Hippo-crisy

We’ve all been there: you’re at Mc Donald’s or Burger King; the line next to you is going faster than the one you’re in; you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to sit because all the tables are sticky with dried out soda and oil; you get ran into by out of hand chunky kids running around while their parents are yelling… And you’re just asking yourself what the heck you’re doing there. Like, is the new Mc Diabetes that good that you have to put yourself through this? Oh well, #yolo right? Besides, it doesn’t matter: only one more person then it’s your turn. Unfortunately for you, you’re behind a 600lbs guy who is riding one of those mobility scooters; and, he’s throwing a fit because the college student, who’s been flipping burgers for the past 7½ hours, gave him a regular Coke instead of a Diet Coke. 

Typical right? I’d love for him to try that in China (if he can make it here on that mobility scooter).  The point here is not to make fun of people with eating disorders (that is the politically correct way to call them right?); rather, I’m trying to show the contrast between two worlds. In China, if you go somewhere and ask for coke (or “Kele”), 5 times out of ten, you’ll be given Pepsi; same thing for Fanta (you’ll get Mirinda) and Sprite (‘hope you like 7 Up). While I am ready to concede that in some cases in the US a waitress will serve Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper, you also have to concede that not only are such occurrences rare, but they’re also cause for the traumatized customer to make a scene.

Indeed, in China, businesses (and even just people in general) have a very lax way of solving issues. The example above shows how instead of telling the customer “We don’t have coke”, waiting for the customer to finish expressing his/her frustration and make a stupid face while dealing with the Cornelian Dilemma of having to choose between Coke and Pepsi, the waiter just serves some Pepsi. I call it “the oh well/it’s whatever/it’ll be fine/who cares” policy. As westerners, we’re quick to label such behaviors as unprofessional and/or lazy. However, I feel like it’s an efficient standard operating procedure. And it reflects how policies are formulated; businesses (at both the macro and micro levels) are run and generally how China operates:

Chinese people choose the most efficient method to provide a good or service. Who pays the cost? Well either you, by getting Pepsi instead of Coke (boohoo); or, workers such as those at Foxconn (the guys that actually put your iPhone together). How do they pay the price of this efficiency-at-all-cost mentality? They work under such hard conditions that some employees committed suicides because they couldn’t handle the work-related stress (feel better now about your Pepsi?). Another group that pays the price of this type of mentality is the people subject to relocation in the gentrification process discussed in my last article.

Again, this is an instance where the West is quick to point fingers at China and how human rights aren’t respected etc. but when I see how the all-so-righteous West was built on the back of my fellow continent-men, I kinda want to tell the West to STFU (I’ll let you Google that foul acronym yourself). While I do deplore the fact that human rights are often disregarded in China (and other parts of emerging Asia), I find it very hypocritical for the West to constantly call China out on such issues. Moreover, while I’m personally ready to pay an extra $100 for the next iPhone, is the rest of the West ready to do so? Indeed, these demonized countries make all our products. If they are to start strictly enforcing workers rights and allowing employees to organize unions, the West will be the first to pay the price for this… literally.

I’m absolutely not advocating emerging nations’ disregard of workers’ rights. I’m simply pointing out that 1, the West shouldn’t be so quick to judge (considering its record) and 2, it should be careful for it wishes for before always trying to appear as a knight in shining armor… especially if our 600lbs friend from earlier is the knight riding that horse. And yes that was an intentional metaphor for how the West (including myself) is actually responsible for this situation. Our big friend represents the huge demand from the West. In a perfect world, the demand wouldn’t be so important that the emerging countries would have to ignore workers’ rights in order to meet that demand and still make reasonable profits. The infographic below illustrates trade between China and the US. The take-home point is that the US imports 29.9% of all that China exports.

So would the US still be calling China out if all of a sudden, the price of 15.3% of its imports went up as a result of an amelioration of Asian factory workers’ condition? I think not. If the United States was as inclined on ameliorating the condition of workers in Asia as they were about finding oil-cough cough, sorry: fighting terror in the Middle East, they would do something about it. I personally believe public statements condemning Asian nations are just made to silence the NGOs and tree-huggers.

I find this whole situation contradictory and full of hypocrisy. Again, I include myself in the West because I too am partially responsible for the aforementioned demand. I too would rather pay $199 for my 16gb iPhone 5 instead of $299 for the same model. So as I unsheathe my credit card, I decide to ignore the [ridiculously] underpaid factory worker who made my Nike Dunks. But it’s okay: I know how I can make up for it later by organizing an event on campus discussing all these problems… using my iPhone of course.

