Saturday, May 02, 2009

List of the Month - Chinese friends

And how I came by them...

Kai Pan over on the always interesting CN Reviews blog had a particularly provocative post the other day titled Expats In China Don't Need To Make Chinese Friends. I was prompted to leave quite a long comment on the thread - which got 'eaten' by the system (Dang! I hate it when that happens! Always, always, always copy to clipboard before hitting 'submit'.).

There are many interesting issues to consider within this topic, and I'll leave most of them to other posts. Kai offered the critical, challenging observation that many foreigners here seem to socialize very little with local Chinese, and to have few if any Chinese friends - at least, not really close friends. (Unfortunately, he rather invited the derailment of his comment-thread by throwing in a jibe about the prevalence of foreign guys having Chinese wives/girlfriends - a phenomenon I mentioned here in passing just the other week.)

I might at some other time ponder on the various cultural factors that limit the amount of socializing most laowai do with Chinese people, and make it difficult to form or maintain deep friendships. There is an intriguing question of gender imbalance: I think expats - of both sexes - tend to have far more female Chinese friends than male ones (that's certainly true in my own case - even though I do not in general find Chinese girls especially attractive sexually, and have never yet had a Chinese girlfriend). I might also have a post or two in me on the nature of friendship, on its gradations (I think I probably have only 2 or 3 really close attachments that I've made in Beijing with non-Chinese; most of my lifelong confidant/soulmate relationships go back at least a dozen or so years, the majority of them in fact 20 years or more). Ah yes, and then there's the moral question underlying Kai's post: is it wrong to have few or no Chinese friends, must we try harder to make some?

I think Kai's implication that many, perhaps most foreigners in China socialize with the Chinese hardly at all, outside of work/business or wives/girlfriends, is unfair. It does not accord with my experience. I believe he's based in Shanghai, and perhaps things are different down there. Even in Beijing, I can see that it's often true of a certain sort of expat: some of the long-term expats who've been here 15 or 20 years dabbling in various business schemes do seem to fit that mould; and the Shunyi-ites, the MNC managers with the fat remuneration packages who live with their families in gated communities far out of the city, cocooning themselves in a facsimile of a middle American suburb. But that's not the majority of expats here. Most of the people I know prefer activities and entertainment venues where they are likely to encounter a vibrant mix of foreigners and locals. Most foreigners I know have a good number of Chinese friends, including at least one or two really close ones.

When I was reviewing the numbers listed in the address book of my mobile phone a little while ago, I was quite gratified to confirm that well over half of them are under Chinese names. OK, a good number of those are work contacts. And quite a few are overseas Chinese. But still, I do have a significant proportion of mainland Chinese friends here, nearly 50%. (In my e-mail address lists, it's probably at least 70% or 80% - but they're mostly 'acquaintances' rather than 'friends'.)

So, how does one make Chinese friends? Where do my friends come from?

I remain on close terms with a number of teaching colleagues and administrators from the various organizations I've worked for. There are two I'm particularly fond of: a fellow teacher at one of the universities I used to work at (though she's now moved on to become a tour guide) and the office manager of a foreign training company (a job I helped her to get).

Former students
I'm a cheerful and outgoing sort of chap, so I generally establish a very affectionate bond with the people I teach. My relationship with the first group of students I taught in Beijing became especially close, because of the very intensive nature of the teaching (two classes of 20 students in their late teens, who I was teaching every day, and living alongside for 9 months) and the peculiar stresses we were under (SARS, and a more-than-usually horrible school). I've kept in touch with most of them by e-mail subsequently, and still quite often see the few of them who now live in Beijing. There are a handful of ex-students from my time teaching at universities that I keep in touch with too (all girls, as it happens; but there is a massive preponderance of girls studying arts subjects, especially in the 'teaching' universities). Most of my teaching subsequently has been with adults. It's usually been harder to bond enduringly with students like this because I'm only seeing them once or twice a week, and usually only for quite short periods. However, a few of these I would now count amongst my closest Chinese friends: a TV news editor, a scarily high-ranking policeman, a former architect turned property investment broker (who I helped to prepare for his MBA applications/interviews, and who later became my flatmate for six months), and a couple of department heads at the leading American IT company where I used to be the in-house training co-ordinator.

Networking events
Now, here's a situation where there tends to be an especially high ratio of women to men! Nevertheless, I do meet some interesting guys at this kind of thing from time to time: I am especially glad to have made the acquaintance of Ben, a young entrepreneur who is the brightest person I have met in China.

Friends of friends
I'm very interested in the modern art and rock music scenes here, and through foreign friends involved in those areas I have been lucky enough to be introduced to - and occasionally become friends with - some of the most interesting, creative, and unconventional Chinese folks in the city. And my oldest, dearest Chinese friend is the wife of the university buddy I came here to visit 15 years ago.

Hanging out in bars
Since this is my favourite leisure activity (I have an entire blog devoted to it!), it is hardly surprising that this is how I make most of my friends, of whatever nationality. A fair few of my male Chinese friends are barmen, bar managers, bar owners. And over the past couple of years, I have made a number of good friends, both Chinese and foreign, through the shared love of the game of pool (in the coolest little neighbourhood bar in the capital).

