In my second blog about working in China, I talked about being glad that I had not worked in an ex-pat bubble and had been exposed to Chinese ways of thinking and doing.
My colleagues used three Chinese words to try to help me understand ways of doing business and Chinese parents and their decisions. It was a privilege to be able to talk openly and honestly about these things, and to grapple with the assumptions and different world views we were trying to bridge that meant we often talked past each other. I don’t claim to have ‘got them’ but will share my best understanding thus far.
关系 (guānxi) – relationships, connections
I reflected on the contrast between New Zealand and China, and how these affect relationships. New Zealand is a relatively young, small country, in which everyone can link back to when their ancestors moved to New Zealand, with most families including someone who recently immigrated. China is the largest country in the world, with 5,000 years of continuous history, during which most families had little contact with the outside world.
Chinese people view their guānxi as an asset and carry a classification of their connections in their heads. In the inner circle is family – which is much smaller than it used to be as a consequence of the one child policy. The next level out are classmates. Someone explained to me that classmates are the next closest and trusted because you form them when you are younger and more pure, before you are out for what you can get in relationships. Then, you accumulate other relationships, including work ones, through life.
In New Zealand, we also grow networks over time, and have friends, family and ex colleagues that to varying degrees we feel we can ask for help. It is also a form of classification that we have unconsciously learned to create while growing up and would find hard to explain to others.
Kiwi connections are relaxed because we are a tiny country and assume two degrees of separation i.e. if I know someone who knows someone who knows someone, you probably know them too. Plan A for kiwis is use your contacts, but Plan B – search out the right person, get in touch and trust them to be as nice as you are – is a quick back up. It may or may not work, but what the heck?
By contrast, cold calling is almost impossible in China. My colleagues searched for any possible route into an organisation rather than contacting a stranger. Our career counseling process included contacting people doing the job of interest to interview them, and my colleagues couldn’t believe that I suggested contacting strangers to do that. (Without this step, I never would have got my first job back in the workplace after being a full time mum for ten years.) In China totally different rules apply to those outside your circles. This explains how rude Chinese people seem to Raymond and me when queuing at tourist attractions, at the same time as our Chinese friends seem so generous and kind. I can understand that it is too overwhelming to be nice to 1.4 billion people, and that blocking strategies would have evolved in a large hierarchical country over 5,000 years. In contrast New Zealand has evolved ways of relating based on egalitarian beginnings and everyone relatively recently arriving with limited connections and needing help from strangers.
Chinese classification of relationships is more complex than ‘can approach’/’can’t approach’. It seems to be a ledger determining the extent of giving and receiving. The type of connection, such as closeness and hierarchy, affects expectations and the amount of debt or credit within each interaction. One needs to be careful of going into debt too much, which is why ledgerless, or at least less ledgery, family and classmates are preferable. Again, this makes sense in a place with more people, longer history and more hierarchy, but the thought of it made my head hurt.
Also, word of mouth recommendations carry more weight than makes sense to me. I listen to the advice of those I know, but also assess how broad their experience or knowledge is before deciding how much notice to take. One colleague explained that the credibility of any other form of information, such as what is on the internet, is so low, that a trusted person’s limited experience seems the best option, and has done so for generations. An example was my friend, Juānzi’s decision to use a student recruitment company in Shanghai to help her son apply to universities in the US. The company is three hours flight away and there are many local choices, but one trusted friend’s positive experience made the decision easy for her.
面子(miànzi) – face culture, reputation, prestige
Juānzi most frequently explains differences we notice when talking as ‘China’s face culture’. At its most simple it is about looking good or the right way to others. In New Zealand we also care about how we seem to others, but it does not drive everything we feel, think or do in the same way. This face culture seems to link back to the complex web diagram in every Chinese person’s head with the ledger balance by each persons’ name.
King talked about a low, or high level of anxiety, in terms of needing to perform that he remembers starting his first day of school. I used the phrase ‘having a knot in your stomach’ to reflect what I thought he was describing. He is a very high performer who seems very confident and, partly because he has been influenced by western education, willing to be different. He then frequently referred to ‘knot in your stomach’, including telling me that every parent as well as every child has this all the time, because of the tremendous pressure to be seen to be doing well.
When we talk, Juānzi views aspects of miànzi as a negative thing – ‘sad, but true’. But she has to work within it. She is worried for her son because she knows this is the culture he will find when he returns from America, and wants to help prepare him to succeed within it as much as she can. This is even more important when she only has one child.
功利 (gōnglì) – utility, material gain, pragmatism
My colleagues used gōnglì when talking about how Chinese parents choose an overseas study option for their children. (I wrote this then realised I need to explain to Western readers that parents choose for their children, even if they are young adults going to university. Parents will consult their children to varying degrees.)
