It’s now been five days since landing in Shanghai and I am starting to get my bearings geographically with my new neighborhood and socially with my host family.
I am really trying to build a good relationship or guānxi with my family. Guānxi basically translates to connections or relationships. Here is something I found online that explains a bit more… http://www.commisceo-global.com/blog/guanxi-the-chinese-cultural-concept.
It is very true about the gift giving being a core part of building guānxi. I brought over New Zealand honey (the super expensive stuff with that UMF factor), and mum recommended bringing over fish oil tablets. I also brought over for the daughter some New Zealand soft toys (which coincidentally were made in China, so little lamb and little kiwi made a round trip back here). The day after I arrived, the host mum gave me some moisturizing face masks. The next day she gave me some crystal vase things. And just yesterday she gave me some flash looking soap. In return I have bought from the markets the Chinese red dates the host dad uses in his morning porridge. (I think I bought the right stuff anyway. He’s not cracked into them yet).
When you exchange gifts you aren’t meant to give one back straight away as that takes away from the guānxi factor. And when you receive the gift, you thank profusely, and the giver emphasises that it’s nothing and not necessary to thank them: “méishì! méishì!” (Mum has been my guānxi coach).
Besides the gift exchanges, I’ve found that when you are working off a bare minimum of language skills, every exchange has to be meaningful. So to keep building a rapport with my family I have stocked up on phrases that ask about them. Have you eaten? Nǐ chīfàn le ma? How did you sleep? (I can’t remember that right now..I’d have to go get my notebook). How was your day? Nǐ jīntiān zěnmeyàng? When they spout off their reply I miss a lot of it but I just smile and nod and try to grab bits and pieces of Mandarin that I can understand. I figure the key thing is that I’ve asked/show that I care. I’m often saying “you first” and “and you?”. Both very key phrases.
I am eking on with the language and every day picking up more and more sayings. I find random Mandarin popping into my head all the time. For example, just now the word faguoren popped into my head. No idea what it means. Ok I have just checked and it means French people. Properly set out it is Fǎguórén. Those tones noted are very important. I am finding that Mandarin is like singing a song. You can get the lyrics right, but if you are singing out of tune, they have no idea what you are trying to say, or worse, what you are saying is a bit offensive. You have to be pitch perfect. Case in point, this morning I told my host dad his 3 year old grandson (the son of his daughter from an earlier relationship) was “really cute” — fēicháng kě’ài. If I got the tune wrong and said féicháng kě’ài I would be saying his grandson is “pig intestines cute”. This would be detrimental to building guānxi.
Being on the metro has been the best teacher as I’m constantly listening and honing in on conversations. It is kind of like how Spider-Man’s listening abilities are really acute and he hears all these conversations in a really amplified way. The best time on the metro is when it is school drop off or pick up time, with the grandparents conversing with the little ones. The basic Chinese they use is really helpful and I can listen and try to memorise what they are saying and how they say it.
My heart sinks a bit when I think about learning how to read and write. I try to study the symbols on the metro signs and commit certain characters to memory, like the character for “station”. It is so foreign though. So many lines. Using the Google translate app, you can take a photo of Chinese characters, say, written on a sign, and it magically translates it on your phone — I’ve only just discovered that function. It’s like a code being cracked before your very eyes. The English it pieces together is very loosely translated but you can get the general idea.
One step at a time I guess. Speaking is the first hurdle and I am definitely finding living with my host family and the whole “full immersion” experience very helpful. Every interaction is a real life speaking exam, and every day is a real life listening comprehension test. Like my dad said, with full immersion it really is sink or swim so I just have to keep on swimming. ✌️
Cue token pictures of The Bund…