Experiencing Anqing Baozi by Daniel Seabrooks

Experiencing Anqing Baozi by Daniel Seabrooks from thefieldworker on Vimeo.

Recognizing Face: Revisiting Face in the Faceless Urban

I’m sure that we’ve all witnessed it, “their” clandestine operations, always launched by impromptu “open shop,” and concluded with untimely closings. Well, if you have not, this consists of the daily routines of Shanghai’s evasive street merchants who lack both hours of operation and a general consistency. One could characterize all of this as a facet of urban facelessness, but there is something more substantial, more personable, maybe more recognizable that transcends the presumed discretion and anonymity.

One might suggests that I am simply more cognizant of and sensitive to their presence after having worked briefly with the famed Baozi Lady (and husband), but even those specifics propose something of the sort. Neglecting the fact that I am a regular customer at their establishment, we do not share a robust relationship – especially without a common language.

Yet, she welcomed me with a universal smile into her circle that seems only reserved in the Chinese society for those with Face. And surprisingly, in a society that relies so heavily on the idea on face, I’ve seemed to have connected on a more genuine level with every humble street merchant than with those in passing or in the growing consumer marketed enterprises. I even saw my roommate conversing jeeringly with a street merchant and after those interactions I concluded that there is more to this face-faceless paradigm than is initial presumed.

Before I established a rapport with the Baozi Lady and Husband, I was immediately gravitated to their inviting spirits, and I know that others within the group felt the same way. Dan highlighted in the first blog, when describing the characteristics of both face and facelessness, the intimate connection he shared with the Baozi Lady juxtaposed to the city’s backdrop of anonymity. Although he accepts this as one if the many, random consequence of anonymity in Shanghai, I contend the antithesis and that the dichotomy of face and facelessness is actually a continuum that adds depth and variability to the traditional understandings of its two extremes. One of my main reasons suggests that this is due to the level of humility that is present on the streets and within these merchants. And this discussion seems to lack depth, so I was intrigued to delve into it.

The one thing that we’ve ALL noticed (at least) is the culturally accepted rude behavior that permeates Chinese society. Ellen Hertz, in her Face in the Crowd article, attributes this seemingly uncivil behavior to the anonymity/facelessness of the urban (loc. 3611). However, she equally asserts that the opposite -face – is a concept that Chinese societies are predisposed to and the country’s “vision of…collectivity, [is] modeled on the Gemeinschaft, a bounded community for which the ‘rural’ serves as exemplar,” (loc. 3539). The idea of the rural community, architect of “face”, is most interesting because of its intricate connection to humility. Whether the relationship is cause-and-effect or not, popular belief has always connected humility with rurality. If this is well founded, then it would seem that rurality is a sufficient condition for humility, albeit not a necessity for Face, Rurality and Humility then must have an intertwined destiny. The mathematical property of association explains it well: Face = Rurality ≈ Humility. So then, Humility ≈ Face.  With all of this in mind, it follows to conclude that these humble street merchants, who exude noticeable humility are then more inclined to open up face-like relations than the remaining urbanizing populace.

All of this, however, is just idle speculation that I still believe deserves some in depth research. I don’t claim to know the answers, but this is just an observation, addressing the complexities of face and facelessness here in China. I know that In the heat of understanding the trends of Urbanization, Globalization and Consumerism, we have inaptly categorized the face and the facelessness (as moralities) of China as either black or white. Although very neat, the categories create overcast on and obscure these subtleties, the possible depths to such concepts, like Face and Facelessness in the Urban.

 

The River Gone Black

As I further slip into the cadence of this upbeat Shanghai life, things, once considered bizarre and outright wrong, now qualify for the titles of mundane and well accepted; this especially goes for topics concerning the standard of sanitation. However, I was recently reminded of my (involuntarily) subdued concerns last week when I found my apartment threshold loitered by the grounds-crew. It had to be anywhere between 5 – 7 of them, well equipped with (disfigured) brooms, buckets and Mr. Muscle soaps and, unbeknownst to me, they were lined up to fight the thriving cesspool that accumulated outside my kitchen window. After accessing the situation and realizing that I was soon embarking on my final moments with my living, neighboring pollutant, I snagged my camera to catch the final shots of what I whimsically, but appropriately dubbed “The River that Gone Black.”

It’s only sheer coincidence that the cleaning crew came to our apartment moments after Fuji’s class ended, and even more improbable that they were there on the first day of our discussion of the The River Runs Black by Elizabeth Economy. The conjunction of these odds forced me to revisit our initial Shanghai days, wrought with complaints over the Tonghe’s inhospitable conditions and overall cleanliness (or lack thereof). The incessant sulfuric smells, the occasional insects, and the mounds of rubbish are all mere examples, and all of which raised questions on the infrastructure that allowed things to be this way. With slightly irascible members in our group, needless to say, there were outcries to fix our current conditions (and I must say that I appreciate my currently clean kitchen view). I furthered my thoughts with, if these personal accounts are of the microlevel, then would the 500,000 protests (loc. 408) mentioned in the book be the macrolevel? Would the corollary then conclude that all of the overarching developmental problems of macrolevel China obstinately trickle down to the microlevel and leave us with what we figure as haphazardly constructed?

