Face and the Fish

So I picked up the second volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography: From Third World to First. What I read of it, nearly two hundred pages, was not nearly as interesting as his first volume. Instead of continuing in a chronological tone, he decided to cover his life thematically, and this led him to hitting a lot of ground again, ground which he’d traversed quite well in the first book.

There was one thing, though, that stuck with me, a Chinese proverb: Big fish eat little fish. Little fish eat shrimp.

It’s a simple proverb, intimating that there’s a hierarchy to the world. A very Confucian value. I forget the context, but the parable remains true taken out of it. And it’s a very large part of life in Asia, this hierarchy.

Son to parents, fathers to sons, fathers to officials, officials to emperor. Relationships predefined. Almost as distinct as the caste system in India, but different. When I served a mission for the LDS church–back when I was young and had faith–we frequently ran across people who wanted to convert, but didn’t because they respected their parents too much, and their parents were Confucian, or animistic, or even Vietnamese Buddhist.

I won’t go farther into my mission at this point, as it is a part of my life in which I was on the verge of insanity and not necessarily perceiving reality the way it actually occurred.

What I do know is that Face, that vicious concept, rules the region. Even though one part of the region is Theravada and the other Mahayana Buddhist, there are also overlays of Confucianism, Catholicism, Animism, Daoism, Islam, and half a dozen other religions. It’s important to retain Face, and it’s also important to allow those who one deals with to do the same. If a solution can be reached in which both sides benefit, both sides keep Face, then it is far more likely that both sides will agree, and furthermore, abide by the solution.

I saw this happen in Cambodia. A foreigner came to us with a claim for an employment bonus that went unpaid. My boss, a Cambodian native who had studied in France, suggested a Face sensitive approach. First, the foreigner should go to the boss and protest treatment on his own. If that didn’t work, then the lawyer should go. If that didn’t work, then file for arbitration–a very visible action in Cambodia–and then eventually, if all else failed, to court.

The lesson here, though, is that confrontation should be resolved at the lowest level possible, to allow for both sides to maintain their Face. I’m done for now, but anticipate more discussions of Face to come in the future.



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