When a Chinese person makes you lose face…

Face in ChinaI wonder whether in my situation she would lose face or not…

This year I find my April fools joke on Repubblica.it, one of most important Italian newspapers, while I taste my coffee and delete the usual spam from my email account: The prime minister Monti to China “Invest in Italia.”

I smile and think when, in the middle of the European debt storm, I attended the last work dinner of the Rabbit’s Year: one of those endless banquets full of resounding speeches, twenty seven main courses, the bittersweet cucumbers that – I don’t know why – are always there and the 白酒 (bai jiu) that flows as never before.

No, this is not the usual article about how do NOT “offend” Chinese people during official dinners, why you cannot plunge your chopsticks on the rice or how you should let some food on your bowl so that the host will not think that your are still hungry and will not order another eggs soup and other twelve giant squids. Nope, today I want to talk about something else.

Today I want to tell what happens when are the Chinese that, during the official banquet, make you lose face! (面子, mianzi)!

Fast forward.

Although it is the day of the big banquet one of the vice presidents, having maybe to assist to an even more important meeting, only joins us about nine pm, when the dinner is finishing. You can get from far away he drunk too much bai jiu and he feels like it’s show time.

看看我是老板, (kan kan wo shi laoban, look at me, I’m the boss!)

Then he notices me – it’s not that hard, I’m the only white devil on the room – and talks to me from the other side of the hall. The conversation is as boring as ever: he asks me whether I can speak Chinese or not (he never saw me before), I answer “一点点” (yi dian dian, only a bit), he asks me where do I come from, I tell him “意大利” (Yidali, Italy). I’m now ready for the following up, a “我喜欢AC米兰,” (Wo xihuan AC milan, I like Milan Football Club) or maybe a “我喜欢Michelangelo,” if he has a major aesthetic taste.

But I’m wrong. Maybe because of the baijiu that makes him a bit more self-confident, it happens what you do not expect, at least not at the dinner of the year. Always screaming from the other side of the room and with most of people tuned to the frequency that broadcasts the conversation between the boss and that laowai that talks with a weird accent, the vice president Yu smiles again and then speaks up:

“意大利很穷,欧元不太好” (yidali hen chong, ouyuan bu tai hao, Italy is poor, the Euro useless). He laughs out loud, then concludes:

“Everybody wants Renminbi, no one wants Euro anymore!” The background buzz suddenly stops and lets space to a blank silence.

This is when I understand I’m not living in France anymore (or in Italy, for what it matters), where may boss used to call me le grand tricheur (the big cheater), referring to the epic headbutt of Zidane to Materazzi: everybody used to laugh a bit – me too, we are the ones that won that worldcup after all : – P – and then the topic changed. But here we are at another longitude: according to the Chinese code the vice president Yu made me lose face : – O

Let’s make it clear: make a mistake – and then losing face – in my opinion (and cultural background) it’s the most important step on the continuous learning process we call “life”. Or, to speak Latin, I don’t give a f*ck about (my) face.

Furthermore, emigrants are used to get teased. Most common teases an Italian emigrant hears are mafioso, falloso (foul, referred to football players), pizzaiolo (pizzamaker) and playboy. But in last seven years of living abroad I heard whatever “insult” you can think about. And I must say I’m proud of all of them (well, let’s exclude the “mafioso” thing, which BTW only very ignorant people ever told me). You will ask: even foul? Yes, I’m also proud of “foul”! Do you think that Claudio Gentile during Italy-Argentina 1982 used poetry to stop “El Diego,” como lo llama Luis. Nope! In order to stop Maradona there was only one way: beat him hard! Ask to the English players : – P

But I’m going out of track, as usual…

Getting back to the vice president Yu, if an American CEO would have said the same thing
(“Italy is poor, Euro useless”) in front of 1,000 Yankees, I would have took it as a simple tease as the other ones (mafioso, pizzaiolo, Mario Bros,…)

The problem was that all the Chinese on the hall took the “tease” extremely seriously: the silence about the fact, the change of atmosphere from jovial to tense, the gazes that started to study the floor and the hands that switched on a cigarette after the other.