 

I first came across the phrasing “haphazard development” within our first few days in China, and I specifically remember Fuji used the poorly constructed drop-ceiling as an example. I wanted to rhetorically suggest that if the construction adequately fulfilled its function, then why be concerned with the manner of its construction. Elizabeth, however, disputes that notion with her alarming statistical data on the connection between haphazard development and environmental degradation. She figures that what maintains this tendency is the maxim of “first development, then environment,” (loc. 1892), despite the fact that the costs exceedingly outweigh any benefits.

Rhetoric on the environmental protection is gaining momentum and dynamism in Chinese society, and thus desire and need to rectify this collective goods dilemma is too. However, this progressive direction is tenuous and only seems to take root on a superficial level; only by suffocating the deeply routed environmental exploitation that had marked/marred Chinese history would this movement blossom. Conversely, the previously mentioned maxim is tenacious and is instinctual trend of the masses. It just seems that concern for the environment isn’t as genuine on a systemic level. Elizabeth mentions the governmental efforts to clean up of lake Dianchi, but officials concluded it would take 30 years to revert it back to sanitary state because of the monumental damage. What was more shocking is that that figure doesn’t even include the governments (in)ability to prevent nearby polluters (loc. 2416). It’s gut-trenching to know that even after Dianchi’s cleanup, there is promulgated concern that the lake will face threats of pollution.

This example of the blatant disregard and apathy for the environment, despite all efforts to revitalize is an overwhelming and ever-present concern that plagues contemporary China. In ways, my microlevel analogy seems farfetched, but I hold that there is some merit in it, primarily because of the disregard for space. What is environment to its people but a magnified take on space to a man… I look outside my window where my cesspool was and I see an agglomerate of cigarettes, trash and debris in its place. I now wonder to myself if this continual apathy for the surrounding spaces looms something comparable but magnified for macro China.

Biking in Shanghai

Exact Portrayal

From Google

Unearth all of the repressed memories of learning how to drive a car – the speeding up and the slowing down, the parental yelling and writhing in the periphery, and the nerve-racking first time experience of getting on the interstate – and you will understand all emotions that accompany riding a bike in Shanghai. Although many may speak disparagingly of riding in this city, I’ve concluded that it’s liberating, beneficial and by emerging yourself on the streets with one, you start to gain a holistic impression of what it means to be Chinese. I am still amazed by the plethora of bikes that ”orderly overcrowd” the sidewalks and streets in the city and I am still seeking (to understand) its place in Chinese culture. On the surface, I’ve concluded that bicycling in Shanghai (more, the greater China area) is more than a commodity, it’s a commonality; its more than an characteristic, it’s the quintessence of China. Having one is an absolute must in the city, but caveat riding one in this city really gives life to the new age adage “Y.O.L.O. in Shanghai!”

One would think that at the frequency that Chinese people fancy bikes, they would have created the bicycle (or at least have promoted it as a patriotic symbol). However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, just an understood reality that Chinese people love bikes (or perhaps appreciate them more). The culture implication of the “bike” is different in China than in the U.S. Here, it’s a means of cheap, inexpensive transportation. This idea of using a bike to get from point A to point B is engrained in this culture, so much that it has presented itself in our latest Chinese chapter.

Tonghe Bikes

In this chapter, Wan Xiao Yun attempts to convince her mom that she needs to buy a car, but her mother was nonetheless supportive. She continues, “Not only do you get to exercise, but you get to save money, too! Your father his whole life did this, why can’t you follow him?” (NPCR, 166). Although the market on automobiles is on the rise, the simple truth is that everyone rides bicycles here – mom, dad, sister, brother, grandma and grandpa, aunt, uncles and the entire extended family. It is not an odd occurrence to see students sharing bikes to class and a professional businessman (or woman) in a suit pass within 20 seconds of each other.

Despite the fact that the majority of our Davidson in Shanghai group has not adopted this Chinese biking tradition, I have and I adore my sleek black and metallic grey bicycle. I admit that traveling in Shanghai has been difficult to adjust to – safe and secure walking is undoubtedly an extreme challenge – but adding extra velocity (without protective equipment) to the equation makes it that much more difficult. I’ve had to learn two main tenets for the road: 1) I share the same road, and 2) I am not the same vehicle. I’ve become more bold and abrasive with general traffic, but I still let major vehicles (i.e. the 713 bus) whiz past me. Still, I am glad that I bought one and can travel with the rest of the natives, but maybe not like the natives. I feel that they are too uptight in the way that they ride the bike – two hands, slow paces and all in straight lines. I ride with no hands, fast paces and I constantly receive scrutiny from my peers for riding in winding shapes. I think… “Y.O.L.O. in Shanghai!” and that’s how I’m living.

