Shortly after coming to China I quickly learned that asking someone if they’d had a good weekend, or enquiring about their plans for the coming weekend is not a part of Chinese culture.
It took me a while to get used to the absence of small talk and even longer to get used to the fact that I actually missed it, which was weird considering it really annoyed me when I lived in England.
In my experience, Chinese opening lines of conversation are direct and to the point. For example, as soon as you arrive at work they will introduce a work issue without preamble. No ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ And, as I mentioned above, if they have no specific topic to discuss they will ignore you until you speak to them, or they’ll wait until they need something from you.
Coming from a completely different social environment I initially considered this attitude to be quite rude, but now I understand that it’s just a major cultural difference and therefore is neither good nor bad. It just is.
What’s harder to discern is what a Chinese person means when they say they want to be your friend.
I’m talking about strangers, or new people generally, not colleagues or Chinese people who’ve taken the time to get to know you leading to a mutual and comfortable decision to be friends.
I’m referring to people you might meet on public transport, or in a cafe such as Starbucks, maybe at MacDonalds. Those members of the Chinese population who see a friendship with a foreigner as something which will benefit them and who don’t hesitate to act on that, or should I say exploit it.
Those who think this way will ask for your phone number or to link with you on WeChat (the Chinese equivalent of What’s App). They’ll suggest meeting up, perhaps invite you to their homes or a social event. They’ll smile, be interested in you, even spend money and time on you or give you little gifts and be overly friendly.
They aim to give you a fantastic impression of China and the Chinese and, perhaps because you’re far from home and feeling lonely, you’ll fall for their false camaraderie, which is well practiced because they treat their own the same way. ‘You can do something for me/make my life better/give me something I want, so, let’s be friends.’
After the exchange has taken place, the Chinese person having no further need for interaction with you, reverts to the behaviour mentioned in the first paragraph and your ‘friendship,’ for want of a better word, is effectively over.
Again, I really don’t believe that it’s a bad thing, it’s just the culture here.
But when you’re on the receiving end it honestly doesn’t feel so great.
Knowing that someone is be-friending you solely to get something out of it, such as improving their English for free, or gaining face among their peers by having a new foreign friend, can cause you to change your own behaviour.
I no longer make as much eye contact with Chinese people as I used to and I’m reluctant to return the smiles of a stranger. If, on first meeting, I’m asked for my phone number or WeChat ID I automatically refuse. I don’t understand why the Chinese person is surprised by this. If I don’t know you why would I hand out my information?
Many westerners who have been here for more than a year or two tend to congregate with other westerners and keep their Chinese counterparts at a distance for the very reasons mentioned above. Such actions seem to defeat the purpose of living and working in another country until you factor in this widespread, faux friendship which is easy to fall victim to.
Some Chinese people dish out false compliments because ‘that’s how you speak to foreigners.’ Others enjoy the feeling of ‘getting one over on the foreigner’ by offering fake friendship wherein they are the only ones who benefit.
Why do so many people feel that it’s okay to use people and how they would react if foreigners returned the favour?
As I’ve mentioned in many previous posts on various blogs, China is an amazing place and I’m glad to be here but having said that, it really is a case of all that glitters is definitely not gold.
I’m very thankful for the many genuine, kind, funny and supportive Chinese friends I’ve made during the last four years. These are people of all ages, some of them complete strangers, who’ve helped me without being asked, been wonderfully generous – again, without being asked and shown me aspects of China and Chinese life I’d never have experienced on my own.
They’ve gone out of their way to make me happy without expecting anything in return. As a result, I appreciate them tremendously, not least because their open integrity has made it easier to spot and avoid the fakes.
From talking to fellow nomads I understand that this experience of false friendship is not limited to China. If you want to spread your wings don’t let it put you off travelling, just keep it in mind.