Saturday, January 3, 2009

Getting to know your Chinese workmates -not always a piece of cake

Bonding over a drink is the shit... but what if they don't drink?

I was talking to two other laowais the other day, who expressed their concern about the fact that their Chinese workmates seemed to have zero interest in getting to know them. Since I have some personal experience on this matter, I thought it could be worth a post.

Starting with this one western guy, who has been at his work place for one year now. Since day one he has unsuccessfully tried to get to know his Chinese colleagues. His methods have been everything from asking them about their wknd plans/how their wknd was (with their normal reply being: 'sleeping/ watching a DVD'), to asking them to join him for lunch. The result: at last year's Christmas party he sat down at a table with them, and one of them asked him to move to another table, so that another Chinese workmate could get his spot.

-I don't get it. He told me as we were having a discussion about possible reasons to why they treat him so coldly. Have I been trying too hard? Or do they simply, just don't like me?

Hard to tell.

When I started working at a magazine in Shanghai some 2 years ago I got the same, cold vibes from my Chinese workmates. They weren't rude to me. They just didn't care, and showed zero interest in getting to know me. It didn't matter that I kept asking them about their wknds, or about what they were doing for lunch. They would reply with a smile, and at most ask me back about my plans. But never an invite. And me, being the new girl, didn't feel comfortable about inviting myself.

I don't know how it happened but I think it was at a company party (about 5 months after joining the company), when a tray of drink presented itself in front of us, that we all let our guards drop and actually had a real talk... and a laugh. Turns out, they were all hilarious, young, friendly girls and that we had the same sort of humor. After that night, going for lunch together suddenly became a natural thing. So did sharing information about your boyfriend/ your thoughts about the boss/ last Friday's party, and so on. Even though I left that work place ages ago, we still keep in touch, and some of them are still my best friends over here. It's just funny when I think back of how long it took for us to even have a real conversation.

Another laowai I know feels that his Chinese colleagues are behaving a bit weirdly when it comes to introducing new, Chinese workmates. It has happened several times that he sees a workmate walk around with a new member of staff, introducing her to everyone in Chinese. Then, when they come to his desk, she just skips him and moves on to the next person.

The first time he thought it was a mistake and almost ran after the new girl to introduce himself, but as the new people kept arriving he noticed that pretty much none of them was introduced to him. Weird? Ehum, yes. Feeling a bit odd about the situation already, he hasn't had the guts to ask his staff members why he is normally left out of the whole introduce-the-new-staff-procedure.

Obviously, there is a large gap between Chinese and westerners behaviour at work places and obviously Chinese people are quite reserved when it comes to getting to know new workmates. But as a westerner, new to the place, what are you supposed to do? Interrupt their conversations? Invite yourself to their lunches? Or simply, sit back at your desk, mouth shut, and wait for them to take the first step?


Anonymous said...

Great post as always.

As a non-drinker, I guess I'll always be destined to receive the cold smiles and to sit alone at the other table. Haha - I suppose "sitting at the other table" is a good metaphor for the life of a non-drinking Laowai in China!

It's tough not to drink in any country, my own included, but it's even worse you're living alone in a foreign country in which booze is one of the only gateways to new friendships.

Anonymous said...

You know what's funny? As a chinese studying in Canada, I always thought my classmates were not interested in me. We only started some real conversations after the end of the first year, with the help of some beer, go figure.

My guess is, this is not so much a Chinese thing, rather an common foreign experience. When you think you don't know what they are thinking, what conversation topic to choose, when is the right time to invite or join a party, it's most likely they are as lost as you. We are so different in culture and appearance, that makes people nervous and fail to realize we have a lot in common too. People avoid contact almost subconsciously to avoid offending the "laowai"(hell, I'm also a laowai in canada!) or making a fool of themselves. Someone has to break the ice. So if you are not lucky to have someone else to do it, you have to do it yourself. Just ask them to hang out, have a drink. And play the "laowai card": What's fun in the city? where to get the good food? Need help to do some shopping. Usually people are actually eager to help.

