Posts tagged guanxi

China’s “Kaoshan” Could Mean “Your Ship Has Come In”

The following excerpt is the last I’ll write about guanxi. I’m not sure if Kazakhstan has something similar to this concept.  Another word I recall when I lived in China was “homer” which essentially means getting things done through the back door. That might be familiar with Kazakhs who need to accomplish some arduous paperwork like getting a title for their car or trying to leave the country or get things out of customs.  A new vocabulary word I learned from my Chinese student was kaoshan.”   Here’s what a male student wrote about something like “your ship has come in:”

“People from other cultures will act differently when they meet up in various situations. This is because they have received different education or cultural training. They are in different thinking mode when they are in different situations, they will act adversely.

The ‘first come, first served’ is related to the ‘line up’ rule. The general notion is that the person who arrives first gets attention first. Alternative notions such as giving priority to the elderly or the wealthy do not normally occur to equality-minded Americans. Unlike Chinese, they will, however, give priority to people with an obvious physical disability—people in wheelchairs, for example, or on crutches.’ “People who do not go to the end of the line to wait their turn but instead go to the head of the line and try to push their way in front of others will usually evoke a hostile reaction”(p204 American ways)

American people have always been taught they must to obey  the “line up “and they do not to cut in line. Americans are sick of people who cut in line. But people in China always ignore this rule in public and they don’t mind people who cut in line. Even though people from America and China both have been taught to not cut in line,but from different culture they reflect their reactions in different ways.

On a much grander scale of getting ahead is the following quote from “China, Culture Shock.” “The second way to get ahead is to know someone who can help provide a better opportunity for yourself was to know someone in a position of power willing to help you. This is called guanxi and is a very important concept.” (p63)

It is a very Chinese way to be successful. People in China would like to find “the person”  to help them to provide a better chance. “Kaoshan” it is very Chinese word. This is a common word in China, it means “thee person”  or also means “a ship of benefit.” Though, in China, a student always has been taught they need to fight on their own and try their best to make their life go better, still the adults tell their kids the theory of “guanxi”.  However, American children have been taught the same idea about success as the children in China but differently. Their parents and families also teach their American children that if they want to be a success, they must work hard on their own in order to improve for future success. That is different from the Chinese culture.

 “International visitors are often surprised to see how many American teenagers have jobs. The teenagers earn their own money for entertainment, clothes or a car by working in a fast food restaurant, clerking in a shop…from [American] parents’ viewpoint, having a job allows their children to gain valuable training in acting independently.”

This would never appear in China because the Chinese think parents should pay for the fees of their child, it is a natural phenomenon. It is difficult to explain, it has a long reason of history. The ancient Chinese would do this. The modern Chinese just follows the last generation’s way according to their different culture and religion. However, Americans do it their way.”


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More examples of “Guanxi” in China


Guanxi is an important word in China. It includes a lot of information for history, culture and relationships among people. The Chinese think guanxi is so powerful that it can help them to get a lot of unfinished things accomplished. First of all, a definition of “guanxi” according to Eagan and Weiner (2007) is the following: “…a way to get ahead is to know someone who can help provide a better opportunity…to know someone in a position of power willing to help you.” (p. 63) Perhaps Americans hold to a similar concept of “networking” where we try to meet as many people as possible to maybe help land a job. Maybe for the more outgoing and gregarious, Americans like to have many acquaintances and “friends.”

Over twenty-five years ago, as an unsuspecting American, I had never experienced the power of the word “guanxi.” After living in China in the late 1980s, it was interesting for me to learn more about it.  I believe most westerners may have an idea about what it is like, perhaps akin to “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.”  However, as I learned from my living and teaching in China for two years that it was much more powerful a concept than a random scratch to an occasional itch.  I will provide several examples of when guanxi was used in my experience and how maybe we as Americans might have something similar in principle or practice while being totally unaware of it.

