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Section II: Living in China continued

Friendships in China

Friendships or social relationships in China are, generally speaking, based more on mutual need than on sincere and simple friendships (in what amounts to log-rolling). In a country that is still very much ruled and influenced by feudal thinking, you absolutely need friends in high places if you are to get anything accomplished.

Mainland China is not so much a land of laws as it is a highly-complex network of interpersonal relationships, i.e., knowing the right person who knows the right person and so on. Virtually anything can be accomplished with the right and proper amount of guanxi (the Chinese word that translates to "relationship" but with a far greater and richer meaning, with clearly prescribed social roles, positions and behaviors—see chapters on Mianzi and Guanxi and Social Etiquette, respectively, for more details).

... the doctrine of quid pro quo does not apply in regard to foreign teachers who are seen as "just passing through."

Many foreigners delude themselves into thinking that they will be immediately incorporated into this complex system of social networking by over-extending themselves to their Chinese friends and hosts when called upon to do some favor (usually limited to something involving the English language). Keep in mind that true guanxi is more powerful and meaningful than money in China and it's a form of currency that will never be squandered on someone who is viewed (quite accurately in most cases) as a transient worker.

In fact, even among the Chinese, once a close friend leaves the vicinity (for example, in the case where a colleague accepts another job in a different province), he or she would now be viewed as existing outside one's guanxi network. As guanxi rarely extends across provinces, for the most part, there are very few long-distance friendships in China that survive over time (aside from, perhaps, sending and receiving SMS text messages during the Spring Festival).

Most foreign teachers, particularly those who offer little or nothing more than the ability to speak English natively, no matter how long they may live in China, will always be viewed as outsiders—and, in that context, they will always exist outside the guanxi network. If you consider being treated to a banquet "in your honor" as fair and reasonable compensation for copy editing 24 pages of "Chinglish," or spending a whole day participating in a photo shoot for your school's advertising needs, then so be it.

For the most part, and there are exceptions, the doctrine of quid pro quo does not apply in regard to foreign teachers and expats who are seen as "just passing through." You were simply an "iron that was struck" while the opportunity was hot, i.e., you were exploited. As a rule, unless you have been living and working in a community for years, have distinguished yourself in some way other than just showing up and doing your job, and have a Chinese spouse or otherwise can live permanently in China, politely beg off the dinners and compliments and ask to be paid for any services that are requested.

As noted above, there are a couple of clear exceptions to the above rule: foreigners viewed as permanent fixtures in a particular city, especially ones who have distinguished themselves in some way, may be eventually adopted peripherally into the guanxi network.

We personally know of at least one case in which a foreign teacher, who has been in the same city for many years, was eventually taken into the guanxi network by a high ranking government official after the teacher (a retired professor of literature) helped tutor his child for a national English contest that led to the child taking home first prize. So elated, appreciative and grateful was the government official, that the foreigner was bestowed, in a manner of speaking, a type of honorary and unspoken status as an "insider." Whenever this foreign teacher has a problem, of any kind, all he needs to do is pick up his telephone and it is quickly resolved in his favor. But this type of reciprocity and "insider status" is relatively rare and only possible with those who have typically made a lifelong commitment to a particular community and have distinguished themselves in some way other than speaking English or by completing last minute copyediting jobs, and not just in China, but, previously, in their countries of origin as well.

However, truly dedicated teachers who have extended themselves to their students over a period of years at the same school will very likely accumulate genuine friends for life (as these relationships were never based on guanxi to begin with). It is not unusual for truly beloved teachers to receive frequent visits from their students who will bring over a variety of food and fruit and cook a meal, or remain forever available for providing help and assistance--not only while they are current students but for many years thereafter. It is, actually, one of truest joys and greatest benefits of teaching in China for those who have genuinely committed themselves to working with and helping their students.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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