Dear Amy C. Liu, author of TAWAIN A TO Z,
I came across your book TAWAIN A TO Z: The Essential Cultural Guide this past weekend and am enjoying it very much.
However, I was a bit annoyed at first that some answers raised by you were not so straightforward to find, e.g. “Why do so many Taiwanese have a PhD?”,—although the question is posted on the back-side of the book jacket.
You, in fact, do state on page 21 of your work that enhancing one’s “international horizons” is one prime reason that lead many Taiwanese to continues to seek M.A. and PhD degrees abroad. However, one recent study, reported in this past Friday’s TAIWAN NEWS, shows that many Taiwanese are more interested in gaining better paying jobs in Mainland China than they are in going to work and studying in many other corners of the plane. In fact, almost 77% of all Taiwanese show some interest in working in Mainland China.
IMPROVING ONE’S INTERNATIONAL HORIZONS
However, improving one’s “international horizons” remained a distant third or fourth in that particular poll.
By the way, does “obtaining a degree abroad” not also almost automatically ensure in Taiwan today that one will be paid better–or that one will have immediate access to more guanxi (關係)–than if one had not studied abroad?
Further, I am also left to wonder how both you and the authors of that particular poll, cited in the TAIWAN NEWS last week define the terms “ to enhance one’s ‘international horizons’”. I.e. is doing business internationally sufficient in-and-of-itself to believe that one has “enhanced one’s ‘international horizons’”? (Too often in East Asian in some other corners of the globe—this lower standard level definition seems to be referred to in using the term to enhance one’s “‘international horizons’.)
I am a lifelong multicultural educator and I appropriately realize that part of my job assignment here in Taiwan is to help “internationalize” the student’s educational experience. (I teach in elementary and junior high schools.) In this manner, part of my work efforts are assigned to “enhancing pupil’s ‘international horizons’”, too.
However, like the term “multiculturalism”, the processes of “internationalization” and “enhancing one’s international horizons” are also not so easily defined in one country—let alone cross-culturally.
Nonetheless, I believe that for far too many Taiwanese pupils, students, educational administrators, human resource personnel and national leaders the expansion or enhancement of “international horizons” appears to be more the act of copying and learning from the other—rather than of taking time to share one’s own culture more deeply (less superficially) than is too often the standard in Eastern Asian lands.
In short, East Asians enjoy opportunities to gain personal and societal guanxi (關係) through enhancing their own individual “international horizons” rather than making fuller efforts to empower others (outside of their particular land or culture) to try to do much beyond gaining the very minimum international guanxi (關係) offered, i.e. over the long haul.
This was true in Japan, when I worked there in the early 1990s, and is still true to some degree in Taiwan today. It is also true for many other Asian nations and Asian sponsored “internationalization” programs.
Now, I’d like to turn to discussing the term guanxi (關係), which I referred to above and of which you (Amy C. Liu) do a great job in defining on pages 84 and 85 of your book. In TAWAIN A TO Z: The Essential Cultural Guide, you write that guanxi (關係) is the “[f]undamental to doing business with the locals.”
You then proceed to first define guanxi (關係) as “relationships”. Next, you
go on to write: “Every business transaction is a dealing of guanxi (關係) and every guanxi is intricately connected and maintained. A Chinese has guanxi with all kinds of people: in the work unit, at local shops and street stands, and with relatives, friends, colleagues, subordinates and supervisors. It’s what makes many aspects of daily life run smoothly. No one should wish to remain completely outside the guanxi system, and no one can. It is just as important to accumulate credit in what I call the ‘guanxi account’ as it is to save money in one’s bank account. Just as we all wish to have more money in our bank account, every Taiwanese desires to accumulate more connections in their ‘guanxi account’. The more one has in his/her ‘guanxi account’, the more face, respect and prestige are gained. “
Incidentally, your (Ms. Liu) description reminded me of the concept of the “love bank” used by Dr. Willard F. Harley in his many books and seminars on relationships between men and women.
Dr. Harley explains the concept of his as follows: “Inside all of us is a Love Bank with accounts in the names of everyone we know. When these people are associated with our good feelings, ‘love units’ are deposited into their accounts, and when they are associated with our bad feelings, love units are withdrawn. We are emotionally attracted to people with positive balances and repulsed by those with negative balances. This is the way our emotions encourage us to be with people who seem to treat us well, and avoid those who seem to hurt us.”
Is that greatly different than the concept of guanxi—as you have defined it, Ms. Liu?