It was like they felt the boss made me lose face, and as a consequence there was not harmony anymore…

At least this is what I felt on the spot. Then I just answered with a neutral “好吧” (hao ba), that you can translate as “ok”.

The vice president Yu, at this point quite embarrassed, switches interlocutor, tries to talk about another subject, but then doesn’t resist: he comes to my table, makes a taste to me and seats down to talk with me for about ten minutes. He never apologizes, which would be equivalent to admits he made me lose face, however he grants to me the attention and the time necessary to “give me back” the face that he “took” from me before.

Well, this article is just a chronicle of an everyday situation you may encounter living and working in China; with this post I had in no way the ambition to describe the complexity of Asian “face culture”, which would requires a much more in deep study than the eight hundred words I taped while I was drinking my coffee (two cups, I admit).

I hope I was able to make you “feel” a bit how complex the “face culture” may be.

For a more general analysis on “face culture”, you can read this long and well-thought article by China-Mike.com: The cult of face.

And you, what do you do when Chinese make you lose face?

Sign up to get our free e-books ; )
Sign up to get the "Find a Job and Live in China e-Book" and the "Chinese/English Travel Phrasebook." Your email address will never be shared.
Enjoy this post? Please share a bit of love...

Comments

  1. says

    Hello there! I really enjoyed reading your blog! I think expats in China and around the world could really gain some great insights from this page. The quality of the blog in general is very convincing, which is why I would love to feature you and your writing on the Recommended Blog on China section on our website

    Best,
    Malte Zeeck

  2. Liu DePeng says

    ;-)
    Being French and in China for the last 15 years of my expat life I read you with interest and a smile…. (for the football side of your post).
    I must first say that I am an happy married folk with a great Chinese wife and father of a little guy who learns on a daily basis cultural differences…
    I faced a couple of times the experience you are describing even though it was not related to currency (BTY the VP was right, people around prefer keeping RMB rather than Euros).
    However it always ended up with the offender realizing (over the bai jiu vapors) that he went one step too far and (in private) apologizing for his misbehavior.
    One important point, in the modern Chinese society, is to show that you not only are powerfull, but also educated.
    I met recently a Vice Minister who highlighed this fact to me, recognizing at some point that provincial leaders should, within their training cursus, be exposed to proper behavior during social events.
    I believe you faced an old crook (sorry, an old Crook, with all due respect) that should be history very soon.
    Finally, I wish you should take an isolated (dramatic) incident as a base ground to draw kick conclusions.
    Chinese people have one of the most sensitive human interaction system I ever experienced (no Stokolm syndrom in here).
    I would finally put it on the devastating effect on drinking too much bai jiu.
    Liu De Peng

    • says

      Hey Liu,

      merci pour passer ici and let this insightful comment. Your son is lucky, is learning two of most difficult languages on the world hehe BTW in a past post I describe how much painful it was learning French for me : – P

      About my post, I do like Chinese people (my girl is Chinese) and I agree with you the vice president Yu is not bad, he just drunk too much baijiu that night.

      Also, as I wrote in the post, I’m quite used to be teased and I don’t put too much importance on it. What really impressed me that night was the sudden change of atmosphere in the hall. You put it right, nowadays is not only important to show power, but also to know how to behave.

      And by “insulting” me the vice president destroyed the harmony LoL

      à bientot!

      Furio

  3. Ming Zhu says

    Pardon, u taped people’s conversations in a café to learn the daily chinese? Should I do the same to pickup the language, hehe. Btw I’m a chinese in Malaysia, without a grasp in Chinese (I know how “funny”). How do u continue to learn with insults/teases like that?! It makes me hate the language & indirectly giveup on it. What keeps u motivated?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *