Maria Holland

Learning Generosity From The Chinese?

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2010 at 12:42 am

Today’s lesson was titled 我在中国学大方 – “I Learned Generosity in China”.  Here is a slightly abridged translation:

When I arrived in China, I was pleasantly surprised by the low prices, relieved at not having to tip, and found it a little bit embarrassing when my Chinese friends paid for meals time after time.  But as my time in China grew longer, I started to become like them, caring more and more about “face”.  I also started being generous, occasionally paying for meals, and came to understand a few things: If the host says “You don’t need to”, “You don’t have to”, or “Don’t worry about it”, you should definitely not believe them.  No matter how nice the restaurant is, everyone should compete to pay.  If you buy a very expensive gift for someone, “carelessly” forget to tear off the price tag. 

In Chinese tradition, generosity is the most important standard by which people are evaluated.  Stingy people have no friends, no matter how talented they are; but generous people have a lot of friends, not matter how little talent they have.

Americans are extremely stingy.  The best place for friends to get together is a coffee shop, the most natural way of paying is to go Dutch, and the best present is a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine.  Parents will even lend their children money, and arrange the payback schedule and interest in advance.  My Chinese friends don’t understand why Americans do things like this.

But the vast majority of rich Americans are quite generous, but usually they don’t spend a lot of money playing host (paying for dinner), instead more choose to donate their money to schools, hospitals, churches, etc.  Today, the living standard of the Chinese people is improving and as their concept changes, they frequently donate money to run schools and repair roads. 

Excuse me if I get a little animated on this subject, but I strongly disagree with the message of this text.  Like a lot of things, the cultural difference regarding generosity can be attributed greatly to the differing circles of concern.  Chinese, who care only for those within their close circle of friends, family, and associates, want to spend money in a conspicuous way in their presence, for their benefit.  Americans, on the other hand, have a way larger circle of concern and are much more likely to send money to those they don’t know personally without expectation of return.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see our actions as stingy.  The idea of Bill Gates, with his billions, of ‘generously’ treating his slightly-less-well-off friends to dinner is a little ridiculous, which the good that his foundation has done for people he has no connection to is undeniable. 

Also, I find it hard sometimes to see the actions of the Chinese as generous.  请客, in which one person plays host and pays, is really just a different way of splitting the bill.  The idea is that other people will 请客 at future dinners and over time the costs will be equally shared between all parties.  It’s not quite as precise as everyone paying for their entree and drink, or even as dividing the entire bill into x parts, but I don’t think the monetary difference is huge if the practice is observed as religiously as it is by the Chinese. 

In other matters, like presents, the payback is usually not monetary but is just as important – promotions, favors, deals, etc.  If you include 面子 (face) or 关系 (guanxi) in the calculations as alternate currencies – which they basically are – then I think the Chinese are much less generous than it appears, with expenditures often being matched by receipts.

I certainly don’t want to claim Americans are all extremely generous while the best that can be said of the Chinese is that they are calculating.  I have two caveats:

1) This would be a little biased if I didn’t acknowledge some other aspects of American generosity.  Tax-deductible donations, free advertising, buildings named after you, and even a sense of righteousness or promise of karma are some tangible and intangible benefits to the American-style of generosity. 

2) I’ve observed one exception to the rule of ‘conspicuous spending’ here in China, and in an interesting place.  When I first went to church, I tried to get an idea of how much everyone else put into the collection basket, but found it basically impossible.  They grab a bill out of the wallets, crumple it deep in their hands, and then shove their hands all the way into the basket before releasing the money.  I got a glimpse of color once or twice, but even those are hard to come by.  I wonder why this is; perhaps a conscious reverse from the secular trend, which could encourage pride or a feeling of righteousness?


HSK class this afternoon was much less controversial than the morning’s grammar class, but it was grueling.  I don’t think I would use that word to describe any class I’ve attended since coming to China, but today the shoe fit.  Two and a half hours of multiple choice questions requiring us to differentiate between basically synonyms, each sentence including words and characters I didn’t know. 

I’m realizing that the HSK is slightly off the path I want my Chinese studies to follow.  I love the roughness and flexibility of the Chinese language (at least the way I speak it) and, when faced with the prospect of refining it into poetry or at least proper grammar, I grow bored and slightly resentful.  This is a bad attitude, I think.  I think when they came up with the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none”, they were foretelling the story of my life.  Examining my goals for the future, I seem to be striving for mediocrity with a strong distaste for improvement beyond that.  How inspiring . . .


It’s been a great opportunity for me to take a break from my engineering studies and come to China for a year to study Chinese.  And it’s been fun being a little bit different than my friends and classmates here, having a different story for “Why are you studying Chinese?” or “How long have you been studying Chinese?”.  But it’s also been a little bit lonely.  So many of my friends, products of the Chinese Department of some university, have contacts all across China – classmates and friends living or traveling over here.  They receive visitors in Xiamen, go to see their friends in other cities, and travel together on breaks. 

Before coming, I imagined that I did, too – I thought that I had a big network of contacts in Asia.  In reality, though, the ‘friends’ were more ‘distant acquaintances’ and ‘possible visitors’ and, not surprisingly, nothing much panned out.  The best success was my visit to Taiwan, in which I met up with the sister and cousin of my language partner from last summer; everything besides that can best be described as an “epic fail”.  I never made it to Japan to see the girl I met at Udall orientation; I never met up with my uncle in India; my cousin didn’t come to visit with her daughter; my former roommate’s brother didn’t call me from Shanghai like he said he would; the family friends who are adopting from Harbin never returned my emails; my closest Chinese friend from back home probably won’t be able to return to China this summer.  I’m still waiting on a response from my friend in Hong Kong but even though I consider him a legitimate friend I’m not super hopeful. 

With the exception of my parents, I have not seen a single person that I knew before August 24th, 2009 since then.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is so important for me to return to Jilin and see my friends there. 

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