Regardless of what you may feel right now, new expat friend, you are not alone. We have all stepped off the plane midsummer and felt our knees turn to butter, our blood pumping in our popping ears and a strange and troubling bark emerging as a cough as we stumble wearily into the ungainly immigration line.
Only the narcissists among us relish the possibility of rebuilding their circle of friends from scratch. The rest of us merely try to remove the nervous itch lodged in the back of our throats. The international teacher planes land in August, and for some, the terrible task of self-promotion begins.
When you meet a person for the first time, it’s like opening a book on page 748 and trying to gauge the entire work from a scatter of words, a couple of images, a vague sense rather than a competent working knowledge. The astute reader can immediately glean a wealth of information from the vocabulary chosen, the font, the turn of phrase while the overwhelmed can skim and scan to gain a sense of the author and the piece itself.
The “newbies” are easy to spot. They are crumple-faced, in effort or frustration, trying in vain to speak to the taxi driver or checkout clerk, who is, in turn, wincing in a bewildered fashion, muttering, “Ting bu dong.” To the native Nanjinger, it doesn’t matter if you are new, lost, experiencing grave panic attacks and about to meet a monsoon of unknown people very shortly. They are natives in this sweaty paradise. They do not have to promote themselves, or be anything other than they are.
The returning expats are also noticeable with their heavily laden scooters, perma-shades and pithy ease with the surrounding tumult. They wear colours that mask the sweat stains and have their hair prepped for the humidity. If you have arrived a week early to get settled, it may also seem like you are, indeed, the only expat in Nanjing. Native Nanjingers armed with parasols and plastic fans mooch slowly from one shady spot to another.
The introverts wheeze a sigh of relief. No peopling yet. The populous of the remaining rich and varied sliding up the spectrum toward extroversion, squirm uncomfortably as a trickle of sweat dribbles down their shin.
Where are all the people?
A realization that comes after many years in the Nanjing summer haze, is that returning expats do not leave the house before the sun goes down. Like vampires, they scoot to the massage parlors and gyms and restaurants when the glare has left the sky. This can leave the newly arrived traveller feeling isolated, and rather scared in the scalding solitude of the midday sun, especially considering the hearty praise often heaped on the Nanjing social life. “Is this it?” wonders the newly arrived Nanjinger, staring down the empty tree-lined boulevards as their eyeballs burn. Rest easy, weary traveller. Regardless of your desire or lack thereof to meet new people, it is really quite unavoidable once school starts.
Living in an extroverted society, we have been taught that promoting ourselves requires “people skills” such as schmoozing with strangers, small talk, and thinking fast on your feet. However, the rules change when you geographically relocate and the host culture of China plays the self-promotion game by different rules. Here, it is seen as crude or brassy to extoll one’s virtues and achievements openly. Humility and modesty are valued more than impressive results, which in the Orient speak louder than that assertive bravado which is highly valued in Western society. In fact, on Chinese etiquette, ediplomat.com quite frankly advises foreigners to, “Refrain from being loud, boisterous or showy”.
The trend seems to be spreading. New research published in the U.S. journal Psychological Science shows that people frequently overestimate how much their self-promotion works in their favour and underestimate how much it achieves the opposite effect. “These results are particularly important in the Internet age, when opportunities for self-promotion have proliferated via social networking. The effects may be exacerbated by the additional distance between people sharing information and their recipient, which can both reduce the empathy of the self-promoter and decrease the sharing of pleasure by the recipient”, said study author Irene Scopelliti, a lecturer in marketing at City University London.
The day of the peacock may be coming to an end, with the Oriental opinion of self-promotion as irritating rather than remarkable, gathering traction once more.
In Nanjing, as soon as school starts, the machine cranks its gears and the socialising begins. There are barbeques and lunches, meet-and-greets and brunches, dinners and hundreds and hundreds of strangers. Everything you know about hanging out is no longer valid. You glance back towards your comfort zone as you arrive at your first socializer and it is but a mere speck in the distance. An ocean of smiling faces swims before you. You tread water, not waving, not yet drowning. The extroverts jump right in, the depth test is in the landing for them. The introverts may balk at the raucous laughter of friends bear hugging each other after the summer. Some slather each other with kisses, others talk in a frenzy of hand whooshing and yet others can be seen slapping or handshaking or bowing or dancing the Macarena. It’s not what you are used to, no.
Nevertheless, you must present yourself to this tribe in a favourable way. This is not as easy as it looks. Some among us are gifted chameleons; they kiss the kissers on the cheeks, their spider senses telling them how many times; once, twice, thrice; they wave their hands and gesticulate with the hand whooshers, they slap the backs of the back slappers vigorously. These social animals have the gift of intuition and the lack of that nasty worm, self doubt, that allows them to work the room and leave a positive impression in the minds and hearts of those they meet. These are the lucky ones.
Most of us need to agonise a while longer before presenting ourselves in this new society. A tried and tested strategy of many newbies is to take the plunge with one new person; perhaps they look like your best friend back home (Be gone! vile knot in my throat. Yes, there is something in my eye!) or you like their shoes, or they happen to be standing beside you as the throng of chatterers moves into second gear, and you begin to burn with the need to speak to someone. Anyone. The trick then is to stick to this new friend like a barnacle, even if you cannot really understand their accent and despite having asked their name five times, cannot quite approach an approximate pronunciation of it. You smile, laugh when they laugh, tell them about your arrival, your kids or your dog or your Pokémon Go collection. You give them a tiny piece of yourself and hope that they take care of it.
Self promotion in the end may be simply this, sharing a piece of yourself with an unknown element and hoping that the compatibility ratings are positive. It is a hair-raising experience, akin to crossing the road in Nanjing for the first time.
Dear Newbie, like the road, you will also reach the other side unscathed. You will cross other roads but without the same nerve-tingling apprehension, and soon you will stroll blithely into the traffic, confident that you will survive, confident in yourself. In the end, there is a lot to be said for letting your actions do the talking, so to speak.