Published on:
September 14, 2016

by: Guest

Cultural differences edition 1

Our Teaching Manager, Dan, recently returned from a 5-year stint teaching in a variety of schools in Guangzhou/ Foshan. The following series of blog posts will explore just a few of the cultural differences he encountered – just being aware of these can lessen the impact of culture shock, and help teachers to quickly settle in to enjoying what this fascinating country has to offer. ..

As a foreigner living in China, the chances are that you’re going to see some things that will surprise you, to say the least. As fascinating and bewildering as it is, the middle kingdom has formed its identity through a long and often tumultuous history. However if you can keep an open mind and are open to new experiences, you’ll find the Chinese and their culture to be hugely warm and welcoming.

For my part, I’m an Englishman who lived in China for five years and got married there so I can assure you, I’ve seen just about everything!

First up, Guanxi…

Similar in some respects to the British concept of an old boys’ club, or the Russian concept of blat, is the Chinese concept of guanxi. It is often translated as “relationships” but that doesn’t really do justice to the wide ranging cultural implications that guanxi describes. Guanxi largely originates from the Chinese social philosophy of Confucianism, which stresses the importance of associating oneself with others in a hierarchical manner, in order to maintain social and economic order. Particularly, there is an emphasis on implicit mutual obligations, reciprocity and trust.

At its most basic, guanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to count upon another to perform a favour or service, or be counted upon themselves. It is customary for Chinese people to cultivate an intricate web of guanxi relationships and reciprocal favours are the key factor to maintaining one’s guanxi web, while failure to reciprocate is considered an unforgivable offence.

Now you may be thinking, how does this apply to me as a teacher? There are going to be times when you need assistance from your Chinese colleagues, be it something relatively mundane like translation or something more serious such as assistance with classroom management. I’m not saying that you need to be constantly proffering your colleagues with bribes, that’s not what guanxi is although there are people who abuse it in that way, that is a conversation for another time.

Simply put, if your co-workers perceive that you do not pull your weight and do not contribute your fair share to the daily operation of the school then they won’t feel obliged to help you when you are in need. You may argue that it’s in the remit of their job description to aid you with certain tasks but that isn’t going to be enough if you are considered a person that cannot be relied upon.

The Chinese won’t expect you as a foreigner to be as involved with, and knowledgeable of, the concept of guanxi as they are themselves but show that you are putting in the effort and that you can be relied upon and your colleagues will do the same for you. Keep them informed about what you’re doing and the progress your students are making and keep accurate records.

When national holidays come around take note. During Mid-Autumn Festival for example, people traditionally give mooncakes to each other, this is something simple you can get involved with that will endear you to your colleagues. Another key concept that comes into play here is mianzi, or face, very important to the Chinese and something I will discuss in more depth later. ‘Gei mianzi’ is to give someone face or show them respect. To accuse someone of losing face is a serious condemnation in China. Be complimentary to your colleagues and superiors and it will not be forgotten.

Guanxi can also extend to keeping you up to date with the school schedule. Schools in China are notorious for leaving sweeping announcements on timetable changes to the last minute, leaving you standing in an empty classroom wondering where your students are. You’ll find that if you practice good guanxi this won’t happen as often. You will be seen as an equal partner and worthy of being kept in the loop with developments at your school, which will make your life much easier when it comes to planning your classes.

In the long run maintaining good guanxi can benefit you in a number of ways. It can lead to larger bonuses, glowing job recommendations and favourable contract negotiations. It can lead to great experiences you might not otherwise have been involved with such as invites to social events with your Chinese colleagues. Being invited to another teacher’s wedding, for example, makes for a great social and cultural experience.

The notoriously complex web of bureaucracy that makes up the visa application and registration process that all foreigners in China have to complete can be navigated more easily if you are on good terms with your superiors. They will in turn feel more inclined to make an effort to expedite the process through close cooperation with any contacts they may have within China’s regional immigration authorities.

Read the rest of our Cultural Differences Guide here.


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