One Wednesday afternoon while at my university teaching job I got an email from my laoban (the person who helps and coordinates with foreign teachers). She informed me that the coming weekend I would be attending eight hours of English presentation rehearsal each day for students and faculty presenting research findings at an international conference. As one of a handful of native English speakers on campus, few others were qualified to critique them.
In China, things are routinely sprung at the last minute. Very little is planned far in advance and it’s even worse for foreigners – who are inevitably the last to find out about anything. I once had a student tell me she was looking forward to the lecture I was giving that evening on religion to a hundred students …a lecture she had just unknowingly informed me about.
I’m willing to adapt to a lot of cultural differences, but this usually isn’t one of them. When people throw things at me on such short notice, I tend to have the attitude that if they’re asking something of me, they can follow my custom. So I replied to my laoban’s email simply saying, “Sorry, I already have plans this weekend.”
The following email exchange went something like this:
Laoban: I understand your feeling, but the vice-president of the university wants you to go and we can’t really say no to him.
Me: I’ve never met the vice-president of the university and I have no problem saying no to him…especially when he asks me to sacrifice my weekend on three days’ notice. Just give him my email or number if he has an issue with that.
Laoban: Yes, but the vice-president is one of the highest people at the university. I think you’d better think again.
Me: Well in spite of how high-ranking he is, he’s asking a huge favor of a person he’s never bothered to introduce himself to – which I’m under no obligation to carry out. Just give him my number. I can tell him this directly.
Laoban: I understand it’s not convenient, but the vice-president has a lot of power and influence here. It’s best you just do it.
Me: I don’t care if he’s the vice-president of China. My contract includes nothing about coming in to work 16 extra unpaid hours on the weekend. If he wants me to do this he needs to ASK me earlier in advance; and should really be man enough to do it personally.
Laoban: Please. If you don’t do it he’ll blame me and it will be trouble.
Me: *sigh* Fine. I’m applying for graduate school, so I’m sure since I’m doing him this huge favor he won’t mind doing me a small favor and writing me a recommendation.
[No reply. The recommendation letter never happened]
This little episode demonstrated two things that drive me crazy about Chinese culture. The first is the expectation of absolute adherence to the power of the hierarchy, regardless of what the written rules are. The second is using a leather glove to protect the iron fist.
The laoban was a very sweet woman in her early 30’s that I’d become good friends with. I didn’t want her to get in trouble, or even lose face with her superior – which in all likelihood is all that would have happened if I ultimately refused.
I’ve come to call people like her “honeybuns.” They’re very nice, well-intentioned, sincere, young women whose chief function (unbeknownst to them when they’re hired) it is to form a sweet pastry barrier between the head honcho and anyone who might be upset by his bullshit.
Give me a hypothetical situation like the one I encountered with the university vice-president and as a matter of principle I would never acquiesce to such an ostentatious power play. But throw guilt and sympathy into the mix and I found it very hard to stick to my guns.
Every job I’ve ever taken in China has had a form of the honeybun system. It’s much more necessary with foreigners; ostensibly because they need a logistical agent for the alien culture and language, but the other function is a shield for the higher-ups against those who don’t tend to submit blindly to the gravity of prestigious job titles. But the tactic very much exists between Chinese too.
At an English mill I briefly worked at, customers would often complain that their services were changed halfway through the class packages they’d bought. The boss was perpetually cutting back to save money. But the honeybun, who had befriended many of the students, told them (truthfully) that they were right to be mad, but begged them not to raise a stink or she could get punished or fired. She’d pass along the message to the boss (who never showed his face at the center or allowed any channel of direct communication) but admitted he’s a tyrant who wouldn’t change his mind. Most would relent and eventually the honeybun would quit in frustration and be replaced.
But honeybun or not, when the chief abuses his power his underlings will usually complain behind his back, but ultimately submit. Any suggestion of protest or legal action is met with scoffs and depressing resignation. And so it goes…