Friday, December 21, 2012

A Botswana Struggle Session

While living in Shanghai, our group of friends and co-workers borrowed a term from the Cultural Revolution to describe the infuriating, but often unfruitful, arguments we would far too often find ourselves embroiled in with Chinese over the most ridiculous things: otherwise known as the “struggle session.”

A little bit of background first: the struggle session tactic was used during the Cultural Revolution to publicly humiliate accused counter-revolutionaries. The accused would stand before a crowd who would hurl insults (Capitalist Roader! Running Dog!) to humiliate the victim into confession any number of crimes against communism.  This method was particularly effective in China; because of the strong cultural emphasis on saving face, losing face through public humiliation and admitting fault –real or fictional- in front of others could in many cases be a worse form of torture than any physical violence.  Although of course Cultural Revolution-style struggle public struggles sessions do not still take place today, I experienced countless one-on-one struggle sessions while living in China that to me seemed just as vicious!

From my perspective, the ultimate goal of an argument is to convince the other side to break down and admit that they are wrong and you are right. For me, a disagreement has not been resolved until this happens. However, in China, you will be hard pressed to effectively extract a confession of fault or wrongdoing, because this would constitute a culturally damning loss of face.  This can lead to a very frustrating experience for an American such as myself, who cannot feel that a disagreement has been resolved until the other side confesses… something that almost never happened during my several years living in China.

Take for example the case of the visa applicant who has been caught in a blatant lie: all the evidence is there in front of them, proving that they have been lying, and still they refused to give me the satisfaction of admitting it. Never, not even once, did one of my visa applicants directly confess to telling a lie.

A typical exchange was:

So you say you’ve never been to the U.S.?


Really?  Are you sure you’ve never been to the U.S.?

Yes, I’ve never left China.

You weren’t in New York from 2007-2010?


Here on your fingerprint record you can see it says that you applied for a visa in 2007 and did not return to China until 2010.

Oh. Yes, I was there from 2007-2010.

Why did you just say you have never been to the U.S.?

Oh. Sorry. I didn’t hear you clearly. Is it important?

Tempers escalate and we proceed with the struggle…

I had similar struggle sessions with waiters, waitresses, parking lot attendants, hotel receptionists, flight attendants, bartenders and more (!) all over Shanghai and also in many other cities I visited in China. The really infuriating thing about these sessions was that no matter how hard I “struggled” against an obvious fault, error or lie I could never get the other person to cave and admit they were wrong, ostensibly because of the compelling desire to save face.

When I left Shanghai, I imagined that my struggling days were finally behind me. I thought I would be able to live a calm, struggle-free existence in Botswana. A couple of weeks ago, however, I found myself experiencing a serious case of déjà vu when an all-too familiar struggle session with a waitress crept up on me here in Gaborone – at a Chinese restaurant, of all places!

Scott and I had placed an order for suan la tudou si, our very favorite Chinese dish of wok-fried shredded potatoes with hot peppers and vinegar. We are this dish almost every day in Shanghai, and managed to find a restaurant that does it decently here and have been a few times to get our suan la tudou si fix.  Anyway, we ordered the dish and some time later the waitress brought out a gross concoction that definitely was not our beloved suan la tudou si

A classic China struggle commenced:

Oh, what is that? I didn’t order that dish.

Yes, you did.

No, I didn’t. I ordered suan la tudou si.

You did order it. See, it’s written down here on my notepad.

That’s because you wrote it down wrong.

Tempers escalate and we proceed with the struggle.

Somehow, even though our waitress was Batswana and not Chinese, and even though I was no longer in China, I was embroiled in the same exact argument I have had countless times with Chinese waitresses from Harbin to Zhanjiang to Shanghai to Guilin! Although I suppose the disagreement ended in my favor (the waitress took the gross potato dish off the bill instead of making us pay for it) she stuck to her story and insisted to the end that I had made the mistake instead of her. I left feeling frustrated that once again, I had succumbed to the classic Chinese struggle instead of rising above! 

So maybe it’s not so much China as it is me getting ornery and cantankerous in my old age. Who knows? I’ll visit some other Chinese restaurants in town and try my best to avoid the struggle, but I can’t make any promises...

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