Coffee Shops and Capitalist Culture

iphone 12.18.2012 532Before I left for Shanghai, there was one thing I knew that I would miss about the US:  coffee.  Most of my friends and family recognize by now that I am an irrevocable coffee addict, so when my parents ask me on Skype if I’m suffering from coffee withdrawals, they probably aren’t kidding.  But even though Shanghai does not lack coffee itself, I have come to realize that what it really lacks is a coffee culture.

The idea of coffee culture may sound ridiculous or elusive, but I do think it exists.  Coffee shops are not just places of consumption; they are often intellectual hubs and venues of expression for both shopkeepers and customers alike.  While I was meeting up with Shefong in Taipei, we hopped to about four or five different coffee shops, and she pointed out that coffee shops in Taiwan are more than just businesses to the owners; a lot of young people actually aspire to open up their own coffee shops so that they can not only experience the joys and benefits of owning one’s own small business, but so that they can also express themselves while simultaneously finding a way to contribute to the Taipei’s culture.

Indeed, as we all sat in Ecole near the Shi da night market, I noticed the eco-friendly menus crafted from recycled cardboard, the local artwork on the walls, and the youth string quartet thanking the owner for allowing them a public place to perform.  Each shop had its own coffee and cake selection, its own artwork, its own personality, and its own purpose.  Additionally, the average cup of coffee (even the flavored, spiffed up one) was within an affordable price range, meaning that coffee and coffee shop culture can realistically exist in everyday life for the common Taipei-er.

In comparison to Taiwan’s coffee venues, the coffee shops in Shanghai are usually over-priced, costing anywhere from 18 yuan to 40 yuan, which subsequently means a lot of coffee shops intend to attract a wealthier clientele.  Additionally, a lot of the coffee menus are practically duplicates of each other; almost every Shanghai coffee shop I’ve visited offers the same selection of coffee:  Americano, Caramel Macchiato, Tiramisu/Hazelnut Cafe Latte, and Espresso.  Each place seems to have elevator-like music playing in the background.  I’ve noticed that a lot of places even have a novelty pet kitten or cat for customers to play with.

iphone 12.18.2012 533

In short, Shanghai coffee shops are strictly run as commercial businesses rather than seen as personal pursuits or as a Shanghai subculture.  And now that I think about it, it seems like a lot of small businesses are run in the same profit-driven manner in Shanghai.  Growing up in a family-run restaurant, I love the idea of having a business—not just for the independence and money, but for the ability to personalize my own venue and have a role (or at least tell myself that I do) in the community.  I often wonder if a lot of small business owners in Shanghai feel the same way, and if Shanghai’s profit-driven small businesses are just a result of a less close-knit urban culture or of decades of demonized capitalist culture.

Dr. Pan mentioned in class the other day that businessmen and entrepreneurs were seen as somewhat lowly members of society, even in traditional Confucian society.  The main logic behind this evaluation pointed to businessmen as being profit-driven individuals who privilege money over morals.  To add to Pan’s interpretation, I imagine that many evaluated the fluidity of businessmen’s roles in society as potentially unstable and too individualistic for Confucian traditions.  While the Shanxi merchants were seen as philanthropic, the choice that businessmen wield and enjoy in terms of where they set up shop, how they do it, who they hire, what they do with their money, etc. can easily be reason to villain-ize entrepreneurs.

With this in mind, it seems that China’s capitalist culture still has yet to bloom.

Documentary-making, Democratization, and Yeeva’s New Idol

So, I think we can all agree that Taiwan was amazing (sorry, Nicky).  But as wonderful as the sightseeing, food, people and shopping were, the highlight of my entire trip was meeting up with Chung Shefong and getting to film and interview her with Julie and Dan.

A lot of people wonder how exactly we came to know each other.  And literally, I came to know Shefong through a random email.  She had come across the website that I had created for AIDCI (the ex-internee organization that I became a part of) and the ex-internee oral history blog, The Deoli Diaries,that I began writing this past summer.  For those who don’t remember, my father was interned in a concentration camp as a result of the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict; like many other members of India’s Chinese community, he and his family were wrongly accused of being Communist sympathizers, even though they had fled China to escape communism.