So, yep, one way and another, I have quite a lot of Chinese friends. And I don't think I'm at all untypical. I'd say the same is true - perhaps even more so - for most of the foreigners I know here. There may still be a question as to how many of these Chinese friends could be counted in the very closest circle of friendship (I would have said one, perhaps; but we have rather lost touch since his job required him to relocate first to Hong Kong and then to Shanghai; and I'm bummed that he didn't invite me to his wedding last year!). There are all sorts of reasons why it is hard to achieve that ultimate level of intimacy with a Chinese person.... but I'll leave that discussion to another day.

Addendum: Well, I never did get around to writing the contemplated follow-up post on this - although, in reviewing this a few years on, I realise I did touch on most of the peripheral points I'd wanted to cover about the nature of friendship (and the difficulty of establishing really close friendships with the Chinese) in this post, or in subsequent comments below.

One unusual practical difficulty in maintaining Chinese friendships is the extraordinary volatility - and mobility - in the employment market here. People job-hop like crazy: especially in their first few years out of college, young Chinese seem to think nothing of changing jobs at least once a year, sometimes even within a few months (they're not in thrall to our Western notion that you have to stick something out for at least two or three years to prove you've got loyalty and staying power!). And even a bit later on into their careers, it seems to be quite common for people to jump every two or three years. It has frequently been a problem for me in winning repeat contracts for training seminars that the HR director who first hired me has moved on somewhere else less than a year later (strangely often, in fact, before I've even finished delivering the initial contract!).

And of course, when people switch jobs, they quite often switch cities as well. I suppose most of the well-educated high-achievers I get to meet aspire to have a chance to work overseas - or, in many cases, to emigrate permanently. Most of those that stay in China will gravitate to more commercially vibrant centres like Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Hong Kong.

This high level of mobility conspires with an unfortunate distaste for using e-mail. I don't think the Chinese like using e-mail even in their own language (perhaps because it can be slightly laborious writing characters via a keyboard); they're certainly highly resistant to using it in English. They all seem to prefer the IM format (the predominant platform here is called QQ), which I've never got into. It took me a while to twig just how big a problem this is, but... one of the main reasons I haven't been able to maintain many long-term Chinese friendships is that the Chinese rely mostly on their work e-mail address, they switch jobs every year or two, and they seldom if ever remember to notify their address book contacts of their new work e-mail. It is an exasperating phenomenon: I've lost touch with dozens of people this way.

A more general cultural obstacle, I think, is that Chinese folks just don't fit in with Western styles of socialising. They expect parties to be highly structured, rather than free-form minglers; they like to have formal introductions to anyone they don't know; lots of organised activities, so that they won't be left having to make too much small talk; a timetable! They don't get on well with the much looser Western concept of a party, and will often be reluctant to attend unless they can bring a gaggle of their own friends with them.

They're not comfortable with Western bar culture either - whether it's because it's so alien to their experience or expectations within the culture they grew up with, or because many of them (regardless of experience) have an extremely low, often non-existent, physical tolerance to alcohol, or because they have too little disposable income to be able to afford a long evening in a bar. Even the few Chinese that do try to accommodate themselves to this lifestyle (it's become very trendy during the Nineties and Noughties, especially amongst university students and young professionals) tend not to drink nearly as much as most Westerners. And, as I noted in this post on my 'bar blog', Chinese taste in bars is radically different to that of Westerners - with the result that the great majority of bars, whether by accident or design, become almost exclusively Western or exclusively Chinese. [I prefer those bars that manage to achieve a good blend of the two communities in their custom, but it's a difficult trick to pull off; and it seems to be becoming increasingly rare.]

The Chinese concept of socialising seems to be exclusively restricted to eating out (which I love; but it can't be your only social outlet, every night of the week!), nightclubs and karaoke (which I hate).

There are other cultural incompatibilities as well: a typical ignorance or naivety - and often a deadening lack of curiosity - about life outside of China; a common 'chip on shoulder' insecurity about China's place in the world, and an attendant hair-trigger sensitivity on certain political issues (it is rather depressing how even quite educated and enlightened young Chinese, who often seem to be refreshingly open-minded about things like tolerance of homosexuality or calls for democratic reform and human rights improvements in China, can suddenly become knee-jerk nationalists over matters like the Senkaku Islands dispute); an occasional heavy-handedness in forcing their cultural values on you (things like having a host at a restaurant meal order all the food without consulting you at all, or insisting that you can never sip a drink without toasting or being toasted by someone really bug the crap out of me sometimes).... and, of course, the accelerated relationship timetable. (An American friend once explained it me thus: A Chinese girl isn't going to go on a second date with you unless she's decided to sleep with you. And she usually won't sleep with you unless she thinks that you're marriage material. So, by going on a second date together, she thinks you're expressing a willingness to get engaged. And she'll be wanting you to meet her parents on the third or fourth date, and making wedding plans before the end of the year. I feel he was exaggerating... but not by much.)

