In Part 1 and Part 2 I talked about how living in Asia is helping free me from the burden of comparison. I covered how Asian women can be excellent examples of female leadership in an office, and the logistic and social tribe benefits of an Asian city. But the posts kept running into extended essay form so I broke them up over a few installments. Here’s the final post in this series (after about 1 year of working in Asia) on why Asia is great for single women and you should ignore all the warnings about the dating scene. I would definitely recommend being an expat woman in Asia.
- Being a woman and presumably / generally / statistically more sensitive and empathetic to those around you is a great advantage to learning and enjoying the subtle Asian cultures.
In general, I’m quite sensitive. Over-sensitive actually. Not sensitive as in “thin-skinned” but sensitive as in highly aware of the thoughts, feelings and emotions of those around me. I can make mountains out of molehills because that part of me is “on” but untrained and under-exercised. Quite simply, sometimes my senses are searching desperately for something to gnaw on and do…. when there’s not that much subtlety happening. Living in a foreign culture though has actually helped me turn this into a skill rather than a weakness. On the far side of the world there actually routinely are subtexts and unknown context.
When I arrived in Asia I noticed immediately that when speaking to my teams and coworkers I wasn’t getting the whole story on any given topic. But I didn’t know what parts I was missing, or how to get them. After a few months though I realized that my coworkers were coaching me both on how to be personally more accessible and to access more information from them. Unfortunately for my first few months on the job, they had done it so subtly that it took me some time to catch on.
Asian cultures, in general, are incredibly subtle. It’s a sense of ‘Why say something bluntly when you can suggest it?’ or ‘Don’t express out all your emotions lest you ruffle the group’ which leads to much harder to read facial expressions and quieter body language. In contrast, Americans are known for being quite blunt and open… some might say unrefined. (We call it “straightforward.”)
“Why say something outright when you can suggest it?”
One of the first times I clearly absorbed this lesson was when one of my staff managed to coach me into proper gift-giving etiquette (a very Asian interaction) for my first business trip. She wandered by one afternoon before I left for my first visit to China and innocently asked me if I would be bringing a gift to our China team. As I was in the midst of an annoying spreadsheet at the time I answered thoughtlessly: “nope. I’m not going on any customer visits on this trip, just working with the China team.” She nodded, not showing any clues on her face, and wandered off again.
Luckily, I had worked with her long enough that later that day warning bells sounded when I reflected on our conversation. This employee didn’t wander by and ask questions just out of curiosity and I’d seen enough interactions at this point to realize a question like this was actually a suggestion. In fact, due to the fact that she hadn’t quietly dropped this into another conversation indicated that it was most likely a major item. She was taking it upon herself to try and coach me into better Asian etiquette.
Was it uncomfortable for her? Did she think at any point that it was a bit shameful for me – nearly 10 years her senior and her boss – that I didn’t know proper etiquette? Had she been doing the equivalent of turning a blind eye to a dinner companion who chews with her mouth open and finally couldn’t let it go on any longer? I have no idea. She (and most Asians I’ve worked with) are far too gracious to ever say.
So I followed up with her that afternoon and asked what gift might be popular in China if I were to bring one. What did she do? Brought over a post-it with the name of the shop, it’s location in the airport terminal, and the name of the cake I should buy written out in both Chinese and English. Which she happened to have on her desk just in case. And which was consequently all the confirmation I needed that her innocuous question was a subtle way of saying “please don’t go to China and the team without bringing a gift, it’s rude.”
“Had she been doing the equivalent of turning a blind eye to a dinner companion who chews with his mouth open? How rude was I?”
I’ll be honest, a culture like this has so much subtlety that it has backfired on me as well. There’s more than a little bit of danger in knowing just enough to be rated as fit for polite society – albeit at a novice level – and therefore have many of your interactions judged by the host environment rather than as a foreigner. Without meaning to be at all subtle, I asked the China team on one trip where I could buy some local candies to bring back to my team in Singapore. One woman promptly left the office and returned with two large bags of candies for my team as a gift from them.
I hadn’t meant to suggest my team would welcome hearing from them or that perhaps the China team should thank my team for the extra support they had been providing recently (though it was a lovely thought and well-received.) I certainly hadn’t meant to imply she needed to go spend money on my team. I had honestly just meant to ask for directions to a shop so I could bring back a little something (another cultural habit I had been tutored in.) But I humbly turned courier and brought those bags of candy back to my team without ever going into the shop or paying for the candy. Questions can be a much more complex thing in Asia than expected.
In my experience, women are more primed and ready to pick up on these types of clues and hints than men. While Western men (at least many I know) complain about overly intricate female interactions, the hyper sensitivity, and the generally foreign Venetian language and interactions that women use – these are also a primed and baked skillset that gives women a leg up on learning and navigating a foreign culture.
Do I think everything about living in Asia is spectacular for a single woman? No. But I do think there were some stories and perspectives missing out there. And I’m doing my best not to comment at length on the fact that the majority of material written about women who have taken career options in foreign countries focuses, in 2016 no less, on women’s dating potential.
Especially because I Googled that one, too.