At the time, I did not know why Carolyn (her English name) who was one of my Chinese students, knitted a beautiful green, cabled wool sweater for me. I bought the sufficient amount of skeins of yarn at the store and she did the rest.  Harbin, in the northeastern part of China is known to be very cold and she knew I needed to wear something warm for the oncoming winter.  I do not know that I did anything for her except have her over to practice English.  Later I found out that perhaps I was supposed to help her gain entrance to a university in the U.S.  I wonder about Carolyn these many years later. Every time I had put on that sweater I thought good thoughts about her.

Another instance of how guanxi was used in my case was when Stephen (English name) wanted to practice doing an oil painting portrait of me.  I still have the painting today but I don’t recall doing anything for Stephen except sitting and posing for him for several hours. He told me through his friend that he wanted to practice painting western noses (Dai Baize = BIG nose)  Stephen, as an artist, had been sent out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and so he had not learned how to speak English. He had been penalized for his talent. Fortunately we were able to communicate through his Chinese friend who was one of my engineering students.  So maybe Stephen wanted to be close to the power structure of my university at Ha Gong Da.  I also still wonder why Stephen went to Dalian with me and my sister and another student to help transport my 3 meter by 4 meter carpet for me that was put in a crate that was about the size of a coffin.  I was never able to repay Stephen for his service mentality of helping me. I never got him a job or found him other people he could paint for profit.

My young Chinese friends, Carolyn and Stephen’s expectations were that I help improve their lives in some way.  According to what Eagan and Weiner (2011), they claim with the beginning of communism, people of authority may not have been paid much in high salaries, but they had prestige and authority given them.  With these privileges of helping others, the senior ranking government officials could amass more power by gaining respect and trust of others under them.

I believe that Americans may be confused by this concept of “guanxi” because we have a different value orientation in place where westerners may do acts of kindness for others without any expectation of it being reciprocated. The following anecdote is what one of my Chinese students wrote about his experiences in China concerning this:

“I have seen many examples of how Chinese depend totally on “GUAN XI”. I have a friend who hadn’t high enough scores to study in high school. And his father found an officer who is a manager in education. Now my friend studies in a famous high school. Also I met a businessman who was ready to apply for a project but he had many opponents. He had a friend who is in the management for this project. Obviously, he got this project at the end.”


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“Guanxi” and Chinese Communication at the Dinner Table

I’ve known about this enigmatic concept of “guanxi” since I taught English in Harbin, China back in 1986-88.  I haven’t thought much about this term while teaching English in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and elsewhere since my China experience.  However, this word came up again this summer in the textbooks our Chinese students were using as they oriented to American university life in a communications class. The following is a laudable paper written by an 18 year old female Chinese student explaining what guanxi really is.

Chinese communication of the social dinner

“Communication is an important part of the human life, especially in modern society. Through it, people have a chance to express themselves and get the information they want. It is a normal social activity and communication can happen everywhere. But it still has some important differences in China and the most remarkable condition happens at the dining table.

In Chinese adult society, people can solve many problems at the dinner table. Sometimes in China, the relationship can be even more important than the rule. The demand of solving problems are too difficult to settle by one’s own power, people need to show their deepest respect to someone who is in the authority of position or someone they trust can help them. Therefore, they may have the chance to get help from these powerful people.

So the dinner is not as easy as we take into consideration what is “normal” when there are essential people for you. The words you use should be more impersonal so that you do not say anything that will make others feel displeased, such as, you must address others respectfully. And the pleasant intonation and the smooth speed of talking are also not to be neglected. You need to find the topic you can join in and let your decent speech and demeanor be noticed by others, especially that one rule is the most important. In the meantime, you should also take care of others’ feelings so that you make a whole good impression. A perfect impression is a huge wealth for interpersonal activities, because it will let people trust you and let that important man believe you are a person who is worthy to receive his help.

