Niggas in Shanghai: And they’re going Pandas!

I normally pride myself on being the objection of everyone’s attention with my impeccable smile, smooth face and (although slightly loosening) solid body. Now, while many may reserve such egotism, I ardently embrace mine and profess it proudly to the world… Let’s face it, I’m vain. However this narcissistic sentiment quickly changed to uneasiness, perhaps frustration as I unremittingly endure awkward smiles, confused glances and uncouth rubbernecking by 上海人 (Shanghainese), and it’s not just because I am 老外 (foreigner). To put it simply, I’m Black in the city of Shanghai, and even though China is experiencing an unprecedented rise in foreigners, visiting Blacks (any and all kinds) add little chocolate to the endless yellow sea of Shanghai.

This is the second consecutive semester where I once again label myself as the anomaly and I once again I find myself inquiring on the Black Identity in the international scene. With more fervor, I look, listen, and live the ever-changing regional media to catch glimpses of anything reminiscent of Blackness. Discounting the one billboard that we saw in Tianzifang, I was immediately mortified (and oddly humored) by the other discovery in the Wanda Plaza shopping center: two stiff, choad-shaped manikins personifying what I assume the media depicts about Black people; and apparently we’re Cyclopes! Henceforth, those two will be known as Bonquiqui and Tyrone and this unique pair can be seen on display at a little boutique called Devilnut,

To be forthcoming, the images of the pistol, the unreal incisors and thug living passed on as a la moda fashion in the Black community is asinine; and the two Cyclopes’ attire of sagging jeans, bandanas and gaudy jewelry passed on as modern and cosmopolitan is a lie. All of these would have been acceptable if they weren’t coupled with the superfluous use of menacing tattoos, in particular the overt inscription of the word “NIGGAZ” on Tyrone’s chest, which is both ignorant and offensive. As if the three eyes and distasteful attire weren’t enough…

Whether by divine intervention or happenstance, I find it very enlightening to have discovered these two just hours after Fuji’s foretelling condemnation of my router’s name. The juxtaposition of those two occurrences allowed me to decipher Black images in the local media more clearly and rationally – couldn’t have me getting ghetto in China! Having seen Bonquiqui and Tyrone, I was immediately overwhelmed with more than one gut reaction, but due to both Fuji’s earlier objection and many of the China Urban articles on modernization in post-Mao China, calling the society racist was no longer one of them. Instead, I will say that this Chinese quest for modernity and cosmopolitanism has revealed to me two things: (1) there is an international image for Black people and it has infiltrated Chinese culture (so much that it is at the point where the word “nigga” in not only known, but has become a socially accepted term) and (2) they’re not at fault for adopting these images… we are.

I wouldn’t conclude by saying that when I am gawked and giggled at that the 上海人 are subconsciously (or God forbid, consciously) categorizing me with Bonquiqui and Tyrone because I don’t think that I embody anything that the mainstream media depicts about Blacks. (Plus with my high sex appeal and metrosexual tenets, I am undoubtably classier than those two monstrosities… but I don’t judge.) Confronting the transnational image that I’m compared to and thus competing against only reinforces my sentiments of being black abroad. As I informed Shanel, since the preconception of Black is skewed, it is our responsibility to serve as the iconoclast of the vulgarities that we’re associated with and create a new definition for Black.

Praying in Chinese

Within earshot of the Yuyuan Gardens thronging with loud tourists, there is a quieter and more serene area that houses the unassuming entrance to the City God Temple. Like much in contemporary China, the temple has blurred the line between tradition and modernity. Although the City God temple is ostensibly rooted in ancient rituals, the current commercialization shows the tension between modern development and traditional beliefs in Chinese culture.

The City God Temple is officially a Daoist space dedicated to the worship of the Tudi Gong, or City God. The temple is more linked to popular or folk religion than Daoism, but the government does not allow popular religion spaces. With the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, China officially became an atheist state in conjunction with the Marxist concept of rejecting religion. Despite the CCP’s campaign for secular faith, many religions and philosophies, including Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, continue to flourish in China. Popular religion worship continues too, but it is rarely identified publicly as such.

