Birds of a feather flock together, but they don't build a nest

Wan Lixin
Superficial relationships that fall short of traditional friendship are becoming popular among the young. What's causing this phenomenon?
Wan Lixin
Birds of a feather flock together, but they don't build a nest

If you want to have lunch in the office canteen but worry that eating alone may stigmatize you, dine with a dazi, or "casual companion."

This is one of the latest trends: linking up with someone of like interest for what could be a short period of time in a relationship that falls short of true friendship.

Dazi may partner you in a mahjong session or a computer game, go on a hike or work out in the gym with you, or even join in a bit of slacking off at work.

Such ephemeral relationships are easy to make, thanks to social media platforms that bring together people who share an interest in particular activities.

According to sociologist Mark Granovetter from Stanford University, the strength of interpersonal interactions can be measured in terms of endurance, emotional intensity, degrees of intimacy and mutual benefits.

None of these dimensions quite embraces dazi.

The very first chapter of the Confucian "Analects" observes, "Is it not pleasant to have friends coming from distant quarters?"

Confucius also evaluated types of friends -- those who are upright, sincere and learned, who lift you up; and those who are devious, insincere and superficial, who drag you down.

However, no one makes much fuss about a dazi, a relationship that is valued merely for being conveniently available, free of the often burdensome obligations expected of a longer, deeper relationship.

Nor does such a relationship entail any financial complications that might traditionally be expected of friends or relatives.

Last Sunday, I had breakfast at a humble eatery and overheard a chef talking to a gray-hair gentleman enjoying the youtiao, or deep-friend twisted dough sticks.

"I might be young," the chef said, "but I have seen my share of worldly snobbery. Some years ago, when I was running a prosperous breakfast business in Shenzhen, all my relations flocked there to support me. But later on, when I needed money to treat one of my sick children, the relatives became scarce."

Borrowing money isn't part of the dazi scene. A casual acquaintance who tries to hit you up for a loan can be easily jettisoned.

As "Hamlet" observed, "Neither a borrower, nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry."

That doesn't mean a temporary, shallow relationship with borderlines clearly defined and tacitly understood can't entail some small favors exchanged in an off-hand sort of way. For instance, you might ask a dazi to share a link to a favorite food or give some tips of a technical nature. But asking a dazi to take care of your pets while you are away from home clearly oversteps the boundaries.

For some, this kind of relationship is liberating and can be a welcome relief from the traditional next-of-kin network, especially prevalent in rural China, where an unending stream of money gifts is required in cases of sickness, marriage, funerals or college admissions. Honoring these sorts of obligations can be a huge burden, even for those with a steady income.

Dazi, in a sense, can be complementary to strong bonds between human beings.

Psychologists point to several layers of social support that we expect from our relationships – empathy, physical gestures such as a hug, provision of information or tips, or monetary support. Since dazi are scattered far and wide across multiple spheres of life, some support may be there, though haphazard at best.

Could this newfound trend of dazi be linked to fear of entering long-lasting, intimate relationships? Is it an outright rejection of traditional social norms?

The Paper, a Shanghai-based Chinese language media outlet, reported recently that among people in their 20s and 30s, there is a growing trend to shy away from close family contacts, particularly during traditional festivals.

That may be partly the result of decades of urbanization and geographic decoupling. It can simply be harder to meet up with close friends or relatives in a sprawling city.

Some netizens say the dazi trend is a sign of an increasingly utilitarian society, where human relationships are excessively informed by material expectations.

Are there possible pitfalls?

The lifestyle social media platform Little Red Book, popular with some in the dazi culture, offers some tips for casual partnerships. Videocall in advance to get to know each other. Don't link up with too many dazi partners at once. Be wary of dazi who show a bit too much urgency in trying to get together with you.

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