Only Dongguan: Leaving the City, Keeping the People

Only dongguanMy life in Dongguan over the past eight years has been enriching as we, my husband Tim and I, have learned the meaning of guanxi and how it applies day to day. According to Wikipedia the definition of guanxi is the moral obligation to maintain the relationship and the idea of “face.” I’ve never lived in a culture where relationships are so important. I know Chinese people who live in Dongguan, but will travel a long distance back to their home town in another province because a group of school mates is getting together for a special dinner. Maintaining relationships and helping one another is like an investment in your own future because you never know when you will need help or a favor. This also seems to be an effective way of working through channels of business or solving problems. I always wonder if I pay a higher price at the gym or hairdresser because I don’t know the owner and therefore have no “guanxi.”

One night a few years ago, I became very ill and didn’t know how to manage at the local hospital. I did what any foreigner here would do and called my Chinese friend. She said that she would be right over to take me to the hospital and that she had a “doctor friend” who would meet us even though it was after his working hours. I received the best of care and treatment. When I asked my friend if I could pay the doctor extra for coming late to the hospital, she replied, “No. He’s my friend.” In Dongguan I’ve experienced first-hand the value of having and being a friend. You guessed it; I took my friend to dinner. Guanxi works both ways.

I will never forget the Sunday afternoon that Tim and I went for a walk in the park. This exercise should have taken about one hour, but along the way, we met a large group of college age students. One brave student approached us and asked to take a photo with us. In the spirit of guanxi and wanting to be friendly, we smiled and said, “Sure.” Well, an hour later we were still trying to smile as we took group photos and then a photo with each individual group member. Our one hour hike turned into an all afternoon event. We didn’t want anyone in the group to lose face by our refusing to make a picture with him or her so we just kept smiling. “What do they do with these photos, anyway?”

When our four blonde grandsons first came to China to live, they were quite a novelty and usually drew a crowd if we were in a public place. They didn’t like this attention, however, and would refuse to let people take their picture. This was quite embarrassing for me and over time, I talked with them about guanxi and having good relationships with the Chinese people since we are guests in their country. Well, I don’t know what made the change, but after about two years of living here the funniest thing happened. We were enjoying the afternoon with our grandsons in Qi Feng Park and, as usual, we were attracting some interest. All of a sudden, my oldest grandson, Clay, started doing tricks and posing for all who were interested in snapping his photo. Finally, even the Chinese were tired, and one girl said, “Okay, that’s enough for now” after Clay continued to pose in front of her. This was definitely a defining moment for picture taking in the Hall Family. We had out lasted the local citizens in their favorite pastime.

Our one hour hike turned into an all afternoon event.

I love the excitement at Chinese New Year. Each year I keep up with the Chinese Zodiac Symbol and check to see if this is my year. After 11 years of living in China, this is finally my year—the Year of the Horse. Wouldn’t you know it? “Horse natives are pleasant and easy-going and have many friends because they know how to put people at ease and are blessed with good humor. Best of all, if you befriend a Horse person, it won’t ever be boring.”

Yes, it’s back to guanxi and relationships for me, the Horse. As a school director, the relationships that I’ve formed with teachers, staff, parents, and students are my most prized possessions. These positive relationships have allowed us to take a school from a small baby stage and watch it grow into a thriving educational institution. Without positive relationships and support of the entire school community, this would have been an impossible task. But the good thing about friends is that they work together and that’s been my experience in Dongguan. Building a school has taken the effort of a community and positive relationships along the way.

As Tim and I prepare to leave China at the end of this school year, we will take many memories with us. The relationships that we have made here with our Chinese and foreign friends will remain with us for a long, long time. guanxi is a word that has helped to shape my personal and professional life. Sometimes, there is a negative side to this word, but I choose to take the positive. Learning to value others and help them maintain their dignity “face” in a difficult situation is a lesson well learned.