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?