Expats share what causes their relationships with Chinese to fizzle

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-24 17:18:01

A new meme about what "sinks" a friendship has Net users ruminating on the reasons their friendships go bust. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Four years ago when American Jake Austin just arrived in China, he had a Chinese best friend that helped him with all kinds of things, from teaching him how to buy food and find the subway, to showing him how to use Taobao and helping him learn Chinese. They hung out together and went clubbing together in Sanlitun and Wudaokou. 

Things were good until 18 months later when someone threw a wrench in the works. 

Austin met a beautiful Chinese girl when the two were out clubbing one night. He wanted to talk to her, but his Chinese was not good then, so he asked his friend to help translate. 

"He didn't help me translate. He just took advantage of the opportunity. He added her to his WeChat, and then he stole her from me," Austin said. "We weren't friends after that."

Inevitably, friendships like any other relationship in life will get tested, even to the verge of sinking. As a matter of fact, perhaps as a testament to this truism, the hottest meme in China in recent time is, "the friend 'ship' sinks without any delay."

The popularity of this catchphrase come out of a series of comics by Nan Dongni on Sina Weibo released on April 12. The comics depict a couple of penguins sitting side by side on a boat, and the boat capsizing when one of them gets thinner.

Net users have recreated the comic by adding their own experience of what sinks a friend "ship," making both the comic and the phrase a hit on social media.

According to Thursday's Baidu Index data, searches for the phrase increased by 541 percent compared to a week earlier.

For expats, the language barrier and cultural differences make it harder for them to keep their friend "ship" sailing smoothly.

Expats find it challenging to keep their intercultural friendships "sailing smoothly." Photo: IC

Broken friendships 

For Austin and his Chinese friend, although it was a cliché falling out, where a beautiful woman gets between two best friends, the two did try to talk it out, but things were never the same.

"We talked about it and laughed about it, but we could never go clubbing together again, so we never saw each other again," he said. "I guess we just both really like girls, so we put girls before bros."

A second clubbing incident put an end to Austin's close bond with another Chinese friend.

Austin somehow angered some guys in a club one night and ended up fighting three foreigners - by himself.

"My Chinese friend just watched me and said, 'I hope you win, and I hope you do well.' They threw me down and slammed a shoe into my mouth and broke my teeth," Austin said.

"I broke my teeth, and he just watched. I spent 4,000 kuai ($615) the next day to fix my teeth."

After that, Austin never talked to that friend again. With his heart broken and holding a grudge, he feels that many of his former Chinese friends "talk tough behind people's backs" and are "cowards in person." He thinks if one is not willing to have his or her friends' back, they are not a real friend.

South African Jody Koks, a teacher, has only been living in China for about a year, but he has already experienced his share of broken friendships.

And he has Taobao to blame.

"Although I can read a few characters, I don't know many of them. So, usually, when I have to buy things online I ask a friend or colleague to help," he said. "My friends are usually very helpful. But I guess they become very annoyed if you ask them too many times. I am sure they are thinking, 'Why doesn't this guy learn to do it himself?'"

When the delivery guy comes, Koks also calls one of his friends to help with the translation. The problem is that the delivery guy might come at any time, and he can't just have his friends on standby 24/7. "Then you have to return an item, and you have to ask them again to help you," he said.

After a while, his friends would feel like fed up with his constant need for help.

"Online shopping is just so convenient and cheaper too," Koks said. So, in order to continue to enjoy the benefits of online shopping and keep his Chinese friends around, he decided to learn Chinese. He is confident that he will be able to use Taobao on his own over time, once he learns how to use pinyin. 

Tough for expats

In Koks' experience, expat life can be really tough, especially in the beginning, and a newcomer would very much need help from his or her local friends.

However, the relationship is quite delicate. Failure to properly maneuver between helping each other out and asking for help can make it appear as if the expat is taking advantage of the friendship.

"Living in China is a new challenge," said Koks.

Another challenge to making friends and maintaining friendships is "plain old miscommunication," according to Koks.

Last week, he went to the convenience store downstairs his apartment. He saw that the lady working there got a new haircut. So, he asked her in Chinese, "Did you cut your hair?" But the lady might have misunderstood him because her response was off-putting.

"She gave me a really weird look. I think she would never talk to me again," he said.

Koks tries to speak Chinese as much as he can, but it's very hard in the beginning, especially if the expat doesn't have enough confidence to speak, and people around him or her don't have enough patience to listen.

"Sometimes people are not willing to understand that you are a foreigner, and it's much more difficult to speak Chinese. Sometimes they don't give you the time you need; it causes me to withdraw and get back into my shell and not want to talk again," he said.

"I'd like to make good Chinese friends, but the language barrier is real," Koks said. "If they don't try to understand me, or they are not confident enough about their English, it does become tough." 

Cultural differences

When it comes to intercultural friendships, sometimes it's not what you do but what you say that sinks the ship.

According to Malik, a 22-year-old Chinese student studying finance in New York, and a popular video blogger on Chinese Internet, talking about stereotypes is common, but it might threaten a friendship.

In one of his videos, he features some of the common questions asked by foreigners that could prove weird and annoying and might endanger the nascent friendship between a Chinese and a foreigner.

The questions include, whether he knows kung fu and can teach a few moves, how do Chinese people use chopsticks, how to say their names in Chinese, whether he could teach them something in Chinese, or what it is like to live in a communist country.

"Whenever foreigners ask you about whether you eat dog meat, your friendship will definitely sink," he told Metropolitan.

"If your American friends brag about how they can eat extremely spicy food and love spicy food, and you take them to a Sichuan restaurant, things usually don't turn out well."

Another situation in which a friendship might be challenged is when the students discuss an upcoming test. American students might say they didn't work on it and might blow it, but Asian students might be modest and say the same but not mean it. When the results came out, and the Asian gets 90 out of 100 while their friend barely gets 60, "that's when your 'ship' definitely sinks," he said jestingly.

Fair winds and calm seas

Sean Silbert, 27, who lived in China for about five years before moving back to the US in 2015, thinks that the language barrier is the biggest challenge for an expat wanting to make good friends and have the friendships overcome any obstacles.

"Cultural differences can be overcome and appreciated, and most foreigners visiting or living in China are willing to try out new things. The problem is when people can't communicate," he said.

Though he hasn't had any falling-outs with his Chinese friends, he has had many relationships drift apart after moving back.

Silbert values honesty, trustworthiness, and a sense of humor the most in a friend, while Koks desires compassion and loyalty the most. But, the two share the same view on one key element - a common language.

"Learn the language," said Koks. "And be patient; it takes time."

Newspaper headline: What sinks a friendship?

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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