Saving Face


I had read plenty about the cultural tendency toward “saving face” before arriving in China. Now that I’m here, I definitely see the far lengths locals go to in order to avoid looking silly, uneducated, or unsuccessful.

This accounts for the frequent occasions I have enlisted the help of a local on the street to help me find a place and instead of saying outright, “I don’t know,” they ponder the location I have shown them on a map for several minutes. They, then, point me in a direction, whether they know it’s the correct way or not. They simply don’t want to be caught not knowing something. I have also heard scandalous stories of ex-girlfriends seeking extreme variations of revenge on the men who jilted them because of the shame they faced after being rejected.

Just recently one of my favorite colleagues told me in confidence that he was leaving our company. To my surprise, his last day was the next day. He explained that the company simply didn’t have enough work for him to do and he didn’t want to waste its time or money. He also told me he didn’t want any other people in the company to know about his leaving, so I kept quiet. A few days later, my supervisors explained why the company let him go. The discrepancy in stories led me to believe he was saving face by omitting the fact that he was most likely fired.

It’s interesting to see this tendency in action, but it also makes me wonder how Chinese people view me. I’m great at making a fool out of myself, and even more so while abroad. Professing how terrible my Chinese is, admitting my lack of direction, and wandering into areas I obviously don’t belong, then sheepishly retreating are all things I do daily. I’m either amusing the locals or reiterating a foolish foreigner stereotype.