Guanxi 101


OK, I’m back.

[Please blame technical issues for part of this siesta.  And parent-0f-four fatigue for part of it.]

Today’s topic is guanxi (pronounced “gwon shee”).

You’ve heard of it?  Yes, a cornerstone of the smooth functioning of Chinese society.

In a nutshell, it means relationship or connections.

I.e., Close Friend.

Meaning, if you want to get things done, it’s all in who you know.

This probably exists at some level in most cultures of the world, including in the US.

But from my understanding, it is truly an essential element that is often the chief guiding principle for a majority of people in this country.

It’s probably more important than “extra financial incentives.”

It means, in practical terms, you are able to rent the right apartment.

Get the right job, the right promotion.

It means your visa gets processed more smoothly, with less hassle factor paperwork that may or may not be required.

It might mean your husband is allowed to attend the birth of your baby instead of waiting down the hall.

And in our case, it means that our daughter can suddenly enroll at the local neighborhood elementary school that was “full” when I went last week with my tutor, an outsider, to start the process.
We were stopped cold at the guard gate and told “no room.  go away.”

I wasn’t sure if this meant “we don’t want to deal with the foreigner,” if we needed more paperwork, or what.

I asked around, heard rumors that the school was really full, so maybe it was true.

I then called my neighbor whose daughter plays with us and goes to that school and asked for advice.

She tried to see the headmaster but was also stopped cold at the gate.

Then in the evening I get a call: “come tomorrow morning and we can talk.”

Turns out, she knows someone who is apparently a Close Friend with the headmaster.

How close?

We blithely trotted up 3 flights to a woman’s spacious office, where the Close Friend sat in a chair and made some small talk.

She asked me some questions, my friend presented our story, and I tried my best to look like I understood some of the conversation and give reasonable responses.

I didn’t quite catch her title (perhaps Assistant Headmaster?), but apparently she had the power to usher me in to the Inner Sanctum, where a man (I’m guessing the elusive Headmaster) sat behind a table and asked her a few questions, looked through my papers and took a few notes.

Apparently it was good enough, because he promptly said, “she can come here.”

We shook hands, I went with the woman back to her office, and that was that.

I was flabbergasted.  But at the same time, impressed withe the effectiveness of this sort of system.

The Close Friend didn’t even have to know me or say much.  He just sat in a chair and witnessed all the events, and that was enough.

Guanxi dictates that the people you have a relationship with, do favors for you, and you do favors for them.

My Chinese friends say it amounts to a lot of pressure.

Many decisions people make are based on whether they will promote certain key relationships.

It often means self-sacrifice for the sake of the family and to maintain harmony in the larger circles of relationships.

I have heard this comment made several times:  The more you understand the language, the less you understand the culture.

In this case,  you become slightly more aware of the myriad of unspoken nuances and insinuations and observations stored away for a rainy day.

I am definitely very aware that it’s often better for me to say less, and listen more.


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