Wednesday, October 25, 2006


In China, there is this little thing called "guanxi." If you look it up in the dictionary, the term means realationship. But in reality it's all about connections, or in modern-day terms: "havin da' hook up." This is a country that's all about who you know. The more guanxi you have, the better. And people are not afraid to use their guanxi. In America, there's sometimes a little shame in asking for favors or inconviencing others. Not so here. Droping names, making phone calls, haggling for half an hour just to get 10 cents knocked off a pair of socks-it's all fair game.

If I want to get copies made, Ming insists I use the copy place near his work. Sure, there is a shop right next to our apartment building, but why go there when I can get the same job done for half a cent cheaper at the place where he "knows people." If I want to go to a certain temple, he insists I go to a different one. One where his friend's sister's boyfriend works at the ticket booth. That way I can get in for free. Nevermind that it's not the place I wanted to go to in the first place.

These kind of tactics don't really suit my personality. Call me lazy, or perhaps I just value my time more than my money. Then throw in the fact that I'm a bit of an introvert. It's not my nature to have an excess of friends and acquaintances. Luckily Ming makes up in what I lack. Another person who has great guanxi is my stepmom. You need your taxes done? She knows someone. You need a deal on house paint? She knows someone. You need to find some quality dark chocolate? Oh yes, she knows someone. I, on the other hand, am not the type to mingle at parties. When standing in line at the grocery store I try to look preoccupied or grumpy. I'm not interested in making small talk with strangers.

Things are different in China though. In a country where strong relationships are vital to success, the Chinese are not much for chatting up total strangers in hopes of making friends. They don't talk to each other on the bus or when waiting in line (probably because they don't know how to form lines). However, they do seem to take a liking to me. Since I'm a foreigner, these rules need not apply. If I forget to put my MP3 player in (a great invention for the anti-social), there's usually someone who wants to chat. For those who can only speak to me in Chinese, the questions are generally simple. "Where are you from?" "Are you an English teacher?" But if they can speak English, all bets are off. There's no knowing what might come out of their mouths. From "What's your favorite Chinese food?" to "What do you think is better, socialism or capitalism?" I've heard it all.

Sometimes the Chinese want to practice their English. Sometimes they are just curious. Others might be looking for some guanxi. Whatever the case, I'm probably not the best person to talk to. Perhaps the Chinese guy who often chats with me on the bus put it best when he asked, "Aren't Americans suppose to be friendly?" I guess not this American.

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