I am going to write about an East Asian and Southeast Asian concept called “face.” I want to do a disclaimer that I did not know the concept of “face” until I was much older. I may be Southeast Asian, but I was raised by third culture parents so I did not understand certain Asian behaviors. My husband, on the otherhand, grew up with a lot of the Southeast Asian traditions that he has to explain to me (albeit it’s not the easiest to explain). A lot of the writing on face will be my observations.

Face is not so much about physical features, it’s an abstract concept of how one appears to the world. It’s to show social standing, reputation, influence, dignity, and honor wherever you go. “Saving” face is also known as “building face” which allows an opportunity to raise their self-worth. People do it through many ways, but the most common way I observed is through showing material wealth or showing off how many kids you have (please tell me I’m wrong). The opposite of “save face” is “lose face” when one loses status.

I did not understand the concept until I was in my mid-20s when I got engaged to my husband. My soon-to-be MIL wanted to invite a lot of people to the wedding — people who did not mean a lot to my husband because he did not know them. My husband kept saying she likes to “save face” and since then I’ve been trying to figure it out. I guess he was referring to status.

More observed actions to “save” face:

  • Invite a lot of people to a wedding. And make sure this wedding is lavish.
  • Having an expensive car. Even if you can’t afford it.
  • Showing off your large house. I’ve observed showing face is showing off your tangible wealth.
  • When your child accomplishes something. I’ve seen children as unfortunate accessories for their parents.
  • Giving money.
  • Bringing your children and their grandchildren to a party.
  • Being seen a party.

…but I could be wrong. I want to also believe “saving face” is showing you are a charitable and genuinely good-hearted person. Not all this toxic behavior around material wealth.

Then here’s how one could “lose” face:

  • Being told your mistake or that you lied
  • Admitting their mistake
  • Experiencing humilitation. The feeling of being defaced.

Is there a point system to face? I’m not sure, but it sounds like there is.

The other day I shared a post about how BIL #2 gave me and my husband pneumonia. My husband wrote a series of text messages telling BIL #2 that he wants him to move out because he’s too lazy and irresponsible to take care of his health and consequently he’s harming our health. BIL #2 did not respond. I suggested to my husband that we should share this incident on Facebook and it’s likely he’ll respond because he’ll be pushed to talk at this point.

I get that doing public humiliation is the ultimate social crime in Asian families. I’m not for it, but I felt the public humiliation will get him to respond…or someone will respond because they would feel shame through him. I was aware of the collateral damage that would come out of it too. My husband then said, “I’ll tell my mom and the rest of my siblings.”

My husband deciding to be upfront with family was the best thing to do because everyone’s ego is spared. Embarrassing BIL #2 on Facebook to friends and family would be embarrassing everyone else. My husband and I would be pointed out as the “bad guys” but we would get out of the public humiliation unscathed because we have a strong support group, good careers, a house we own, and we’re economically doing ok. But the rest of the family, not so much. How they appear on social media is all they have.

When my husband shared the news with the rest of his family, they were not as supportive of the decision, unfortunately. SIL said, “now you know what I had to deal with for nine years.” But she had a choice to not deal with it. MIL is upset. When my husband called her, I could hear the tears through her voice. After this weekend, my husband came out of it as the “bad son” — I guess we’re “cancelled” in that clan. But on the flipside, everyone else’s face got saved or…shall I say “preserved”?

What does “face” mean to you? Comment below!

8 thoughts on “Face”

  1. This concept is somewhat foreign to me having been raised partly by a Caucasian step father though I am familiar with. My mom talks about it on a daily basis and how you described it in your post, it’s exactly how the rest of the family behaves. Personally, I don’t get it. Who cares about social status and showing off your wealth might just get you robbed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for an interesting post. The concept is very foreign to my mindset, even though I have seen it with some of my daughters friends.


    1. It’s foreign to me. I think the closest thing I can think of is showing off the things you have to impress people around you. But I see through my husband, it’s so much more.


  3. For me, “face” is somewhat like “pride” or to some extend “honour”. So if someone loses “face”, he/she will feel humiliated. But for some people, hurting their pride is the best way to make them change…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Understood. I agree I think hurting someone pride can help someone turn around. I’ve experienced humbling moments where I get to reflect, though it was never major like neglecting my health to the point I get others sick.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m afraid I know all too well what you are talking about. Having said this, I am not as tuned into the intricacies of Saving Face, unlike my husband, who comes from rather hierarchical families on both the Indian & Chinese fronts. My family although born & bred in Singapore, is rather bohemian. And when my siblings and I left for the US for college (both are still living there), we happily adopted much more Western ways, to the delight of my parents.

    It is very challenging though, living in multi-family household. I am cheering you on!


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