A Foreigner’s Foolhardy Face-Giving Faux Pas

Face. I’ve failed. I’ve faltered. Occasionally, I’ve fucked up. Why can I not simply accept the concept of saving face or giving face, learn to utilize both skills more adroitly, more subtly, and come to terms with face being a part of the culture I have lived in, that of Taiwan, for nearly eight years hitherto (in addition to the year I spent in Japan, where it was also just as prevalent)?

Instead, I have been blindly resistant to the protocol of the patient practice, stubbornly ignorant of its power and importance, and, simply speaking, hardheaded about how it influences my mixed-race/mixed-culture marriage and my relationship with my wife’s family here. To a lesser degree of importance, my own access to the customs and culture of Taiwan is oft hindered by my inability to master face. In other situations, it also comes into play, but for me to bridge any gaps between myself and my wife’s family here (well, my family now, I suppose), all is incumbent on my learning to give and save face a trifle more dexterously.

To my wife’s family, in particular, I’ve periodically disrespected the notion of face and, consequently, them, as a result of not remembering–nor knowing–to give it when needed, though my actions were never intentional. Without a doubt, it is one complex aspect of Taiwan’s intricate cultural practices—and of cultural norms Asia, in general. Last year, I had a learning experience here, just one of many actually, that sheds light on what the notion of face entails, not on an erudite, academic level, but on a daily, life-is-life plane of existence.

However, before I begin to explain that slap-in-the-face, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee experience with face, I feel I must provide some background information about my erstwhile dealings with such protocol.

In 2001, before I moved to Japan, supposedly open to all things international, hoping to absorb cultural idiosyncrasies like a parched, thirsty sponge, feeling as if I could adapt to all things “foreign” because I’d traveled a fair amount overseas already—and because I’d lived in eight “culturally different” states in America, theretofore, I learned of saving face and giving face, or at least I thought I’d learned about it. Not until I moved there, though, did I really now how this curious custom manifests itself.

The fact is, I didn’t really learn crap about face while I was in Japan that year. Basically, I heard about face from many a source. Coworkers there explained it to me. Expats conversed confusedly about it. Moreover, merely reading about this practice on the web and in a guidebook did nothing for me with regard to actually preparing me to deal with it–for learning about something usually includes some sense of acceptance, an expanded degree of open-mindedness about it, or, if fortunate, a deft ability to understand whatever it is on a deeper level. It isn’t that I am adamantly opposed to the protocols of face, but I haven’t gotten onboard the cultural etiquette bus yet.

Perhaps being more set in my ways—both in personality and based on deeply engrained cultural expectations/norms, I simply didn’t grasp it in Japan. Yes, I could somewhat describe it then, regurgitating insightful information I’d gained and gleaned from the aforementioned various resources, but I just didn’t get it. I didn’t live it. To succeed in giving and saving face, once I saw how integral the concept was to life there, was a goal of mine that still hadn’t come to fruition by the time I moved away the following year.

When I moved to Taiwan in 2004, though, I had some (however faulty) foundation of the notion to bring with me, to prepare me for life on the island, supposedly, at least I had hoped. Naturally, one would expect that that would have been enough to make greater strides with and further inroads into the cultural nuances of residing in Asia for the long-term, and in Taiwan more precisely. Wrong I was to assume that. Silly expat I was, once again.

To rely on a book in order to prepare for living in a foreign land, as I thought I’d discovered in Japan, isn’t good practice, I’ve learned, because I know it simply takes time and energy once in place in a new overseas home to acclimate and adapt. However, I found myself once again reading travel guides on Taiwan, as I did to prepare for my time in the Land of the Rising Sun, when I first moved here, and the Culture Shock series on the country, in particular, proved reasonably valuable. Shrewd advice they offered.

