Friends in a foreign land

friends or friends? what are we? you live in china long enough as a foreigner and this question eventually pops up! heck, at some point, that topic can be the source of multiple frustrations.. why is that?

One of the first things I remember noticing in China was the number of times someone would walk up to me and ask the question: “Can we be friends?” complete strangers that i didn’t know from Adam or Eve would randomly as that question, usually after asking me if we can take a picture together.

At first, I shrugged the whole thing away and just wrote it off as yet another thing that was “lost in translation” because it never ever happened before and where i come from, friendship is something that develops over time and interaction. It’s something that is earned/given in a natural, organic process.. No one ever asked before if we could “make friends” and i had never asked that of anyone… at least not with a straight face the first time i met them. As the years have gone by, i still have not managed to comprehend that question!

So what are the dynamics of friendship between Foreigners and Chinese? Maybe a helpful approach would be to first look at the dynamics of friendship between Chinese. I’m proud to count a few as extremely good friends and here is what i noticed:

1- The concept of Friendship and Guanxi are closely related. It’s all about being connected as far as stage 1 goes.

2- What becomes of said connection depends on many factors. It can become a close friendship by western terms, an acquaintance-type relationship or an I-met-this-person once type of relationship. However, to my foreign eyes, it seems that they all fall under the “friendship” umbrella by Chinese standard.

3- Distance and time don’t matter: I routinely hear from my Chinese friends that they just spoke to such person who was their high school teacher/primary school teacher/ whatever or that they spoke this high school classmate that they haven’t seen in years. once the connection is established, it’s never really broken and can be called upon at anytime either because of curiosity, boredom or some other motivation like favors and what not.

4- There is no concept of short term in Chinese friendship! now before i get slaughtered for that statement, let me elaborate: The concept of time is extremely fluid in China! Things happen when they are meant to, not sooner or later. Friendship also knows no concept of time but from the perspective that it is always a long term thing. Even when you meat a total stranger on a bus to city A, they have no problem asking you your phone number and telling you that they will call on you once they visit your city.. they will call you even before they visit your city and probably keep exchanging SMSes for a while.

Now, let’s look at that from a foreigner’s perspective ( pardon the flagrant generalization)

1- Friendship and connections are miles apart! there is a huge difference between ” I know this person” and ” I have a friend” which are easily interchangeable in China

2- we have a clear separation between friends, acquaintances, business partners and other people we deal with in life. We’re never gonna say that “we’re friends, I give you a good price” to a customer/vendor on the first go

3- Distance and Time, as much as we deny it, matters. How many high school friends have your phone number? How many high school teachers are you still in touch with? and no, facebook connections do not count!

4- A perfect stranger asking for a phone number and saying they’ll stop by? pleeeassse! all alarm bell go ringing! words like “weirdo” “psycho” “stalker” come to mind right away, almost as fast as your mind scrambles said phone number and makes up some reason why you don’t have a phone. Email is the safe alternative.. I did it, you did it.

At the end of the day, being friends in a foreign land is a tricky proposition! One day, we’re bound to leave and leave them behind! The “investment” is not worth their time, it’s not one that will pay off – at least for those that think of it in those terms. For make no mistake, Chinese do think long term! There are still plenty of occasions where people bypass those hang ups and form beautiful friendships. I’d like to think I’m lucky enough to be one of those.

That said, Jon Huntsman, current ambassador of the United States in China- said. “And I’ve come to the conclusion that “China expert’ is kind of an oxymoron. And those who consider themselves to be China experts are kind of morons.” that’s an opinion i share and the musings above are just that, musings

One thought on “Friends in a foreign land

  1. Momo

    This is very interesting and probably only foreigners would be able to discern it, as Chinese people take everything for granted here. I have noticed the word “friend” is overused or being used rather loosely. But I don’t find much difference between the Chinese way and western one. Some westerners also refer to acquaintances as friends. It’s just convenient. Some other people are more discreet about this, and I guess we are one of those. But I’m sure everybody (Westerners and Chinese) is aware of the degree of friendship with others, no matter how they use the word “friend”. After all, Language is inaccurate, and we don’t have enough energy to differentiate small things.

    But I agree with you that some Chinese people do try to make deals by calling somebody friend or becoming closer. Chinese people are surrounded by a sequence of concentric circles, according to the famous sociology Fei Xiaotong. The core circle is your family and the next is your friends. People won’t trust outsiders, and friends are supposed to do whatever they are expected. That’s why they try so hard to build connections and make the cut to the “friend circle”. This economy hasn’t been fully marketized, and Spirit of Contract hasn’t developed enough.

    Well, I kind of digressed.

    Back to “friend”, yeah, it’s really weird that a stranger pops up and ask to be your friend. But foreigners are monkeys here, and locals are curious. I guess only few people would be that bold, as most of them would be just staring.

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