Maybe it's a different story for "westerners" in other western countries. However, note that the difference between western countries probably are not much bigger than the difference between Chinese provinces. When west meets east, or east meets west, we all need to challenge our personal norm and walk out of our comfort zone I guess.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2, well said. I am Chinese living in the U.S. and I agree with what you have said. It's all about comfort zone. I have lots of American friends. We have very close relationships. I have learned that we do have to find common ground. Once we have something in common, friendship goes from there. In my first 10 years in the U.S., I shared much of Jonna's and her laowai friends' experience in China. Local people are usually not rude - they are just different. They don't want to walk out of their comfort zone. However, there is one huge difference in terms of friendship between Westerners and Chinese. Chinese people view friendship for life. They don't easily make friends. But once they do, they view their friends as life long friends. On the other hand, Westerners in general move on with friendship when they move on to another job or city. Many Chinese people who once had laowai friends have realzied that and sometime they feel being abandoned. I don't blame Westerners for the superficial friendship. It's really cultural difference. I am more like a Westerner now when coming to friendship with anyone. It's just practical. e.g., I don't have time to follow up with friends from 3 jobs ago. But if I were living in China, that would not be acceptable to my friends from 3 jobs ago. Hope this thread will open up some good discussions.

Jonna Wibelius said...

"However, there is one huge difference in terms of friendship between Westerners and Chinese. Chinese people view friendship for life. They don't easily make friends. But once they do, they view their friends as life long friends. On the other hand, Westerners in general move on with friendship when they move on to another job or city."

-I don't agree with this at all. I don't think Chinese make friends for life meanwhile westerners are only seeing it as a shallow, temporary thing. I have moved country/city/school/job so many times in my life already, and the good friends I made at each place I still keep in touch with. They are for life. The shallow, 'we-sometimes-had-lunch-together' friends, from these places, however, I cannot bother with keeping in touch with. And that feeling is often mutual. It's not like they will track me down with phone calls and emails once I move place... When u share a friendship with someone you quickly learn if it is a deep one or more of a shallow, acquaintance one.

So I wouldn't generalize westerners like you just did, saying that we have a more shallow view of friendship (also, remember that there are a lot of different kinds of 'westerners'. Meanwhile Australians/Americans are very open and easy-going to almost everyone they meet, Finnish people, on the other hand, are close to impossible to get to know. Once you get to know them though, you often find a really good friend there) We make good friends for life. Just like Chinese people.

As for the other comments, it is funny how it is sometimes so, that people don't talk just because they 'assume things'. Anonymous 2 is right, you shouldn't be so shy about it, but just suggest you do things together etc... But if you are a shy person, I agree it can be hard.

Anonymous 1 -I can see your situation being real tough at a place like the UK... or Finland -where the drinking culture is so important. But I feel that in China many people don't drink, especially not girls. I thought you'd get a lot of positive reactions from Chinese people when they find out that you don't drink?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous # 1, I hear ya! I so wish I drank! It would make social situations so much easier!

Anonymous #3, I think you raise some really good points (though I think "superficial" was a badly chosen word and that, as Jonna remarked, you were a little sweeping in your East-West generalizations). I'm horrified to think of the people who might have felt abandoned by me because I considered our friendship to be a casual one. (Not only Chinese people. People generally.) It's a great issue to consider and I'm really glad you raised it.

There is also one other angle I'd like to add to the mix of perspectives under discussion here: when local Chinese do offer their friendship to foreigners, it can be hard for said foreigners to judge what the friendship means, not necessarily because Westerners are used to casual friendships and Chinese are used to lifelong 知己 type friendships, but because quite often it will seem that there is really very little common ground underpinning the friendship. In other words, it sometimes seems like the Chinese people who are offering the friendship are doing so a) to be warm and friendly to a stranger in a strange land and/or b) out of curiosity about foreigners. I guess there's a lot less curiosity than there used to be, but I still get the impression that some Chinese find foreigners exotic and interesting, just because they're foreign. That kind of friendship is often very welcome (depending on the people involved), but it can be puzzling too. What does it mean? How seriously should you take it?

