Now, just when I thought I had salvaged the situation I found myself facing the next problem. I had already heard through the grapevine that one of the Chinese bridesmaids was not sure she could come to the wedding. As she told some common friends, she had for one used up her annual leave already and secondly wanted to ask for a raise at work, which wouldn’t go down to well if she asked for holiday she had no more right to at the same time. This was the situation and I knew it; however the story she ended up telling me was a rather different one. She sent me a message saying she could not make it to the wedding because she was broke and could not afford to come.
This put us in quite an awkward position. We could offer to cover some of her costs; especially as it is quite common for Chinese people to pay for the hotel for their guests, who in return bring red envelopes. However, none of the other bridesmaids and best men were currently receiving free hotel stays, they were all paying out of their own pocket. Which in my eyes made it unfair to them if she received extra financial support. Now, if it was a case of her having a really low salary and being generally not wasteful with her finances, then I would have agreed no questions asked; but knowing as I did that this was a party girl who worked in Shanghai on an ok salary, I did feel that since she had known about this wedding for almost a year it should have been possible to scrape together the less than 3000 RMB the flight and hotel would cost and be sure to put aside two days of leave.
More importantly, knowing as I did that this was likely just an excuse, I did not feel particularly generous. I wasn’t angry really, a little disappointed I guess, but not really surprised, since reliability was never this friend’s strong suit. Still, I had thought that she would manage to attend a wedding to which she had been asked as a bridesmaid 11 months ago.
Grey Lies – The Truth is Subjective
Well, the damage was done and once again this story showed me one of the sides of China I feel rather uncomfortable with; the grey lie. Calling the excuses that are commonly given in Chinese society white lies would be, in my opinion, understating their prevalence and severity.
Back in Europe, or especially in Germany, we have a very straightforward and sometimes naive way of approaching things. If my friend invites me to go out and I cannot be bothered, I will simply say so. If I feel I do not have enough money to do something, i will tell my friends what is up. In China however telling the truth in both scenarios would cause a loss of face; the former one to the friend, as you do not deem them important enough to overcome your lack of motivation and in the latter case your own, as admitting that you do not have enough money is about as embarrassing as it gets for most Chinese people; suggesting again that this was a mere excuse on the friend’s part.
As a result, Chinese people will, shall we say, edit many small truths in life as a way of being considerate of the other person’s face or feelings (or their own). If they do not want to go out, they are “sick”, if they do not want to drink alcohol, they are “allergic”, if they do not want to work with you on a business venture they are “just too busy right now but will talk later”. In Europe, we tend to place a lot of value on the truth and so initially I really struggled to accept this side of local culture; that your so-called friends might frequently lie to your face, even if comes from a good place, made me feel like they were not a real friend and I could trust no one.
Almost two years later, and my attitude has relaxed considerably. I no more feel “betrayed” or “disappointed” if I find out my Chinese friend said they were going to their parents this weekend and couldn’t join in the fun, when really they just wanted to sit at home shopping on Taobao or playing computer games. I even catch myself slipping into the “grey lie” pattern more and more frequently.
Aside from the face issue, I also think many grey lies are told because there is little understanding in China for people who deviate from the norm. For example, I have heard many local people express shock and concern at the idea that after the wedding my husband and I would still be in different places. So instead of looking at their disapproving or worried faces and listening to the same lecture over and over like broken record that husband and wife need to be in the same city, since anything else is unthinkable, it is easier just to lie and say “yes, of course I am moving to the same city as him.” Ironically, in the end that is what probably will happen; but that is another story for a later time.
When it comes to grey lies, while I might be taking on this characteristic, I am nowhere near the pro skills of Mr.Li. I remember when he returned to the UK from his visit home to China just after we started going out. He told me how he had met all of the students from his elementary school class at a reunion. When people started discussing their lives and career, someone mentioned that Mr.Li had been awarded a first class BA from a UK university. His reaction was to tell them that he had bought the certificate and it was fake, which was of course utter nonsense. He loves academia and worked incredibly hard to get all his distinctions, which he truly deserved. When I heard this story I thought I must have been one drugs. Who on earth would tell such a lie about their own achievements?
I see now that there are many possible reasons why he would have said such a thing, the main one being that he was the only one from elementary school who got an overseas certificate. This made him stand out of the crowd, and probably subject to no little jealousy. As in China the focus is always to fit in, he immediately downplayed his achievements so people would see him as their equal and feel more comfortable around him.
It is only now, as I remember this story and how entirely baffled I was at the time that I start to notice how much I have changed and how much I have learned about Chinese culture; though writing this means I am not acting accordingly, as I am not being modest as one should be. I often joke about how during the first two years of dating Mr.Li, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. Well, in every joke there is a grain of truth and in this one possibly two.