Traditional belief dictates that the City God is like a spiritual governor that watches over the area and its people. There are other minor gods throughout the temple as well. In Chinese popular religion, there is a hierarchy of bureaucratic gods that protect and regulate their constituents. Each human bureaucrat has a counterpart office in the spiritual world. There are bureaucratic gods at each level with progressively increased power all the way up to the Jade Emperor.

Outside the temple, there is an open area for making incense offerings. For 5 or 10yuan, a worshipper can buy incense and then perform the appropriate ritual. With the guidance of a peer, I gave an incense offering. First, I let my incense burn in a pit (without lighting it). Once my incense has charred, I bowed three times to each cardinal direction. While bowing, I thought about my prayer or wish. Afterwards, I put my incense in a large cart with the rest of the smoldering incense. I noticed that the physical act of offering incense made my ritual feel more significant. More than simply thinking my wish, acting out the ritual helped me connect to the practice.

At this spiritual space, the tension between modern development and traditional faith is clear. The temple is under construction to maintain its traditional appearance, but it is still well within sight of urban development. Even at the temple, a visitor is never far from a Western franchise or a skyscraper. While there are clearly sincere worshippers at the temple, there is also a souvenir shop. Tourists taking pictures stand alongside worshippers offering gifts in ritual. Worshippers must buy a ticket to enter the temple, and purchasing offerings is another cost. Like at this temple, it seems that the commercialization of traditional Chinese culture is widespread in Shanghai.

Modern China has felt this tension between the past and present throughout the country. Although China is often presented as one continuous and uniform civilization, public opinions on the past and the country’s traditions often change. For example, Chairman Mao decried the Forbidden City as opulent and decadent. Now, however, the government embraces the Forbidden City as a symbol of the past’s glory and grandeur. Likewise, the Cultural Revolution infamously called for the new, young, and modern. Older ideas were passionately persecuted. Now, the Cultural Revolution is considered a mistake. In a similar cycle, Confucianism went out of fashion during the Communist push for egalitarianism, but the government supports Confucianism again because of its connection to tradition and continuity.

China now has a combination of modernity and tradition, but the balance still seems uneasy. In particular, Shanghai seems like a glittering Western city, but people actually denounce it for that exact reason. Tourists expect a traditional Chinese experience, even as the business world encourages China to modernize and commercialize.

Visiting the City God temple was a really memorable day because I could see how traditional beliefs flow and intermingle with modern urban development. Personally, I really like that ambiguity about China. Almost simultaneously, the country seems to push rapid development while also fighting to hold on to its traditional Eastern qualities. The contradictions are ubiquitous and unforgettable. The tension between the old and the new is what makes Shanghai so interesting and irresistible. 

Eye-Catching, To Say the Least

The ethnic diversity of the Davidson in Shanghai students makes us stand out from the crowd. With hometowns from the west coast, the Midwest, rural North Carolina, southern Florida, and even France, our entrance to Shanghai made an impression. Those of us with non-Asian ancestry have distinct features that make us stand out in a group of Chinese people. As for me, I knew my white skin and red hair would not blend in with the crowd.

Shanghai is arguably a global city. While the fascination with westerners is very much alive in China, walking down the streets of Shanghai, especially near the universities, will get you a few stares, but venture downtown to tourist areas and you can expect to have your picture taken. There you will meet Chinese people from the countryside and other rural areas of China who are mesmerized by westerners. During orientation week the entire group visited Nanjing Road, a popular attraction for tourists and eager shoppers. While sitting down at a bench, a Chinese girl and her mother passed by but not before they stopped near me. The mother wanted her daughter to take a picture with me, but the little girl was too shy. I politely smiled and waved goodbye. Other times the attention has been more drastic. In one particular case, a group of young Chinese adults stopped and immediately stared at me as I walked by them.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

