In Western culture, being extremely persistent borders on desperation. Simple case and point: you are a recruiter and you interview a candidate for a job, he rejects your position. However, you keep calling over and over again to try to work out something with him. Eventually, he blocks you on his phone. In his view, you are so desperate to hire someone that you latch onto the first person with qualifications. It shows that either your network or the company you are recruiting for is so bad that no one else wants anything to do with you.
Another case and point: a girl doesn’t return your call or your voicemail, so you call, text, email her endlessly for the next few weeks. Eventually, you get the point and realize that you were just desperate. If only you had a few girls to call and text and flirt with during that time, you wouldn’t have devoted so much time to this one girl. When she tells her friends about you in the future, she’ll be like, “That creeper. Omagawd!”
Chinese people are often persistent to the point of pissing others off, but it’s rarely a sign of desperation. In fact, many times, they had many other options, but they actually forgo the options to focus on the one at hand. They call it 看重 (kan zhong).
One of the most famous stories in Chinese historical folklore is the 三顾茅庐. This is the story of how the most famous Chinese strategist 诸葛亮 (Zhu Ge Liang), became the Prime Minister to the struggling warlord 刘备 (Liu Bei) prior to the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history during the end of the Han Dynasty. If Liu Bei never had Zhu Ge Liang, he would not have been able to establish his kingdom 蜀 in Southwest China (where I’m from).
So the story goes like this: Liu Bei and his two 结拜 brothers (aka non-biological, but sworn brothers) find out from a local wiseman that Zhu Ge Liang is one of the greatest minds in the area and will 安天下 (make peace of chaos). After finding out where Zhu Ge Liang lives, Liu Bei and his two brothers visit Liang’s house immediately because this was prior to the era of phones and Internet and people would actually swing by people’s places. Lo and behold, Liang aka Kong Ming isn’t there. So the three go home emptyhanded. They go again after a few days, and again, Kong Ming isn’t there. They go a third time, and again, Kong Ming isn’t there. At this point, Bei’s two brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei are pissed off. They yell to Bei, “Who the heck is this mystery man? What makes him so special that older brother you had to come out three times personally? I should kick his ass next time.” But Bei tells his brothers to be professional. Finally, on the fourth try, they meet Zhu Ge Liang. Liang takes a lot of convincing during the meeting, but he finally joins Bei’s team. Together, the four of them, and later with warrior tactician extraordinaire Zhao Yun, defeat all the surrounding warlords in the area.
This story (which every Chinese kid knows by age 10) of Liu Bei’s initial encounters with Zhu Ge Liang illustrates the quintessential allegory for the Chinese way of thinking about the journey to get the prize. I think every culture teaches that good things comes with hard work and persistence, but Chinese people seem to take it way to the extreme. Sometimes, this could be a good thing. For example, if a Chinese parent wants her kid to get a 2400 on the SAT, she’ll send her kid to test-prep starting freshman year of high school when all his classmates are hooking up after school and smoking weed. By the time he gets to junior year and is ready to take the test, he’s probably done 50+ practice SAT exams. Too bad his 2400 will be equal to the pot-smoker’s 2100 because high performing minority groups get penalized during the application process (but that's another blog for another time).
But this persistence sometimes really works against people of the Chinese culture, especially when it comes to social situations. The first example that I gave in the beginning of this blog actually happened twice in my life.
The first time, a Chinese festival in the DC area wanted me to sing for their concert. I was not interested because they were very mean to me in the past, but they called me at least 40 more times and left me at least 20 voicemails. They just had no idea that my ignoring them was a sign that I didn’t want to hear from them. Eventually, I had to call them and tell them that I was not even in the area that winter.
The second time was when I worked on a Chinese movie in the DC area. The casting director was straight from China, so he had no idea how to speak English. He wanted someone to play the protagonists’ stepmother. Apparently, there was this woman of Czech descent who seemed to be interested from a prior meeting. Because he didn’t speak English, he asked me to call. So I did. She didn’t pick up, so I left a message. I told him that she’ll hear the message. If she’s interested, she’ll call us. After two hours, he wants me to call again. I tell him that’s too soon. 20 minutes later, he asks again, so I text her and ask her to respond at her earliest convenience. A few hours later, he asks me to call again. I call and leave one more voicemail. A few hours later, still no reply, so he asks me to think about any other way to contact her. I see on the casting sheet that she listed her Facebook, so we reach out to her on Facebook. No response. The next day, still no response, so the casting director asks me to call again. At this point, I get very impatient with him. I tell him that in America, this level of persistence is called harassment. This is how restraining orders get issued. He didn’t understand the legal side of things, but he knew from my tone that I was going to punch his face if he tried to harass this poor lady again. After a few more days, she coyly texts me back telling me she isn’t really interested.
In both these situations, the extreme, bordering-on-harassing level of persistence was because the said people valued the target immensely. There was desperation, but not desperation from scarcity. For that Chinese festival, they could have chosen anyone else to sing for that segment, but they chose me because they liked my acoustic guitar singing coupled with Chinese songs. They had their sights set on me, and nothing was going to stop them in their mind. In the second scenario, there were lots of women who wanted to play the stepmother because she had the third-most lines for any female character in the movie. There was an abundance of applicants from aspiring actors. The casting director and the director wanted to show the Czech lady that they really valued her look out of all the applicants and want her onboard for the movie because it would be the greatest mutual benefit.
This is also why Chinese people are still the hopeless romantics who would do something extravagant and corny and crazy to try to woo the girl. It’s all in how they interpret these extreme shows of persistence.
I write this blog now because there’s a Chinese company that’s been wanting me to be their social media director for a few weeks. They’ve persistently called and called. I know they value my skills. I just hope my Western thinking is wrong and want to believe that they’re being so persistent with me because they choose me out of a pool of candidates and not because I’m the only one that they could find/might take their bullshit. Persistence despite abundance, not persistence from scarcity, hopefully. Keep you guys posted on this one and whether I take the job or not.