Shefong contacted me in an email, asking for permission to use some photos and information from some blog posts in her upcoming documentary on the Sino-Indian border conflict and the consequent mass internment and treatment of members of India’s Chinese community.  A little wary of her intentions, I wanted to meet her face to face, especially knowing that we would happen to be visiting Taipei this semester.

Meeting Shefong has definitely climbed its way to the top of my most memorable moments list so far.  While it was great getting to just talk to someone who completely understands the Chinese-Indian community that I know and love, it was especially amazing to see a prime example of the difference between China and Taiwan’s sociopolitical culture.  I agreed with Shefong when she mentioned that two major distinguishing characteristics about Taiwan’s political culture are media and the availability of social space to express specific concerns and issues.  This point was reinforced as she continued to explain how she began the making of her documentary.

I still find myself surprised at how Shefong began making her documentary on the Sino-Indian border conflict and the internment of India’s Chinese community.  She did not have family or friends who suffered in the camp.  She is not a Chinese-Indian.  She is not part of the Hakka community.  She is not an anthropologist.  She is not an academic.  Considering that this film is her first visual production, she is not even a filmmaker.  Rather, she is a professor and music producer.  So there is basically no extrinsic motivation for Shefong to be doing what she is doing with her time.  What is her motivation?

Fascination.  It’s as simple as that.  That and the fact that there is sociopolitical space available for her fascinations, concerns, and perceptions were enough to produce a documentary.  During a visit to India with her friend, she was taken to the Chinese-Indian community, and she became fascinated with such an isolated community within India.  When she found out about the history of the Chinese-Indian community, she began to interview people.  My jaw dropped when she mentioned that she managed to interview seventy people—which is a staggering number of people in light of how reluctant most Chinese-Indians are to talk about their painful history in India.  She took her interest and ran with it when she asked Taiwan’s Hakka public TV station to fund the making of a documentary on the Sino-Indian border conflict and Deoli Internment Camp.

I understand that the majority of Taiwanese people (or any people, for that matter) are probably not as politically and socially active as Shefong.  But seeing how adamant she was about completing this intrinsically motivated documentary was refreshing—and almost unbelievable.  Like most American students, I grew up with thinking that any functioning democracy requires a level of civic engagement among citizens.  Perhaps I don’t know a broad range of people, but I rarely meet people like Shefong who are willing to invest so much time and energy into what others would consider an obscure, somewhat irrelevant, topic.  I think her involvement speaks to the successful model of democratization in Taiwan.

Chinese Youth: A Growing Sense of Political Agency

During the jiaozi social that was organized for the Chinese and international students, I met Jacob (I’ve given him a pseudonym here).  When I later mentioned that I was planning on majoring in Anthropology, he insisted that I see the lab where he does his research.  In the lab, he introduced me to his colleagues and we all practiced our English and Chinese while talking about a pretty broad array of topics, ranging from playing ping pong to naming world-renowned Hakka politicians to teaching each other regional dialects from Jiangxi and Henan.

Among one of the major topics that came up was of course politics.  Trying to avoid anything to incendiary, I was caught a bit off guard when Jacob straightforwardly asked, “Do you feel free in America?”

I have definitely thought about this question a lot, but I never really thought about how I would respond if asked, especially if I were asked by a Chinese person.  I ended up saying that I do feel very free in America.  While this response has always been in light of the political and social difficulties that my father had to face while living in India as a Chinese-Indian minority, I think I can say that my response was candid.

I have asked myself what constitutes freedom.  Growing up in the US, I have grown to link freedom with the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of religion, the freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition.  When I listed these for Jacob, he asked me to further explain the freedom of assembly.  When I started describing the role of organizations and civic culture in the United States, he sighed, “Wow.  That is so great.  It must be amazing.”

He continued to explain the role of censorship in China and the way in which it has resulted in a lack of transparency in both the government and the media, but ultimately, the way in which it has affected public intervention and civic culture.  According to Jacob, the Chinese public is, for the most part, aware that its access to information and news is very limited and that their government is far from perfect (this is of course no different from any government).  But though the flaws are apparent, perhaps the most difficult truth to handle is that the space for a more civic culture and citizen intervention and participation has yet to develop in China.

