Sunday, September 4, 2011

"Face," Bragging, and Competition: the Politics of a Chinese Home Dinner Party

With the ballooning of the Chinese immigrant population in America, it has become increasingly common for random Chinese people to meet as random neighbors in a random place in the U.S. Especially in major cities of an Asian-infested Southern California (such as San Diego), these random meetings have been quite a catalyst in forming rather deep networks among the local new immigrants. And with common pains of immigration (not fitting in the local society, for one) and common concerns (mostly about sending their kids into elite colleges in America), they certainly have much to talk about under any occasion.

To channel their excess energy for random chatting, these new immigrants have been developing a whole new custom of home parties, combining the distinct Chinese affinity toward loudness and crowds (something that naturally comes with living in a densely over-populated country) and the big size of American homes (hardly imaginable in China, where most people living in high-rise apartments). The financial stability of these new immigrants, often as scientists and professors with stable incomes (unlike many older immigrants who washed on American shores without education), certainly allow them to bear the costs of inviting dozens of people for a large communal home-cooked dinner.

It is certainly great that the immigrants can connect in such intimate ways. But what often gets incredibly annoying (for third-party observers like me, especially) is how the children of those making their emotional connections through these parties are also somehow required to attend the parties. The children, while not directly involved in the conversations themselves, must be physically present for their parents to talk about them in their conversations.

The Chinese parents, in the classic Chinese manner, are certainly not discrete when the children are talked about. The usual process consist of the parents calling their child over to say hi to the parents' friends. Then, it is followed by small talks about how the child grew up so fast and starting to look more like mom/dad. The child, in the whole process, just stand there awkwardly, smiling to the strangers who do not even attempt to hide the fact that they are staring down every little physical detail of the child in front of them.

And for the pre-college children, the conversation only gets worse after chats about physical similarities. The conversation inevitably floats toward one involving college choices and preparations for application. Parents openly compare notes on what their children are respectively doing for their extracurricular activities, the school grades, and SAT scores. Parents gently "scold" their own children about not trying hard enough and the need to learn from the children of the other parents present.

It is does not need any extra explanation to say that the Chinese are a competitive bunch. There certainly is a fair share of brilliant and diligent people in the 1.4 billion-odd Chinese people on the planet, and of them, the 50 million-odd diaspora often represents the cream of the crop (i.e. the most competitive, at least for the recent immigrants). The instinct of competition never goes away, even in situations that call for friendly conversations and emotional bonding (such as these home dinner parties).

Certainly, in one way, the instinct for competitiveness explains the Chinese's, and to an extent, Asians' enormous ability to survive hardships (something I deeply admire). Yet, when there are no threats for imminent disasters, the outright competitiveness is just cause for superficial pretentiousness marked with a facade of polite acquaintanceship buttressed by ruthless hidden confrontations and backstabbing. Every smile is always accompanied by secretly getting upset over "not being good enough" compared to others.

As a result, every casual meeting of the Chinese become a quiet battlefield of inferiority complexes. As a Confucian culture, education of the kids must be compared first. But the competition does not end there. There are direct comparisons of jobs, families, houses, cars, travel stories, drinking...an upper hand in any category is a chance for bragging, and a chance to getting some "face" in front of their Chinese friends. To the parents, the children present at the home parties are but one tool in their quiet competition to gain the ultimate victories in a series of comparisons.

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