I want to talk about the cultural work of self introductions, a topic one would think I had actually given some thought to, but alas, no. However, yesterday, insight. And yes, long story short, I’ve been all too American in how I introduce myself for way too long…
This past weekend, I was in Meilin at the Art de Vivre Art Space (圆筒艺术空间) to participate in the workshop stage of the second Coaster Raid, a series of events organized to promote creative exploration of Shenzhen. During the workshop weekend, nine creative groups or individuals met to explore Meilin and come up with artistic interpretations of the space literally at Deng Xiaoping’s back. On October 31 at 19:00, we will reconvene to show our work to the public. The showing is free and open to the public and the riptide team hope to encourage reflection on and debate about the city. They are particularly interested in generating fresh approaches to seeing, representing, and talking about Shenzhen.
Yesterday, to conclude the workshop weekend, we had a more or less formal presentation of our ideas, so that the discussion could be recorded. The format was simple: riptide organizers, Michael and Gigi asked participants four questions and participants responded. The first question was: Why did you come to the event?
The Chinese participants all indicated they had been invited by Feng Yu, the Meilin organizer of this Coaster Raid. Some even indicated that they had accepted precisely because they knew Feng Yu to be an interesting person and that anything he was involved in was bound to be interesting. I said that I had come because I had been exploring Shenzhen for 15 years and was thrilled to have the chance to explore with a new group of friends.
As the introductions went on, it became clear (to me) that the Chinese participants were taking self introduction as a chance to delineate the relationships that had brought them to this moment and only then did they begin to describe their projects. Indeed, as far as identifying themselves within the group, I had a strong sense that for the Chinese participants the relationships that had brought them together were more important than their work. In this sense, the common thread that they had come “to play (玩)” makes perfect sense. In contrast, I assumed that I had been invited because of my work and accordingly, an introduction to my work was the point of the self introduction.
I’m wondering if the difference in emphasis, Chinese participants on relationship, American moi on work works to creates misunderstanding even before conversations begin. To my English speaking heart, the Chinese introductions sounded vague and somehow off the point. Similarly, I wonder how arrogant or self-absorbed my self introduction sounded to Mandarin speaking hearts. I asked, but was reassured that, “Your Chinese is excellent.” And me thinking, “Yeah, but my social skills. What about my social skills?”
So now, I’m thinking that it might be useful to listen attentively to self introductions because they elucidate how my interlocutor perceive the purpose and direction of our interactions and, more specifically, collaboration in Meilin. I’m wondering to what extent my Chinese colleagues understand their work to be a means of exploring and strengthening, sometimes testing our various relationships. Indeed, this way of thinking points to the idea that how well and hard someone works becomes an expression of care or respect. It also allows for the possibility that any meeting may blossom into long term and deep friendships and yes, most Chinese self introductions include a variation on the phrase “I hope we can all become friends.”
In contrast, I know that I’m a good collaborator because I come for the work, whether or not it leads to stronger relationships. Thus, at first Chinese glance, I must appear to be committed to relationships, friendly, and conscientious. However, I know that my relationships may come to appear instrumental because once a project is finished, its easy for me to move on to the next work organized set of relationships.
Hopefully, as I wander through Meilin alone and with companion participants, I will learn to balance my impulse to work for the work with an attention to the work of friendship.