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A Cultural Lesson

My friend Birdie from East Asia wrote me last week saying, “我觉得你应该在你的blog里用中文写点什么。别忘了,你是中国人,你有中国血的!”Which in and of itself is pretty ironic, since she’s also the one that always tells me “你从来都不是中国人!” But to appease her just a little, I will talk about the Chinese social concept of 關係 (关系 – guan xi).

The word 關係 can be roughly translated to English as “relationships.” In a very simple sense, 關係 is the social network you have with other people. In general, a person uses their 關係 with others as leverage to get help from them or solicit favors from them. It is so ingrained in the Chinese mind that success in every echelon of society is dependent on it. In its simplest form, it is social quid pro quo, a type of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” mentality driven by the laws of reciprocity.

For example, it is partly because of 關係 that my parents offer my computer expertise to their friends when asked. Again it is because of 關係 that I can’t refuse to go to a dinner when their friends offer as gratitude for my services. In the end, I am forced to fix computers that I don’t want to fix in order to eat dinners that I don’t want to eat … it’s a very sick cycle.

The whole situation bothers me on several levels. I don’t mind at all helping friends with their computers, but in this case I am merely functioning as a useful tool. And on a deeper level, I don’t like the concept of reciprocity. In the ideal world, people should not keep tabs on their friend on the favors done and given. It defeats the very principle of love, which keeps no records of wrongs and does not prompt one to act under obligation.

It’s too bad that we don’t live in the ideal world. Even though I must agree that most of the time we are driven solely by self-interest, I do believe that it is possible to act altruistically without expecting a form of repayment. So from now on, if I help you with something (even if it’s fixing your computer), don’t feel that you’re obligated to pay me back in some way. If anything, do it out of genuine gratitude, not obligation.

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  • Blogger Matt Mikalatos says so:
    5:44 PM  

    Hey Ken-- ah, the age old question of whether you are Chinese or not. Of course you are. And of course you aren't. That's the great thing about being bi-cultural, and as I recall you used the ability to switch from "American" to "Chinese" to your great advantage. But now I have a question for China Ken. In the guanxi system, wouldn't the family still owe you if you didn't go to the thank you dinner? And then couldn't you use your stored up guanxi from something else? Like, um, I dunno, some other thing you would actually like and find useful? A new car or something like that? Or their help finding someone to fix your old one? As for American Ken: show some respect! Just kidding. top

  • Blogger Ken says so:
    6:02 PM  

    Matt, the first question that you posed was valid, but only on the surface. I tried declining to go to dinner numerous times, since I knew it was almost more a torture than a repayment. But since my parent's friends didn't want to be indebted to me, they keep trying to be very proactive in calling my house everyday asking when I am free. So as you can see, it's a lose lose situation for me.

    If I could only find a nice way of telling them that I would rather not go to dinner with them, but make them feel like they paid me back already. Maybe I'll intentionally get a flat tire right in front of their house and then ask for their help ... hmm ... now that's a smart idea. top

  • Blogger Matt Mikalatos says so:
    1:52 AM  

    Or you could always drive to their house with no gas in your car and then they could give you five bucks to put a gallon in on the way home.... top

  • Anonymous glo says so:
    6:29 PM  

    Thats funny, I read this blog entry before with no clue what it said because my computer doesn't read chinese characters. All it had was ?????????????. Now that I'm using my parent's computer, I get it! (And I have to say, I'm pretty proud that I can read all the 中文. :-)

    Now, with support raising, this whole idea of 关系 gets tricky. My mom is always saying, "How are you gonna pay all these people back??" And I say, "well, I can't!" But I do feel indebted to all my supporters...and wonder all the time how I can show them how much I truly appreciate them. Maybe thats the affect 关系 has had on me.

    Interestingly, today I heard a sermon on 关系: Luke 16:1-9 (the parable of the shrewd manager). Apparently, Jesus is all for 关系. Check it out and tell me what you think! top