Yikes.. Y.O.L.O.?

Bargain Culture

“Aight here’s the plan: DJ, don’t have more than 700 Yuan in your wallet. We’re going to stroll in, and Ima tell him that we found a gym that’s charging 700 Yuan but is much closer to our dorms which is why we want an extra 50 Yuan discount. Shanel, I need you to randomly ask how much it costs. Just give him some hope that we might be bringing some more customers, that way he’ll be more inclined to give us an extra discount. Also, DJ… just don’t say anything! Got it?”

My roommate inquires as he lays out a course of action to bargain. Nicky is assertive when it comes to bargaining and I’m just a novice. Until recently I thought that I understood the whole bargaining system, but the extent to which Chinese citizens bargain is unbelievable; my roommate, however, seems to have mastered the skills effectively. And with them, I watched in (contained) amazement as the gym membership prices dwindled from 900 to 700 to 650 yuan (元) for the entire three months. Directly after my roommate’s demonstration of effective bargaining, I began to practice those skills (as if tenants) to buy a Burberry jacket at what I shall call the “Name Brand Store”. As all of this transpired, the following questions fluttered to my mind: Are these products even real and either just redistributed or just stolen? If so, is this why the prices are super inflated with extreme flexibility? If not, what can I conclude about their quality?

The Name Brand Store

While I tried to reason with the sales associate over the relatively expensive price of this Burberry jacket (less than $100), Shanel tried desperately to reduce the price of 4 pairs of Tom’s to even less. I think what fascinated me most was watching the strategized discourse manifest between buyer and seller, comprised of sellers’ calculated shouts of intimate terms (friend, buddy, 很 帅) and buyers’ premeditated walkout with feigned frustration. In my case, the seller chased me outside the store to buy the jacket, after settling for two-thirds of the initial price and slapping me a couple of times. It seems that prices are overinflated because the perception is that Westerners are willing to pay for expensive names, even though it appears to me that those products were impeccable knock-offs (I know, ironic). Nonetlesless, there are other sentiments among our group. “Me and my roommate concluded everything is real,” Shanel started. “It’s probably just stolen…” So what am I bargaining for? Authenticity?


The concern for authenticity in this consumer world is ludicrous, self-contradictory, and yet astute in identifying our (Western) skewed association with brand and function. In short, we would rather pay the “extra” for the famed name associated with the product despite its function and/or quality. Although seemingly real, my inauthentic “Beats” are great headphones, with outstanding quality and surprising durability. Plus, Nicky bargained them to half the price ($60 to $30) of the knockoff and maybe more off the original brand. The only implication that they are inauthentic is a small typo on the prepackaging, which is so passible it’s basically real. If they are indeed fake, then it seems that Chinese producers go to extreme lengths to replicate every minute detail. This possibility resurges my concern for quality over famed name, and further leads me to conclude that a) the effort they place in replicating the products almost ensures genuine quality and b) even though the will prices are inflated, I can bargain down to almost the production cost.

 

Price is another big concern and it causes me to question if the locals are being offered deflated prices, if they have to bargain also, or if they are even being targeted at all. The Name Brand store seems to attract many foreigners with a poster that lists all of the brands present in stock, even eebok (Reebok?). On the flip side, there was an equal influx of Han browsing in the sections. Since the merchandise is apparently real (but stolen), it will appeal and entice Chinese locals – another means to continue this path to both modernity and cosmopolitanism. Plus, I will assume that they are being offered the same prices. But since bargaining is such an intricate part of Chinese culture, I will likewise assume that they are ideal bargainers. Conversely, street vendors who encouraged me to purchase those Beats knockoffs, may not be as appealing.

I feel that bargaining, an inherent aspect of Chinese culture, is vanishing and overshadowed by Globalization and Consumerism. Albeit not discussed often, the rise of multinational corporations (MNC’s) and other franchises fuel this Chinese desire liberate oneself, to be “relieved of the burdens of home, history, and tradition…” (Chinese Religious Life). In this liberation process, traditional businesses and market techniques (i.e. bargaining) become marginalized, maybe even ostracized by society. I’ve even noticed that it’s impossible to bargain at the Wanda marketplace (my favorite); I just wonder if Chinese bargaining will cease completely as the society continues to commercialize…

Still, I guess that I can and must take advantage of bargaining in my time here. I’ve only been here approximately a month and despite my recent success, I am still a novice at it. Although my findings are not empirical, my experiences taught me the following: a) this is foremost a business, b) drop all naiveté or ye be scammed, c) be unrelenting and resilient, and d) never settle until satisfied. With these guidelines, bargaining is a lot more effective and successful. I know for a fact, I will be schlepping Western merchandise from China to the States, whether fake or not – and of course after having bargained for them first.

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