Sunday, April 20, 2008

Er Nai, the long-winded version

Understanding a new culture really is like peeling back the layers of the oft-cliched onion, and there is a significant difference between "understanding" a culture and "knowing". As wonderful as books are, they are no substitute for experience, at least in my case.

It has taken me years and years to understand the ideas which any textbook on Chinese culture teaches, such as filial piety, ancestor worship, or the Mandate of Heaven. If I am actually just extremely dense, I nonetheless find comfort in the phenomenon that media and society reward people who succeed due to life-long obsession with their work, and not people who are just good at something from 9-5. In other words, immersion--in my case, just being here everyday--and not any actual talent, is what differentiates those who "understand" from those who "know".

My peeling of the Chinese cultural onion happens at instants, like epiphanies. My most recent cultural epiphany was on the "er nai" (二奶, mistress) system. In recent months, I had become more concerned and frustrated with the er nai culture here, probably for personal reasons: I was getting closer to marriage myself, and being surrounded by people whose own marriages have been violated worried me about the sanctity of my own future relationship.

An er nai is a woman who basically contracts herself to a man for money, property, and material objects, which the man provides in secret (from his family) and indefinitely or until he gets sick of the er nai. Er nai are nearly always young women, say 20-30 years old, and their level of education can vary from none to college-educated. Being an er nai is basically a paid job, as er nai will not hold a job at the same time. Er nai who meet their sponsor through work will resign before officially becoming er nai. It's almost as if they agree to leave society: their friends are mostly other er nai, and many lie to their parents that they are making good money as a company employee in the big city, as the social status of an er nai is so low as to be shameful to their family and former friends.

As an American--and I believe I represent many Americans in saying this--having an affair is considered a grave offense, legally and socially. In an organization I worked in during college, one coworker's affair with the daughter of a professor at the university resulted not only in his divorce, but also ostracizing by coworkers.

So to be in China, and to hear daily of acquaintances' various net relationships, meetings in hotel rooms, and kept er nai, it is just a little difficult to imagine why society is not in an uproar. As a woman in a relationship, I worried if, when I get old and ugly and domesticated, my future husband would ever take an er nai, as some of his acquaintances already boastfully have done.

But, to my confusion, Chinese society has not fallen apart. Sure, some people get divorced, but mostly for other reasons, like irreconcilable differences. Most people know about a partner's infidelity, and live with it. How is that possible? I finally made the connection: because people in China don't marry out of love, they marry out of considerations like stability, similar backgrounds, and parental approval. Women marry men who have: 1) an apartment, 2) a car, and 3) a high salary. Men marry women who are attractive and "motherly": they don't have to be good conversation (i.e. intelligent) , but they have to be able to take care of the husband and his family, and be capable of having a boy a kid. In other words, because love is not the moral core of marriage, as it is in the West, having an affair is not socially so condemned (it is illegal, though). An er nai does not interfere with marriage because the man does not necessarily expect sexual satisfaction from his wife in the first place, and an er nai has no parenting skills or requisite social status which could be used to supplant the wife.

As for what marriage means, it's important to also understand that Chinese do not think of themselves as self-reliant individuals who look for a mate to share their lives with; they provide one half of the family equation, and look for someone else for the other half. Chinese choose the partner who they think is the absolute best they can get based on their own merits, and the bar is set very high to start. Personal love between two people is not part of the equation, though.

And so, once I understood that marriages do not necessarily relate to love or desire, infidelity and the er nai system made perfect sense, and even necessary. Regardless of how thick a veneer society paints on top of human instinct, physical sexual desire needs to be channeled in a way society can tolerate. If people were forced to either romantically love their wives or give up sex, society would fall apart. The er nai system actually keeps society stable because it is a channel that everybody--husbands, er nai, and even wives (albeit conceptually, if not personally)--accept.

Understanding how er nai and affairs in general made sense in the China context, and not in the Western context, I realized (again in an epiphany) that social phenomena in general could be analyzed as part of a "social ecosystem". In an ecosystem, each organism plays a specific and important role in keeping the system alive, and the entrance of foreign organisms can disrupt the system. A social ecosystem would work the same way. For example, in an ecosystem where marriage is based on mutual love, infidelity is shunned because it only breaks the system; in an ecosystem where marriage is based on mutual material and social benefit, infidelity supports the system by ensuring people also have a sexual outlet if needed.

Through research, I have found that, alas, I am certainly not the first person to think of society as an ecosystem, as anthropologists had "ecosystems theory" since the 1970s. One good thing about anthropology, though, is that it thrives on specific contextual examples to support major theories, so I can happily look for interesting examples of ecosystem theory in Chinese culture without necessarily rehashing. Even though anthropology has since then incorporated much more complex ideas of what an ecosystem is, like "complex systems science", self-organization and diversification, at this point I am still most interested in how aspects of society are related to maintaining balance and stability of the whole.

I can aspire to one day having an epiphany where more modern concepts of an anthropological ecosystem suddenly make sense. Until then, I am busy looking for other examples that can be explained in the simplest sense of the word: examples of habits or social phenomena I find absurd or offensive from within my Western/American ecosystem, but that can be completely rationalized once viewed from within the whole of their own system.

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