When Westerners come to Shanghai, their first impression is often that Chinese people are assholes. Passengers crowd around the subway doors to board first. Cars speed through crosswalks on red lights. Public urination is common.
Of course, none of what I say can describe 1.4 billion unique human beings, whom we crudely label “China.” My conclusions come from a few friends I met in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Boston. But whether they’re a representative sample or not, I’ve learned a lot from them. So what can a Westerner, especially a Northeastern American like me, learn from the Chinese about relationships?
1.The Generosity Reflex
In China, generosity is a reflex, like saying “please” or “thank you.” This covers obvious things, like picking up the tab at restaurants, but it covers subtler things too — handing your neighbor a napkin as soon as her old one gets dirty, or serving her the moment she lays eyes on a dish, before she asks. It’s as if everyone is scanning each other for the tiniest inconvenience so that they can jump in and fix it.
When my father flew to Fuzhou to give a lecture, the host university assigned a graduate student named Lily to accompany him. Once, she offered to carry his notebook for him, and he said “no, I’m fine.” Lily looked so dejected that he changed his mind and handed it to her anyway.
A related principle: one should always offer much, much more than is needed.
2.Actions, Not Words
My Chinese teacher, Su Wei, is a master of bold, considerate actions. Once, during Christmas holiday, I took the train up from New York to see him. Even though I only had two hours, he drove 40 minutes to the train station and 40 minutes back, just so he could show me his new house. He gave me a book, a case of jasmine tea for my mom, and a giant bag of pistachios to bring back to China.
Since college, Su Wei has opened his house to his favorite students, saying “this is your home!” Whenever I visit, his wife Liu Mengjun always cooks a huge meal, and there’s always a bed made in the guest room in case I want to spend the night. Once, I casually asked for orange juice, and from then on, there was always was a quart of Tropicana in the fridge whenever I visited. Unique among my college professors, Su Wei has taken an active interest in his student’s lives, and continued to support them as a friend and mentor long after graduation. As a novelist, teacher, and poet, he is more expressive than Jane, but he still leads with his actions.
This emphasis on action goes back to Confucius. In Book IV, Verse XXIV of the Analects, he declared: “The superior man wishes to be slow in his speech and earnest in his conduct.” He could easily be describing Jane or Su Wei.
3.Introversion and Sincerity
My Chinese coworkers prefer to stay quiet in unfamiliar social settings. The thought is, “I don’t want to go first” or “I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” This makes team lunches dreadfully boring. Our American office manager, Melissa, has tried to force employees to be social with Friday Happy Hours at the office, but instead of socializing, most employees rush to grab a beer or a popcorn and then return to their desks.
These two stances, introversion versus extroversion, sincerity vs. small talk, lead to different outcomes. The first stance leads to a few close friendships, the second leads to lots of acquaintances. There is no word for “networking” in Chinese. How could there be, after Confucius himself said, “Have no friends not equal to yourself”? On the flip side, small talk can open up friendships, but too often, these “friendships” get stuck in a sort of Demilitarized Zone of fake cheer and irony. Americans may be more outgoing on average, but that doesn’t make them less lonely.
4.Friendships Are More Intimate
When I have made it past the “friend” barrier with a Chinese person, he or she has often becomes as close as a Westerner I’ve known for many years. Angela, who joined us on the trip to Yixing, is a senior HR manager, but she treats her hires like her children. She’s invited me and Dandan to go hiking with her teenage son, and regularly hosts dinner parties at her house. Su Wei, my Chinese teacher, knows more about my love life than my parents do.
My coworker Lincoln, a thoughtful digital marketer with a pirate’s goatee, has already become a swimming buddy and political debating partner. We’ll head to the Xuhui District public swimming pool, where of course, we have to strip naked to change into our bathing suits, and swim for an hour or two. Then we’ll order noodles at the Lanzhou Noodle restaurant and talk politics and history until the Shanghai Metro hits closing time.
5.This Ain’t Boston
The friends I’ve made in China have caused me to question whether this is the best, or only, way to relate to people. They tend to say less and do more, showing their care through considerate actions instead of words. The wall between strangers is higher, perhaps, but once you’ve crossed that wall, everything is shared.
Is one culture better than another? There are advantages to a culture in which politeness extends past the “in-group,” in which people with little in common still have a habit of talking to each other, in which we maintain privacy. In a place like my hometown of Boston, where no single group has the majority and everyone is from somewhere else, it’s essential. And individuals can accomplish more, be more creative, and take bigger risks when they aren’t tied down in a web of obligations to their friends, family, and lovers.
But too much individualism can be lonely. At its best, Chinese culture facilitates intimacy — people act generous as a reflex, show their care through actions instead of words, choose sincerity over small talk, and give their total attention to the people privileged enough to call them friends. People have each other’s backs here. And the best part is, they do it without making a big deal out of it.