The combined impact of these many unfortunate factors explains, I think, why it is difficult for Westerners to form friendships with Chinese people here, and just about impossible to form any really close and lasting friendships with them.

But perhaps this isn't so strange, or so terrible. As I mentioned in the main post above, most of us have only a handful of truly close friends in our lives - probably fewer than ten in the innermost sanctum of the heart - and these tend to be people who are deeply compatible with us, in temperament, in interests, and in cultural background. I fear it is almost inconceivable that any Chinese person could attain that level of compatibility with a Westerner - not without spending several years overseas, anyway. Moreover, these very intimate friends of ours are mostly people that we met during particularly intense periods of our lives - at school, university, or at the outset of our professional career - and with whom we bonded especially closely because of some important shared experience, often a shared hardship. I think it becomes less and less likely that we will make such intimate friends after our mid-thirties - perhaps because our 'quota' is full up, or perhaps because we live life less intensely as we age. Whatever the reason, it just seems not to happen. And I was already pushing forty when I moved here.


stuart said...

As one of those who accepted Kai Pan's 'invitation to derail' (and good fun it was, too), I'm disappointed that the thread missed out on your take.

Nevertheless, this was a worthwhile substitute and it was interesting to learn that you're socialising with high-ranking officers of the law. No visa worries for Froog!

Froog said...

Yes, well I never like to utilize guanxi in that way.

Although I'll make sure to take his business card with me if I go down to the Square on June 3rd this year...

Elliott Ng said...

Froog, sorry your comment got eaten. This is a great post that gives a sense of the different ways that expats might get to know non-overseas Chinese. My big takeaway was to cherish and cultivate my male Chinese friends so I maintain balance in the Force.


Kai said...

Hey Froog, not sure what happened to your comment. Was it WP-SpamFree? If so, sorry about that, but it happens sometime. Without it, I'd probably claw my eyes out double-checking the Spam folder every day, so a compromise had to be made.

In defense, I don't think the main point of my post was provocative, but I grant the lead-up could be to certain people, especially with the little jab I threw in there about foreign-men-chinese-women. To be honest, I only threw that in because of the recent chinaSMACK on chinaSMACK about the Zhejiang University Girl was still fresh in my memory. I knew it would perk a few ears and serve as a litmus test for oversensitivity. That stuart above got his panties in such a twist despite writing the blog that he does amuses me to no end.

My implication is more that many foreigners in China have few meaningful local Chinese friends and not so much about socializing itself, though the two are arguably related. My point, however, is that there's no real objective fault in it. The only fault is what one feels towards oneself. If you want local Chinese friends, then break your comfort zones and go find them. If you don't, that's fine too. The point was to be fair and true to yourself and your own goals.

In regards to your view on the number of friendships with locals that expats have, I think I'll maintain my position that most foreigners are not like you. You see, expats like you genuinely cherish what you have and you'll talk about it. Expats unlike you don't actually go around bemoaning their lack of local friendships, not least of which because they might not give a damn to have them. Therefore, there's disproportionate representation. Most foreigners who get tired of living here, feeling lonely or isolated, end up going home. I'm just saying you might not see them unless you're out to observe them.

My implications reflect my observations and sure, I grant it may be skewed by the nature of Shanghai itself, but they're still my observations. If this observation bothers someone, why? Does it bother them because it is mostly untrue or because it is mostly true? And what about the point of my post that regardless of it being true or not, so what?

Again, sorry about your comment being eaten. Cheers for the response and sharing your own story. I enjoyed it and I'm happy for your happiness.

Froog said...

Thanks for stopping by, CN guys. And thanks for the very interesting post.

I don't bear you any grudge about my comment on your site going astray. I have no idea what caused that, but it's a problem I'm used to, and I think it's probably down to glitches my end - I have a very old laptop, a very dodgy Net connection, and (sometimes) a lot of 'interference' from Nanny.

I accept Kai's point about the general argument of his original article, but I think it was "provocative" - not necessarily in a hostile or confrontational way, but just because it raised so many difficult issues.

"The only Chinese person you speak to regularly is your wife/girlfriend" problem, for example, was also touched on by Kaiser in his Beijinger column last month, and I referenced that here a week or so ago.

On reflection, I realise that the crowd I mostly hang with on nights out (rather younger than me, but out here for about the same length of time and similarly 'lifers' - and had the luxury of being able to spend their first year or two studying Chinese full-time, so actually have fairly decent skills in the language, unlike me) is pretty exclusively laowai (one has a Chinese wife now, a very smart, sassy lady, but she doesn't come out much any more; and there are one or two peripheral friends or workmates who are Chinese who join us occasionally, but....). So, yes, I am intrigued and troubled by the issue of why we (I!) don't hang out more with Chinese folks, and what the barriers are to forming really deep and lasting friendships with them. There are many Chinese I know with whom I would like to have a closer relationship, but there seems to be a 'distance' on their side (and I don't think it's down to the language barrier, or not mainly so anyway).

I think I have more posts in me on this!

Unknown said...

"That stuart above got his panties in such a twist despite writing the blog that he does amuses me to no end."

I'm not biting ;)

I've always liked the word "panties", though - evokes memories of Benny Hill.