A few weeks ago, I published a review of James Fallows’ China Airborne, and referenced a few articles written by my father-in-law, David Bishop. Because I thought they were worthwhile, I’m republishing these articles in their entirety here, with his permission. You can find the original here.
Many years ago, in the days before everyone had email, someone sent me a fax with the title at the top, which simply read “The Rules.” It was a humorous list of guidelines about the relationships between men and women, and although I cannot remember all of “The Rules,” I have never forgotten the first 3:
Rule 1. The female always makes the rules.
Rule 2. The male can never know all of the rules.
Rule 3. If the female ever suspects that the male is about to learn all of the rules, she must change some of the rules.
For an American working in Asia, one of the most important things to understand are these three rules but with a slight substitution:
Rule 1. The Asians always make the rules.
Rule 2. The foreigner can never know all of the rules.
Rule 3. If the Asians ever suspect that the foreigner is about to learn all of the rules, the Asians must change some of the rules.
Every American who has ever lived or worked in Asia has a funny story or two about the time when he or she was just getting comfortable with social “rules of engagement” only to find out that the rules had been changed.
Some 30 years ago in Korea, I had visited in a rural area for three days, enjoying simple Korean hospitality at its finest. I was the guest of honor in every place that I visited, and while this may be nice a couple of times, after a while it can weigh thin on an independent American who likes to just take care of himself.
It was midwinter, and in every home, I was given the place of honor sitting in the corner under which a hot charcoal briquette was burning just a few inches below me. In Korean homes, you sit on the floor, so this meant I had to shift my weight constantly from one part of my backside to the other in order to keep from having it blistered! Further, I was constantly plied with tea, coffee and sweet drinks with no indoor plumbing when I reached the point of overflowing.
This three days was a great experience, but when it was time to return home, I was really looking forward to going back to my family and home with Western furnishings and surroundings that would allow me to have a little more personal space and control. As I was about to climb into my van (which had four rows of seats) for the one hour trip back across the mountains, my main host asked if a lady from the community could have a ride as she was visiting relatives in the city where I lived. Of course, with all that space, I was happy to oblige. This is where the story actually begins.
In Korea, as in many Asian countries, it is considered impolite to show up at a friend or relative’s home without a gift in hand. There is even a Korean proverb which states, “It is rude to visit empty-handed.” Remember that one – we’ll get back to it.
Another “rule” in many Asian countries is that when one is asked if he/she wants something to eat or drink, the first polite reply is usually, “No, thank you.” However, unless the host has asked three times and there have been three refusals, the host cannot assume that the person is truly declining the refreshment. So, you have to keep asking. A friend once told me that she asked a visitor who had come to meet with her husband if he would like coffee. The visitor declined, but a few minutes later, when she passed through the room again, the visitor asked, “Where is my coffee?”
With my passenger seated on the third row of seats of my van, I had several of these “rules” swirling in my head as we headed over the mountains for the one-hour trip. Before I left home, my wife had packed a few snacks for me, including some western style cookies that were wrapped in a very stiff plastic wrapper. They were beside me on the front seat, and I was craving something familiar, so I was tempted to open them. I was really tired from all of the social interaction and attempts to follow the “rules,” so as I looked in the rearview mirror, I hesitated to open the package and offer her any. It wasn’t that I did not want to share – I just did not want to engage in the complex social interaction that I knew would follow.
About 30 minutes into the trip, I looked back again and saw my opening. My passanger had fallen asleep, so I thought that I could surreptitiously scarf down a couple of cookies. As I reached down with one hand to remove the plastic wrapper, the crinkling of the stiff, noisy plastic woke her up! At this point, I thought, “Okay, here we go!” I asked her if she would like some cookies, extending my arm backward over the seat. Rather than politely refusing as I expected, she leaned forward, took the cookies, said “Thank you,” and put them into her bag. I never got to eat one of my own cookies! More importantly, Rule No. 3 applied here: I thought I knew the rules, so she was obliged to change one of the rules!
She was going to visit a friend or relative, and up to this point she was “empty handed.” Rather than engaging in a social interaction for which I thought I had learned the “rules,” she now had a solution to her problem for her immediate future.
Key takeaway: It is truly impossible for a foreigner, no matter how much an “acceptable outsider” he/she may become, to ever learn all of the complex cultural rules of engagement in Asian countries. That does not mean that you should not learn all that you can because honest attempts to engage will always be appreciated by those in the host culture.