What I Learnt from a Birthday Party in Shanghai

It was only after the birthday party that I learnt why some people we had invited came and why others didn’t. Even during the celebration I was puzzled and a bit rattled because of what had happened just a few hours earlier, in the afternoon, before the birthday meal in the evening.

At the time I was working in Shanghai, teaching at a business school, along with my girlfriend at the time, Kath, who was teaching computer skills and English. We had been living in Shanghai for several months before her birthday in January, so we had got to know our students and many Chinese people working in the business school as well as other western members of staff.

When we first arrived in China I braced myself for culture shock. Despite a long fascination with China I had never visited it, and mixed with my excitement was some apprehension about the change of lifestyle in this new country, with its different language, culture and ways of doing things. The first morning after we arrived I remember waking early because of jet lag and so we went for a walk around the neighbourhood and soon found a local park. In the dawn light before 6 am, a group of elderly people were silently performing Tai Chi to gentle music from a portable CD player. This first glimpse of China ‘behind the scenes’ stays with me. It is in the first few days especially, and then in the weeks that follow, that one is most impressionable and observant, acutely noticing all the differences with one’s own country, with amazement or amusement, and people watching with fascination.

As the weeks and months went by I became more relaxed as I adjusted to life in my new city. I learnt to speak some Mandarin, and though I never became fluent I could survive. Of course, in a big modern city like Shanghai, people go about their daily business in the same way as back home: shopping in supermarkets, catching the bus to work, eating lunch, walking home, meeting friends, speaking on their mobile phones. Yes, the people of Shanghai were fundamentally the same as us despite looking oriental and speaking another tongue. We were treated well, with friendliness and respect, and never experienced anything but politeness, or at worst, indifference. There were relatively few foreigners in the suburb where we lived but an old port city like Shanghai has seen outsiders for centuries, so we were no big deal. It was only when we went out of Shanghai, for example on a weekend trip to Nanjing, that people would stop in the street to stare at us as if we were aliens, and especially at Kath because she had blonde hair. The only exception in Shanghai was along the Bund, the riverside promenade popular with tourists, including Chinese tourists from the countryside who had never seen westerners before. In the villages of China, many people will still have a photo of themselves standing on the Bund with a blonde woman from England.

As the birthday party approached, I invited all the students in my marketing class to come and join the celebration and Kath did the same with her group of students. In addition, we invited some Chinese members of staff, for example the two women who worked on reception, Lucy and Ivy, Stephen and Mark from the admin office, and Peter from the marketing department who was teaching me to speak Mandarin in exchange for my tutoring him as his English improved. [Note: many Chinese people who work with foreigners adopt a western name, for convenience.]

Early in the afternoon of the dinner party, Peter came to me and explained that he couldn’t come that evening because his wife was ill. I accepted his apology and wished his wife a speedy recovery. An hour or so later, Lucy said she had to work late that evening so unfortunately wouldn’t be able to attend. Then Ivy said she wasn’t feeling too well and would go home early, so was unable to join our party. By the time a fifth person had made their excuse not to come to the party, I knew something was wrong. I had no idea what had happened nor why, but I felt confused and upset. I feared that nobody at all would attend and it would be just the two of us in the restaurant’s function room that evening. But no: the students turned up. All of them. Two complete groups, with no absentees. And so the dinner party went on and was a happy celebration, with a birthday cake, singing in English and Mandarin, plus of course excellent food and lots to drink.

In the following days it was still a mystery to me why some people had chosen not to come, and I feared that somehow I had done or said the wrong thing, so I made gentle enquiries to try to get to the bottom of it. What I learnt from that episode was that Chinese people think of themselves as part of a group, connected by invisible strings of convention and hierarchy to one another, in families, workplaces and other institutions. In the West, some students would have come along, others would have given it a miss, and that’s what I expected would happen. But no, my students had attended as a group. In fact I heard that they had discussed our invitation as a group, and made a collective decision to attend, and so all of them turned up. The same had happened with the other student group, hence the full turn-out. On the other hand, the members of staff whom we had invited as individuals could not possibly attend once they realised that they had not been invited as a group. We hadn’t invited their boss, a Chinese woman we rarely ever saw, so it would offend convention for them to attend without her. Inadvertently, I had put them in an impossible position by inviting them as individuals. This is much worse than the awkwardness we might feel when realising that a friend has not been invited to the same party as we have. In China it’s a matter of right and wrong.