A group of westerners traveling together can be easily spotted. Anytime the entire group ventures out I am on the lookout for peoples’ reactions. During any visit to the Bund, at least one of us is asked to pose for a picture. Our first night out a Chinese man was determined to be in a picture with all of us. Since the United States has many ethnicities with very distinct characteristics, this new attention proved to be a new concept for us. Even though we are quick to detect physical diversity, many of us are unaware of China’s diverse population.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that while China is considered to be ninety percent Han (he deems this a “problematic” number), the country is not without diversity, containing even more ethnic classes, speaking different dialects, and exhibiting different cultures than one might realize.[1] Wasserstrom believes Americans have a “too-limited appreciation of China’s diversity,” and suggests that misconceptions about China’s diversity are hundreds of years old, aided in part by war and visual representations such as books and film.[2] Shanghai provides a useful example to correct this misconception.

One unique quality and clear distinction between Shanghaiers and other mainland Chinese people is language. Shanghaiers have their own dialect called Shanghainese. Unlike the United States where everyone who speaks English can be understood, Chinese people who speak Mandarin cannot necessarily understand this specific Shanghai dialect. Shanghai is home to many young adults. Wasserstrom believes generational gaps also contribute to China’s diversity. He acknowledges that generational gaps exist throughout the world but believes China’s is most noteworthy. According to Wasserstrom, in 2007, the number of individuals under thirty years old constituted forty percent of China’s total population.[3]

While physical appearance is the most obvious form of diversity, various dialects and ideologies can deepen a population’s diversity. Even though they are watching me and thinking about how different I look, I am also watching them and wondering about their story. Being diverse is not always about standing out in a crowded space.


[1]Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China In the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, Kindle edition, 2010), location 1818. http://www.humanities.uci.edu/history/faculty_profile_wasserstrom.php.

[2]Wasserstrom, location 1785.

[3]Wasserstrom, location 1817.

A Warm Welcome

While becoming acquainted with Shanghai, we found ourselves in one of the most vibrant areas of the city: Nanjing Road.  We all went shopping and sightseeing there; some drank bubble tea while others went around exploring the area.  Both historical and modern aspects of Shanghai are present near Nanjing Road, including some old colonial banks and hotels that were built in European style directly across a stream of water from the Bund, an industrial and booming area whose skyline is sought after by many venues trying to impress both Westerners and Asians who come to Shanghai.  Nanjing Road is one of the “grand gestures” that China is more recently known for and it embodies the change from old Shanghai to modern Shanghai.  These kinds of modern accomplishments “show that China has gone from being the kind of country that could only play minor roles … to being the kind that can host 21st-century counterparts to those attention-getting and status-conveying extravaganzas.”[1]

Our exploration of Nanjing Road included lunch in a ten-story building filled with stores and restaurants and booming with hungry people.  When we arrived at the restaurant, we sat outside on plush chairs waiting for the announcer to call our number.  When we went in to sit in a private room set aside for large groups like ours, I noticed that the restaurant was filled with people chatting and dipping many different kinds of foods into the steaming “hot pot.”

After sitting down, we went directly to the  “sauce bar,” so to speak, that had some very spicy sauces (I learned this first hand, ouch!) and many peanut-flavored sauces.  There were also chopped onions, garlic, and some Korean kimchee along with Thai sweet sauce (my personal favorite).  Some of us tried to be adventurous with the Thai peppers that were very hot but also delicious.

Just to list a few, some of the foods we ate were: a variety of mushrooms, meat, shrimp, radishes, potatoes and noodles.  It reminded me of a chain restaurant in Charlotte called The Melting Pot because you essentially cook your own food in the heated pot, pick it out of the broth and eat it.  The difference is that hot pot has more flavor and is more of a soup that comes with some vegetables or meat.  It was so much fun to throw the food into the pot and then fish it out and eat it.  My favorite was the mushroom plate that held many different breeds of mushrooms.  Some were white and others were gray and looked more familiar.  I love trying new foods and I heard from a friend who was in Tokyo this summer that mushrooms in Asia are delicious so I was excited to taste them for myself.  The meats were very good and looked similar to prosciutto in the sense that they were thinly sliced and the fat on them took up at least half of each slice and added almost all of the flavor.  We peeled the shrimp because they came whole and slipped the sliced potatoes into the hot pot using our chopsticks.

