The Frustration Phase

Sometimes it’s not fun being an easy mark in a city full of sharks.

The finish on the beautiful antique table I adored…cracked when it got cold because it’s a fake.

The woman at Wing On department store…wouldn’t give me info on any vacuum except the top end German one she wanted to sell me.

The fast-talking friendly dude at the travel agency down the street…gave me a price for getting a China visa that was ~US$25 more than it is everywhere in the city.

Last week E and I each independently lost our s*** in two different scenarios.

I was in Tsim Sha Tsui, carrying a million and one bags — and a computer.  I bought a coffee at a Starbucks so I could sit down and use the computer.  There was only one table left, so I sat there (didn’t want to share with two businessmen having a business-y conversation).  Behind me were two 50-something ladies and a gentlemen, I’m guessing from mainland China.  One lady asked if she could share my table, so I said yes of course.  But I already had my computer out and unpacked.  Well, then all three of them sat down and just kind of took over the table.  Like confiscated it.  I just lost it, huffed and puffed and picked up everything and walked out.  They were doing “oh, thank you so much.”  Bullshit.

Meanwhile E went to his hair appointment with the guy he’s used before ( recommended by an Australian friend) — and it appears that the guy is not there.  But the receptionist won’t say he’s not there.  Instead, “Please wait.”  And wait.  And is anything really happening?  So E says, “You’re lying, right?  If you just told me he was late and on his way here, I would stay, but now you just lost a customer!”  And walks out.

This among other things prompted me to finally acquire a book on Chinese culture and etiquette — “It’s All Chinese to Me” by Pierre Ostrowski and Gwen Penner.  In their chapter on culture shock they describe The Honeymoon Phase, The Frustration Phase, and The Acceptance and Resignation Phase.  “A sudden, explosive tirade launched at a perfect stranger on the street is a deinite sign that you’ve made it into phase two of culture shock.”  Umm, we’re there.

More shocking insights from the book…  Two key concepts in Chinese culture are Guanxi and Mianzi.

Guanxi refers not only to one’s extended network of family, friends, classmates, professional affiliations, social clubs, etc., but also the status of these folks and the degree to which they’re obligated to you.  You do someone a favor, they owe you a favor.  So the sense of the family and the network is very strong here, and sense of responsibility to those outside the network is…not so much.

Apparently there are actually race-based (ethnically Chinese) social clubs here in HK.  Brrr.   We’re white, a two-unit “family,” new to town, and unaffiliated with any business.  People are totally flummoxed by the fact that we don’t seem to want to buy anything or sell them anything.

I feel really uncomfortable with Guanxi because I’m uncomfortable with mixing friendship and business.  But E really has trouble with the concept of Mianzi.

Mianzi is the concept of face.  My book says “Largely as a result of Confucian teachings, China has evolved into a shame-based culture.  This is very different from Western, conscience-based cultures.”  What does this mean?  Among other things, it means that no one declines a social invitation directly (instead they say “maybe”), interrupting someone is considered an insult, getting angry causes shame and embarrassment for both parties, admitting to a mistake (or not knowing something, like how to speak English) is shameful so people will simply make things up, and — most shocking to E — telling lies to save face is very common (and catching someone in a lie is considered cruel or rude).

Lots of fascinating insights about the Chinese education system, Confucianism, hierarchy, individualism vs. group/family orientation.  This is a bit depressing.  The whole insider-outsider thing feels like there’s no basic foundation of respect for other human beings so doing things like ripping someone off is no problem if they’re not one of yours.  Meanwhile, since preserving the appearance of your hard-earned status in the hierarchy is so important, folks have no problem telling bald-faced lies to cover up the fact that they just ripped you off.  Bleh!

But, as our HK history teacher said to us, those books are only of so much use.  A book on American culture would probably capture our motivations and assumptions on some level — but we probably differ significantly from the norm in many ways.  So there must be people here who aren’t that cut-throat and cruel (have I mentioned the beggars missing pieces of their heads and faces and limbs?).  Bleh.  I’m really in The Frustration Phase today.

So to illustrate my post, I present something which embodies the cynicism I feel all around me: “organic apples” from CitySuper.  “Flown in by air,” (very ecological), wrapped in plastic and styrafoam (are they kidding? am I kidding — I bought them fearing toxic China sludge).



2 Responses to “The Frustration Phase”

  1. mom Says:

    Lots to learn on so many levels!
    Thanks for continuing to blog. Your experiences are edifying and fascinating.

  2. mom Says:

    As Uncle David says, the key to getting along is to be flexible and adaptable.
    Easier said than done….

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