Guan Xi: The Art of Repaying Obligations

By Pang

Guan xi in Chinese is often translated as “relationship” and colloquially explained as “I scratch your back, you scratch my back.” But it goes beyond trading favors; they are favors with strings attached. It’s an insidious obligation and debt that can never be repaid, and there’s a detailed accounting of credits and debits that follow you to your grave.

In Taiwan you’ll sometimes see people fighting to pay the bill. They do this not wanting to get into a lifelong arrangement, or perhaps they have already entered such an arrangement and it’s time for a repayment for fear of shame for accepting previous payments without acknowledging gratitude. My mother called me up the other day, explaining to me that it was time to repay a debt. Her best friend’s daughter and son-in-law were in the States and driving up from LA to visit. Wait a minute, I thought. What was this all about? Apparently I had a meal in Taiwan that my mother’s friend paid for over 20 years ago! It was time to repay the debt, and the creditors were knocking on her door.

Fine, but the woman who paid wasn’t coming. It was this woman’s daughter and son-in-law. So why was I expected to be a gracious host? Guan xi, unlike debt, can be passed down like inheritances. My mother had gone back to Taiwan to visit last year and her friend’s daughter and son-in-law took her sightseeing for a week. While it was my mother’s debt to repay, I apparently had also inherited the debt. Here I am being summoned to help several people I have never met.

“They would just stop by and say hello,” my mother said. I just needed to go over to my mother’s one-bedroom condo and make an appearance at dinner. They would be arriving Saturday afternoon, and I had to be down in the lobby to greet them. Begrudgingly, I went over to my mother’s on the day of reckoning. I waited down in the lobby at the prescribed time. Ten minutes later, I saw a lost and confused stereotypical Taiwanese guy (glasses, bowl cut, bad clothes, you name it) looking through the glass lobby doors all confused. Then another disoriented Taiwanese woman came by also peering in. I opened the door to introduce myself. I told them I was the son of the woman they were looking for.

The couple breathed a sigh of relief, happy to have found the place. I walked back with them to a giant SUV to find two other women—I think it was my mother’s friend’s other daughter, a family friend, and a teenage girl who was someone’s daughter. Each person lugged a huge suitcase and we proceeded up to my mother’s modest apartment. OMFG… where would everyone sleep? My mother was prepared with several sleeping bags, but all the bags alone filled up the alcove near her entry. It would be a slumber party, but at least the lodging was “free.” They brought gifts of tea and food from Taiwan to my mother.

The gang arrived to find a huge spread of food in the kitchen. Cooking was something my mother did well, and her primary way of showing appreciation to others, and to repay guan xi. Never mind that this rag tag group of Asians had been driving all day, had a late lunch at In-n-Out and weren’t exactly interested in eating a smorgasbord. They wanted to use the bathroom and run off for some sightseeing. Nonetheless, they politely had some soup and a few bites, and asked for directions on how to get to the famous “LOM-BARD” street with the crooked curves and Fisherman’s Wharf. After an hour, the gang rushed down to the car because the meter had expired and said they’d be back later. I took this opportunity to leave while I could. But my mother reminded me that I needed to come back the next day to show them around.

Guan xi, strangely, is based only on memory and there are no written records, only actions and a pile of gifts. Without a promissory note, no note can ever be stamped PAID IN FULL.

ABOUT PANG: Made in Taiwan, but imported to the USA shortly thereafter, I have spent my life explaining why I have a funny name, why I can speak English like a corn-fed American, and where I’m really from.

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