These Niggas Won’t Hold Me Back

As our departure date approaches a lot faster than we want it to, we all have started making an inventory of what we will miss the most. In my case, one of Shanghai’s amenities that I will miss the most is the ease of transportation. Getting around Shanghai is a lot easier and cheaper than in New York, D.C., and Paris. A bus fare only cost ¥2 ($.30); the metro only costs ¥4 ($.60) and a cabs start at ¥14 ($2.25) (no charge for carrying goods in their trunk). However, there is a downside to this: every time you step on the street, you’re risking your life. Indeed, Shanghai (and China in general) embodies the characteristics of both a 3rd world country and developed nation. So while there are good roads, traffic lights and more than adequate signs; the people themselves still have the same mentality drivers in 3rd world countries (without dangerous roads) have. To read more about this, please see Shanel’s article.

Personally, I find that the benefits outweigh the downsides. As a student, I’d rather pay what I pay here for transport rather than what I pay in the aforementioned city; especially if that only means me being more attentive to what’s going on around me.

Besides, the subway lines here are relatively new and clean compared to the ones I’ve travelled in prior to Shanghai.

Unfortunately, the other day, I had an unpleasant experience in the subway; one I had only had in Western subways, and that I didn’t think I’d go through here.

We usually board the train at a station where it’s still quite empty. I was by myself and as the train kept filling up, I noticed that there was an empty seat next to me that no one wanted to take. Initially, I tried to convince myself that it was just coincidence, that people just didn’t feel like sitting. However, I began to notice people notice the empty seat, then look at me and decide to just stand. At first I was confused because in the past, people just go right away sit next to me like it’s nothing. So what was going on? Especially since no one could have made the case that I look menacing: I was dress in business casual, on my way to teach Coco, the 9 year old girl I volunteered to tutor English to. And then it clicked: for the first time, I was in the subway by myself. Usually, Coco’s mother picks me up (in her magnificent Beamer) or pays for my cab fare.

So what difference does it makes whether I’m in there by myself or not? Why am I not threatening when around my peers, but intimidating when riding solo? As people kept eyeing that empty spot all while wishing I wasn’t next to it, I came to the [what seemed to be the most logical] conclusion: it was racism.

Indeed, if you read Shanel’s article on the Chinese’s opinion of AFRICAN people, you will be shocked at the terms used to describe motherlanders. Which led me to this theory: when with my American friends, I’m given the benefit of the doubt; I could be a black American, which is considered cool. I could be Obama’s son, Beyonce’s brother or Shaq’s cousin. But if my dark self is riding the subway alone, I’m most likely Idi Amine’s son; I probably have AIDS and stink. That was my first negative skin color-related experience in China. I decided to get over it since I was going to teach an innocent 9 year old. After all, I’m hoping that by the time kids her age are my age, mentalities regarding race will change once and for all, and racial issues will no longer be a commonality. However, that wasn’t enough to encourage me. As I went through her English workbook, I noticed that one of the characters was a black kid; a vain attempt to provide the student with a diverse set of characters. But take a look at what the kid looked like.

A vignette from Tintin in Congo

Obviously not a flattering depiction of black people. Now I understand why Chinese kids are confused when they see me: they go from seeing the picture above, to seeing me. I’d be confused too.  The worst part is that if one looked at black people’s portraits during the Mao era, they were drawn very humanely. Why then, has backtracking taken place? Why did Chinese “art” go from an accurate, normal depiction of black people in the Mao era, to a racist, insulting one in 2012? I can firmly assert and blame it on the West. Indeed, the only thing that has changed is the penetration of Western culture in China.

So is racism imported from the West? I don’t know. I don’t even care. It’s just frustrating and annoying. I can read/write a 1000 books and have a 100 intellectual conversations about the issue: it still won’t solve anything. As long as the White man keeps pillaging our homelands and financing our genocidal leaders, we Africans will never be able to rise and show what we’re really capable of. And maybe they know that… Maybe that’s why we’re treated like and kept head under $h!t. *drops mic, walks out*

Overstaffing

Chinese Girl: Is that your real hair?

Me: Yes.

Chinese Girl: Oh…

Me: Do you like it?

Chinese Girl: *frowns* No… *points at Shanel* Her hair prettier than yours.

Shanel, Benito and I we’re confused and amused at the same time because of how random and unexpected the exchange was.

