In November of 2013, about a year and a half into our Shanghai adventure, I wrote a post called “The Shanghai Friend Phenomenon.” It was a brief story about how easy it is here in the expat community to meet people and make strong friendships. I received a lot of positive comments and feedback on the post, as well as affirmations of the “friend phenomenon.” We all share many common experiences as expats in China, good and bad, which tends to make it easy to bond quickly. The Chinese, however, are a different story when it comes to making friends, primarily for cross-cultural reasons.
Prior to moving here, I met with several expats from Shanghai to learn what to expect of life there. Many mentioned variations of the friend phenomenon, but when I asked about making Chinese friends, almost to a person they said they found it difficult. I was told that was due to language and cultural differences, as well as the lack of a basic understanding of Chinese people by Westerners, and vice versa. I can only speak from an American perspective, but when you live in the U.S., China and its people are great unknowns. They are communists (scary). There are over a billion of them (also scary). And they speak an incredibly difficult language (even scarier when you are about to move there). They also have a completely different culture and history from our Eurocentric one. When you finally get here, you realize that the Chinese are wonderful and kind people, but they are still very different from you, and not necessarily easy to pal up with.
Several expats told of how they felt they could be friends with their drivers and ayis, but that that was going to last only as long as the working spouse’s assignment in China did. We had dinner one night on our pre-trip to Shanghai with an expat couple who were about to change assignments and countries. The traveling spouse said to me that she had made lots of Western friends in their two-year stint here, but her greatest regret was that she was leaving without even one Chinese friend. I was surprised to hear that, but figured that was probably the experience of most expats.
In my first year here, I made many Western friends, and exactly one Chinese friend. She is Olivia, my former mandarin tutor, with whom I prefer to explore life in Shanghai, or go out to lunch with, than study the complex language. Deep into my second year in Shanghai, that is how the friend situation remained. I wasn’t trying very hard to make more Chinese friends, and I was busy making new Western ones. So I didn’t give it much thought.
All of that changed for me one afternoon in the Spring of 2014 when my friends James and Scott and I attended the annual Shanghai International Beer Festival at Cool Docks on the Bund (bevexmarketing.com/beerfest). There were lots of craft and local beers at the festival, and for several hours we sampled most of them. We left the festival at about 5pm and promptly stumbled into a group of about seven Chinese women. It was an odd and awkward moment and I started to apologize immediately for bumping into one of the women. I have found that in public, Chinese women can be reserved, and tend to avoid eye contact, at least with Westerners, so I was emphatic in my apology to ensure that she understood I was truly sorry.
Well I clearly bumped into a different kind of Chinese woman. She looked fiercely at me and asked in very good English what the hell was wrong with me. “Are you drunk from beer?” she asked me sternly. She was tall and dressed like she was going to a high-end cocktail party, not a beer festival on the Bund. I was actually terrified for a moment, as I had never encountered such an assertive Chinese women. That changed when she saw the look on my face and burst out laughing. Another women with her also started laughing at me, as did Scott and James. Once I was over my initial shock, we introduced ourselves. The two women in the group who spoke English were Rebecca and Anne, and we all immediately started talking about the festival, and ourselves.
I have to say, I was stunned to be talking to Chinese people so openly and casually. (The other women they were with clearly spoke no English and just watched us interact.) They were all at the festival for a client and Rebecca, who is an events manager (among her many jobs), was working the event and taking pictures. Anne, who is a director for Mary Kay Cosmetics in both Shanghai and Xi’an, as well as an English language translator, was along for the ride with her friends. We chatted for about 10 minutes, scanned each others WeChat QR codes (all hail the WeChat app), and vowed to meet for lunch in the near future. It was one of those moments that I will never forget because it changed my life, which I will explain shortly.
The three of us were giddy on the ride back to Jinqiao, amazed that we had met, and so quickly befriended, Chinese folks. It was completely serendipitous. (Serendipity is the group name we now all use for our communications on WeChat.) I was surprised because Anne and Rebecca were so easy to get to know. Yes, their English was good, which helped, but they were also very cool and funny. It was after I got home that night that I thought to myself that there must be many other Chinese people like them to meet. And as with expats, the floodgates opened and the Chinese friend phenomenon was on.
