This was originally published when Sensei Michael was in China.
Many westerners who come over to oriental societies have to immediate grapple with one reality – the strong culture and presence of gifts-giving and even bribery that takes place in our societies. It can range from the blatant (Indonesia or Vietnam) to the indirect (China or Philippines) to the “legalised and regulated” (Singapore!).
I remembered my first encounter with gifts as a teacher – I got a very expensive book from a parent. It was very, very difficult for me to return that gift without offending the parent so I approached my principal for advice. Public servants in Singapore (of whom teachers are a part of) have very strict instructions regarding gifts (declare value, report to superiors, etc), to avoid any problems or even appearance of bribery. I decided to make that book publicly available to all my colleagues.
Over at my school, I encountered Korean parents – and I realised that Korean parents took their gift-giving very seriously. It’s something like a mark of respect or even “face” to them to present a gift of nominal value (chocolates, for example) to a teacher they respect. But since I’m no longer a public servant, I could accept them without any problem.
There was one gift I had to return though, and that really destroyed my relationship with the parent (sigh). It was a very beautiful idol of some Indonesian tribe or something, which we suspect to be a totem of some sort. I don’t think it’s very appropriate for a Christian family to have this in the house so I wrote a card explaining my position and returned the gift. That parent never spoke to me again.
I know that God has very serious instructions regarding bribery.
“And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous.” Exodus 23:8
“You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality, nor take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.” Deuteronomy 16:19
“A wicked man accepts a bribe behind the back, To pervert the ways of justice.” Proverbs 17:23
In other words, bribes are given to blind the eyes and to pervert justice. When money is given for the judge to award you his judgement, that’s a bribe. When money is given for a person to award you the contract, even if other parties obviously gives the better deal, that’s a bribe.
How about gifts? What does the Bible say about gifts (remember that the Hebrew society is an oriental one)?
“Many entreat the favor of the nobility, And every man is a friend to one who gives gifts.” Proverbs 19:6
“A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.” Proverbs 18:16
I think it is very clear here – a gift is an introduction, a means to put ourselves in good standing before a person in an oriental society (I suspect it works in western societies as well!). Herein lies the great power of the oft-acclaimed Chinese guanxi 关系, which literally means “connections” or “relations”. You can get guanxi by being a childhood friend or relative, or by being friends later in life (mostly through gifts – monetary, in kind or by being the leverage for your own personal guanxielsewhere).
What gifts have I given so far that has given me some of this guanxi? I’ve a friend who has connections with government officials – she likes me, and I’ve been a great help to her in establishing herself in Singapore. I’ve leveraged upon my network to create opportunities for the school to perform in public venues – both sides are happy in the process.
I learnt one thing though – that ultimately, we need to be discerning over what constitutes a bribe and what constitutes a gift (I suspect many of my definitions of “gifts” are considered bribes by most governments of today). I believe that as long as we are sure we are not perverting justice or blinding the eyes of the decision-maker, any gifts we give to make room for us in high places would be regarded by God as wisdom. And what is the value God has placed upon wisdom?
My son, if you receive my words, And treasure my commands within you,
So that you incline your ear to wisdom, And apply your heart to understanding;
Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding,
If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, And find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;