Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Facing "Face Issues"

Americans cherish the right to have their own thoughts, to speak their minds, and be uniquely individual. It is just the opposite in China. We think individually, whereas in Asian culture it's all about the whole and "face issues." So, what exactly does that mean? Well, simply put it means "putting on your best face." It means doing your very best not to upset the balance or offend someone~not to cause them or you embarrassment or public shame. Some Americans would say, "Well, that's just not reality and it's not honest, either." But in the Chinese way of thinking, it's not being fake or dishonest. It's just omitting the negative to the extreme so the positive can be highlighted. Being wrong is not something to be pointed out in order to improve, it is to be hidden so as not to cause shame for someone. Saving face means using indirect means of confronting issues...very un-American.

This is one of the reasons why hosting the 2008 Olympics and doing an excellent job of it was critical for China. It was a way to show the country's economic development and gain "face" with the world. Being critical of China, their policies, their environmental issues, etc... is a slap in their "face" and definitely offensive. As someone who has been part of watching the progress that China has made over the past 5 years, I can honestly say that I am truly in awe of the sweeping changes that China has least economically. Americans forget that there are 1.3 billion people here! It's a huge ship to turn and you have to give them a lot of credit for doing what they've done so far.

This is also why I was so excited about Beijing hosting the Paralympics and Special Olympics. People with disabilities in China have historically been hidden so as not to be a shame to their families. Five years ago, I never saw a disabled child or even a wheelchair on the streets. Everyone with a disability was kept inside or was institutionalized...not unlike it used to be in the States. Today things are changing. I see more and more wheelchairs, and some schools for the disabled are slowly popping up around the country. The Paralympics have given new exposure to people with disabilities and encouragement for those who have previously not been given opportunities to be part of Chinese society. What a joy it was for me to witness the cheering crowds at the Wheelchair Rugby event. It warmed my heart to see the support for these athletes. Maybe it's my heart for kids with special needs, but I am hopeful that this will be the start of something good for everyone with disabilities.

I'm not saying that China, like every country with its unique culture doesn't have a long way to go in dealing with its own issues. Being positive is a good thing. I sometimes wish that Americans weren't so out there with everything...even those things that shouldn't be talked about in public. But facing these "face issues" is a really important thing to address and I'm sure it will be a work in progress for many years to come.