In the guide it was explained that Western businessmen and women often come strutting into a meeting in Taiwan (or in Japan or Korea, etc.), into whatever negotiations are taking place, only to offend and naïvely startle their local counterparts. Forthright directness and blatant openness of opinion can shut down communication immediately, forcing Taiwanese business people into the deepest recesses of their cultural upbringing and mental functioning to search for some way to respond to such bold, aggressive rudeness—even though said Westerner might not see why they are even being labeled as too outspoken or too direct in the first place.

Unskilled in negotiating with Taiwanese—or other Asians, for they don’t take the tradition into consideration, some Westerners have been known to ruin a golden opportunity or to overly offend, even if that wasn’t their intention, even if an opposing interlocutor back in their home country wouldn’t perceive similar goings-on as being “wrong”. I’ve done the same with my wife’s family here, but that is another story altogether, one to expound on in a later blog.

The real reason for this blog, finally, is to shed light on how face, both giving and saving it, comes into play—and how a Westerner like me should take notice. If you plan on moving to Taiwan, or Japan, or _____________ (you can fill in the blank with a few other Asian nations), take heed, please.

Last year, after having taught at a private boarding school in Switzerland for a year, we returned to Taiwan again, ready to take on another year here, my seventh. Because we were having a second child and we wanted to spend more time with our three-year-old daughter, too, I opted to not take on a full-time professional teaching job, rather choosing to look into a local bilingual elementary school position instead, knowing that that type of teaching wouldn’t be as demanding of our/my time as one in a fully-accredited international/American school, which is how I found myself in Taiwan years before.

Because my wife had worked at such a school, a bilingual kindergarten, years earlier and still kept in touch with the director there, we had the perfect contact person to learn about said schools and how to land a position with one. When we telephoned the director, she asked us to come in, and after meeting her, she actually offered me employment, quite unexpectedly, on the spot. Yet, I’d also been in touch with an administrator at another kindergarten in the city, for I knew an acquaintance that was teaching there.

Surely, I wanted to take a look at the second school’s facilities and to know more about their pay, scheduling, and other important employment details because I merely needed more firsthand insight to compare and contrast my choices, which would, naturally, help me make a better decision. Common practice, at least defined by my cultural blinders, would have been to invest some time and energy into finding the right position. Simply telling the first director that at the end of our interview was my goal, silly foreigner that I am. Tsk, tsk.

Letting my wife’s former boss know that I was looking at another option, in itself, required, unbeknownst to me, some deft tact, and my wife was there to help offset my blatant explanation of that fact (we had a few minutes to speak privately before I proceeded to explain). I wasn’t ready to make a decision on the spot, yet I really couldn’t phrase it as such, my spouse felt, lest I offend, potentially causing the boss to lose face. How the hell was I supposed to know that?

One should keep in mind that culture is not only about common cuisine, celebrations and ceremonies, traditional dress and the like–but it also entails the more profoundly complicated aspects of thought processing, perspective, and, clearly, social protocol.

I merely wanted to say, “Well, I have another alternative to consider, so I’ll let you know ASAP what I decide.” Whether or not that is inconsiderate or rude is surely debatable; undoubtedly, that depends on the cultural definitions of and the limits of forthrightness.

What a culturally insensitive response that would have been, I was told. One fact remained clear: I still wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the game of face. Regardless of how much I’d heard about the custom, I simply couldn’t pull it off. My skills were unrefined and unpolished, so my wife did all the work. What I assumed was just a moment requiring honesty and openness turned out to be a situation requiring a certain degree of kowtowing. An uncouth, gruff expat I was. Thankfully, my wife saved face. Or, in retrospect, is that really something to be thankful for? It is what it is, I suppose.

Upon visiting the second establishment a few days later, I was immediately more impressed with their campus and facilities, a relatively warm and welcoming environment for children–whereas the first we’d visited was mostly concrete and cold. Their program, the atmosphere, and the pay were all more attractive. Moreover, the manager with whom I’d talked was open and friendly–more so than my wife’s old boss. My gut simply told me I’d be better off at the latter. It was really a no brainer. Undeniably, after the interview, my interest was piqued, and my preference was surely leaning towards the latter school.