Non-verbal communication is a very important part in China, because Chinese are always veiled so that they need some unspoken Chinese to express their mind. Showing the good Chinese table manners is an effective way to evince your respect. Another rule is the seat which is the farthest from the door is considered the most honorable place. You should let the most important person sit there. When food comes, you should let that person get the food first and you always need to drink much wine to show your sincerity. During the dinner time, you need to let that person feel good about you from beginning to end. It demands you to be very careful and polite to treat others, because “non-verbal cues in China are often more subtle than in the West.” (Eagan & Weiner, 2007, p. 218)

The appearance of these situations in China is known as GUANXI. Guanxi is “the way to get ahead is to know someone who can help provide a better opportunity. Through the advent of Communism, the best way to create an opportunity for yourself was to know someone in a position of power willing to help you (Eagan & Weiner, 2007, p.63)”.  This is a very important keyword for Chinese because they need to build the guanxi when they are in contact with others. It’s different from American values about individualism, which is “a key European, American (and Canadian and Australian) value, places importance on the individual rather than the family or work team or other group (Nakayama Martin, 2011, p.15-16)”. Because primarily guanxi reflects that Chinese always think more about gregariousness and cooperation.

In conclusion, a dinner party has special meaning in China because it is a channel for people to find effective help in a relaxing environment. This kind of social intercourse is based on Chinese cultural background, because of Chinese cautious character but also the favorable opinion of guanxi. Through your cultivated style of conversation and behavior, you can leave a nice impression on the person who can potentially help you. Build the relationship with him and let it become the social resource for you, so that you can get the help from him. And it also means you obtain the success on the table today.”

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Kazakh Traditions Through Kim’s Eyes

Kazakh Superstitions

Mukhamet Shayakhmetov wrote in his book “The Silent Steppe” (p. 241) that Kazakhs are superstitious.  My friend Kim confirmed that information by telling me some of the superstitions she has encountered while living in Kazakhstan over a decade.  Kim, her husband and children used to live in a Kazakh village the first half of their stay and so she knows much about real Kazakh living.  Very different from the big city life of Almaty which is really NOT Kazakh from looking at the outside veneer.


One superstition Kim knew of was in keeping one’s home clear of evil spirits, the Kazakhs would collect a kind of holy grass from the mountains to burn it and shake the smoke around the house.  Another was to keep the home immaculately clean before going to bed at night.  A messy place would only invite unwelcome evil spirits to come lodge during the night.  (to my mind, nothing superstitious about that!!!) However, another way Kazakhs warded off evil spirits was to put a knife under the “besik” or swinging bed.  Kim also told me that a specific, significant bone from an animal would be picked clean and hung on the wall.  She admitted she didn’t know much about that tradition but she knew there were many other Kazakh superstitions.


Kazakh Life Events in the Home vs. American Mobility

Naturally Kim’s orientation is around the home being a mother of four children so she has observed that for Kazakhs, life events are very important such as birth, circumcision, weddings and death. Even though the Kazakhs come from a nomadic tradition, their homes in a yurt were the center of their universe.   That is why I suppose “leaving on a jet plane” for lands faraway holds little significance for Kazakhs.  However, for us Americans who come from a land of immigrants, a major life event for us is departing for lands unknown. Kazakhstan

is still very much an uncharted land of the unknown for many of us westerners.  

I recall when teaching at a university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 15 years ago, my Krygyz dean did NOT understand about jetlag messing up one’s sleep cycle.  Why couldn’t the Americans disembark from the plane and jump right in to teach the hour after we arrived?  My illustrious Kyrgyz dean painfully understood jetlag once she visited the U.S.

but not until several years after she observed Americans dragging around the university the first week.

Kim reiterated that Kazakh life events were very important and that their form of Islam does not take place in a mosque but rather in the home.  She had witnessed first hand how women memorialize a deceased loved one with their amazing musical abilities while they improvise a song of grief.  Such as when Mukhamet wrote in his book about his mother who very eloquently made a mournful improvisation after the loss of a dear family member.  According to Kim, for her it was haunting but beautiful to hear the Kazakh women’s strains of music in their improvised songs of grief.