Finally, I think maybe some of us are going to have to agree to disagree on the "who makes a bigger deal out of otherness, Westerners or Chinese?" Everyone who has commented on this so far has been very even-handed and temperate in their remarks, so when I say "agree to disagree" I'm taking personal responsibiliy for the disagreement aspect of the thing. That's because I really do think the Chinese are more interested in "otherness" than -- well, I won't say Westerners -- but than Americans. Now, I've never lived as a foreigner in America (I was born there), so my conclusions are based totally on the one-sided observations gathered during my life as a foreigner in China. I realize that makes me biased, just as Chinese who live in America and argue that "otherness" is just as big a deal there are biased. That's why I say I suspect we may have to agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

I have never had that problem. I have got a lot friends through my work. But a part of my work is being done over a table with loads of baijiu, so that might be the reason?

Anonymous said...

Hiya Jonna,

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Westerners are simply friendlier, at least in public. They will almost always introduce a new person to you, whether it be at work, or at a gathering of some sort.

On the other hand, Chinese from China, well, you've already given a few examples.

Regarding having something in common, well, there's work isnt there??? If nothing else, whinging about the boss is a great topic of discussion!

As for the reasons why this might be, well, I find it very hard to make judgements on a country which has been traumatised as much as China. Invaded and "conquered" by westerners in the 1800's, Chinese civil war, invasion by Japan, reignition of Chinese civil war, then the Cultural Revolution.

Anyone who survives all that is probably not going to be the most outgoing life of the party. And this behaviour is going to be handed down from generation to generation. So it'll be around for decades to come. As I mentioned before, you can see it in other Asian countries, like Singapore.

Sorry it's a bit long Jonna. Just some of my thoughts on their behaviour.


Anonymous said...

interesting post, interesting comments!

Anonymous said...

Your observation is very interesting. After living in the U.S. for many years, I, a Chineses, have experienced many similar encounters... For instance, I play pickup soccer games regularly with a group of Chinese students in a local university, who are often reluctant to play with locals and other internationals. I am not sure the exact reasons for this self-imposed isolation.

However, may I use this opportunity to pitch some advice to those who are studying/going to study oversea? Mingling with locals will make your trip more enjoyable and on a small scale, perfect local languages.

Anonymous said...

Well, im from Sweden and been in China for a while. I never really had any problems getting "real" friends the way we look at it in Scandinavia. However some people look more at what you can do for them, then being your true friend. As a swede i spot that instantly, both in girls and boys. Be especially aware of people buying you stuff if you are going to do business. Its all show business.

However i have good true friends, and got them one by one.

First friend i got was when i came to town, my swedish friend said i could stay in his apartment. There was a chinese guy there and he obviously felt uncomfortable to share the apartment with me. But i told him to relax a bit. After that we have been very good friends and even though he moved to other town and got married, i still visit him, and he come back to ground zero.
Chinese people is very similar to swedish people. However i think we have the upbringing where it is important to make ppl feel confortable, especially new-combers.

Tip of the day;
Leave the karaoke-girls (you know what i mean guys) at the karaoke.

Anonymous said...

I am new to your blog and it really is excellent. You are wrestling with many of the same issues that I did when I lived abroad. Thank you for raising these issues up for debate because they should be discussed.

Ultimately, I believe that regardless of what country you are in, it will always be challenging as a foreigner or expatriate to blend in. I think finding something in common like sports or drinking can be helpful towards forging friendships. For example, I knew nothing about soccer but soccer is very popular in Korea. So I used soccer as a way to bond with my co-workers.

But sometimes making friends requires being extremely patient. Sometimes good things take time.