Here's a question: Why the big fuss over "face?" How many foreigners in China have heard the term—along with its perpetual sidekick, guanxi—and glommed onto it within a few months, weeks, days of their arrival, using it to explain away every phenomenon or behavior they observe in the new country?
"Did you see what that guy did? He was trying to save face." Or, "You know why she didn't say anything? She didn't want to make them lose face."
And thinly concealed under many of these attempts to apply an explanation of "face" is a blanket condemnation of a culture that would have yielded, tolerated, and even cultivated such a concept. And, of course, flaunting one's hard-earned knowledge of "face" is good for one-upping those more green than oneself.
Countless times I've heard Westerners explain behavior they clearly felt was uncivilized, ignorant, or otherwise unacceptable by angrily scoffing something about giving or saving "face." But obviously what they wanted to remark on was how disgusting, how rude, how stupid, or [insert other insulting term here] the behavior was. Of course, though, in the minds of most Westerners, it's taboo to make such sweeping generalizations, especially when they're negative and based on culture, race, or ethnicity. So what comes out is language they deem acceptable—hey, it's an attempt to understand the other side, right?—thinly veiling their feelings of contempt.
It's as if, while they struggle to come to terms with behaviors they deem irrational, they will ignore the fact that their culture(s) surely have similar oddities, and even concepts that come pretty darn close to that of "face" in China. Some common words for them in English, for instance, include: Embarrassment, shame, getting flustered, resisting the urge to publically point out others' mistakes, plain old not being a jerk ... .
But when these certain feelings and values are packaged and sold under their own, culture-specific special name, they seem suddenly different, irreconcilable with our own. Sure, "face" is simply a translation of the Chinese term for the concept. And sometimes an English word that is commonly used in similar situations in a different cultural context would fail to capture all of the particular nuances of the Chinese concept of "face." On the other hand, there are plenty of other words in Chinese that, given a particular context, wouldn't be translated literally in English; they'd be put into other words that an English speaker would not need a special knowledge of China to understand.
Putting too much weight on the concept of "face" (or any other allegedly foreign concept) and over-applying it to explain any perplexing or displeasing actions serves more to divide and separate and make the Other alien than it works to provide any constructive explanations or attempts at true mutual understanding.
Using a term such as "face" might not be so absurd if it really were a concept completely unique to one culture. But for most alleged "peculiarities" that are given their own special name in Chinese (and I would argue that it doesn't matter who created these terms but the fact that we continue to use them, oftentimes inappropriately), there are words in English with approximately the same meanings. They are not, in fact, so strange or beyond our comprehension or unique to China or different from any other culture, that they absolutely require their own special terminology.
I once heard a company's CEO take leave of his employees, who were about to start a meeting entirely in English, with the warning, "Don't make me lose face," i.e., with their "poor English." In the same situation in an English-speaking country, wouldn't it have meant more or less the same thing if he had said "Don't embarrass me" (or, perhaps the more positive "Make me proud")? Patriarchic, probably, but that's beside the point of this discussion.
I'm not arguing that we're all inherently the same person, or even that there are traits and taboos, values and mores common to every culture. All I want to say is that by lacking certain sensitivities, certain awareness, we're at risk of distancing ourselves from the individuals whose culture we're ostensibly trying to understand—or, at the very least, live with and among.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 27 ("faces").Iullstration by Daishu Ma.
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