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Fast Friends

Meeting Chinese friends rarely constitutes a simple chat over coffee, or walk in the park

By Abigail Thomson Updated Jul.8

Making friends is a skill we all learn from a young age, and a skill I felt I had grasped by the time I left school. However, throw into the mix a new country and new culture, and you’re right back to basics. Shortly after arriving in China, I went on a weekend trip with some classmates. This trip, although intended to be a break from studies, taught me some essential lessons on friendship in China.  

Our first class came the very first day after we arrived. While trying to catch a tan on the beach, we ran into a local Chinese guy called Dazhi, who we’d chatted to briefly in our hostel the evening before. We had a quick catch-up, telling him that we had been looking around the town that morning. Hearing this, he seemed almost hurt that we hadn’t contacted him so that he, as a local, could have shown us around. It was as if we had traveled to an old friend’s hometown after years apart, without bothering to look them up.  

This is when lesson one revealed itself: the obligation of the local. If there are friends (or, in our case, foreigners) visiting your hometown, you’re obliged to drop everything in order to ensure they’re thoroughly welcomed. We subsequently, and unwittingly, consented to a 24-hour non-stop, whistle-stop tour of Dazhi’s hometown. And when I say nonstop, this is no exaggeration. We were allowed a mere four hours of sleep that evening in order to get up for sunrise and immediately continue with the next day’s adventures. Although we were of course grateful for Dazhi’s hospitality, we were very glad to make a weary return home the next evening.  

A week or so later came lesson number two: the normality of spontaneity. In the event of a visit from a friend, no matter how spontaneous or inconvenient said visit may be, you are expected to be available. This lesson we learned when one day, out of the blue, Dazhi messaged us saying that he was nearby and waiting for us to meet him. You would have thought during the two-hour journey between his town and ours that he would have found time to tell us. But where’s the spontaneity in that? My classmates and I weren’t particularly busy that day, luckily, and all agreed that we owed it to our new friend to take him around for a couple of hours.  

Wait. A couple of hours? But did Dazhi not host us for 24?  

And so, class began again with lesson number three: the commitment of a meet-up. Meeting Chinese friends rarely constitutes a simple chat over coffee, or walk in the park. Particularly when meeting a visiting friend, the time commitment is likely to be four hours minimum. That day with Dazhi, we had a long catch-up over coffee, a lengthy walk around the city and an extensive meal in the evening. By the end of dinner, we all had places to be and felt we must have sufficiently fulfilled our hosting duties. We politely dropped in to the conversation that we had rugby training that evening, in the expectation that Dazhi would take the hint and conclude the reunion.  

On the contrary, our pre-arrangements seemed to be of no hindrance. Dazhi ended up coming along to rugby training and, despite his apparent lack of interest in sports, and lack of sports attire for that matter, even joined in. Two hours later, we returned to our university accommodation, tired and ready for a good night’s rest. This would have seemed a natural time to say our adieus and part ways. Dazhi again brought out the puppy-dog eyes when we turned down his suggestion of going for late night coffee. Nevertheless, by this time, we were truly exhausted and managed to bring the rendezvous to a close.  

We may have failed to live up to our new friend’s expectations; however, our encounter with Dazhi did teach us some valuable lessons about friendship in China. I’ve since adjusted my attitude towards making and maintaining friendships in China. At home in the UK, I regard making friends as a natural process–if your personalities are suited, then the friendship tends to form and develop with little conscious effort. In China, however, I now tend to view friendship-making as a much more premeditated process, a process to be studied and executed to plan. I’ve even been explicitly asked by Chinese friends, “Are we friends now?” or “Can we be friends?” – questions I haven’t felt the need to ask since elementary school.  

With every new country comes a new set of lessons, in every aspect of life. Of course, there’s a lot more to friendship in China than the three lessons Dazhi taught me. Nonetheless, for me, this was certainly a good start and has led to many an interesting encounter as I continue my journey in China.