-You should wash that beer glass with this boiled water first.
-So it’s a dirty glass?
-No, no, of course it’s clean but you better wash it first.
-But I don’t want a hot beer glass for my beer that’s already not cold, and since it’s clean why do I need to wash it?
-It’s a good idea to wash it.
-So you gave me a dirty glass?
-No, we only give clean glasses…but you should wash it anyway
If you have spent any time in China at all, then you’ve likely had a similar conversation in a restaurant. Being lied to about the authenticity of the Rolex sold on the street, being sold fake beef that’s actually painted pork, even being sold knockoff napkins (you find out once you blow your nose and the napkin rips into pieces)…In general, you as all of us foreigners view being cheated as just one of those things you have to get used to when you are in China.
It becomes more of an issue when the lies impact your wallet such as when the salary actually given is lower than agreed upon, or you are not compensated for extra work you did even though you were promised payment, or the included apartment is much smaller than the contract stipulates. The Chinese will always provide a convenient excuse for you of course. A favorite one is “that’s not my department” or “the leader did not approve it, so it’s impossible”. There is never a shortage of excuses for passing the buck. When faced with such blatant lies, if you don’t want to get completely screwed, you have four choices.
The Aggressive Maneuver
The one I have utilized with success is the aggressive method. It does require you to look and act a bit scary, so it may not work if you are short or are female. Simplest method is to purchase a switchblade or brass knuckles or a Taser or a nightstick from your local Xinjianger street vendor (you will recognize this Uighur minority group because they look a lot more like you than the Chinese—ethnically they are closer to the Turks), walk into the foreign affairs office (or human resources or what have you), calmly brandish it and say you really really need to get that payment and you are going to wait 24 hours at which point you will become really upset. Then calmly place your weapon of choice back in your pocket and walk out. Generally, within 24 hours the payment will arrive. For this to work, you do need to look and act like you mean it.
The Aggressive Mild Method
If that’s a little hardcore for you (many of my coworkers were impressed by the effectiveness of my “aggressive method” but few followed my example) or as qualified earlier you don’t have the requisite imposing demeanor, you can try the Aggressive-Mild method. When the toilet in my apartment started leaking because of poor installation and low quality sealant causing the whole place to smell of my piss and shit, and I requested maintenance, I was told by the school’s repairman that no one at the school knows how to fix Western toilets, so there’s nothing they can do. When I called the foreign affairs office, they echoed his excuses. When I asked what I am supposed to do, they suggested I use the neighbor’s toilet and maybe next month they could find a repairman with knowledge of Western toilets. At this point I calmly stated that I had classes scheduled at 2pm that afternoon and that I would not be teaching those classes or any future ones until the toilet was fixed. I suggested they ask my neighbor to teach for me and maybe next month I would start teaching again. Then I hung up the phone. Amazingly, within an hour, three repairmen arrived and managed to fix the leak.
The Passive-Aggressive Method
If you are a real pussy, you still have one more way to get the situation sorted out. For this method, walk into the office and explain that it would be a real shame if the school had difficulty finding new foreign teachers because someone posted all over Facebook, China job boards, and Dave’s ESL that this school does not take good care of the foreign teachers (be sure to use the term “does not take good care” instead of “lies to” because the latter will not phase them). This will sometimes get your problem resolved, but not as well as the Aggressive Maneuver or the Aggressive-Mild Method.
Advance Planning is Best: The Power of Guan Xi
But admittedly the three methods above all require you to get angry or at least annoyed and they are limited in their utility because they are inherently reactive. As with most things in life, it’s much better to be proactive instead. After arriving in China, you will quickly realize that guan xi (relationship) is the most important thing to develop for you are nobody in China if nobody knows you. Don’t believe me? Spend a couple of hours hanging around any major intersection in a Chinese city. Inevitably, you will become an eyewitness to some kind of traffic accident. Most likely you will see a pedestrian or electric bike rider bleeding after being smashed by a taxi, truck or a bus (because “professional” drivers are the least responsible ones in China). Note that as he is lying bleeding in the street, no one is rushing to help them. Even the policeman will ignore his injuries and will only focus on the paperwork he needs to prepare. It is only once the relatives and/or friends arrive that the victim will receive any care and only then will an ambulance be notified (for the ambulance must be paid on arrival and since no one knows this unfortunate person, no one wants to pay the fee).
While it doesn’t take long to realize that guan xi is important, many foreigners don’t understand how to cultivate it. They worry that the cultural differences are too great, that they don’t understand the Chinese mind, etc. Well the situation is actually quite simple.
How to Develop Guan Xi
For those working as foreign teachers, on Chinese holidays give some gifts to the foreign affairs office people and find out who the vice-dean or ideally the dean is as soon as possible and try to get to know them (the vice-dean often works out better because he may actually speak some English and can be found in his office occasionally instead of always going off drinking Baijiu or banging hookers or sleeping with hot female students in return for using his guan xi to help them land jobs…but that’s for another post). For secretaries and similar low level workers, you can just give some fruit. For the (vice) dean, if it’s a man then a bottle of Baijiu (Chinese liquor) or any imported red wine (spend 50 yuan at Metro is fine, they have no idea what good wine is and are going to mix it with Sprite anyway) or a carton of good cigarettes will work. If the leader is a woman, then imported cosmetics sets are always a big hit, as well as red wine and imported chocolate-all also available at Metro, City Taste or any similar foreign supermarket.
But don’t overthink guan xi. The key is to just be sure to pay people back. Many foreigners make the mistake of thinking that many Chinese they meet are very friendly and generous. In actuality, while it is true that they are friendly and generous, but don’t forget they are also developing guan xi. So once you have accepted the free meal or gift or even the assistance of being shown around town from a Chinese person, they have mentally (and sometimes literally) made a note of what they did for you and when. If you do not reciprocate in due time-perhaps by treating them to dinner or agreeing to some favor they ask for (and don’t you worry, they will ask very soon and they probably knew what they wanted from you before they even treated you to dinner) such as teaching some free classes or helping judge a speech contest or give the opening speech to introduce the CEO for a company party to give him face that he has a foreign friend-you may be surprised how quickly the same previously friendly person will become cold and distant. But luckily, this works in reverse as well. Once you have brought a gift for some administrator at your school or company, they owe you and they know it. So if you need something special taken care of such as expedited reimbursement or payment or repairs or better scheduling, they will remember that the guan xi equilibrium is currently shifted and the onus is on them to bring it back into balance.
Guan Xi as a Weapon
I should point out that guan xi can also be used as a substitute weapon for the Aggressive or the Aggressive-Mild or the Passive-Aggressive methods of dealing with lying and cheating in China. Simply, instead of brandishing a knife, mention that your friend [government official] or [reporter] or [gangster] named [_____] will be very upset to hear your supervisor did not take care of you and will [investigate them for corruption] or [write a bad news story about this school/company] or [kidnap their child], respectively. Of course you should be selective as to when to apply which kind and what level of pressure, but I found all of these methods helpful in various situations in my time living here.
Thanks for reading. Have you faced similar situations in China? Have you tried the same methods as I did to resolve the problem or what did you do? Feel free to leave a comment or question. I will respond to all of them.
This is the end of Part 1 of my 3-part essay series titled “The Land of Flexible Truths”. Look for Part 2 coming soon: “If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them”.