While many are hoping for a change in China’s political culture, there are truths to face.  Just as Chapter Seven of The River Runs Black mentions, development will be very slow without the social space for communication.  Many former communist regimes were undermined due to increased civic culture among the public.  After seeing the effects of media and chaotic movements such as the Arab Spring and the riots in Egypt, it seems that China is of course wary of the potential threats that social media can pose to a communist government that has increasingly had a smaller role in China’s economy, and subsequently, some of its social aspects.  I’ve read a few articles on a possible “Chinese spring,” but I constantly wonder how China will respond to another revolution, if it happens…

…but is it really a revolution when the communist ideology currently has such a minimal role in Chinese economy and society?   Right now, it seems that the government is only particularly characteristically communist in that it censors the media and speech.

In the mean time, it looks like Chinese youth are eagerly waiting for certain cogs to fall into place.

Defying the “Chinese” Dream of Success

Yesterday was my second day of tutoring Zoey in English, and once again, my experience with tutoring has prompted my blog post. This week, I brought a camera to our lesson with the intention to take some photos and perhaps use them in my pechakucha.  Initially, I had resolutely planned on making my pechakucha based on the pictures that I had taken of red pandas at the Shanghai Zoo.  However, once I realized that I could neither realistically spew facts nor get away with saying, “Red panda don’t care!” for six solid minutes, I decided that a pechakucha on tutoring Zoey would be much better.

When I first showed up with the camera, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be taking photos of.  I first began with taking pictures of Zoey and her family, but as always, I felt so intrusive with the camera in my hands.  Whenever I travel, I always feel hesitant about taking photos of people; I worry that they feel annoyed or uncomfortable.  So instead of asking Mr. and Mrs. Luan for permission for me to take photos of them, I explained that I wanted photos of Zoey’s artwork.

In the presence of the camera, they were eager to showcase their daughter’s work.  They pulled out a portfolio of Zoey’s drawings.  I could tell from the frayed edges and slightly yellowed pages that they had been collecting these for years.  Most of them were scenes from a famous Chinese cartoon.  But even though most of the drawings were not completely organic or imaginative and even though I am by no means an artist, I thought they were extremely well done for an eight-year-old.  The first time I had glanced at the drawings on the wall, I had assumed that they had been traced from a coloring book.  But no, Zoey’s sense of depth and placement on a page of paper are impressive.

As I took pictures of Zoey and her drawings, I realized that what struck me the most in each picture was the amount of her parents’ genuine support.  As they picked out drawings for me take pictures of, they explained that she had begun drawing lessons and attended them regularly each week.  Every Sunday, they would also take her to a local art exhibit to see different displays.  On her desk, she had another art project that she had been working on; her mother picked up and proudly said, “Zoey likes to make her own things.  We want her to do what she enjoys.”

I so rarely hear these words professed so sincerely.  I’m still amazed at how much Zoey’s parents are willing to support what my parents would have brushed away as a mere hobby.  Growing up, I would always hear my father say, “If you were ever meant to be an artist, musician, actress, writer or anything like that, people would have come looking for your talent.  But if they haven’t come yet, you might as well focus on reality.”  Needless to say, my father was never too supportive of my interests in creative writing or poetry contests.

Before yesterday’s lesson, I had assumed that Zoey’s parents would be more concerned with her academic progress rather than her modes of self-expression.  Just as I had mentioned in a past post about one-child policy, there is a lot of pressure on only children to do well in school, acquire careers and sufficiently sustain themselves and their parents…which has understandably led many parents to steer their children toward more practical careers in economics, medicine, teaching or government.  The same mentality seems to exist among American immigrant parents.  The idea that the sacrifice of migrating to a country of opportunity must amount to something commonly permeates through and motivates immigrant families and second-generation immigrants.

