Saving mianzi

When I first moved to Shanghai, I was so excited to be connected with a woman around my age and in my neighborhood who could introduce me to Shanghai. We’ll call her Alexa. Alexa was bubbly, always ready to offer tips on places to buy food, take the kids to play, and where to go as a family. We quickly established a loose playdate schedule and I felt like I was so fortunate to find someone here to talk to.

As the weeks went on, though, I met more and more mothers here in Shanghai. And soon enough I realized something: Alexa never had a bad word to say about China. Like, never. She had been here for several years, and she and her husband seemed thrilled with the prospect of being here indefinitely. She even mentioned high schools for her daughter once (her daughter was 4 at the time). One day I was relating a particularly frustrating ayi experience to her, and she made a face and said, “Well, no kid likes their ayi. That’s just the way it is.” I was stunned. Not only did she sharply shut down my complaints but she painted a very dark picture of what future ayi life was going to be like. I stared at her for a few seconds and literally couldn’t find anything else to say to her.

After that interaction, I quickly distanced myself from her. Through the few interactions I had with her after that I was more and more frustrated that she refused to ever commiserate with me. Luckily, I could align myself with other women with a similar outlook and ex-pat experience to my own, and over time the friendship with Alexa faded to the point that she didn’t even tell me she was leaving China until she had already boarded the plane.

Recently, it hit me that what I was dealing with in my relationship with Alexa was an unwavering commitment to Mianzi (“Face” in Mandarin). The Chinese are very concerned with mianzi and in keeping up appearances to make everyone think their lives are great. As someone from a much blunter background, this is an incredibly hard concept to grasp and put into practice. I come from a “tell it like it is” part of the world, and for me personally I have found that sharing a terrible experience with friends allows me to process the emotions (fear, anger, frustration, sadness) and move past the problem to a place where I can laugh at the very thing that drove me mad when it happened. Call it free therapy or complaining to your friends; whatever it is, I feel a deeper connection with people when they too can share their experiences in the same way.

During your time as an ex-pat in Shanghai, there will be countless things that frankly just piss you off. And there will be an equal number of events that make you laugh with joy and stop you in your tracks because you know that whatever it is, it never would have happened at home. Find your way to process and embrace these experiences and share them with your tribe. I think they will be glad you did.

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