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Photo by Luigi Morante

Photo by Luigi Morante

By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

When I started managing Chinese National employees while living in the industrial city of Shenzhen, China, the biggest challenge to my cross-cultural relationships was not language, as I expected it to be. Nor was it my ignorance of Chinese labor law or typical business practices. It was, to my great surprise, the concept of face.

Face—our image of ourselves and the level of esteem, dignity, and prestige we perceive from others—was of such concern to my Chinese National coworkers that the most innocuous of questions could be taken as an affront: Have you finished that project yet? Would you mind making these changes to your presentation? Deadlines were missed, large-scale mistakes were made—and frequently no one said anything for fear of losing face. Any attempt to address mistakes or hold people accountable, even in the friendliest, most supportive and respectful way I could manage, was received as shameful and insulting.

After a year of uncomfortably stretching effort from all sides, my relationships with my colleagues stagnated. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family, I thought I understood face. But not to this degree. I did not know how to filter my every word and action based on a consideration of face, and my coworkers only knew of an existence where face was all-encompassing and all-important.

Prioritizing face is likely intended to protect ourselves and one another from shame, to handle each other’s egos as carefully as we might handle a lovely glass sculpture. And while this sounds wonderful in concept, the day-to-day reality that I discovered in China was far different.

When we focus on preserving face, we prioritize image over relationships and authenticity. We focus on who we want other people to think we are, rather than who we actually are. We hide our true feelings, our true opinions, our true needs. Playing the face game becomes a practice in pretending: pretending something hasn’t happened, pretending things are better than they are, pretending we’re all fine when clearly we’re not.

In short, we do exactly the opposite of what God calls us to do: to care about what’s on the inside rather than the externals. To remove the masks and believe that God and others will still love us.

Put another way, these are the things I don’t do when I am concerned with helping myself save face:

  • Apologize
  • Admit my own mistakes
  • Forgive others for their mistakes
  • Ask questions
  • Ask for help
  • Express a desire to learn or improve
  • Be honest about my feelings or needs

These are the things I don’t do when I am concerned with helping others save face:

  • Provide constructive feedback or suggestions for improvement
  • Express sympathy or compassion
  • Provide assistance to someone in need
  • Confront someone about behavior that is harmful to her or others
  • Let someone know if he has hurt me
  • Create a safe space for others to process

The terrible irony of living by the rules of face is that it hurts us rather than protects us. It alienates us, isolates us, disconnects us from one another. It allows pain to fester. It makes us more—not less—vulnerable to shame.

This is exactly what I witnessed in China, the birthplace of face. My coworkers were lonely, hurting, struggling—and yet they didn’t know how to reach out to others. They had trouble trusting one another with their vulnerabilities. And while it’s easy to point fingers from outside of a cultural context, the truth is that my lifelong tendencies toward people-pleasing and self-sufficiency are descendants of this same face-saving dance.

In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, researcher Brené Brown provides two antidotes to battle the shame that we all, regardless of ethnicity, culture, or other demographic differences, experience: shame resilience and wholehearted living. Shame resilience develops when we acknowledge our shame and reach out to others for support and empathy. Wholehearted living requires vulnerability, not letting others define us, and accepting ourselves just as we are. None of these things are possible if we care too much about saving face (or, in my case, being self-sufficient).

The paradox of Brown’s findings is that we must embrace vulnerability—being honest about our struggles, our weaknesses, our grief and pain—in order to cultivate a healthy and courage-filled life. We must be willing to put ourselves in a place that feels like weakness or nakedness, a place where we need connections with others and with God. The alternative is to live in fear, to be strangled in the grip of shame—even while putting on a mask that tries to show exactly how strong we are.

Lovely glass sculptures can survive only if they stand alone and undisturbed. But God calls us to a much richer and fuller life—for me, my colleagues in China, and everyone else. Losing face to gain a life of greater connection, strength, and freedom seems to me a small, but very worthwhile price to pay.

As scary as it feels, I don’t want to wear that mask anymore. And I’m trusting that God and others will still love me, warts, weaknesses, and all.

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor whose personal essays and short stories have been published in Hong Kong, the UK, and the US. She is particularly passionate about telling true stories of the messiness and beauty of human connections, of sustainable social change, and of the surprising, sometimes humorous ways in which God works in our lives. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and young son. Visit her at www.chengtozun.com or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.

Running the Race

Photo by Josiah Mackenzie

Photo by Josiah Mackenzie

By Jerrica Ching

On Saturday, October 4th, I ran a 5K in Portland.  Three months before this run I had told myself that I would run every single day to build up my stamina and to ensure that I would not burn out for the actual race.  Continue Reading »

Photo by Marcie Casas

Photo by Marcie Casas

By Melanie Mar Chow

In 1977, as a college student, the Lord had grasped my attention about what it means to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind…” and more.    Though I was my grandmother’s constant companion to church at a young age, I rededicated my life to Jesus in my latter high school years, and sought to serve and follow Him to the best of my capability.

During college, I participated in several campus ministry activities and went through a personal call to leave my grandmother’s church and then attend the church of my great-grandmother.  Continue Reading »

Warrior in Pink CoverBy Vivian Mabuni

When I finally made it home, I headed straight to our bedroom. I lay on the bed, pulled the covers over me, and closed my eyes. I tried to rest, but my mind couldn’t settle. My prayer in the food court about letting people in came to mind. I found myself at the same crossroads of deciding whether to muster up self-sufficient strength and go all Christian Rambo—just me and Jesus—or take the braver route to open my heart and let people into my fear. My Asian heritage and cultural value of “don’t rock the boat” or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” amplified my struggle of not wanting to bother people with my problems. I saw this dynamic played out over and over with my family and my Asian friends. One friend tweaked her back so badly she could barely walk. We had planned to have people over for a luncheon. I suggested we order out for pizza so she could rest.
Continue Reading »

Photo by Roe Utena

Photo by Roe Utena

By Eun Joo Angela Ryo

Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.  –Dr. Seuss

Authenticity.  What comes to your mind when you hear the word?  It takes me back to when I was in eighth grade.  The first week of my eighth grade year, my counselor called me to her office and told me that I was missing one class.  Continue Reading »

In Praise of Women

Photo by Rama V

Photo by Rama V

By Diana Gee

For the life of me, I cannot stomach watching shows like The Real Housewives of Some North-American City. I find them odious and glorifying the worst in human relationships. Jealousy, envy, pride, and gluttony all mashed together in artificially constructed female fraternity. Please pass the trashcan. Other shows do marginally better in depicting
“real” women’s lives. But if I pay attention, I do not often find stories of strong female characters relating well to other strong female characters.

I am also hard-pressed to find examples of female friendships in the bible that is not somehow connected by a father, husband, or son. Continue Reading »

Made as a Woman

Woman's Silhouette in WindowBy Ann Chen

A well-known female preacher recently wrote some reflections about the treatment of women around the world, and recounted her own experience facing discrimination as a woman in ministry. As I enter a season of transition from being overseas to stepping into full-time ministry in the States, I’ve been recounting my own journey as a woman navigating a call into ministry.

I don’t think I’ve faced the type of overt discrimination I’ve heard others go through: women who were told that they had no place in the church except in the nursery, others who were hit back with 1 Corinthians 14:34 if they expressed any opinions, even others who were told that a desire to go into ministry was actually sinful and of the devil. Continue Reading »

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