Both Anne and Rebecca have become close friends of mine, and I try to see them as often as possible. Meeting and befriending them was life-changing because I now know that many Chinese are as approachable as Westerners, taking into account the cross-cultural differences we all have. As with expats, there are some Chinese people that you will click with, and just as many that you won’t. The only way to know is to engage them when the opportunity presents itself, then take the next step if you click together. For me, that next step is usually a WeChat QR code scan. (Have I mentioned yet how much I love WeChat?) I have now made many Chinese friends, which has changed my life as amazing people from another culture enter it. They have also enhanced my China experience by giving me a new perspective of this wonderful country.
There are several surprising similarities amongst the Chinese friends I have made. First, most are women, which I’ll get into in a moment. Second, most are professional and work a lot, many with multiple jobs. I’ve said variations of this sentiment before, but the communist Chinese make us capitalists look like total slackers. For example, I describe my friend Christina to people as a stock broker by day, yogi by night, as she owns and runs both a brokerage firm and a Yoga school in Puxi. Anne, described above, also puts together business forum’s that serve to introduce professional Chinese women to Western female executives. And that’s on top of her other jobs!
And third, my Chinese friends all speak English to varying degrees, which is one reason I have met them in the first place. The Chinese love to practice their English by talking to Westerners. I have two friends, Maggie and Jasmine, who at different times told me that they could not have lunch with me because their English was “not good.” I have since had long lunches with both of them where we gabbed nonstop the whole time. Their English is much better than my Mandarin, but between us we can carry on very fun, entertaining conversations. And each time we meet, their English is better than the last time we met (my Mandarin, not so much).
Finally, why is it so much easier to meet Chinese women than men in Shanghai? Honestly, I’m not really sure, but I have some theories, both my own, and those of my Chinese friends. China, like so many other countries, has always been a patriarchal society. Only in the last couple of generations have women here started going to college and entering the professional world in great numbers, and they have done so with a vengeance. They are now, relatively speaking, on equal footing with males, and they are wasting no time trying to get ahead. That includes excelling at the universal language of business, which many Chinese believe is English. So meeting Westerners can be a priority for them for a variety of reasons, including improving their language skills, networking because there are so many Western businesses now in Shanghai, and just generally expanding their horizons as emerging citizens of the world.
The bittersweet piece of continuing to make Chinese friends is that eventually I will leave China, and them. My relationship with a couple of my Chinese friends is as strong as with my close expat friends, and many of my long time friends in the United States. That is good and bad, and it makes me very sad to think about leaving them. But in the end, it was so worth the effort to cross the cultural divide to meet these folks. And technology has so shrunk the world that when I leave, I will be able to communicate with them as easily as with friends and family in the U.S.
Like almost all of the fears I brought to China with me, the initial wariness I had about meeting and getting to know Chinese people was dead wrong. As an American, I was raised to believe that all communist societies are bad, and their people oppressed by a monolithic state that leaves them hopeless and forlorn behind a great dark wall. Then I met them. The Chinese took me completely by surprise with how friendly, smart, articulate, cosmopolitan, and ambitious they are. Like my Western friends, they bring an incredible value to my life in terms of experience, support, and knowledge. For future expats coming to Shanghai, I would say that one of the best things to look forward to about your China adventure is its people, and your new friends. They will surprise and delight you, something that happens a lot in China.
ADDENDUM: As you may have noted in this post, all the Chinese friends I have mentioned have English-sounding names. There are many reasons for that, but mainly its because it is easier to interact cross-culturally with Westerners with an English name. While some Chinese are given English names at birth, many adopt them later and usually try to base it on their given Chinese name. As an example, I will use my friend Anne Wang, who I described above. Her given Chinese name is Wang Chun Yuan (the Chinese always put the family surname first). She took the name Anne because there are two instances of “an” in her Chinese name. Another friend, Jeanne (pronounced Jenny), did the same thing with her Chinese name, which is Li Zhen Ni, by combining the sound of her first and middle name. I find the practice fascinating and am hoping to come back to the U.S. with a really cool Chinese name. My Chinese friends are still working on that for me.