Get in the Cut

It was that time of the month; when it’s been too long since one’s last haircut. I’d like to point out that my hair was already not looking it’s best because of how humid the air is over here (Shanghai means “on the sea” and is at sea level). Add to that the fact that I have to be really stingy when using my hair products due to their unavailability in China, and you can only imagine how unkempt my hair looked like. If you know me well enough, you probably know how vain I am and how the state of my hair can possibly have me emotionally compromised. Which is why I decided to just go somewhere and get a haircut because after all, it couldn’t get any worse… right? Wrong.

I chose to go to the hair salon right across from my gym. As I approached the place and [struggled to] read the sign, 3 girls grabbed and hurled me into the salon. Before I could even explain what I wanted, I was getting my hair washed and my head massaged in the process too. It felt great. I thought, “this is nice” (that was probably the point of the hair wash/head massage). The girl was smiling and giggling the whole time. I’m assuming it had something to do with the color of my skin and/or the texture of my hair. I was then directed to what seemed to be a private VIP booth for the actual haircut: I was separated from the other customers by a very nice color glass wall with designs of all sorts; my chair also looked different and was very comfortable. I’m sure I was charged extra for all that… Oh well, “YOLO”.

Then, what seemed to be the oldest stylist in the salon came and asked me what I wanted. I explained to him that I wanted my hair trimmed to half the length of what I currently had. He told me “OK no problem”. This is where things went downhill: he proceeded to form an island of hair at the top of my head by shaving the sides only, as well as the bottom half of the back. He proudly asked me what I thought of it.

At that point there was a little crowd surrounding us, fascinated by the whole event. How do I know? Maybe because they kept taking bits of my hair that had been cut off, and feeling them between their fingers as well as blowing them off their hands. They were overall just really intrigued by this texture they had never come across before. Imagine discovering a new color: that’s how fascinated they were.

I explained to him that I wanted the same thing he did on the sides, all over the head. He said “OK”. 5 minutes later, my sides were completely shaven and the island at the top of my head remained untouched. Needless say I was extremely pissed. He noticed that, and when I asked why he wouldn’t shave the top he said no because it looks better like that. I was flabbergasted because 1, I looked like a total idiot (pic related) and 2, and I couldn’t believe what he just said: he clearly knew and understood what I wanted but decided to completely disregard it because he thought his vision was better.

He asked me to pull up a picture of what I wanted on my iPhone, which I did by showing him Kanye West on one of my album covers in iTunes. He deeply apologized for his mistake and promised he’d do better next time.

I decided to just go ahead and have my whole head shaved. I don’t particularly like doing that but it’s better than the monstrosity on the left. Using state of the art technology (Photoshop), I was able to recreate what I looked like before the clean shave. I know you probably would have preferred an authentic shot, but I was absolutely not in the mood to take a picture of myself at that moment. If you’re wondering about the Bane mask: I have frenemies and therefore cannot afford to have the original picture circulating online.

I couldn’t be mad at him: even though he understood what I wanted and did otherwise, I still feel like had I been more fluent, things would have gone better. And while his actions would have been intolerable in other countries I’ve lived in, I’m now I China. I have to come to terms that occurrences that initially seem outrageous to me are considered normal here. Still, I’m the last born and a little more spoilt than my 2 elder siblings. Having someone go against my will is always a little hard to swallow. I mean, who likes to be forced into things right?

This led me to think about gentrification, here in Shanghai. The first time I ever gave thought to this phenomenon was when we visited Yuyan Garden, what used to be a powerful Lord’s house/domain/villa, and is now a tourist spot.

As you can see, the buildings are very traditional. I really enjoyed observing the details in the murals up to the very tips of the several roofs. Then, I noticed 2 skyscrapers in the background, one of which was still under construction. I also noticed how they both cast their shadows over Yuyan Garden. It seems like nothing but it spoke a lot to me and brought up issues of social inequalities and gentrification:

Yuyan Garden represents traditional China while the skyscrapers in the background symbolize development and industrialization as they cast their shadows over traditional China, in effort to embrace [state] capitalism. While I highly doubt historical sites such as Yuyan Garden will be razed in order to build a mall, there are still a lot of old buildings and homes that are sacrificed in order to further develop Shanghai. While the government isn’t [always] responsible for such, it is always one of the major actors.