My hair has always been a source of curiosity to Chinese people. I never went back to that one hair salon that made me look like an idiot. I found a much better one instead. It was cheaper, cleaner, faster, friendlier and I got a head massage when they washed my hair, before and after the haircut. And, they didn’t charge me anything for a shave. There were no less than 25 women working there. They were the lowest rank of employees: they washed and massaged customers’ heads; brought tea towels and assisted the actual stylists. There were about 5 stylists. Then there were 2 people in charge of keeping the floor clean, and a receptionist who tendered the register. So a total of over 30 people worked there. That’s a lot.

Overall, I noticed that Chinese businesses are greatly overstaffed: hair salons, restaurants, museums -everywhere. I asked myself why and figured it’s because business owners don’t know how to allocate their resources efficiently. Indeed, instead of favoring specialization and re-thinking production method in order to increase productivity, it seems Chinese business owners prefer to throw labor at the production process, in order to meet quotas and/or production goals.

At first glance, it’s easy to criticize them because Econ 101 teaches us that that is not how one runs a business; one is suppose to utilize resources in order to maximize returns However passing such judgment on them is somewhat unfair because it is based on Western efficiency models. Chinese business owners are running their enterprises in an economic environment that is much different from ours.

Then it clicked: as of 2009, roughly half of China’s population (775 Million people) was a part of the workforce. Could you imagine making sure all those people have a job? It’s no wonder if the government has intervened to try and change mentalities regarding overstaffed business. The Chinese government wants to ensure there are enough jobs. While they are aware that the current methods of production are inefficient, they probably also realize that were they to favor specialization and Western methods of efficiency, a bigger portion of that workforce would be unemployed, which, could in turn to social unrest; something the Chinese government fears more than anything.

“I’m So soPHIsticated…”

Last Sunday, Shanel Tage, Chai Lu and I decided to go checkout the fabric market. Because it was our first time going there, Fuji (the program director) decided to take us. We rode the bus for about 25 minutes in Shanghai’s orderly chaotic traffic and finally made it there [safe]. I might just make a whole blog post describing the streets here. It’s really crazy, and that’s coming from someone who lived in a 3rd world, traffic-light-and-cop-less country.

The fabric market is a three story building filled with all kinds of fabric, as you would expect it to be considering its name. However, what stands out the most is the business clothing. There were suits everywhere, and of all kinds: business, business casual, tuxedos, casual, flashy, extravagant, tasteless- you name it, they had it. While the ladies decided to get qipaos (traditional Chinese dress), I started scoping the suit makers. They all started at 600, which is about $90 and includes both the jacket and the pants. A giveaway right? But the African in me had to bargain. I approached a young lady who seemed to be my age. I told her I was just looking, and not purchasing anything. That was a lie but I knew that if I told her I wasn’t purchasing anything, but “let” her convince me to purchase something, she would automatically have to give me a better price. So I started looking more interested: I examined the plethora of fabrics available, compared colors and I flipped trough the catalogues that they were displaying. These catalogues were a compilation of models wearing western suits: Yves Saint Laurent, Zara, H&M, Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole… the list goes on.

Then finally she said what I was long waiting for her to say:

–       This style look very good on you, you must get it!

–       I don’t know… I didn’t plan on buying anything today. Will you give me a good price?

–       Yes! Yes! Of course!

–       How much then?

–       500!

–       No, 300.

–       No I can’t because I have to pay for taylor and fabric. 500 best price I can sell you.

–       I’m young like you. I’m only a student: I can’t afford 500. Give me 300.

–       No, I’m sorry.

–       Okay 350?

–       Okay for you, you are very handsome: 450 best price!

–       I’m handsome? Thank you. Be my girlfriend and give it to me for free! How old are you?

–       *laughed out loud* I’m 23 but I can’t be your girlfriend.

–       *sad face* you’re mean! Okay at least give me 400!

–       *smiled* okay okay 400 but you bring your friends to me if they want suits!

–       Okay!

