Thursday, November 10, 2011

Culture Corner: China - Saving Face

All of you have heard the expression ‘saving face’ in some reference to Japan or China.  I’m here to tell you it exists, though ‘saving’ seems a relative term.  It is not as mysterious a cultural concept as the quotations indicate.  It’s something we have in our culture too, only the specific term lacking.  In our culture, saving face manifests itself in the form of forced smiles, checked anger, and a polite ‘thank you’ when none is in order: i.e. you don’t lose control of yourself in situations you want to.  In China, the same can be observed. 

But like the Force, both eastern and western versions of ‘face’ also have a dark side, one where pride and honor have your name written all over them, standing on your shoulder, egging you on, pushing you to new heights of ego.  In our culture we normally see this in color coordinated ghetto wear, condescension, and drunken bar play. (“You’re so weak, Bob, I bet you can’t ram your head through this concrete wall!” “Oh yeah!” ….minutes later the wail of sirens sound Bob’s death knoll, Darwinism claiming another…)   In China, however, the dark side of ‘saving face’ is not so overt.  Patience playing a far greater role than immediate action, allow me to tell a story.

A couple of weeks ago I gave in to a hankering for some mooncake (a Chinese sweetbread) and headed to my friendly, local Suguo market.  Upon exiting the store, I noticed two cars at a 90 degree angle, nose-to-nose at a narrow intersection.  It was nighttime, their lights were on, and their engines were running, but nobody was moving. Thinking a fender-bender had happened, I stopped to have a look.  But it was quickly apparent what was really happening. There was no accident.  It was male chest bumping, just like you see anywhere else in the world, jungle, city, space, wherever.

The first car was an Audi, and the man driving wanted to turn right, as his monotonous blinker indicated, blink-blink, blink-blink. The second car, a Jeep Cherokee wanted to turn left, as his blinker indicated. But in the narrow intersection, each was blocking the other from continuing on with their journey, and neither was backing up to allow the other to go first. My curiosity was piqued: how will the Chinese handle this?

In my life, I had seen two solutions to this situation. The first, the most common around the world, including China, is for one of the two vehicles to politely back up and allow the other to go. The second, less common though certainly not strange, especially in America, is a shouting match, sometimes followed by a good fist fight, and maybe some property damage – all over very quickly, the loser being carted away by the police or to the morgue.  After this night, I had to add a third resolution to my experiences.

Thinking the situation was ripe, I ate my mooncake, munch-munch, blink-blink, engines quietly running.  I waited for action, but nothing was forthcoming.  After about five minutes of tension, the Audi driver turned off his car, prompting the other car to do the same. Ok, I thought, now they will emerge from their vehicles and the scuffle to determine supreme ruler of the universe will begin. But none came. Instead, a third car entered the picture, and, oblivious to what was happening, began to beep his horn. It was to no avail, however.  The combatants so focused on each other, they remained oblivious to innocent bystanders.  Much sooner than I had, the third vehicle realized what was happening and backed out.  Watching this display of pride, glad to have some high class entertainment to go with my mooncake, I was wearing a big smile and completely enjoying this display of stupidity by now. What will happen next? Nothing, they continued to sit in their vehicles.

Ten minutes, yes, ten minutes later, mooncake nothing but crumbs on my fingers, something did happen. The man in the Audi got out of his car and so did his wife, who silently took a spot beside me. (I wanted to offer her some of my mooncake – some form of condolence for being involved with foolishness of the male sex - but she didn’t look very happy.) The driver of the Jeep then got out of his vehicle, leaving me to think, ok, really, now the Showdown In Gu Lou (my neighborhood) will begin.  Maybe first some harsh words, followed by some pushing and shoving, then a punch or two... But nothing. In fact, what they did do was even stranger. Both men locked their doors and walked away from the scene like they were going to get a cup of coffee, completely abandoning their cars in the intersection, the man’s wife still standing beside me. 

I waited another five minutes, but they didn’t return, so I gave up and went home. I don’t know how the situation finally resolved itself, but the following morning on my walk to school I saw that both cars were gone and there were no chalk outlines on the road.

So, I ask you friendly reader, do you prefer the American or Chinese ‘dark side’ way of saving face: a quick, often bloody resolution where the entertainment value lies on the surface, or long drawn out displays where one must look a little deeper to appreciate the subtleties of pride?  Both having their merits, I’m undecided. 

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