Saving Face

Saving face is the presentation of the self which they would like to project to others. The concept of saving face is an integral part of the Chinese culture, running as deep as the blood which connects them. Chinese traditionalists will lie, fake, and do everything they can to maneuver themselves out of life’s awkward situation. I’m not saying that seeking out embarrassing or humiliating situations is a good thing to do. It is just that the not admitting when one is in those situations definitely is a bad thing to do. And that is what saving face is all about.

There are times when we find ourselves in one of life’s faux pas (e.g., forgetting a name, being served horrible food, leaving a bad phone message, etc.). Admitting when we are embroiled in one of those snafus is the first step toward solving the problem. Not admitting our error is a sign of immaturity and leads toward making more of that kind of mistake later on down the road.

My first wife, Tara, kept a lot from her family. They never knew about our many marital problems. Because of who she was, she kept the worst from those who should have known her best. So, when they eventually learned the whole truth, they were mortified. They didn’t see it all as it developed, so it was a shock to them to learn how bad things were. They ate up all the malarkey she served them and naturally reacted toward me with animosity. My family, on the other hand, didn’t see the situation so black and white, the difference being that they were privy to most of our marital strife nuances.

Fast forward to now, I am experiencing nearly the same situation with Shu Mei. What exacerbates this situation, though, is the whole saving face concept. Shu Mei has never admitted to making a mistake, nor will she if she is to stay true to her Chinese heritage. Not once have I heard her apologize for something she did. Now, either she’s perfect or she will stop at nothing to save face. Of course, the latter is the case here. Sadly, this impedes her individual progress and that of our family.

Furthermore, admitting a mistake and apologizing for it, something that I frequently do in my marriage, is seen as a sign of weakness by the Chinese people. To them, someone who constantly says “I’m sorry” is feeble loser. I am just now realizing that is how Shu Mei sees me. To her, I am useless. She has told me this on several occasions, but I attributed it to her just saying hateful words in a period of anger. However, that is really what she believes after all. And it all comes from this Chinese belief that saving face should be held in the highest regard.

Because Shu Mei is so adamantly set against fessing up to her mistakes and sees my acknowledgement of my personal blunders as a weakness, it is nearly impossible for us to have a great relationship. When I state “great relationship” I am using my own definition and not Shu Mei’s. To her, our relationship would great if we merely don’t talk to each other. That is what she revealed to me a few days ago. I couldn’t believe it and almost didn’t, but I remembered taking her belief in saving face for granted and thought it best to believe she says what she means to say. Now, I am having great difficulty understanding how two people can have a great relationship (again, my own understanding of what that entails here) without communication.

To me, communication is paramount to a relationship’s success. I am straining to comprehend how it couldn’t be. Maybe it is like the proverbial question, “What does salt taste like?” You just have to experience it to answer the question. Trying to explain the taste of salt to someone who has never tasted it before is useless. If Shu Mei has never known the joy that comes from giving emotionally to a relationship, rather than just taking, trying to explain that true happiness is nearly impossible. I just find it very sad that we have such potential and we’re not doing everything we can to reach it.

I have literally begged Shu Mei to go to family counseling with me on several occasions, the most recent being a few days ago. Without exception, she has not accepted my invitation. To Shu Mei, I feel that going to family counseling would somehow feel like she’s a failure. Because of this saving face belief, everything seems to be either black or white to Shu Mei. To her, there is no difference between admitting a mistake and saying she is the cause of every problem in the world. There’s nothing in between. I have repeatedly told her that counseling is about just bringing up the relationship’s problems, but more about solving them. But, I guess she doesn’t think our relationship is more important than saving face.

At this point, it would take a miracle for Shu Mei to see my side of things. Last weekend, she stated that family counseling would be a waste of time because she knows me very well. In fact, she barely knows me at all. I asked her three things about me then: “What is my favorite number?” “What is my shoe size?” and “What color are my eyes?”. She couldn’t answer even one of them. It is very sad when your spouse of more than five years hasn’t even got a basic knowledge about you. Counseling would definitely help our marriage, but Shu Mei refuses to go. If this marriage ends in a divorce, the one Shu Mei will hurt the most is herself. Of course, I would be damaged by it and so would Billy and Tyley, but it is Shu Mei that would feel the serious repercussions from it the most.

Shu Mei has told me that life with me is hell and expects life after a divorce from me to be heaven. Luckily, she has always said that a divorce from me would include the provision that I would get sole custody of both boys. This consoles me a bit, as they are my greatest joy in life. I could never imagine being away from them, and by no means would I allow the terrible ordeal of being separated from a child again, as happened in my first marriage. I still feel great emotional pain from that on a daily basis.

The ball is in Shu Mei’s court, though. She has all the time in the world, not having to work everyday (and some nights) as I do. She can contemplate and conspire all she wants to. I have a role to play in this family and I will continue to play it, until I am forced to do otherwise. I have many problems. I freely admit it, because I think that to admit one’s shortcomings is a sign of strength rather than weakness. I recognize my errors and strive to not repeat them in the future. Undoubtedly, there will be more problems caused by me in the future. I earnestly hope that I will recognize them as they occur and do all that I can to fix them.

I don’t feel that staying married only for the sake of the boys is a good thing. There are several questions that come to mind: Does avoiding divorce in this non-communicative unhappy marriage turn an unhappy me into an extremely depressed me? Does it teach my sons to have important relationships with little fulfillment and love, to accept less than they deserve? Does it teach my sons that they should accept and expect less from their emotional lives? Do I give my sons a sense of “wholeness” at the expense of living a lie and sacrificing their own intimate lives?

On the other hand, a big question (perhaps the biggest of them all) is: What kind of example would quitting now, just because things are difficult, set for the boys? This is the reason I pray for guidance each night before going to bed. I have these burning questions and others like them. I am deeply confused as to what I should do next.

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