For a while, Xiăoméi, my business partner, and I would talk about parent choices and she would say – ‘Chinese parents are pragmatic’. In the context, it didn’t make sense, because it seemed to me that they were being the opposite – making decisions that were driven by brand rather than things I would consider pragmatic, such as low cost, high quality to cost ratio, or ease of access. Later, King, my philosopher colleague, used ‘pragmatic’ to translate gōnglì and I realised this is what Xiăoméi had been talking about. As King tried to explain to me what it meant, we decided to use gōnglì in future, rather than try to use any English word. Nothing quite seemed to capture it.
My best attempt is making choices for what the greatest benefit will be – which is a form of pragmatism. However, because the benefit is framed in guānxi and miànzi, it doesn’t ring true for me. This manifests itself in an obsession with rankings, because other people care about rankings, so you get significant benefit in going to a country/school/university with high ranking. It is not so important that it is actually good, it is important that others think it is good. Each generation is more knowledgeable about what really is quality. King and his parents had to decide how much to take into account his grandparents’ views, while relatively uninformed. They wanted to be able to proudly tell their friends what their grandson was doing.
In one conversation with King, I said ‘but after your get your first job, it doesn’t even matter what university you went to’. He said ‘It is different in China. When you are 50 years old, you might still be being introduced as “This is King and he went to Berkeley”‘. I laughed and said ‘In New Zealand that sort of introduction at 25, let alone 50, would make everyone feel so awkward’.
My Australian cross-cultural psychologist friend directed me to a website which summarises a cross-cultural guru called Hofstede’s research on cultural differences. It has an interactive tool with which we can compare countries’ cultures using six dimensions. Here are the results for China and New Zealand.
You can see that the two countries are significantly different on four of the six measures – no wonder it can be challenging here.
I have talked about the individualism versus collectivism when describing guānxi and miànzi. The power distance was another difference that meant it took my colleagues and I a while to stop talking past each other.
China is an inherently unequal, ranked society, and people believe this is normal and acceptable. At the beginning of working together, Xiăoméi would ask me if the school I was talking about was ‘a good school’. I would say ‘they are all good schools’. Then a few weeks later, we seemed to have the same conversation.
Eventually, I understood that in Chéngdū, at the end of primary school all students sit exams and are filtered into middle schools on the basis of their marks, with the highest scoring students going to School A, the next highest to School B and so on, until the poor old lowest achievers are put into School Z. This process is repeated at the end of middle school, so everybody knows that those attending the high school, ‘Chéngdū Number 7 ‘, are the best students for their age in the city of 14 million people (or have wealthy parents who got them in via another route). So, Number 7 School is ‘the best’. Students bus all across the city to attend the school that fits their academic ability. About 12 years old, they usually live Monday to Friday in hostels on site to avoid long travel days, and to attend lessons in the evenings.
Xiăoméi, and subsequently my other colleagues Juānzi, King and Kathy, eventually understood that students usually go to the school near where they live and so has competent and less competent students. In cities, schools end up with differences based on the socio-economic status of the area in which they are based, but the quality of teachers is comparable. In fact, the government gives lower decile schools extra funding to try and reduce inequities that come from this difference and legislates so that popular schools cannot select more able students.
When researching different education systems, I uncovered another example of New Zealand’s commitment to equity. All eight of New Zealand’s universities are ranked in the top 500 in the world, even though the highest ranked only sits at 81. The next highest percentage is Australia (50%), with UK and Canada both at 33%, and USA at only 25%. Rather than make one university exceptionally good, New Zealand makes them all very good. Even though I worked in the sector, I never knew this, and wish the New Zealand media, when reporting, were more informed about how the country compares to the rest of the world.
New Zealand’s education system is far from perfect, and I support recent moves to restore the emphasis on equity that has eroded. However, living in China helps me appreciate the quality and access that is there, and the lifestyle choices that flow from this. The first time I talked to a Chinese student about his weekly timetable, because I was trying to find a time to meet regularly with him, I was moved to tears. I could not believe that this gorgeous young 14 year old got up at 6am to leave for school at 7am and did not return home until 9pm, and then had classes in the weekend. Because New Zealand children do not need to compete from their first days in school, and their parents do not need to worry about their exact position in exams before they turn ten, families can have fun together. Also, a New Zealand person can make poor choices when young and get chances to turn their lives around throughout their adult life, through access to education, and a culture that does not label you forever based on performance in your teens.
My journey working in China has helped me reflect on how a country’s size and history leads it to where it is today. As with anyone, understanding their perspective helps me to be more respectful of differences that initially may seem rude, inconsiderate, foolish, ineffective or just plain incomprehensible.
Hofstede also gives me insights into how Canada’s culture compares to New Zealand’s and China’s.
Canada is clearly more similar to New Zealand than China is, so things should be easier. However here in China, we have learned the hard way that relating to colleagues from other English speaking countries exposes cultural differences that come as more of a shock, because others look the same, speak the same language and seem to have the same heritage.
And, while living in Canada, in my new job I will also be working in Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean and Asia – more cultural learning ahead!