What China Gets Right About Relationships

By Sam Massie


When Westerners come to Shanghai, their first impression is often that Chinese people are assholes. Passengers crowd around the subway doors to board first. Cars speed through crosswalks on red lights. Public urination is common.

There are many theories for this rudeness. Shanghai natives blame migrant laborers from the countryside, while Westerners blame “Chinese culture” — although the “Chinese” in Taiwan and Hong Kong are more polite. But there’s a deeper psychological reason: in-group / out-group effects are stronger in China. If you are my friend, I will empty my bank account for you; if you are a stranger, I will cut you in line. Rudeness to strangers is the flipside of deep bonds with loved ones.

Of course, none of what I say can describe 1.4 billion unique human beings, whom we crudely label “China.” My conclusions come from a few friends I met in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Boston. But whether they’re a representative sample or not, I’ve learned a lot from them. So what can a Westerner, especially a Northeastern American like me, learn from the Chinese about relationships?


1.

The Generosity Reflex

In China, generosity is a reflex, like saying “please” or “thank you.” This covers obvious things, like picking up the tab at restaurants, but it covers subtler things too — handing your neighbor a napkin as soon as her old one gets dirty, or serving her the moment she lays eyes on a dish, before she asks. It’s as if everyone is scanning each other for the tiniest inconvenience so that they can jump in and fix it.

When my father flew to Fuzhou to give a lecture, the host university assigned a graduate student named Lily to accompany him. Once, she offered to carry his notebook for him, and he said “no, I’m fine.” Lily looked so dejected that he changed his mind and handed it to her anyway.

A related principle: one should always offer much, much more than is needed. Once I took a weekend trip to Yixing (pronounced “ee-shing”), a small city in Jiangsu Province about two hours from Shanghai. Joining me was my coworker Dandan, our boss Angela, and Angela’s son Ben. Since Dandan’s mom is from Yixing, and Angela is Dandan’s boss, Dandan’s mom did the polite thing and booked us an Audi A6 (black, of course) and a driver for the trip.

Before the car even left Shanghai, Dandan, Angela, and the driver pulled out snacks. But each had brought enough snacks to feed the whole car. This started a kind of politeness-fight: Dandan offered Lay’s chips, Angela refused and offered Cold Wonton in Peanut Sauce, and the driver refused both and pulled out bottles of Oolong Tea for everyone. After a few minutes of confusion, Angela finally won, and we all munched on Cold Wonton in Peanut Sauce in silence as we rode along the G2 Expressway.

An hour later, Dandan called her mom to tell her we’d already eaten, no need to prepare dinner. It’s alright, said her mom, I’ll just prepare a little snack. When we arrived, it became clear that Dandan’s mom invited us to the finest hotel in Yixing. The “little snack” was: eight platters of Yixing delicacies like Lake Tai turtle, sweet lily-petal soup, diced chicken with mountain chestnuts, wild bamboo shoots in vinegar… she had even ordered a garden salad, drenched in mayonnaise, for the “foreign guest.” We were served five more such “little snacks” before the end of the weekend.

This level of generosity is the norm, especially for a boss, a foreign guest, or a love interest. Not surprisingly, Western men in Shanghai have a reputation for stinginess, or xiao qi. Translated literally, this means “small air” or “low qi-energy,” implying deeper spiritual-medical causes.


2.

Actions, Not Words

When I started dating “Jane,” I felt uneasy, because she wouldn’t say the sweet, flirtatious things I expected from a girlfriend. Once, I came home to Shanghai after a week in Indonesia, and instead of saying “I missed you!” or “so good to see you!”, she just launched into conversation as if we’d bumped into each other in the company cafeteria. When I told her I loved her, she responded with a nod and a blank face. I started to worry, did she love me back?

But meanwhile, she started to do countless little nice things for me, without calling attention to herself. She bought me shorts at Old Navy. She took a goofy picture of us with an old Polaroid camera, bought it a frame with bunny ears, and gave it to me. When I threw a birthday party, she blew up balloons and hung them everywhere, brought chips and fresh salsa from a Mexican restaurant, and even arranged a wheelchair so my friend with the sprained ankle could come. As if this wasn’t enough, she also cooked me a delicious pesto meal, complete with red wine and scented candles, and painted me an oil painting which referenced a text message I’d sent her a month before and nearly forgotten about. She had done so much, and I had worried because she’d said too little!

My Chinese teacher, Su Wei, is a master of bold, considerate actions. Once, during Christmas holiday, I took the train up from New York to see him. Even though I only had two hours, he drove 40 minutes to the train station and 40 minutes back, just so he could show me his new house. He gave me a book, a case of jasmine tea for my mom, and a giant bag of pistachios to bring back to China.

Since college, Su Wei has opened his house to his favorite students, saying “this is your home!” Whenever I visit, his wife Liu Mengjun always cooks a huge meal, and there’s always a bed made in the guest room in case I want to spend the night. Once, I casually asked for orange juice, and from then on, there was always was a quart of Tropicana in the fridge whenever I visited. Unique among my college professors, Su Wei has taken an active interest in his student’s lives, and continued to support them as a friend and mentor long after graduation. As a novelist, teacher, and poet, he is more expressive than Jane, but he still leads with his actions.