 

I picked them up today (a week later) and they look amazing… granted my charm does the bulk of the work but still. I got:

–       A black suit with a golden interior (pants included)

–       A grey suit with a baby blue interior (pants included)

–       A tan jacket with golden lining and brown pants

–       A beige trenchcoat with a Burberry interior

–       A black suit winter coat with a blue-sky interior

 

I got got all this for a total of 1200 Yuan, which is about $333. In America, I paid $400 for my Banana Republic jacket only (no pants included). The suits I just got fit me perfectly and look better than my Banana Republic suit. One of the many reasons why I’m loving Shanghai…

“It doesn’t matter who we are…”

Bane “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

This weekend we visited the city of Nanjing. If that name rings a bell, it’s because you must have heard of the infamous Rape of Nanjing. A massacre during which the Japanese pillaged villages, raped women and killed over 300000 civilians. This this trip was optional because it wasn’t a part of the Davidson in Shanghai program. Rather, it was offered by Fudan University. Despite the huge amount of work we have due next week, 10 out of the 14 of us decided to go. We thought it would be us, the students from Boston University (awesome peeps) and random other students. We were right… except all the German, Norwegian and Dutch kids decided to tag along too. And they were beyond obnoxious. Some of them arrived drunk (but on time!) and were just loud and belligerent. Not to be uptight but as “American” students, we were a lot more mature and poised than the Nordics and Saxons. Those appellations were carefully chosen in order to invoke the viking-like conception we all have of their ancestors; it perfectly describes their behavior during this trip. Even after they sobered up, they continued to be a nuisance: trash all over the bus, loud, talking over the tour guide, arriving late… the list goes on. In my personal opinion, they came off as high school students. I just had to accept that, then I’d be fine.

Upon reflecting on all that, I realized how when I lived in France, I used to find American visitors extremely obnoxious and annoying. Now that I live in United States, I find Europeans [granted, we’re in Shanghai], obnoxious. And not just because of the ones on the bus.

Indeed, I went and spent a weekend with an old friend from France, about an hour from Shanghai and was able to hangout with a bunch of French students. As someone who marched in anti-discriminatory and tolerance protests back in France, I was extremely perplexed upon seeing how intolerant and impatient the French students were towards the Chinese and Chinese culture in general. And that includes my friend who, like me, is a Comorian who studied in France and can’t go home for personal reasons. I asked her why she even came here and she just shrugged. Disturbing, to say the least

At least the obnoxious kids on the bus are tolerant: they joke around with the Chinese, never decline to pose on pictures with Chinese people wanting a portrait with a foreigner; and, they don’t complain about everything that doesn’t go to their liking.

Little anecdote: my academic advisor Shelly Rigger came to Shanghai after the Taiwan Trip, and we decided to have lunch and discuss my classes and so on. We were walking on the street and I had a smoothie in my hand. Suddenly, one of my backpack straps latched onto a scooter that was parked on the sidewalk, and it fell very loudly; so loudly that all activities on the street froze and all eyes were on us. I remembered my training from when a girl asks one “Do you think -insert her best friend’s name here- is pretty?” and kept calm. I casually put my smoothie on a nearby wall ledge, proceeded to lift the scooter back in place, and inspected it for any damage, all while glancing around to see if the owner would come confront me. The scooter was fine, and no one came… except a 7 or 8 year old boy who approached us, looked at me in the eyes, kicked my smoothie to the ground then squished the cup. I was at loss for words. All I could think was “WTF?”. The act was so random and uncalled for, but not that serious either I could get mad at the brat. So we just continued our walk, both puzzled and about what had just happened.

My Academic Advisor, Shelley Rigger

My Coco’s Drink

*******

Had this happened to one of the bus kids, I feel like everyone would have just had a big laugh. However, had it happened to one the Frenchies, I bet they would have made a scene or at least, reinforced their intolerance and impatience for the Chinese. While I do concede that kids here are extremely spoilt and not well-behaved (due to the whole one child policy), it’s all a part of China. That, the fact that most places use squat toilets only and have filthy restrooms that provide neither soap no toilet tissue; the fact that people don’t know when to stop staring at one’s foreignness; the fact that Chinese have no sense of personal space; the fact that they don’t hesitate to cut in line or shove one around like an insect in order to get where they need to be- all that, is part of China. While we may think it’s obnoxious, disrespectful and rude and whatever, it’s Chinese. And as foreigners in their country, I feel like we need to stop complaining about such: no one forced us to come on this trip and these are all things we’ve been told about by people or read about online. So we all knew what we signed up for. And even we didn’t: part of traveling is learning about different cultures. Doing so bridges the gaps between us, as humans; which, in my opinion, is the first step towards solving most of geopolitical problems that plague our world. So shout out to the [granted, annoying] Germans and Norwegians for being tolerant and shame on the French for being the opposite. I can only imagine how much [more] immigration has become a nightmare in France (the immigration debate there is one similar in gravity and “popularity” to the Negro Struggle in the United States).