Children Need to Memorize Kazakh Proverbs
Back in the
U.S. we used to have the saying, “Children should be seen and not heard.”  That is back when the U.S was more of an agrarian society and there were many children sitting around a farm family table. It was only fitting and proper that children be seen at the dinner table and the adults were the ones to do all the talking.  This tradition fits along with Kazakhs where their young children were encouraged to sit and listen to the older and wiser members of the family.  Early on the Kazakhs were expected to listen and learn, really listen to the stories told orally and commit them to memory.  It was also the duty of adults 40 years old and older to use proverbs that they had memorized to explain life lessons to the children.


Again my experience teaching for a year and half in a Kyrgyz university 15 years ago showed the Kyrgyz students picked up the English language quickly despite the lack of any western style textbooks simply because the young people were good at memorizing and listening to intonation patterns.  That is essentially what language learning is all about, listening, imitating and memorizing.  I observed that oral skills prevailed in learning English for the Central Asians but understandably not written skills which requires certainly more reading.


That reminds me of something else Kim told me about some of her Kazakh helpers who have no concept of putting books away on a bookshelf.  Since all knowledge was committed to memory and living in a yurt and moving from place to place according to the season, Kazakhs owned no books.  Therefore, her Kazakh helpers will typically put books back upside down or binding cover to the inside and not facing out so you can read the title.  I suppose when westerners grow up from kindergarten on with access to libraries, you don’t realize that those without books or libraries would even care how to “properly” place a book on its shelf. 


Forbidden Subjects Among Kazakhs

What is taboo in general talk among Kazakhs?  Obviously money is not, nor the lack of it.  The borrowing of money is okay too.  However, nothing regarding the home and its personal affairs is allowed such as if a parent is having trouble with a child or if a husband is beating his wife.  All those topics are verboten outside the family.  Kim told me about a young bride who was getting initiated into her new family and having to serve her in-laws.  If the father-in-law was not happy with the way she served him tea, he could beat her.  That is why it is said the bride wears braids because once married she has no time to even fix her hair.  So busy is the young woman learning all the family traditions in her new home under the tutelage of her mother-in-law.  Kim said there is even a tradition she heard about where the in-laws wash each other’s clothes to show their solidarity with each other.  However, it is the bride who must suffer and keep all this pain to herself especially if she is married into a domineering family.


Neighbors and Mutual Indebtedness

Kim also related how being one’s neighbor in Kazakhstan is very important.  She told me about her neighbor in Almaty who had a goat.  When Kim’s youngest daughter was born and wasn’t gaining much weight, her Kazakh neighbor took it upon herself to daily bring goat’s milk for the baby to plump up.  Kim wanted to pay her neighbor money but the woman would have nothing to do with payment.  All she wanted from Kim was a promise of “insurance” that if anything happened to her goat, Kim would pay for the vet’s bill.  This reminded me of when I lived in China where the Chinese try to build “guanxi.” Where you are mutually indebted to another person, they can exact a favor from you on their own terms if they have done something for you earlier.  Money is totally out of the picture, it is a “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” approach.


Some cultural afterthoughts

Of course, Kim and I talked about many other things as we sat on top of the Kok Tobe hill the other day.  Such as men are the only ones now to greet each other with “assalai magaleikum!” and the response in kind is “Aleikum assalaam.”  Also, how important it is for men to find others born in the same year as they were born, called kordas or something like that.  As if Kazakh men who share the same birth year are blood brothers.


One last thing that Kim told me and I’ve personally observed in my university setting is that the Kazakh people need someone to blame for their misfortunes.  This is because for them as Muslims, Allah cannot be blamed.  An example Kim gave was when a family had 7 girls and 3 boys and one of the boys died.  The death was attributed to a Russian who had just moved into the neighborhood and supposedly gave the boy the “evil eye.”  Someone else, outside of the clan, is to be held responsible for any sadness visited upon the family.  We talked of many other things but I wanted to document those things I remembered most vividly from Kim’s own experiences in this culture and land of Kazakhstan, a place we want to know and love.

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