bosses don’t know how to manage my workload properly. This means that I need to take a more proactive approach towards helping my team.

What your boss and coworkers really want is for you, as the Foreign Expert, to help them develop their global reach. 

What your boss and coworkers really want you, a Foreign Expert, is for them to help the company develop more internationally. They don’t want to change the actual working process.

A good way to help a Chinese company develop more of an international flavor is to help your department with their English (assuming you have a good handle of the language). After all, English is the language of commerce. So, when coworkers ask you language questions or to help them edit documents, help them! That is why you are there.

I emphasize this point because often foreigners don’t feel like they need to help with this. After all, it wasn’t written specifically in their job description when they were hired. (Believe me, I am  no saint here). However, a little good faith and twenty minutes out of your day is not going to kill you. After all, these little transactions are the basis for how all relationships begin to grow.

  1. Share your snacks.

Speaking of small transactions as the basis for growing all relationships…. In China, these transactions are often skewed towards the edible.

One curious habit of working in a Chinese office is that your coworkers will constantly share their snacks within the department, and with a more select group of “friends”. This is a subtle, yet important detail to both know and employ.

Participating in the communal sharing of food will improve your relationships by showing both your understanding and fluency in Chinese culture.

Although I still find it odd to share my own treats, I do make an effort every couple of weeks to pass around a small snack likes cookies or something else. The neutral territory of snacks shows that I both understand Chinese culture and am interested in being part of the community (albeit on my terms).  

A side note is that in my early days I was very gungho about being seen as a Sinophile. One evening, when my department and I were working overtime, I went downstairs and bought everyone fancy drinks from Starbucks. When I offered the drinks to my coworkers I was dismayed to see a mixture of both embarrassment and confusion.
Reflection on this event has led me to the conclusion that my coworkers thought the gift was too extravagant and, most likely, they didn’t like coffee in the first place. When passing out snacks it is a good rule of thumb to keep it low key. Fruits, chocolates, or cookies work nicely.