Mu and the Grandpa – A Lesson in Guanxi

Guanxi

guan·xi

/gwanˈCHē/

noun

1. (in China) the system of social networks and influential relationships that facilitate business and other dealings.

I was recently reminded of my connection with a timid Chinese former student–a memory that led to one of an earlier connection with the elderly Chinese grandfather that used to live next door. The impact of those two individuals and what they mean to my global perspective have prompted me to write this…

Mu Lin was a student studying in America through our school’s East -West pipeline, encouraging students in Asian countries to experience American culture and education before embarking on their college pursuits. She was shy and retiring and not huge on getting involved. With that in mind, you can imagine the degree of enthusiasm she expressed when she was told she had to take an acting class to fulfill her performing arts requirement…my acting class.

Around that same time, I was adapting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a vehicle for a predominantly female cast, setting it in a high school (think Mean Girls with fewer “likes” and “totallys”) As a way to keep Mu engaged and feeling included, I encouraged her to audition for the Caesar production. She could socialize a bit more and have a truly immersive experience. I nudged her enough that she showed up and tried out. I cast her as the Soothsayer, the fringe prognosticator who assails Caesar with warnings about the Ides of March. As a “carrot” to show my diplomacy and willingness to compromise, I allowed her to utter her opening lines, the ones which attract Caesar’s attention, in her native tongue. It added an edge and an increased air of mystery to her character.

Mu was terrific in her part, as small and brief as it was, and continued to show tremendous improvement in the acting class, graduating with a passing grade, another role in the next All-School production (having to do with a pair of ruby slippers and a witch) and the public performance of her acting class monologues under her belt. Mu graduated from her American high school in 2011, going on to attend Ohio State.

Within the last few months, I was visiting the school and was approached by the school’s receptionist, who informed me that Mu Lin had just recently visited the school herself. She had apparently been asking for me and passed along a message through the receptionist, that I was one of her favorite teachers and had been “magic” in helping her. Mu also communicated that because of my influence, she had decided to minor in theatre in college.

On a related tangent, addressing the second facet of my Chinese experience…I used to live next door to a Chinese family, the elderly grandfather of which would spend a lot of time in his backyard. One day I was weeding my back lawn, using my favorite gardening implement, a sort of weed harpoon, and I looked up to see the grandfather, who didn’t speak a word of English, approaching me. He stopped in front of me and gestured at the harpoon and then the ground. It didn’t take me too long to understand that he wanted me to demonstrate how it worked. I showed him and then showed him again, plucking another dandelion, roots and all, out of the grass. He was enthralled, smiling and shaking his head. Without us uttering a word to each other, he walked away, occasionally looking back to watch my progress.

This moment stuck with me until the weekend, when I found myself at the local hardware store. I remembered the grandfather’s fascination with the weed harpoon, so I decided to embark on my own Sunnylands Summit and I purchased one to give to my neighbor as an unsolicited gift. The subsequent experience is one I will never forget. That same day, the grandfather was in his backyard, doing some gardening. I approached him with the new “harpoon” and after repeated efforts to give him the tool, which I now understand is the cultural norm, he finally accepted it, with abundant bowing. I left feeling a sense of harmony and goodwill.

However, upon my return to my backyard, just a dozen or so minutes later, I was greeted by the grandfather’s son, wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. The son, who did speak English, was so gracious and thankful, as were all of the other members of the family, overwhelming me with thanks and more bowing. You’d think I’d given them a tractor or installed weed-free turf.

These two stories reflect two salient, transcendent moments in my life. Guanxi, the Chinese word for relationships, identifies the value of connecting with others, sometimes for mutual benefit such as you might expect in business, but these were different. The rewards I received, and I truly hope to avoid any gushy music or gauzy filter here, were in witnessing that regardless of background or culture or language, there is something meaningful and resonant in extending a hand or your time to someone else. I relate this in appreciation for all organizations who have an authentic service orientation and who see beyond reciprocity.

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