Guanxi: How to enjoy an exchange in China

Willem Evers is an exchange student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He will share his experiences to encourage people to study abroad and deal with cultural differences.

When Willem Evers first arrived in Shanghai, he had no Guanxi at all.

A key concept in Chinese culture is “Guanxi” , which is often translated as ‘relationships’. However, this term doesn’t cover the cultural implications of Guanxi. The idea of this concept is that everyone and everything is part of a bigger system based on commitments and reciprocity, “you get what you give”.

When I first arrived in Shanghai, I had no Guanxi at all. After the initial excitement of arriving in a city of 25 million people had passed, I felt lost for a couple of days. What the hell was I going to do here? Uni hadn’t started and all my friends were still vacationing and partying around Europe. I didn’t know the city, lived in the outskirts and accidentally ate a lot of chicken feet. This was going to be a tough semester …

I decided it was up to me to enjoy Shanghai. I went out to discover the city, found a new apartment and met lots of people. I sang karaoke with drunk Chinese people and got involved in a lot of Shanghai activities (such as traditional sword fighting and cooking dim sum) and in no time I started enjoying myself.

However, it wasn’t to be that easy. A new challenge awaited me: enrolling for my courses.

After talking to at least 10 counsellors and professors, and building a bit of Guanxi, I had some kind of a curriculum. Unfortunately, the International Student Office at Jiao Tong didn’t agree with it and made me drop a course, only two weeks before the final exam. These things happen all the time here. Just let it go. Nobody is going to do anything about this ‘injustice’ as it’s irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things.

These cultural differences between China and the Netherlands, and the concept of Guanxi, is reflected in the study attitude. At Delft University of Technology it is fine to watch a lecture at twice the speed on collegerama, but here every lecture is mandatory and participation can make up 50% of your grade. By being present and active during the lecture, you build up Guanxi with your professor.

In China, the individual is just one small piece of a larger whole, and everything is interconnected. This system allows China’s economic machine to thrive, and Shanghai is ahead of this curve. It offers all the spoils that come with the economic rise of China, such as great restaurants, bars, museums and events. The only thing you need to do, is figure out where and when these things happen and who can take you there. You have to become part of the Shanghai system.

As students of TU Delft, we are offered amazing opportunities to study abroad. If you make the effort to build Guanxi, you will have an amazing time.



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