Face

Ever hear of the concept of “keeping face” or “losing face”? The latter was a prominent part of my upbringing as a child of Chinese parents. It was only while researching face as a social construct for this post that I discovered the English took the term directly from China around 1900. I found it fascinating that, according to Wikipedia, “saving face” was coined by the English as a counterpart to “losing face”, and that it didn’t exist in common usage in Chinese. Certainly, the only phrase I’ve encountered regarding face had to do with losing it – roughly translated, it speaks of deep embarrassment, humiliation, shame, and loss of identity/social standing.

Face is an interestingly complex and pervasive concept, and though some aspects are familiar to other cultures, it doesn’t translate exactly. Face is strongly linked to social reputation and value – esteem held in the eyes of others. And, having lost it, it is very difficult to gain back. The phrase in Chinese is 丟臉 (diu lian). 丟 (diu) is a verb meaning to lose or throw [away].

I’ve been thinking about this lately as it plays out in my adult life and in my relationships. Really, it’s only been recently that I even began digging deeper into the psychological influences that my culture, heritage, and upbringing have had on me. During the last year of college, I started attending events and lectures held by the Pan-Asian group on campus, and I was stunned to see parts of my life so clearly and cleanly dissected.

Because, as it turns out, this innocuous little thing, face, affects virtually every aspect of my life. It’s the reason I was always afraid to participate in school (see second linked article above). It’s affected my ability to accept well-meaning advice and criticism from others – in fact, I have a difficult time seeing things as constructive criticism rather than as a personal jab. I am frequently searching for the true meanings to words said, rather than accepting them at face value (no pun intended).

As a Chinese kid growing up in America, I often saw my parents’ social interactions as two-faced. I read their actions as hiding any evidence of possible embarrassment while projecting a perfect, unmarred image to others. When it had anything to do with me, I felt like my emotions were being dismissed, hidden, and denied acknowledgement – all for the sake of keeping face. It infuriated me, so I acted out against it: I refused to hide my emotions and wore them openly on my sleeve.

At the same time, I was also learning to hide my imperfections from view, lest they open me to humiliation from others. It’s still prevalent – I have a hard time admitting when I’m wrong, or when I don’t know the answer to something. And it’s incredibly difficult for me to dissociate asking for help from failure. I remember, whenever I had difficulty with some academic problem or project, I would ask my parents for help, but it never occurred to me to ever ask for help from my friends. And my mother was very good at accentuating feelings of competitiveness with and isolation from my peers; my successes and accomplishments were always compared against the performance of other students. (“Did anyone else get higher marks? How many other students scored that well?”) Success only existed within that kind of context.

The day I graduated from high school, during the meal I shared with a few friends of the family to celebrate my graduation, my mother confronted me about the fact that, not only was I not valedictorian, I wasn’t even in the top ten GPA scores. The principal had called out the names of those top ten students, and my mother had been ashamed that I was not listed.

It’s not hard to see why humiliation has never been high on my list of kinky interests. Humiliation is a social phenomenon for me, and the mere idea of an audience viewing me as having lost face is unbearable. It’s the same for punishment. I will probably never be able to eroticize either of these things. Failure is not sexy.

On a broader scale, I’m only just starting to realize how differently I communicate and hear others’ words as compared with (non-Asian) people. Given the myriad layers and subtleties to the way things are discussed, it’s easy to view a lot of this as passive aggressiveness. I’ve thought of it that way myself. But what I’ve been taught and what I’ve grasped from watching my family members interact is that being direct is incredibly rude, and confrontation is to be avoided in order to save face. I am still often quick to judge someone’s directness as being crass and uncivil. And I’m only starting to realize how the difference in communication filters affected the relationships I had with my childhood friends and peers.

All of the subtext and filters makes it really easy for me to take things personally. A quick example: “You did this incorrectly” becomes interpreted as “Wow, do you actually know what you’re doing? Why aren’t you better at this?”

This year’s Paradise Unbound was a sharp lesson in miscommunication. I quickly realized that, by avoiding conflict and minimizing my own expectations, I wasn’t getting my needs met. When I was given openings to start a dialogue about what was going on inside my head, I shut down and couldn’t respond, unwilling to admit that I was having issues. And when I tried to talk things out, it was often with subtext that wasn’t picked up on.

My personal level of stubbornness, and a longstanding belief that I shouldn’t/can’t rely on others to fulfill my needs, didn’t help matters any.

I’ve ping-ponged back and forth between the two extremities – being incredibly emotionally open as a child, then reverting to hiding my emotions and remaining distant in high school and college. Now, a half-dozen relationships and several years later, I’m trying to find a stabler, more effective middle ground.

Some of that means learning to be much more direct about my needs and conflicts, and the mere thought makes me vastly uncomfortable. It means breaking through 25 years of cultural walls and learned behaviors. This past weekend, I had a near breakdown just trying to ask for some time alone with Max post-Folsom. I did manage to, a little bashfully, right before running off to work the last morning we spent together, but I had spent two weeks thinking about that question.

It has been a journey full of bumps and bruises so far. Unfortunately, it’s probably not going to get much smoother in the near future. This stuff is hard. Really, really hard.

(Some disclaimers: obviously, I’ve made a bunch of generalizations. I know one doesn’t have to be Asian to have gone through something similar – just ask any Jew – but this is simply the lens through which I can explain some of what I’ve gone through. I spent a lot of my life pretending that being Asian made me no different, that I wasn’t affected by my race. That’s bullshit, and I’m belatedly catching up on just how much my ethnicity shapes my life and perceptions of the world.)

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Categories: life lessons, links, reflection
  1. Dov
    October 1, 2011 at 11:04 am

    For jews its that jewish guilt thing

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