My upbringing and experience, however, then told me to simply phone the former director and let her know that I had found a position elsewhere. At the age of 41, I’d had periodic practice with doing that in the past, and I had no qualms about telling her directly, for that was an entirely acceptable response–well, I thought. Silly foreigner; face is not for you to know readily.

Shockingly, my wife informed me that her father…

Wait, stop the press!

Am I not old enough to make decisions about a job? At my age, especially, this was a hard pill to swallow. Why on god’s earth was he involved in the decision or discussion? The answer: My lack of knack.

My father-in-law, a knowledgeable former manager in his 60’s, one who was successful in his career pursuits, wisely informed her of the answer we would deliver, and she was selectively assigned the task of acting as my liaison, pushing me, essentially, from the equation. Because she had known this woman for nearly ten years, having kept in touch since first breaking into the teaching scene, herself, which said director had paved the way for her to do, we couldn’t step on any toes or have the director, you guessed it… lose face.

Telling her that I’d found another position, at least as was defined by Taiwanese cultural guidelines (or by the guidelines of my wife’s family, specifically), was rude, and my honestly revealing such a decision would have embarrassed the director, I was told. Egad! Why didn’t I think of that!

The response that was practically dictated to me/us/her was that I would (well, that meant my wife would) have to tell the director that I couldn’t possibly take on such a position at their school because–even though I was a fully-certified teacher with a Master degree in K-12 ESL teaching, one with seven years full-time overseas school experience, in addition to four years of teaching adult ESL classes in America–I wasn’t accomplished enough in the teaching of younger children. Because of my lack of expertise with kiddies, I surely couldn’t accept her offer.

The excuse would detail that, because my erstwhile experience had primarily been as a middle and high school teacher, I just didn’t feel I had a strong enough set of skills to teach at her school; consequently, I was told to explain to her that I would take another position elsewhere to gain valuable professional development for the time being so that I could, later, more comfortably and for the benefit their school, teach there.

“Come again? Are you serious?” I queried. “You want me to lie?” That simply didn’t sit well with me.

“Of course, young [well, not so young, but surely naïve, apparently] grasshopper, it isn’t lying. It is giving face,” my father-in-law and wife both told me via some seriously overpowering mental telepathy. Okay, they didn’t verbally articulate that, but I readily got the gist.

Feeling as if I was a marionette whose puppeteer was manhandling every one of my strings behind the scenes, I had no option but to acquiesce. A ventriloquist’s dummy would have had more freedom to express itself.

Though I dialed the number on my own cell, my wife swiped it out of my hand faster than Martin Brodeur snatches a hockey puck midair.

With that, she made the call.

Animated and obsequious, at least to my ears, her tone appeased the director from the onset. Though I would have hoped that my better half didn’t degrade me and my experience as an educator, I could have sworn that–in Mandarin–she explained that I was still just a wet-behind-the-ears oaf who simply didn’t know what he was doing–and that we couldn’t have my professional naïveté tarnish her school’s image. If my ears were not mistaken, it also sounded as if I were to promise my undying gratitude to her for a lifetime, two lifetimes even. Perhaps even our yet-to-be-considered third child had already been pledged to this woman, unbeknownst to me.

After a few minutes on the phone, my wife ended the call, graciously of course, offering countless thanks and immeasurable praise for all that the director had done. During their brief conversation, I believe I’d counted 15 head nods and three partial bows, too. And though I may have been mistaken, I could have sworn that her glance in my direction upon turning off my cell revealed a disdain for all of my cultural upbringings and experience, a disdain for my forward personality, too.

Reading between the lines, I knew that my lack of knack had pushed the limits of their tolerance. How dare I continue to be so culturally insensitive!

“When will you ever learn?” I heard her thoughts seem to say. Maybe she even mumbled that under her breath.

