Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I don't know you

Ahhh, life in China.

It's getting the best of me this week.

More specifically, the culture is getting the best of me.

You see, there's this thing called guanxi.

Guanxi is the way of life over here. The definition is a bit convoluted, but a Cliff's note version is something like this " Guanxi refers to a network of social connections. From these relationships, favors are given, then reciprocated." This sounds good and all, if it's the "I'll pat your back, you pat mine.", but when it comes down to this, as a foreigner, I feel like we get screwed.

Basically, if I don't know you, and you don't know me, we don't owe one another anything. This is evident in the way Chinese use the checkout line at the market, the way they drive with no regard for anyone but their own car and destination, and how many do business. At the market, I often stand in line as we do in the states. Imagine my surprise the first time an old lady cut in front of me! I thought to myself, "how rude. Didn't she see me there?" The answer is yes. She saw me. But she doesn't know me. So she serves her needs first. She saw an opening in line and she took it. Each person for his/herself. Screw the laowai (me) that she doesn't know, and won't do her any favors.

So, yeah-it's crazy living here, not knowing enough of the language to establish better relationships with some locals. I usually patronize the same fruit lady week after week. Well, last week, as Sal and I are walking home from the market, I realize that she had just charged me the equivalent of $10 for what I considered to be $3-4 worth of fruit. I was livid. She took advantage of me. I got home and showed my ayi, and she agreed, I had purchased $3-4 worth ( I didn't tell my ayi how much I paid, as I had just spent a little less than a third of her weekly salary on fruit!). So much for guanxi with the fruit lady. She gouged us big time. The next time I went to the fruit market, I patronized her neighbor. You can bet she saw me, and in turn, yesterday when I went, she gave me a better price on my fruit to try and "keep good guanxi" with me.

My frustration has continued into today, as I sat and waited for a repair man for my washer/dryer machine. I was told yesterday he would come within 24 hours. This morning, I was told he would be here around lunch. He arrived at 10:30. I translated the error code to him (my dryer needs a new heating element) and showed him that the drying component of the machine doesn't get hot. I shit you not, five minutes later, he is trudging through the apartment to find me, toolbox in hand. I called my husbands assistant for translation, and he told her that he had finished his job.

No effin way.

There was no way it was fixed. I told him (with the translators help) I wasn't going to pay him until I had a chance to do a load of laundry (which, btw-takes four hours to wash and dry for anyone who cares). I said he would have to come back to get paid. He and the translator had a heated argument over the phone, to which I was told to pay him now and he would write on my fapiao (receipt) that he would come back free of charge if not fixed.

Reluctantly, I forked over all 30rmb ($5).

He scribbled in mandarin on the fapiao and left.

I threw a load in, and two hours later went to check on the process only to see the error code flashing, and my machine full of wet clothes.

And I know I have gotten off track but stick with me here- this all goes back to guanxi too. He doesn't know me, so why should he care about fixing my machine (other than its his JOB)? Besides, if he fixes it, then we won't need his service anymore and he might not have customers. It seems so ass backwards to me. He wants job security, so he DOESN'T fix it so that I have to call him back and pay again?

Yeah---NO. I don't think so.

So, this my friends, is my experience with being a laowai in China, with very little conversational Mandarin, and absolutely no guanxi with the locals.

Frustrating at best, but a learning experience all the same.


  1. Wow. No words. I think I'll go find some Lee Greenwood to listen to and thank my lucky stars we're American! LOL

  2. I think my blood pressure was elevating reading that! Your fruit lady betrayed you?

    I don't like it, but I understand the lady cutting you in line. But the guy coming to NOT fix your machine and the lady you visit daily for fruit screwing you over?

    I'm not seeing the logic.

    Man, I'm sorry. For the record, I do empathize with how long the laundry machine takes, as our German machine was about 1/4 the size of an American machine and took at least 3x as long to wash.