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Expat's Eye
Expat's Eye
UPDATED: July 2, 2007 NO.27 JUL.5, 2007
Danwei or My Way?
My danwei, offered me not only a teaching job, but also a free bicycle, a free apartment, free medical insurance and free entertainment

Anthropologists define culture using basic factors: language, food and behavior. But in China these three criteria certainly confuse foreigners. First, the complex Chinese language presents a formidable barrier to cross-cultural communication. Second, the vast array of Chinese foodstuff--Chinese eat everything, literally from head to toe--startles Western eyes and palates. But third and most significantly, basic Chinese behavioral patterns conflict with Western norms. The most blatant difference revolves around the Chinese predilection for group dynamics within the work environment.

Westerners, particularly Americans, remain notoriously proud of their status as independent, private individuals voluntarily performing inside a system. Employees make autonomous decisions on the job, cherish their freedom and even demand personal accolades and/or bonuses when work is done well. The Chinese, in contrast, prefer to allow the employer to passively control them, even in private matters regarding their personal lives.

In 2004, when I arrived in China, my Chinese work unit, or danwei, enveloped me completely, just as Jonah was swallowed into the whale's mouth. The Chinese regard employment as much more than a job, a paycheck and a few weeks' vacation every year. Rather, it is a small interconnected world. A danwei often takes care of every worker's needs, from offering maternity hospitals to arranging cremation services. China Oil, my danwei, offered me not only a teaching job, but also a free bicycle, a free apartment, free medical insurance and free entertainment ranging from opera nights to riding ponies in the nearby mountains. They had previously constructed a miniature city for the workers, complete with apartment houses, shops, restaurants, a luxury hotel, theaters, gyms and tennis courts, an Olympic pool, several parks and a fully equipped hospital.

"We are fortunate to serve in this danwei," said Mr. Yang, a colleague. "They provide everything. I never leave the base to go anywhere because it is so convenient."

Later, when I complained that all the train tickets were sold out during the winter holidays, my danwei leader simply phoned her friend. "I have connections--guanxi," she smiled. "You can pick up your ticket this afternoon at five. Go to counter number eight and talk to Xiao Liu."

Thus, the danwei is maternal, almost an extension of the family. It offers security and consistency within a strictly defined hierarchy of ranks where all parties understand the rules of conduct, with guanxi greasing the wheels of activity. Despite modern Chinese now job-hopping in an increasingly market-driven society, danwei is still very much entrenched. Viewed from Western eyes the danwei perhaps seems stifling. But the skill Chinese employ at living together continually under cramped conditions causes most workers to feel reluctant to challenge their leaders, change jobs, or even divorce their spouses. The Chinese system may be closed but it is secure; work provides a sense of place and separateness from the encroaching outside world.

"I met my husband accidentally," Miss Xiao, the foreign liaison, told me over noodles. "He didn't work for this unit of China Oil, so we had to get permission to marry from both of our unit leaders. Then it took two years to transfer him here."

"That's outrageous," I retorted. "How could you let a job control you in this way?"

"How can you flit from job to job?" she countered. "I have a position for life and so does my husband. When we're old we will retire and live quietly, comfortably. How will you live if you keep changing positions like a butterfly tasting different flowers?"

"Because I like the challenge," I answered. "Western workers always seek better jobs; the market is competitive. Western employers recruit those with wider work experience. More creative, more knowledgeable, more productive."

"That's not the traditional Chinese way," Xiao responded placidly. "Stability, harmony and good relationships are keys to success in China. Besides, I want security: one job, one career, and one husband, for life. Anything else is too messy for me."

The author is a American working in Inner Mongolia

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