Indeed, the government fosters an environment conducive to gentrification by mobilizing the resources necessary to overcome fragmented property right issues, and by investing in infrastructures and embellishment policies, all of which benefit the goals of gentrifiers. So what happens when those ends are met?

Fancy malls everywhere that wow even a Chicago girl like Shanel. Shanghai looks great but at what cost? How are the people doing the jobs no one wants to do (mopping floors, keeping the streets clean etc.) expected to live in Shanghai where there is such a huge denivelation between their income and the cost of living? Some have no choice but to leave Shanghai. Those who choose to stay are subject to very low life conditions: I’ve seen several street cleaners (they’re easily spotted because they wear uniforms) spending the night on their carts on the sidewalk.

That was just one example that underlines essential questions: are we witnessing reckless development? If so, how long will it be sustainable? How long before Shanghai becomes another Washington D.C. or New York City where (by my West Texas or Charlotte, NC standards) life is ridiculously expensive? What will become of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve delicious food but whose revenue cannot match the cost of running a business in a continuously more expensive financial environment?

The only hope to see those issues solved in a positive light (for the common man) lies in the hands of the government. Indeed, China’s state controlled capitalism is the only thing capable of slowing down rampant classic capitalism and the negative externalities associated with it, such as gentrification.

Thinking about the victims of gentrification helped me feel better about my [traumatic] experience at the hair salon. While I was forced into something I didn’t want, my hair will re-grow. Unlike me, displaced Chinese don’t have the option to just wait and start over. I personally find it ironic that they have to turn to the government, which is both the cause and the solution to their problem.

Money Talk

“And they say money talks, well it’s my spokesperson…”

Lil Wayne, “Hold Up” (2010)

My bargaining skills are outstanding (shout out to 15 years lived in 3rd world countries). Unfortunately, my powers are considerable diminished over here. Let’s face it: my skin tone immediately gives away the fact that I’m foreign. The fact that I’m foreign and in Shanghai is an indicator to merchants that I [most likely] have Dollar or Euro purchasing power. And they are right. I therefore have to resort to theatricality and deception in order to not get ripped off:

– I try not to look like your typical, oblivious, annoying tourist who’s shopping for souvenirs. Vendors know this species and that is why most places don’t have prices tags: the prices vary depending on your ethnicity, body language and attire (which is why I hate showing that I have an iPhone because it is equated to a symbol of wealth, thus ruining my bargaining power). I try to look confident like I know Shanghai just as much as they do. I also give the impression that I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to lose which means that this transaction needs to happen fast and to my liking otherwise I will be out there in a blink of an eye if I’m unhappy.

– Ultimately my level of Chinese gives away part of the persona I previously described. So I need a backup plan. Recently, I’ve used my two closest friends on this trip (Shanel Tage and DJ) to help me out with theatrics.

– When bargaining for our gym memberships I made Shanel (who had no interest whatsoever in getting a membership) inquire about the price and even request a visit of the facility. Along the same lines, I tell vendors that if they give me a good price, I’ll tell my other American friends (“who have more money than I do”) to come shop in their store.

– I only keep a small portion of my money in my wallet because they look at how much one has when one pulls it out. If they see that one has a bunch of bills, further bargaining will be a waste of one’s time.

– The oldest trick in the book is to start at 50% the price and concede to pay a higher price incrementally. But they obviously know this trick so it needs a few enhancements:

A trick merchants like to use is one where they tell you they won’t have anything to eat or feed their kids if they lower the price. They usually use that once you have them in what I call their Comfort zone (or Orange zone, see graph):

In the comfort zone, they’re still making profit but not the amount they had expected to. This is where one uses the second oldest trick in the book: walk away. Indeed, at this point one starts to notice little signs of frustration and indecisiveness on their faces. They could just not make the sale and sell that unit to someone else at a price within the Yellow to Blue zone; but who knows how good sales will be that day? Maybe this is his or her only chance at selling that good today, and it would be irrational to not make any profit at all. In the latter case the vendor would not only be bearing the cost without any profit, but would also have to incur whatever inventory costs are associated with not selling the item.

If all goes well, they will come after you and try to keep the negotiations going. But even though they come after you, they will typically still pull out the empathy card and try to explain to you that you’re American and have money so it’s [basically] unfair for you to even bargain with someone poorer in the first place. This is where I pull out what I call the Reverse Empathy card:

I tell them I’m a student without my parents and I have no money. I attend Fudan University, which is very expensive. I then open my wallet and show them the [previously reduced] amount of money I have, and explain that if they do the math themselves, they’ll see that I won’t be able to eat tonight if I buy the item at their demanding price. In other words, I make it obvious that it would be illogical for me to accept a higher price. Finally, they give in.

