Saving Face

In the 1998 Mulan animation, Mulan undergoes a comedic physical transformation in preparation to meet the matchmaker. As she attempts to fit into the line of picturesque, proper young women, the movie soundtrack repeats an important plea:

Please bring honor to us
(Please bring honor to us)
Please bring honor to us
(Please bring honor to us)
Please bring honor to us all

“Honor to Us All” highlights the significance of dignity in Chinese culture. But while “honor” conjures images of strict, Confucian families of ancient China, the contemporary narrative is all about mianzi.

Mianzi is a sociological concept that translates literally to “face” but means prestige and social position. Although face is a concept shared among many cultures, mianzi is so important for Chinese culture that Lu Xun, a leading 20th century writer, describes it as “the guiding principle of the Chinese mind.” For the Chinese, mianzi and self-identity are inextricable; losing mianzi means losing oneself.

Aris Teon’s post in The Greater China Journal provides a comprehensive guide on mianzi and the difference between mianzi and lian, another term that translates to “face.”

While I knew the importance of mianzi in Chinese politics, I only began to consider its presence in the personal life after reading Jiayang Fan’s essay, “How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda.” Fan dives into her complex relationship with her mother which has been shaped by their lower-class Chinese immigrant identities. Her mother has A.L.S., but merely talking about the disease is a loss to her mother’s mianzi. Fan writes:

When my mother was first given her diagnosis, she became obsessed with the idea of why—why her, why now, and, above all, why an illness that would subject her to the kind of public humiliation she feared more than death itself. When she could still operate her first-generation iPad, my mother gave me a contact list of everyone she was still in touch with in China, and told me that, except for her siblings, no one must know of her affliction. Such self-imposed isolation seemed like madness to me, but she preferred to cut friends out of her life rather than admit to the indignity of her compromised state.

While I haven’t had screenshots of videocalls with my mother go viral on Chinese social media, I have been examining how mianzi appears in my own life and in those around me. Though my parents have never explicitly talked about maintaining or losing face, it undergirds every interaction with other Chinese people.

I can admit readily that I have caused my parents to lose mianzi. We were dining at a homey hotpot restaurant with another Chinese family living in my neighborhood. My mother was their real estate agent when they purchased their Bellevue house. They were above us in two ways: not only did my mom work for them, they were also wealthier than my family. My ignorant middle-school self had long disliked new money Chinese FOBs and was unafraid to directly say so at the dinner table. The result? My father drove me home right away and I later received a harsh lecture.

My grandpa has dealt with a case similar to—albeit less extreme than—Fan’s mother. He had been a police officer, proudly wearing his uniform even after his retirement. But then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. And Parkinson’s disease. Now, he requires a wheelchair to get around. I can only imagine what a blow these diagnoses must have been to his mianzi—an uncontrollable deterioration of his body (and mind) that he could not hide.

One of my close friends recalls a middle school incident when she and another girl were joking around on Facebook. Some Chinese moms sent their posts to my friend’s mom, who became “so ashamed.” There are two sources to this shame: first, her daughter’s posts; second and even more relevant, the “confrontation” with the other moms.

Mianzi is also prevalent in employment. My mother’s coworker is on the brink of being laid off. Careless typos fill her professional emails and she turns in incomplete tasks. As her family’s sole source of income, her two children, still in school, are relying on her to fund their education. The pandemic exacerbates her crisis; no job openings want to hire her. As a fellow Chinese immigrant, my mother can’t help but empathize with her coworker. My mother understands the difficulty of fitting into white corporate America. She knows how it feels to attend a prestigious Chinese university, work her butt off learning English and finance, only to have a not-so-smart Caucasian boss tell her that she’s not good enough to stay in the company. The shame. The humiliation.

My mother’s coworker’s story is not a unique one. On the contrary, it’s quite a stereotypical white collar East Asian immigrant experience. Though I’m fortunate enough that my parents no longer worry about the stability of their careers, sometimes they still long for a different version of themselves. Regret lines my mother’s voice as she reminisces about her banking career in Beijing: back when she’d frequently go on company-sponsored business trips, eating fresh seafood in Sanya and squeezing into a cramped Tokyo hotel room. If she hadn’t immigrated, she would be much wealthier, she says. She should have gone into law. My father, though not one to yearn for his rural peasant life, says he should have studied medicine.

Their regretful statements slip into our conversations only occasionally, and I know I have so much to be grateful for. Yet, when I think about my own future, my deepest fear is that I’ll carry a similar kind of dissatisfaction; missed opportunities scare me more than not having those opportunities in the first place.

This question will remain lodged in a corner of my subconscious for the next few years: How can I balance both personal satisfaction and mianzi? I’m desperate for an answer.

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