Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Building Guanxi

I’ve talked with you about guanxi before. It is the art of reciprocation, building mutually beneficial relationships that Chinese society, both business and personal, is made of. Whereas in America you need money, or, as the old saying goes: ‘It is not who you know but… ‘ In China, you need guanxi to get anything done.

I admire this system, and I like building guanxi. Both because building relationships is the right thing to do and because it takes money out of the picture. What follows is a real-life example of building guanxi.

When the faculty and staff returned to school after Spring Festival break, Sam suggested I visit the administrators. Actually, he had suggested it prior to the break but we ran out of time. Besides, everyone was very busy and it probably would not have been as effective as it could have been. No, after the break worked so much better.

Sam is a clever little rascal. Not only is he a master at guanxi building, but he gave me some great pointers as well. I had long dismayed over the fact that my apartment has a television set that gets no reception. I had been scrubbing mold off my walls for months, only to watch it grow back at an alarming rate. I had despaired over not really feeling a part of things and wondering about my uncertain future… although that kind of went away when I was invited to participate in the New Year Festival.

The idea to visit the administrators was reborn one Sunday afternoon, when Sam was visiting. I was talking with him about the many students that have been coming by my apartment expressing concern or outright fear of a major test that they have to take in April, called TM4. I would like to help these kids as much as possible, so I thought it would be a good idea to hold a workshop every Sunday from now till test day to answer any questions or render any aid possible. Sam suggested I present the Dean of Languages a small gift and pitch this idea just after asking how her holiday went.

He also suggested that when Sha-Sha, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs asks me how if feel about renewing my contract right after I give her a small gift, I should say something to the effect of ‘well, I just don’t know if I can stay here with no television to watch’. That should get me a cable hookup so I can watch TV – which will help me learn Chinese, believe it or not.

With regard to the mold growth? That is something that we drop squarely into the Maintenance Manager’s lap. All I have to do, after presenting him with his small gift and asking about his holiday is express my health concerns about breathing mold spores and presumably, Mr. Wang would jump right on that mold issue.

Of course, that rascally, wily Sam will be right there to translate everything for me. He’s so sneaky!

It went off just as planned. The Dean of Languages received a lovely pashmina that I picked up earlier this year with no specific purpose in mind. She was quite surprised at the gift and at receiving a hug. The hug was heartfelt on my part because I genuinely like this woman. We bantered a bit about our holiday and then I told her of my students’ concerns about TM4 and what I wanted to do about it. Still glowing at receiving the unexpected gift, she could do nothing but agree with my plan, and immediately furnished me with a classroom, complete with multimedia capability. Score!

Next we visited Sha-Sha. She was the surprised recipient of a photo album, which worked out great because she has a 3-year old boy and takes lots of pictures of him. When she asked me about renewing my contract I looked at Sam and said I would be delighted to, if it weren’t for that darn TV set that gets no reception whatsoever. Her antenna went on high alert: this was something she could do for me after what I’ve done for her! She agreed to look into the matter as soon as possible, and promised I would have my new contract to sign in two weeks. She also said she knew a shop where I could buy clothes; maybe we could go together sometime?

Guanxi running everywhere!
Our next stop was the Party Secretary, who received a bottle of fine Italian wine. He too was surprised at the visit and at the gift, but took it more in stride than the Dean and Sha-Sha. He and I had a long talk ranging from the future of academics to –believe it or not, politics! He is a learned and well-traveled man and quite the conversationalist; we ended up talking for nearly two hours. Sam, poor thing, had to translate most of it. However, Mr. Secretary did say that my Chinese has improved substantially and my confidence at language usage has grown.

His big concern regarding me is that I am happy to work at this institution. He reiterated the promise of a new apartment this fall and wanted to know if there was anything else that is causing me distress. Sam told him about the issues I had already brought up, like the TV and the mold. He would have found out anyway, being as the Dean and Sha-Sha are on his staff. He countered that he would like to inspect my apartment and see for himself everything that we had talked about.

The next day, The Administration descended on my humble quarters en masse. Fortunately, the house was nice and clean!

Because we ran so late the day before, talking with the Party Secretary, Sam and I did not have time to visit with the Maintenance Manager. However, he did accompany the group on the tour of my apartment and got a first-hand look at everything I was talking about.

Not only was it decided that I will have cable TV within the next two weeks, but the Maintenance department will scrub the walls, repaint them and apply wall paper to boot! Also, the Party Secretary happened to notice that I had a burnt out light bulb in my bedroom and he instructed Mr. Wang to change all of my bulbs.

As they were leaving I pulled Mr. Wang, the Maintenance Manager aside and gave him the gift that I was not able to give him the day before: a Husky multitool that I had bought for him at the Home Depot in Xi’an. I had seen him admire my Gerber multitool and I thought that he should have one of his own. He was thrilled.

Sha-Sha was thrilled too. When everyone was crowding my kitchen, inspecting the mold, she saw that I had fresh veggies laid out and wondered out loud what kind of food I cook. I suggested she should come over for a meal sometime and see for herself. She giggled delightedly and threw her arms around me.

I would say that The Administration is quite happy with me and with my services. And I am quite happy with them taking time and being concerned with my well-being and happiness. Both sides made an effort and met in the middle. Many smiles and much good feeling ensued.

And THAT, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the art of building Guanxi.

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