What really looms over them is the fear of failing to ensure a “better” future for the next future.  But a better future here is usually defined by economic security rather than emotional content.  This seems to almost be a universal understanding among mainstream society.  With such a long history with the civil exam system, Chinese culture seems to actually be very egalitarian in terms of inspiring students to work hard and later enjoy success.  And as a result, there is a burgeoning competitiveness among students and parents.  A lot of my friends back home like to joke about the stereotypical cutthroat tactics and gravity with which Chinese parents handle their children’s education.  But is it really a Chinese thing?  Or could we just as easily call it the pursuit of the Chinese dream of success?

I can’t help but wonder if Zoey’s parents will always support her passion for art, or if someday, the trips to art exhibits, the drawing lessons and the hours of drawing will simply be remnants of an ideal childhood for Zoey once she is introduced to the gao kao (college entrance exam) and the importance of getting into a good university.

But if it seems that I am villain-zing Zoey’s parents, I do think that Saturday’s observations made one thing clear:  if such a shift is hard on Zoey, I imagine it would be much harder on her parents to enforce such a shift.  With only one child, Chinese parents must incite and endure a truly difficult transition between the limited first years of enjoying their children’s youth and the emotionally and physically arduous process of convincing their children that a good life is a prosperous and economically secure one.

As I flipped through Zoey’s drawings and admired them, her mother quietly turned to me and said in Chinese, “Perhaps if she had been born in America, she could become a real artist.  But here, it would be difficult…”  I don’t know if Zoey’s parents will ever know how very similar they are to American immigrant parents.

Making Jiaozi: A Symbol of Tradition and Cultural Identity

For the sake of privacy, I’ve renamed the people mentioned in this post.

Today, I began my first day of English lessons with Emma, a cute but sassy eight-year-old girl who is an old classmate of Shen Yifei’s daughter.  We began lessons at 2:00 in the afternoon…and I got back to Tonghe at 6:00, so four hours at the Chuan household in total.  About an hour and a half into the lesson (Emma possibly has the longest attention span for a kid her age), we heard the sound of a knife chopping against a cutting board.  “How do you say jiaozi in English?” she asked me.

“Dumplings,” I answered.  “Do you help your parents make them?”

“Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I don’t.”

I was glad to find that Emma’s household still maintained the tradition of getting together with the family and making dumplings during holidays (in this case, Mid-Autumn Festival) or on the weekends.  Some of my favorite and clearest memories are of gathering around the kitchen table in Shelby or at the prep table at Chen’s with my parents and siblings and mass-producing enough dumplings to feed my massive family.  But when I came to Davidson and began hanging out with the Chinese international students, I was shocked to find that the majority of them did not know how to wrap dumplings.  For a long time, I associated the ability to wrap dumplings with “being Chinese”; I now of course realize that the dumpling is a pretty universal concept that exists in a broad range of cultures.  Nonetheless, as a huaqiao, I took such pride in knowing that I could make homemade dumplings despite the fact that my family had migrated from China two generations ago.  While the tradition is not one that will completely fade out any time soon, the idea that that such a valuable tradition has been dwindling in so many Chinese households is saddening.

I often wonder why such a tradition fades, or how the passing on of such a tradition is possibly related to understandings of culture and education.  It seems that some Chinese families choose to privilege their children’s formal education over the education that they would otherwise receive at home.  This reminds me of Dr. Pan Tianshu’s mentioning of the general Chinese understanding (or many other people’s understanding, for that matter) of culture and education; while so many people tend to conceptualize culture and education as a formal understanding of (particularly Western) music, language, history, and art, many people fail to realize that culture is defined by any lifestyle, traditions, or customs that enable a person to survive in or adapt to the surrounding environment.  Sure, making dumplings is obviously not crucial to survival and perhaps does not scream sophistication among Shanghai’s best restaurants and eateries, but it nonetheless became a tradition in Chinese kitchens.  Unfortunately, as more families decide that schoolwork, dance class, violin lessons or tennis are more important or more indicative of a well-rounded and “cultured” child, simple traditions such as making dumplings are no longer priorities.

I was glad to see Emma actively making an effort to help her parents make dumplings.  Though it’s a tedious and long process, I know she won’t regret it later on when she can say that she knows how to make homemade jiaozi.