The Two-Faced East Asian: working in Japan and China

Everyone has a boss who has a boss who has a boss…. You get my drift…. The biggest boss in the hierarchy makes his junior miserable who makes his junior miserable who makes his junior miserable…. You get my drift… The people at the bottom of the hierarchy are the most miserable of all. They seem to get the least, but they have the most to lose. 


There is a term in Gujarati called, ‘Jat Betave’. I’ve been trying to translate it for years, but I can’t seem to. It refers to the idea that sooner or later, people will show who they really are. Yea yea, I know that there’s an English phrase – ‘to show one’s true colours’. But the nuance of the Gujarati phrase is quite different. It holds the connotation that people will hide behind their colour, religion, rank or any sort of privilege to show one’s superiority or seek power over another. That in essence is: Jat Batave. 

I’ve only been in China for 5 weeks, but I’ve already seen it time and time and time again.


I’m in a whole different country, speaking a whole different language, working in a whole different environment – but the basic structures and social norms that I had to contend with in Japan; I have to deal with here as well. 

I generally think it’s impolite to talk behind people’s backs. If you have something to say to someone, say it to their face. Be honest and upfront. If you’re the two-faced type, ultimately people won’t trust you. But in this part of the world, this is the norm. And it isn’t even personal. Too many people would rather preserve a surface harmony – and save face – than thrash out a conflict and be done with it.

And in Japan… and now it seems China… people will hide behind their rank and their peer group. So you never really know… well… anyone! You may think you know them, but you don’t. They may be nice to you on the surface, but who the hell knows what they really think. And not to sound sexist (I am a woman by the way), but it’s mostly other women who do the behind-the-scenes backstabbing. They would rather take another woman down, than try and elevate themselves. 

East Asia – commonly used to refer to China, Japan and Korea – has one of the most densely populated areas in the world. East Asia is home to some 1.6 billion people or 22% of the global population. The unit of society is not the individual – but the family. Beyond their jobs and their families – people don’t seem to care for much else. Life revolves around a rigid set of social and societal norms that everyone seems to know. People are always looking to the people around them to inform who they are. 

Now enter the expat, the foreigner. We come from another country. We are treated like foreigners – expected to know nothing, but at the same time expected to function in a working environment where ‘their’ rules apply. And what do you get? 

Jat bateve. The whole: we’ll show you who’s boss around here, you’re on our turf, you’ll do as you’re told. 

And then the expat decides to leave, leaving the locals wondering just what in the world happened. Locals can’t just walk out the way expats do. 

Two-way honest communication is key. And we can’t do it if we’re being two-faced. 

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