Using these tricks, I was able to:

– Lower the price of 2 gym memberships from 1800¥ to 1300¥ ($300 to $215).

– Help Shanel get 4 pairs of TOMS for 380¥ instead of 480¥ ($80 to $60).

– Help DJ get a great Burberry windbreaker for 400¥ instead of 600¥ ($100 to $66).

I doubt Shanel’s purchase will result in 4 pairs of TOMS being donated to kids in Argentina as TOMS Shoes promises (see their website). And while the provenance of the goods remains a mystery, their quality is undeniably excellent. I do realize however that the graph illustrating my bargaining theory is flawed in that we have no idea what the original cost was for the seller. I may think I made a totally good deal, when in actuality the seller was still in his or her actual Yellow or Blue zones. I’ll never know… But after doing some math, I feel like that’s irrelevant: our total savings were ¥900 ($150) that day, or 30 succulent and generously portioned meals for one person. How much is meal plan at Davidson again? Yeah I thought so…

Highly Developed Linguistic Skills

Chinese 101: There are four tones when speaking Mandarin. These tones are crucial because depending on the tone one uses the sentence will have a whole different meaning. For instance, the verbs “to buy” and “to sell” are written and pronounced the exact same way: “mai”; even their respective characters are very similar (买 and 卖). Only the intonation will let a Chinese interlocutor know which term one is referring to.

In my opinion, the only thing harder than writing Chinese is getting those tones right. Surprisingly though, I never had to worry about tones until the end of my 4th semester of Chinese (CHI 202). While it was one less thing on my workload for me to worry about, I do regret that tones weren’t emphasized and here’s why: many times when speaking Chinese, I know exactly what word to use and how to pronounce it (and even write it). But when I say it, my tones are off and my interlocutor will not understand what I’m talking about, lest I pull out my iPhone and let him or her read the word. And I hate doing that for reasons I’ll explain further on.

I have however found a way around this. I noticed that people here speak really fast, the same way we [unconsciously] speak english really fast. I thought to myself: “there’s absolutely no way they’re speaking that fast and pronouncing every single tone correctly.” So I tried something. Instead of speaking at a regular speed, I talk as fast as I can. The reasoning behind this is that the less time I spend on a word, the less time I have to emphasize the tone. How is that working out for me? I’d say pretty well: I started that last week and I feel like my linguistic skills are improving even faster. A good indicator is that I haven’t had to pull out my iPhone out as much. And I don’t know to what extent this theory is farfetched but I feel like the constant pressure I’m putting on my brain to express itself in Chinese at a fast pace, is making it amalgamate every available resource it has in order to meet my demand for Chinese that it [normally] cannot supply. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you but it simply means that my being immerged in this environment is helping me improve my Chinese exponentially:

I was at the gym yesterday and a girl told me that she was working out because her boyfriend said “her behind was too round”. If you know me well enough you can probably imagine the look on my face upon hearing that nonsense (her behind was… beautiful, to say the least). I had the moral obligation to advise her to move to the States where I assured her, It would be extremely well received. That earned me a playful, but strong slap to the face followed by a long laugh (and a lot of stares from the gymaholics who had tripled their efforts upon her arrival). This was significant to me because for the first time, I made someone laugh and it wasn’t because I’m black; all this in Chinese and… without my iPhone.

While I’m still far away from dreaming in Chinese the way I do in French, English and Comorian (my 3 maternal languages), I’m hoping this deep immersion in Shanghai will get me past the 5-year-level of Spanish I have, to the point where I can practice my favorite hobby: making fun of people. Until then, I’ll just keep using Chinese as much as I can.

To find out why I don’t like pulling out my iPhone, please read my next post here.

Niggas in Shanghai: “no one knows what it means…”

 

We were one of the first ones to arrive at Gate 2 of Terminal 1 back at JFK on August 29th. As other passengers began to arrive, I soon noticed a “what are you doing here?” expression on their faces. Not an offensive/racist look but a genuinely puzzled one. Those looks were of course directed to my roommate Daniel Seabrooks (henceforth, “DJ”), and myself. What were we doing going to China?