Harley adds, “Within each of us is a Love Bank that keeps track of the way each person treats us. Everyone we know has an account and the things they do either deposit or withdraw love units from their accounts. It’s your emotions’ way of encouraging you to be with those who make you happy. When you associate someone with good feelings, deposits are made into that person’s account in your Love Bank. And when the Love Bank reaches a certain level of deposits (the romantic love threshold), the feeling of love is triggered. As long as your Love Bank balance remains above that threshold, you will experience the feeling of love. But when it falls below that threshold, you will lose that feeling. You will like anyone with a balance above zero, but you will only be in love with someone whose balance is above the love threshold.”
In contrast, you provide us readers with an important caveat, concerning關係Guanxi (Relationships), i.e. you say that there “is no direct English translation for the word guanxi. It’s often translated as ‘relationship’ but it is far more than that; it describes your relationship, connection, dependency, network, friendship and, most importantly, your obligation. One’s life revolves around the accumulated guanxi and the resulting obligations of these connections. Guanxi involves an ongoing series of reciprocal exchanges. One helps and gives to another and therefore expects, at some unspecified future date, to receive from that other person.”
Since I have now worked in 10 countries—including 4 in Asia—I am actually quite aware that relationships and relationship building are important.
In the Middle East the concept is called “wasta”. In Japan guanxi is known as cone or connections. Even in Europe, i.e. in Germany, I long ago came up against the force of “Beziehung”, which the Germans jokingly call “Vitamin B” because without Vitamin B (Beziehung) you cannot live or survive. In short Guanxi, Cone, Wasta, etc. are like the air we need to breath. One needs such Vitamins to survive whether it is Vitamin B for “Beziehung”, Vitamin C for “connections” or Vitamin G for關係Guanxi. )
In short, while not necessarily universal, the concept of Guanxi and its importance for doing business is a near universal between East Asia the Middle East and on to Central Europe, where Germany is located. (It is only in the U.S. that this concept seems to have greatly been deemphasized in one’s educational and social training over the past decades or centuries.)
THE CRUX OF THE PROBLEM
The crux of the problem for most people who come into a Chinese land or into any other Asian country, i.e. where they lack the banked-guanxi to get things done that-need-to-be-done is that the system is stacked against them unless a local person or social group reaches out and teaches them to play the game.
However, most foreigners in China, Japan, Taiwan, and elsewhere in Asia are discourage from imagining or living these Asian states for only a short time or duration. There actual societal and legal rights are constrained. They are also discouraged early on in many ways from learning to gain the guanxi that they need to thrive.
For example, if one is not taught Chinese after arriving in the country, how can one fully enjoy raising one’s family in Taiwan over many long years. Likewise if one is not given good footing and direction early on, the amount of guanxi-collected and passed- back-and-forth from newcomers will likely remain quite minimal over time—or at least well under potential in terms of saving or collecting guanxi.
As I live in the furthest corner of Taiwan—namely on Beigan Island—I have a sort of fly-on-the wall perspective of the entire country of Taiwan. I therefore find your book to be a great companion piece to my own gathering-perspectives on and already gathered-experiences here in my corner of Taiwan. This term guanxi and many explanations in your book are helpful for those foreigners who come into to the country, especially if they have both (a) well-paying jobs and (b) relatively high status employment
Moreover, such foreigners can get along well and thrive if they (c) speak Chinese well or (d) quickly obtain the guanxi levels commensurate to integrating faster and faster into the culture.
Meanwhile, the thousands-and-thousands of other foreigners who try to work in or even try to integrate into the society of Taiwan (or any other East Asian state) will be hamstrung for years, decades and even for lifetimes or generations.
Here are holes in the guanxi system on my Lienchian County archipelago in Taiwan: For example, my corner of Taiwan doesn’t even offer any basic Chinese for foreigners classes to beginners. Neither does my school nor do employers in the county feel I need the training in Chinese, i.e. since I teach English. This kind of attitude reduces my potential guanxi significantly while at the same time tells me that I will not ever be able to “internationalize” nor enhance my international perspective as greatly as should be the case, i.e. if the society were more willing to share itself, its culture, and its opportunities to mix and share guanxi.
Ms. Liu, do you have any advice for the thousands of foreigners in Taiwan and East Asia who are marginalized and not able to participate in guanxi development overtime due to lack of cultural contacts and local language or dialect skills?
Kevin A. Stoda
International Educator with 25 years of experience