I never go outside without sunscreen. When you move to the tropics and suffer horrible equatorial sunburn a week later, you learn immediately that a red, peeling face is not an attractive one. It’s not particularly comfortable either. Every health and beauty magazine released endorses sunscreen as the “miracle product” to protect one’s face. Celebrities swear that’s how they maintain their doll-like looks while lines of age inevitably show through the cracks in their skin. Heck, you can’t even buy makeup without a saleslady waving an SPF (sun-protection factor) number in your face. Nowadays, it’s all about preserving the youth in your skin and saving face.
But in Asia, saving face goes much deeper than sunscreens, hats and SPF ratings. Your face is the most important element of your appearance. In Asia, your face is much more than the part of your body that contains your nose, lips and eyes. To save face actually means to uphold your social dignity and prestige. Your face is your honor and respect. Loosing face is not something that society easily forgives. A sunburn can be healed in a week, but if you loose face, it takes ages to climb back up the social and business ladder — if you can get a hand on a rung at all.
Saving face is not a new concept in Asia. In feudal Japan, Samurai warriors were expected to choose death over losing social honor and frequently committed the “honorable” rite of suicide known as seppuku, which was essentially self-disembowelment (this can be seen at the end of Puccini’s tragic opera “Madame Butterfly”). In China, a disobedient woman who shook the foundations of the Confucian chain of command could be exiled from her home for dishonoring her family. As you move farther east to India, Pakistan and the Middle East, the face and honor of a family in some religious and ethnic groups becomes much more significant, even worthy of murder. The honor of a family is embodied completely within the sexual purity of its female members, so much so that murdering a daughter or sister who is rumored to be “impure” is deemed an act of honor, euphemistically known as “honor killing.”
In everyday life in Southeast Asia, though, you don’t encounter Samurai warriors vowing to commit seppuku and other tragedies of the sort. Saving face happens on a more superficial level that simply causes inconveniences in daily life. For example, if you walk into a store asking for a camisole, instead of clarifying what a camisole is to better help you, the shopkeeper will either turn you away or enthusiastically show you a lovely pair of pants. If you are lost and you stop and ask someone for directions, rather than admitting that they don’t know where your destination is and thus lose face for their “ignorance,” he or she will point confidently in a random direction and send you off on a wild goose chase. Once when I grumbled about this to a Chinese friend, he laughed and said never to trust anyone who gives you directions in Asia, because it’s inevitable that you’ll end up getting wrong instructions. Also, if you need to know one thing about saving face, it’s to never say “no” in Asia. That denotes inflexibility, impatience and rudeness. Instead, a passive “maybe” or “I’ll look into it” does the trick. So does a one-word “yes.”
Just recently, I went to the Chinese embassy in Singapore to get a visa for an upcoming trip. I told the guard at the gate that I was here to submit my visa application documents. He pulled out a pamphlet titled “How to Apply for a Chinese Visa” and gave it to me. I explained that I had all my documents done and needed to submit them to the embassy for approval. He said, “yes.” I asked if I could go in. He said, “yes.” We stared at each other blankly for a few minutes as I waited for him to open the gate. When it was clear that he wasn’t going to move, I then asked if I was at the right place. He said, “yes.” I asked if I was at the wrong place. He said, “yes.” Then I asked if he understood what I was saying. He said, “yes.”
Saving face is taken so seriously in Asia that the Chinese even have a hand motion for saying someone has lost face. Slide your index finger down across your face from your ear to the corner of your lips in one quick, brushing motion. But never, ever do this to an adult. Why not? Because, of course, both you and he will lose face. You, because you openly criticized someone and bluntly accused him of losing face in a childish way, and he, because someone publically called him out for losing face. It’s a lose-lose situation.
The way to maintain your face in Asia is tantamount to being polite in North America or Europe. Simply, don’t lose your cool in public and don’t put someone down. Also, paradoxically, if you point out someone else’s mistake, not only do you make that person lose face, but you also lose face for your social blunder. Just follow that age-old rule we all learned in kindergarten: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
So when you venture onto the streets of Southeast Asia, don’t forget your map, your sunscreen, your hat and your SPF (Self Preservation of Face). A sunburned face isn’t an attractive one. Neither is a lost one.
Worried about losing your face? Ask Aysha Kureishi for tips at [email protected].