An Expat’s Guide to China’s Confusing Social Constructs

An Expat’s Guide to China’s Confusing Social Constructs
Aug 10, 2023 By Mark Turner ,

When I first came to China, a Chinese friend said to me: “Mark, you will find it difficult here; Chinese people have complicated hearts.” At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. Now, although I don’t believe that people of one country have more complicated hearts than those of another, I do understand more deeply what she was trying to tell me. Some Chinese rules of social engagement can be hard for foreigners to understand.

Brining pets to China

In China, as across the rest of Asia, appearances matter a great deal. A deceptive, almost ceremonial quality pervades many aspects of life, from the top echelons of state affairs to mundane everyday things like shopping. This preoccupation with appearances can at times be at odds with Western value systems, many of which are based less on appearances and more on an unspoken moral code of behavior. Let’s take a look at some of the social constructs expats in China typically struggle to navigate.

It’s the principle!

If you’ve been living in China for a while, you’ll no doubt be well acquainted with the concepts of mianzi” (face) and “guanxi” (social connections). Despite our knowledge of their existence and quirks, however, we often come unstuck when we come across their side effects in real life, whether that be at the hands of friends, colleagues, employers, in-laws or complete strangers.  

“It’s the principle of it!” is the phrase we commonly wheel out in defense of getting all hot and bothered over a petty argument with a street vendor. How many of us have fought tooth and nail for a discount that we wouldn’t even consider was worth the effort of cutting a coupon out of a newspaper for back home? Expats in China will often persist with an argument because they feel they are being slighted, even though the size of the perceived slight can at times be comical in comparison to the amount of energy and time expended arguing.

Having fallen into this trap more times than I care to remember myself, I’ve decided it’s often best to keep righteousness in check when living in China. Let go of ‘moral’ victories in favour of avoiding headaches.

The truth about truth

Most expats are told outrageous lies at some point during their time in China. In the West, we’re taught that there is value in telling the truth in almost any given situation. In China, however, telling (more than) the occasional lie is part of the norm. Oftentimes, it’s all wrapped up with face. People don’t want to seem like they don’t know how to do something, so they tell you it’s impossible, even though it’s not, for example.

One universal cultural similarity, however, is that nobody likes being called a liar. This poses a conundrum then if you’re caught in a situation where the truth has important consequences and you’re convinced you’re being fibbed to. Being called a liar – even if it’s true – is a big loss of face. As a consequence, calling someone out as a liar can quickly escalate a conflict in China and actually take you farther away from a positive outcome.

The best way to counter a barefaced lie without causing drama in China is usually to remain calm and attempt to find physical evidence to back up your case. If no such evidence exists, it’s probably best to cut your losses. Chinese people rarely back down unless they’re proven wrong.

Let me give you a real life example of a textbook way to call out a liar in China… without calling them out as a liar. A friend of mine returned to China after a holiday and was getting in a taxi from the airport. Airport taxi drivers often look to earn a little extra on the side by negotiating inflated fares with clueless looking foreigners rather than using the meter. On this occasion, the taxi driver suggested to my friend that they agree on a set price for the fare. When my friend, who was familiar with the scam, asked to use the meter, the driver claimed it was broken.

Given the circumstances, my friend knew this was most likely a lie, but pointing it out was unlikely to persuade the driver to drop the act. Instead, my friend simply lent over and flipped the ‘taxi occupied’ light down himself. Lo and behold, the lights on the meter came on and everything was in good working order. The driver smiled and took him home.

You see, if you can produce evidence to prove that someone is lying without causing unnecessary conflict, your adversary is unlikely to be too angry or upset and your problem will be solved. If, on the other hand, you call someone out for lying without any evidence to back up your claim, they will probably double down on the lie just to save face.

Horse horse tiger tiger

Most expats in China learn very quickly that they should say “ma ma hu hu” (meaning “just so so”), when they’re offered a compliment. Although it is considered a little old fashioned to be too modest these days, it’s important to remember that not all compliments in China are made equal. Sometimes, what seems to be a complimentary remark is actually a warning, such as a hint to stop showing off.

Because of the various motives behind paying compliments, it’s common for Chinese people to actively avoid them. This may mean that they prefer not to contribute so much at work meetings, for example. They would rather fly under the radar than stand out.    

Be like the grass

From time to time, you stumble across expats who expend a lot of energy and emotion trying to ‘civilize’ Chinese people by calling them out for not being honest or polite. This really is like Don Quixote waving swords at windmills, i.e. fighting an imaginary enemy. The very idea that Chinese people should be taught how to behave is obviously ridiculous. On the flipside, I feel sorry for those expats who feel so at odds with their environment that they go on a crusade to change a country of 1.3 billion people one by one. That must be a heavy load to bear.

In my opinion, the best way to enjoy life as an expat in China is to go in with your eyes wide open and prepare to have your preconceptions — both about what Chinese people are like and what is civilized — challenged. People of different cultures value different things and behave in different ways.

In the years I’ve been in China, I’ve learnt to follow the path of least resistance, like a blade of grass in a storm. The convoluted dance of Chinese social constructs can be at the least entertaining and often rather touching if you learn to let go of your prejudices and embrace a new way of thinking.

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Keywords: Expats in China social constructs China


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