The concept of guanxi is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. The term roughly means “relationships” or “network,” though these translations greatly understate the importance of guanxi. In China, seemingly all social interactions occur in the form of guanxi. When we talk about guanxi in China, we usually talk about the positive relationships a person has, although it is also possible to talk about the “negative” guanxi a person has with someone else.
Guanxi is often expressed in the form of mutual favors. For instance, earlier this semester I was eating a simple lunch of jiaozi (dumplings) in a small restaurant with limited seating room. I invited a man who was standing beside me to sit with me because I was alone and did not need the extra seat. He asked if I was working, studying, or traveling in Kunming, and I explained that I was a student of Chinese language and culture here for the semester. We talked for ten minutes or so about Kunming and Yunnan, and he offered me his business card with an invitation to visit him at the university where he worked. He paid for his lunch, and mine, then left. One week later I took him up on his offer, and after our meeting at the university I took him out for lunch and put him in touch with our homestay coordinator; he was interested in providing one at his own home. Since my initial favor of inviting the man to join me for lunch, we exchanged favors several times, and with each exchange our guanxi–our relationship–became closer.
Camaraderie is one of my strongest values; friends and family mean very much to me, and I enjoy activities that strengthen bonds with them. Throughout my time in China, I have found the concept of guanxi generally resonates with my own personal value, yet there are times when the pressure to establish relationships in this way has put me in uncomfortable situations. For instance, I have been offered cigarettes from Chinese men on countless occasions, and sometimes it can be difficult to refuse the popular gesture of guanxi. As a typical scenario, my roommate Ben and I might be having a round at the bar when a group of Chinese college students will invite us to join them at their table. When we go to greet them, a dizzying race of sorts will begin. Two or three guys will fumble for their cigarette packs, and the man with the quickest draw will have a cigarette in front of both Ben and I with a lighter going in a matter of seconds. In the meantime, two more guys will be topping off our beers.
In the vast majority of situations, I simply explain that I do not smoke and there are no issues. Perhaps I will offer a toast instead. Yet smoking is so widespread in China that sometimes a man offering a cigarette (especially an older man) will react shocked when I refuse his cigarette. He may take it as a refusal to participate in his guanxi, and additionally as an insult to his seniority. When I encountered this problem earlier on in the semester, I admit that I smoked the cigarette knowing that just one would not be too harmful. As I have gained more experience with these types of situations, however, I have come up with a way to both demonstrate my acceptance of the gift and keep with my smoke-free habit: take the cigarette but simply let it burn down. I still hesitate with even this solution because I do not want to encourage an image of a “cool, cigarette-smoking American,” but to me the benefits outweigh the costs.
Reflecting on this, I am reminded that when we come across challenges and uncomfortable situations in a foreign country, it is important to consider the cultural context of that place when we come up with our solution. Sure, there have been times when I have downright turned down the cigarette and become irritated when the man continues to push it into my refusing hand. I had stuck with my belief, but I had also generated negative guanxi and perhaps poorly represented American cultural tolerance. But, sensitive to the importance of the gesture in Chinese culture, my new solution seems to be working.