It was at this point, when I realised that Chinese people think in a totally different way about such matters that we do in the West, that culture shock hit me in the face. After living in Shanghai for several months and feeling that I had got a grip on life in China, I was totally wrong-footed. I had relaxed and started to assume that apart from the way they look and the way they talk, Chinese people are the same as us. This kind of culture shock hits you, not with the taste of different food, not with the sights and sounds of the city, not with the incomprehensible language; but when you realise that their world-view is fundamentally and completely different. All of a sudden you see things afresh, more things start to click into place, and at the same time you become aware that you have so much still to learn. You come to appreciate that despite many similarities, we are different in our mindsets.

The way that the Chinese regard themselves as part of a collective, as a member of families and groups, rather than as an individual is not a result of Communism; it’s much more ancient and deep-rooted than that. It comes from Confucianism, that centuries-old social code that sets out the relationship between people, in families and elsewhere. It’s about the success of the collective, not the individual. It puts you in your place, in relation to others; you know where you stand, and how to behave. It is the invisible wiring behind all social conventions in China. It is still alive today and won’t change any time soon.

Confucianism, though not a religion as such, provides the moral and social system which governs behaviours in China and is embedded deep within the Chinese psyche. Confucianism asserts that: 1. people are defined by their relationships with others; 2. relationships between people are hierarchical; and; 3. social harmony is achieved by people maintaining good relationships with others by respecting their place in the hierarchy.

One of the five ‘cardinal relations’ of Confucianism is the strictly hierarchical relationship between parent and child. Together with ‘Ancestor Cult’, an ultra-respect for ancestors going back some 4,000 years, the importance of the family in China can be understood in context. Not only is family the most important social phenomenon to a Chinese person, it is often crucial in business too.

The social phenomenon of ‘face’ ie ‘losing face’, ‘saving face’ and ‘giving face’ are central to relationships between people and need to be understood well if one is to develop social or business relationships in China. A person ‘loses face’ if he is caused to be embarrassed in front of friends or colleagues and therefore is seen to lose respect and dignity. Very ‘diplomatic’ behaviour is required consequently so as not to make someone lose face. Whilst this phenomenon is understood in the West (probably more so in Britain than the USA) its importance in China cannot be stressed too much. Face can also be positive in that it is possible to ‘give face’ by allowing another person to gain status, for example by allowing a student to be your teacher, or accepting as well as providing hospitality.

With this deeper understanding and fresh perspective, indeed a ‘paradigm shift’ in the way I saw how Chinese people think and act, I learnt to live there more comfortably. Moreover, I can now see things of a global and political nature in a new light when observing matters Chinese.

The part of my life in which I lived in Shanghai changed me, deeply and for the better. It was much more than a travel experience, a different workplace, a holiday, or a sabbatical. In some ways it was each of these, yet also more than the sum of those parts. The additional ingredient was a new appreciation of Chinese culture that one cannot achieve easily by reading about it, or going there as a tourist. It was an enlightenment arising from living and working there, in amongst the good people of Shanghai.

Postscript: My Mandarin improved too, helped not least by informal tutoring from Peter, over cups of tea in a local cafe. I didn’t realise it at the time but he spoke with the strongest of Shanghai accents, and so in turn did I, much to the amusement of some local people who found it hilarious to hear a foreigner speaking with the Chinese equivalent of a strong Liverpudlian twang.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
First published 12 October 2018.

Read more travel blogs and David’s travelling lifestyle business.

Coming home in Beirut

“At its best, travel should challenge our preconceptions and most cherished views, cause us to rethink our assumptions, shake us a bit, make us broader minded and more understanding.”

Arthur Frommer

“Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you travelled.”


“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

“Travel works best when you’re forced to come to terms with the place you’re in.”

Paul Theroux

Read more travel quotes.