Donations of money and supplies are pouring into Sichuan – or at least they’re intended for Sichuan – from all over China. Every school and business is collecting money from its personnel and donating it.
I was biking by the Old Boys Club yesterday, and without even saying hello Mr. Lù yelled out, “DàJiāng! how much money did you donate for the earthquake?” This caught me by surprise and I hesitated, which led him to exclaim something like, “I can’t believe he still can’t understand!” Mr. Sòng, who usually plays the Good Cop, asked if we’d given money.
“Of course,” I told him. “Our school and our company both are giving money.”
Mr. Lù wasn’t satisfied. “But you, how much money did you give?”
At this point I tried and failed to explain why North Americans don’t usually tell people how much we give, but I don’t have the vocabulary for that. Besides, Mr. Lù tuned out as soon as he saw I wasn’t going to tell him. Mr. Sòng understood that it’s not our culture in the West to say how much – “Oh, that’s very different!” – but that probably just means they think we’re all selfish, secretive, or whatever it is they suspect of people who aren’t open with such information. I wanted to say something like, “We don’t tell the whole world what we give because that seems selfish, like we’re only giving money to make ourselves look good to other people, plus we don’t care about getting ‘face,’ so we don’t need to tell everyone else how much money we give,” but that reflects more culture stress than it does a wise, culturally-informed response.
Afterward my teacher said there was nothing I could do in that situation. If I’d told them a big number they’d think I was just ridiculously rich: “He has so much money he can give so many dollars to people he doesn’t even have guānxì with!” (as in, people I don’t know and don’t care about). If I told them a small number, they’d criticize me for being cheap. If I refuse to tell them how much, they won’t understand and immediately assume I’ve got something to hide.
This little episode is just one of many things making me wonder if personal motives are automatically viewed with suspicion in Chinese culture.
John at Sinosplice also had some interesting donation experiences. At one company, they sent an e-mail around with a list of which employees contributed and how much. At another company, a foreign employee was criticized with “Who do you think you are?” for accidentally trying to donate more than everyone else. In the end she donated at the socially acceptable level.
Donations are public in China, and they impact face. At least, that’s what it looks like for now. If I ever figure all this stuff out, I’ll write books and make millions.
The photo is from a neighbourhood near our school, where they’ve posted a bunch of these yellow posters listing by name which residents gave money and how much. On the two posters pictured, everyone gave between 20 and 200元 ($2.85 and $28.50).