As for the American kids, I’m going to take myself out of the group for a second and say that while there is some initial complaining, they usually just suck it up “oh well…” whatever it is that is upsetting them. So they are doing better than the Frenchies; which is surprising considering that up until now, I always thought the French to be a lot more tolerant than the ones here. Which brings me to a disclaimer:

I have made this analysis and arrived to these multiple conclusions based on 3 relatively small groups (about 12 people in each on average). While I do believe that these sample groups are representational of the youth of the mentioned countries, I do concede that my work here is not exhaustive and could thus be flawed.

“Theatricality and Deception…”

“…are powerful Agents to the uninitiated. But we are initiated […]”

BaneThe Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

We left for Taiwan early Thursday afternoon. Everything at the airport went really smoothly: checking in, going through security (it took all 14 of us less than 20 min), and finding our departure gate. I even got to meet up with my old friend Jack Daniels, before the flight. The flight (China Southern Airlines) was just as enjoyable: decent food, pleasant flight attendants, and I had a seat by the window, right behind the turbines (my favorite because I can see both the wings in motion, and everything below us). I really enjoyed spotting the numerous ships traveling below us. We landed 2 hours later and I had to wait for all the passengers to disembark the aircraft because I had store my carryon in one of the back overhead bins since the front ones were full (due to a crowded flight). So naturally, I was one of the last people to reach immigration.

Just for clarification and enlightenment: while Taiwan is considered a state of its own, it doesn’t have its own seat at the United Nations General Assembly: it officially belongs to the People’s Republic of China. How does that work? It doesn’t. That is why some people/countries believe Taiwan should be its own country, while others don’t: big debate in International Politics. The United States do not diplomatically recognize Taiwan as a state of its own… probably because it would strain their relationship with China; but that’s a whole other story. All this to say that despite China officially governing Taiwan, the latter still operates autonomously.

The fact that we had to go through immigration even though we came from China, should trigger your sensors. And it did… it even broke them. By the time it was my turn to actually go through the immigration booth, the whole Davidson group (including Fuji, the program director) had already made it through. The lady flipped through my passport endlessly (something I’m now used to because I bet people in this part of the world don’t often see my country’s passports) and then finally asked me why I don’t have a visa. At this point, I already knew I wasn’t going to be able to enter Taiwan. So I immediately signaled Fuji who came and started trying to reason with the immigration officers, in vain.

Why was I pessimistic about my going through? I wasn’t being pessimistic… Just realistic. Indeed, as I explained earlier the whole Taiwan vis-à-vis China issue is a sensitive topic. I put myself in their shoes and this is probably what they were thinking: “who the hell does this 老外 (“laowai”, foreigner) think he is, coming into Taiwan like it’s his bathroom because he has a Chinese visa? There’s no way we’re letting him in: not only is he insulting our [already infringed] sovereignty but it’ll also allow to send a strong message to wherever he’s from, that Taiwan is not China!”.

I immediately realized this was going on and told Fuji to get the others and leave: I could already tell the immigration officers were just going to make me dance around and eventually tell me I can’t get into Taiwan. I’d have hated to 1, make everyone wait for me, just to 2, later be told that they waited for nothing. Fuji was panicked at the idea of leaving me there by myself but I reassured him that I would be more than okay: I’ve been through much, much worse in 3rd world airports; worse case scenario here was me going back to China.

I never get over the size of A380s…

After about an hour and 45 minutes of just standing there (no seat was offered to me or anything), China Southern Airlines representatives came and explained to me that I had to go back to China. Apparently, even though I am a permanent resident of the United States, only 3 countries’ residents have the right to enter Taiwan using American Green Cards; and the Comoros is not one of those 3.

So I asked them when the next flight for Shanghai was and they said “Five thirty”. I was assuming it was 5:30am. I complained and asked them if they could at least put me in a hotel because I wasn’t going to hang around their airport for 8 and half hours. “No it’s 5:30 pm, tomorrow Sir”. I actually laughed when she clarified because somehow the situation was actually a little funny (maybe I was just tired). But I quickly regained composure.

– Do you actually expect me to believe that there is no flight to Shanghai between now (9:00pm) and tomorrow, 5:30pm?

