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Guanxi

Or, Do I Have to Give Them Something to Make Friends?

From the series Navigating the Cultural Identity Journey


As we saw in my previous blogs, Chinese identity is a family identity based on Confucian social roles which is unlike an American individual identity based on individual preferences.

Confucian roles determine how a person should behave in relation to those above them and below them. Family-type relationships provide care and protection for family members based on the concept of filial piety. How you should relate to others was modeled for you in your childhood home, that is, you learned to care and protect others like you were cared for and protected by your parents.

If people see how filial you are toward your parents, they will consider you trustworthy. A trustworthy person can open doors for you.

When we lived in Asia, I was constantly asked for things and especially for money. Being a typical American, I was offended with their constant asking. I thought they were just lazy and didn’t want to work in order to have the money to get what they wanted. I discovered later that asking for favors was a means of developing relationships.

The first time my neighbor unexpectedly shared some of her food with me, I immediately returned the empty plate, after washing it, and said, “thank you.” I was surprised because typically my American friends did not share a plate of food with me without first asking if I wanted it. Later I learned that it was very impolite to return an empty plate. I could return it much later (days, or even weeks later), but it should be returned with something on it. Little did I know that sharing was a means of developing friendships. Since I didn’t share what I had with others, they tried to help me share by asking for things or giving things to me. I didn’t understand that they were trying to make friends with me.

Asking for favors and sharing resources are part of what’s expected in Chinese culture for developing relationships; and comes from the word guanxi 关系. Guan means “gate” or “something that is guarded” and xi is a “tree or tie,” together meaning a gateway through which to get connected. In order to get and remain connected, people share resources both materially (food, money, connections to people) and immaterially (loyalty and protection). The more you share the stronger your tie or relationship is.

However, there are challenges in sharing resources. We need God’s wisdom in what and how to share. Coming from a capitalistic culture, we put a price tag on everything and want to make sure everything is paid for. We think that if we say, “thank you,” that’s the end of the transaction. However, there is a lot of give and take in Chinese relationships making it difficult to ever come out even. If you do come out even, that ends the asking and sharing which indicates you don’t want to continue the relationship. Asking and sharing are ways to keep the relationship going.

Among the things I learned while in Asia was that when people asked for something, I didn’t have to give exactly what was asked for but I needed to offer something. In that way relationships are maintained.

I also discovered that I could consult a good Asian neighbor to help me understand how best to respond to requests. For instance, when someone shares something such as food, I didn’t have to return something right away, but I needed to return something later along with the plate.

After a while, I realized that asking and sharing made me more aware of the needs of others and that American culture actually encouraged me not to share. Rather than being upset by requests for help, I started to understand that being generous can help develop relationships in which the gospel message can be shared appropriately.

Can you think of a time when you were upset because people asked you for something or gave you something without asking you first? Did you think they were just trying to get something from you or do you think they might have been trying to begin a friendship with you? What beliefs do you need to change in order to begin friendships through asking and sharing with Chinese people?

More information can be found in Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities of Asian American Life and Ministry, Ben Shin and Sheryl Takagi Sizer, 2016 pages 58 and 152.

Sheryl Takagi Silzer

Sheryl Takagi Silzer

Sheryl Takagi Silzer is a third generation Japanese American. She worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia as a Bible translator. For the past twenty-five years she has worked as a multicultural consultant leading Cultural Self-Discovery workshops for sending agencies, schools, and churches around the …View Full Bio


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