San huo fan—a going away meal. The pin yin tones are 4th, 3rd, 4th on the characters. Apart, these three characters translate to “To break away/Dispel,” “Companion,” “Meal.” My current Chinese teacher explained it, too.

“Chi wan fan, fen kai.” “After we eat, we separate.” She said it’s the final meal before moving on.

Last week we had our sanhuofan.

Teachers, Coworkers, None of us strangers and all of us Friends.

I don’t know if it was a traditional one or not because a week later we’re still around. I know that’ll change for many soon, but as for now, we’re still together. The school is in a rocky period of transition that has come upon the heels of news it was closing. A few months ago we were told about the imminent closing of our doors, so people did what people always do: We reacted. For most that meant seeking employment elsewhere—I was/am having meetings with a handful of training schools in the area to secure a steady position. Some of the Chinese staff has already moved on to different jobs and even the Western staff is looking ahead to an immediate future apart from the school. All of this is natural—to be expected—when you tell people the place is shuttin’ down.

As I said, though, transition. The school is not done. The owner has moved out of the country, but a new one is at the helm. Changes abound—some not so good. Customs are a tricky thing, and generally speaking, the school was always been very helpful at bridging those cultural gaps with minimal amounts of inconveniences and annoyances. I’m talking about common business practices, polite social etiquettes, creating good supervisor-employee rapport, and even simple personal boundary manners. Yes, the cultures of the East and West are often times at odds with each other, and yes, you should be sensitive to the practices of the country you’re in and give them priority (maybe), but when you’re working within a company that prides itself on blending the two’s cultures I feel it’s OK to be a little miffed when things start to deteriorate and those holding the reins aren’t listening to the solicited advice they are receiving.

In China (holds breath so as not to make an overly general, borderline insensitive statement), it seems that those in power have this idea that the people who are working for them or who are under their influence don’t have the capability to handle information without it being spun or heavily filtered (and then makes one anyway). With such an emphasis on saving face (mian zi), and a reliance on the social/political/professional benefits of relationships (guan xi), it can be terrifically difficult to get straight answers—or answers at all—from those in high positions, express genuine emotions or even practical advice (even when it’s seriously needed). Anyone who has lived here, and I hope I’m not leaning into the condescending, pedantic territory reserved for those who think they know what they’re talking about, can tell you that these things happen at all levels of employment, and to some extent, personal relationships.

Par for the course, you say? Not a golfer, says I.

But it really is. Color it the price of doing business here or whatever you want, but it does happen, and as a wai guo ren (outside country person: Foreigner), I don’t have a whole lot o’ options. The best I can hope for is that I’m partnered with an organization that is both conscious of the differences between the cultures, and willing to round out the rough edges to make the environment professional and conducive to getting things done properly. Just as a side note, previously, that’s how the school has been run. I’m still holding on to hope for this next chapter.


One year ago today, Noelle and I arrived in China.