WTF

I must admit that I was a little worried about how my blackness would be received once we landed. Upon doing my research, I got a little pessimistic about my soon-to-be experience in Shanghai. I read a lot of bad stories on the Internet about how black people were treated but I decided not to let that discourage me. The first reason being that I wasn’t going on a vacation: I was going to be there to study and learn as much as I can. The second reason being that after having lived in West Texas for a little under 2 years and having experienced both passive and [very] active racism, I figured it couldn’t possibly be worse. Finally, I also realize that we as human beings tend to point out the oddities and the bad a lot more often than we do the normal and the good. In other words: I was obviously going to find a ton of example of black people being treated badly, than I was going to find articles of black people being treated… “normally”, I guess.

And I was right to not worry: I had my first pleasant experience during the [terrible] flight when a random passenger decided to start a conversation with me. I found it interesting that he began the whole thing in Chinese rather than in English. Later, whenever I would approach a vendor, they’d first attempt to communicate with me in very broken phonetic English, until they realized I could talk with them in Chinese. Through similar interactions I soon found out people were really enthusiastic and borderline pleased upon realizing I could express myself in their language, especially when they initially address me in English but I choose to respond to them in the Chinese.

I think they respect the fact that despite it being theoretically (because of their broken accent) easier for me to carry on the conversation in English, I deliberately choose to put myself through the struggle they were initially willing to put themselves through, for me. I learned to appreciate these simple exchanges through others’ experiences:

There are some Asians on this program who speak less Chinese than I do and get very disapproving looks because of that; especially GTFOwhen Lincoln, a Caucasian (the most fluent in Chinese of us all) has to step in and serve as a translator.

 

 

 

 

 

But being black here is not all black and g-, peaches and cream. It goes from nice experiences similar to those described above, to others that are more… disconcerting, to say the least. For instance:

– Random by passers asking DJ and I to pose in pictures with them.

– Kids that (by my standards) are grown enough to know better than to point at us because of our skin tone. I address this grievance to their parents who should have taught them better.

– Whenever I ask employees at food stores advice on what to pick, they just so happen to point at the chocolate dessert. I would be willing to concede that it’s a coincidence if 1, it hadn’t happened 3 times already and 2, “Africa Town” (the black version of Chinatown) wasn’t referred to as Qiaokeli Chengshi (Chocolate City) smh…

– Finally, what I find most annoying is being around fellow black folk. Allow me to explain: if I’m walking by myself and there happens to be another black person in the vicinity, I usually only notice him or her through the locals’ increased focus on me (they were already staring anyways). They begin to look at me, then at the other black person, back and forth like a Nadal-Federer game, waiting, expecting for us to interact just because we’re both black -___-  :

That last example unsettles me the most not because of Chinese people’s behavior in those instances, but rather because of the resulting effect of that behavior on us, black people in China. I’ll be honest: in all those cases I was [to an extent] going to interact with that person. At least say “hi” or “what’s up”. But because of my temperament, I have this natural incline to not do what this crowd expects of me. The idea that everyone around me is expecting me to behave a certain way, stops me from saying hello. Kind of like when you go to a zoo to see animals and you expect them to behave the way they’re expected to, in their natural habitat.

And I’m not the only one who exhibits this characteristic. I’ve tried to get over this annoyance by ignoring my surroundings and doing what I feel needs to be done (i.e., performing for the crowd), but I soon noticed that other black people would intentionally avoid making eye contact. One could make the case that they just don’t care and are oblivious to what’s going on; but I’m 22 years old and can read body language pretty well: I can tell when someone is avoiding eye contact. Besides, there are so few of us that eye contact is actually inevitable unless it’s intentionally avoided.

Why would I say hello to other black people in the first place you ask? I know this isn’t Davidson or your typical southern town where you say hi to everyone. But still: in these cases, you just do. It’s hard to explain really… Although there isn’t any actual struggle per se, saying hi to each other is a form of support. A simple nod means a lot and usually suffices to say:

“Hey man what’s up? Don’t you miss being back home around the people who understand you? Yeah I’m also fed up of behaving a certain way just because the real me might unsettle those around me. By the way do you know where I can get a good edge up? Also, I’m out of grease and I lost my durag: hook me up. Hey I gotta say: it feels good to walk into a KFC and not be judged or laughed at for being there. I’m bout to start a TT #blackpplstrugglesinasia. Yeah, I miss my bruhs too.”

But even that little nod is expected so no shot: we don’t use it. Once again, as I discover a new culture and learn a new language in a new country, I’m forced to change a part of who I am by changing how I normally behave. Once again, as I move from point A to point B, a part of me is Lost in Translation.

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