Secretly and skillfully, she then offered a subtle look to her father, who had been eavesdropping the whole time to ensure that she was following protocol to a T, that said, “This outsider will never learn the ways of our world, Father, but I will guide him in all he needs to know for the rest of his/our time in Taiwan. If not, I will probably castrate him one day.”

Then, as if she were holding up a cue card that stated “THANK MY FATHER, NOW!” my spouse sharply cast her eyes on me, poor, innocent me. Ignorant to a fault theretofore, I knew what giving face meant, finally. I had to give face in return to her dad, perhaps saving me face at the same time by not being so callous to the cultural customs that were being exhibited.

Straightening my back, clearing my throat, lowering my head in respect, I offered countless thanks to her father for being so wise, so helpful, so supportive. His guidance had allowed me a more profound understanding of the situation, permitting us the knowledge that was needed to negotiate with the boss, giving us the skills needed to reject her offer without, well, rejecting her offer. “Ahh,” I thought. A lightbulb went off somewhere in the deepest recesses of my grey matter. I was starting to see what it took. Finally.

Actually, I’d like to have that last paragraph struck from the record, for I think I got a little carried away with myself in describing how much I learned about face. Whatever I took from this experience is not nearly as profound as what I wrote just now. In fact, I harbored some resentment, immediately and for some time to come, about the involvement of her father in our decisions, and there was also a bit of bitterness and incredulity, internally, about not being able to just be me and simply explain things as I saw fit. Additionally, I did, admittedly, scoff at the notion of such obsequiousness and dismiss doing too much of it as being somewhat pathetically passive. The upshot, I feel, is that an expat abroad shouldn’t completely give up his/her culture (and all that that entails)–nor should he/she be adamant about not wanting to learn from one’s host culture. To find a balance would work wonders for most of us overseas.

However, I can attest to one thing: There is still much to learn about Taiwan’s ways—and I have just scratched the surface of any true awareness of Taiwanese customs and social protocol.

Insight, both good and bad, has come from this experience. Once again, living abroad has opened my eyes to another way of thinking. Whether or not this experience has also broadened my knowledge of both giving and saving face enough so that I can actually adroitly put it into practice has yet to be seen. Hopeful, I would like to think I’ve developed a skill for it as a result of this latest opportunity for growth, for I know that being able to employ such socially imperative manifestations of Asian culture on a daily basis would allow me to travel down further inroads into life in Taiwan, both with my family here and the general populace as well. Only time will tell.

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4 Responses to A Foreigner’s Foolhardy Face-Giving Faux Pas

  1. Lo says:

    If i understood all this right………isn t respect of people and their opinions the same all over the world?????????????

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Yes and no, Lo. I believe the discourse on this topic would be rather lengthy, but the upshot is that our cultural norms (as in all people, not yours and mine) do vary from place to place. In general, yes, respect exists across the globe, but surely there are differences in what that entails and how it manifests itself. One person’s idea about respect, undoubtedly, differs from another’s. For example, when I first saw a Muslim woman in full burka at a beach in Malaysia eleven years ago, while her husband was in a pair of shorts, both frolicking in the surf, I didn’t see that as fair, and my gut was to say (internally) that it wasn’t respectful to a woman’s choice to have such socially/religiously mandated norms of behavior. Naturally, that was a direct clash to my experiences in western Europe where topless beach-going women were oft the norm. However, a Muslim, or a conservative Westerner, might say that such a display isn’t respectful to society or to women. There are countless examples that span the centuries of how humankind simply hasn’t respected the opinions of other races, creeds, cultures, etc. I’d like to think that we are prone to more openness than narrow-mindedness, but that’s not the case. (By the way, I am not sure if your message implies that I am not respecting the practice of saving/giving face or if there is something else to that.)

  2. Sis says:

    How well do you think your “say-it-as-it-is” / “lay-it-all-out-on-the-table” sister would do in Taiwan? 🙂

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Makes me wonder! Surely it is imperative that we overseas folks tone our opinions down a bit here.

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