This emphasis on action goes back to Confucius. In Book IV, Verse XXIV of the Analects, he declared: “The superior man wishes to be slow in his speech and earnest in his conduct.” He could easily be describing Jane or Su Wei.


3.

Introversion and Sincerity

My Chinese coworkers prefer to stay quiet in unfamiliar social settings. The thought is, “I don’t want to go first” or “I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” This makes team lunches dreadfully boring. Our American office manager, Melissa, has tried to force employees to be social with Friday Happy Hours at the office, but instead of socializing, most employees rush to grab a beer or a popcorn and then return to their desks.

This is the near-opposite of American bluster and extroversion. Americans seem to have a script for these situations: “How’s it going.” “So, what do you do?” “Whatcha got going on this weekend?” Usually they don’t care about the answer — sorry, Mark, no one wants to hear about your bike trip — but the script forces people together, and facilitates new connections.

These two stances, introversion versus extroversion, sincerity vs. small talk, lead to different outcomes. The first stance leads to a few close friendships, the second leads to lots of acquaintances. There is no word for “networking” in Chinese. How could there be, after Confucius himself said, “Have no friends not equal to yourself”? On the flip side, small talk can open up friendships, but too often, these “friendships” get stuck in a sort of Demilitarized Zone of fake cheer and irony. Americans may be more outgoing on average, but that doesn’t make them less lonely.

Of course, China has its own insincere social rituals, but they revolve around banquets, toasting, gift-giving, and trying to one-up each other in Generosity and Actions. These rituals create, if not sincere friendship, then at least a strong bond of mutual dependency.


4.

Friendships Are More Intimate

When I have made it past the “friend” barrier with a Chinese person, he or she has often becomes as close as a Westerner I’ve known for many years. Angela, who joined us on the trip to Yixing, is a senior HR manager, but she treats her hires like her children. She’s invited me and Dandan to go hiking with her teenage son, and regularly hosts dinner parties at her house. Su Wei, my Chinese teacher, knows more about my love life than my parents do.

My coworker Lincoln, a thoughtful digital marketer with a pirate’s goatee, has already become a swimming buddy and political debating partner. We’ll head to the Xuhui District public swimming pool, where of course, we have to strip naked to change into our bathing suits, and swim for an hour or two. Then we’ll order noodles at the Lanzhou Noodle restaurant and talk politics and history until the Shanghai Metro hits closing time.

Even Chinese-Americans like my friend Charles, who moved to Vermont when he was 8, says “yo” and “a’ight,” and is otherwise the perfect image of a Dartmouth frat boy, haven’t lost this trait. Charles won’t hesitate to spend an entire Saturday and Sunday with one of his “boys” or “girls”, drinking, eating, and telling mutually incriminating stories. The language is English and the content is American, but the format remains Chinese.

Whether it’s Angela, Su Wei, Lincoln, or Charles, they all manage to be close without resorting to the exaggerated sentimentality of my Western friends. None of them has ever said, “It’s SO good to see you!” Instead, they simply invite me into their lives and invest hours together.

As a special class of friendship, dating in China is less like a “relationship” between two individuals and more like a merger of two lives. The ideal Shanghainese boyfriend will cook his girl’s meals, fold her laundry, and of course, pay for everything — as my American roommate Jon has learned to do for his local girlfriend, Sabrina. Continuous communication on WeChat is the norm; matching “couple clothes” are not uncommon. Even the concept of “dating” itself implies a steady march towards marriage. Western hook-up culture, while spreading, remains limited to young professionals in places like central Shanghai.

The deepest bond, of course, is between parent and child. One day, Jane asked her mother what she would do if she died. Without missing a beat, without even changing her expression, her mother said, “Oh, I would kill myself.”


5.

This Ain’t Boston

Where we come from decides how we relate to people. I grew up in a context where friends split the bill, manage their time carefully, and shy from revealing their strongest emotions except in a real crisis. Unspoken codes govern what we can comfortably share with each other; small talk, irony, and phrases like “so good to see you!” allow us to socialize without getting too close. People can be amazingly generous, but you usually have to ask for it first.

The friends I’ve made in China have caused me to question whether this is the best, or only, way to relate to people. They tend to say less and do more, showing their care through considerate actions instead of words. The wall between strangers is higher, perhaps, but once you’ve crossed that wall, everything is shared.

Is one culture better than another? There are advantages to a culture in which politeness extends past the “in-group,” in which people with little in common still have a habit of talking to each other, in which we maintain privacy. In a place like my hometown of Boston, where no single group has the majority and everyone is from somewhere else, it’s essential. And individuals can accomplish more, be more creative, and take bigger risks when they aren’t tied down in a web of obligations to their friends, family, and lovers.

But too much individualism can be lonely. At its best, Chinese culture facilitates intimacy — people act generous as a reflex, show their care through actions instead of words, choose sincerity over small talk, and give their total attention to the people privileged enough to call them friends. People have each other’s backs here. And the best part is, they do it without making a big deal out of it. What if all you had to do to be happier was to give more?

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