– Oh no Sir there are flights but there aren’t with our airlines so we cannot put you on there. You can purchase ticket for last flight out tonight at 10:00pm.

I immediately contacted Fuji and asked him if I could use my credit card on a ticket out tonight as opposed to waiting 20+ hours at the airport, and later get a refund from the program budget. He agreed without hesitation and I told the airline representatives to go ahead and book my flight out of Taiwan, 10:00pm that same night.

– I’m sorry Sir but the airline refuse sell you ticket because you have visa problem.

– That doesn’t make any sense: I have no visa to enter Taiwan but I do have a re-entry visa for China. You can see it right there in my passport. Just tell them.

– I’m sorry Sir but they said no.

At this point I wished I were the Hulk and could just get mad and wreck the whole place; I even considered being rude but remembered that my mom taught me better, and decided to keep it cool.

– What time is the next flight I can actually take please?

– 9:00 AM. But we cannot put you in hotel because you do not have Taiwan visa. You have stay in airport.

– And do what for 12 hours?!? Are you going to stay with me and chat?

– Lol, no Sir just… look around. OR! We can put you in detention center: it has bed, bathroom, TV, very clean.

– I want to speak to the head of immigration services.

Turns out she (yes, it was a she) was right there and started chatting with me about where I was from, what I was doing in this part of the world, blah blah blah- your typical just-try-to-calm-down type of conversation. I didn’t like that. 1, because it makes it seems as if I was being an unreasonable person who just needed to be calmed down (when really my frustration was more than justified). And 2, because she was playing mind games with me, which was an insult to my intellect. So I decided to be that guy:

– Sir I understand you must be really frustrated and I’m very sorry.

– Oh I’m fine. It’s just that… My dad is going to be REALLY pissed. Yeah… when he finds out my school put me in a situation like this, only 1 week after making a 1 Million dollar donation to the school, he’s going to be very pissed… but oh well.

The look on her face? Priceless. For all the rest there’s MasterCard. Don’t ask me how, where and why I came up with that ‘cause quite frankly I don’t know. It sprung in my head and I just decided to use it, what’s the worse that could happen right? She was like “oh okay… I understand. Please excuse me”. She took her personal phone and made a phone call. I couldn’t quite grasp the vernacular but her tone was definitely urgent and pressing. As soon as she hang up:

– We have decided to make an exception and let you leave the airport so you can spend the night at a hotel. However, you will need to leave us with your passport and green card.

– Thank you very much but no shot: I am not parting with my travel documents. You have to understand that considering my current predicament, that would be an extremely stupid thing to do.

– … okay. You can keep your documents. But you have to promise you won’t leave the airport and you’ll stay in the hotel we designate.

–  Of course. Thank you very much.

I was assigned a very pretty “hostess” who insisted on carrying my luggage. She even stopped and bought me some of her favorite tea. She helped me check-in my hotel and escorted me all the way to my room and ensured everything was okay, before getting back to work.

– Here is your passport and everything. If you leave hotel, no one will know… Have a great night.

View from my hotel room

I took a long shower, and then decided to go to a bar I had noticed on the way to the hotel. Before that, I received 2 calls from Shanel and Dj who wanted to check on me (how nice of them).  I would have loved to be with the rest of the group and visit Taiwan but it just wasn’t meant. Who’s fault was it? Partly the program’s for not being thorough in checking visa requirements, partly mine for not doing my own homework on the matter. But it doesn’t matter. The little I saw of Taiwan (its airport) was enough to make want to come back one day and visit.

Visited a little museum in the Airport

Besides, there was something nice and almost cool about hanging out in airport bar late at night, by myself, watching cricket (super random by the way) while reminiscing past travels, experiences and relationships: I have friends in West Texas that I met when I unloaded trucks at Walmart and worked at a meat processing plant; I have friends in the projects in France that attended high school with me but are now drug dealers; I have friends deep in the Comorian jungle with whom I used to go hedgehog hunting with at 1:00 AM (best meat ever!); I have my phrat Brothers and my other friends at Davidson College all with whom I’ve had had great times… As I sat there with my friend Jack, I could only think about how lucky I am for all these wonderful experiences.

Had a succulent lunch… at Davidson’s expense naturally.

I decided to stay in the hotel all-day and CHILL. I caught the 5:30pm [free] flight they initially mentioned. Not only did I avoid the program spending $600 on a ticket for the 9:00AM, but I was also bumped into business class; so FNOH.
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