Sodas in China have captivated my attention because they have the same cans and glass bottles as soda from the U.S. and taste exactly the same to me but are labeled with Chinese characters.  They are also served at almost every meal we have had which shows that they too have become a staple food in Chinese culture long after their debut in American culture.  In a way, they try to fit in to Chinese culture with their labels and Chinese-sounding names (cuh-la), but will be continually perceived as another form of colonial Western influence.  The other drink that some people had was watermelon juice, which was practically a slush of everything inside the watermelon squeezed into a glass.  Chai Lu and Katie drank it and said it was warm but tasted very good.

The company at the meal was wonderful.  Our group is having a great time and is still working on getting to know each other but it is going very well so far.  Fuji and Rebecca were there (our professors) with their sons Michael and Patrick, and we had so much fun talking to them about their time in Shanghai and what they like to do.  This meal was scrumptious and I hope to have many more like it during my time in Shanghai!



[1] Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. (2010-04-16). China in the 21st Century:What Everyone Needs to Know (p. 91). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

The World Wide Web

I’ve never considered myself a good blogger. While I own a personal blog and have posted on it from time to time, I’ve always had trouble getting my thoughts down on paper.  I’ve had moments when I wanted to write pages and pages about Jeremy Lin and the “Linsanity” debate or about my experiences as an Asian American.  Yet after thinking and preparing to write these posts, I found that I could not get myself to type these posts out.  After considering why I could not get my thoughts onto my blog, I realized what was stopping me.

The Internet is a big and scary thing.  I knew that once I put my ideas up on the web, they would be out there for all to see.  Anyone could read, comment, or judge me based on what I wrote.  This simple thought scared me.  It is true that the Internet is one of the most powerful tools we have.  If you’d like to know which actors starred in the Harry Potter movies or find out the birthday of our 22nd president, these answers are literally a click away.  Or if you’d like to find your long lost kindergarten friend, chances are Facebook will help you find them.

But how much do we really know about the Internet?  How long will the little bits of information that we post online stay out there, floating around in some mysterious space? Every month or two a story will come out about a man who lost his job because of a dumb status update on Twitter or a wild picture of his party the night before on Facebook.  The Internet is helpful but also a very powerful tool.

While most of the world has the ability to do almost anything they want on the Internet, this is not the case in China.  “The Great Firewall” which blocks websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube limits Chinese Internet users.  This display of censorship show just how powerful the Internet can be.  The Chinese government is afraid of negative press coming from these websites.  They know that having open access to the web will cause people to point out the downfalls of the government and could potentially lead to protests in the future.

But while many sites are blocked by the “Firewall”, this does not mean that they are inaccessible.  Computer savvy individuals (or those with smart friends) can use Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, to mask the computer’s location and make the user appear to be somewhere else.  A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation about VPNs with my mom.  She asked me why more people didn’t use VPNs, consider how easy they are to download and use.  After asking a few of my Chinese friends about this, I came up with a general answer to her question.

First off, you must know about a VPN to use one.  While simply downloading a VPN and using it in China may seem like a no-brainer to an ex-pat who has been told about the work-around by friends, many Chinese citizens likely have not been exposed to them.  Those who have are likely from urban areas like Shanghai or Beijing and have been introduced to VPNs by a co-worker or friend. According to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “This creates another divide among Internet users in China, separating those who are versed in using such techniques from those who are not.   (p. 86).  While there is a class of Internet users in China who have more access, my second point explains why I believe this divide is a small one.

Second, and more importantly, using VPNs can become very inconvenient and unnecessary to many Chinese locals.  To a Chinese student, having a Facebook may not be very useful if none of their other fellow classmates have one.  Personally, I created a RenRen (the Chinese equivalent to Facebook), but since I only have 12 friends, it is almost pointless for me to ever sign on.  I think many Chinese students must view Facebook in a similar way.  It is simply easier to use a site such as Weibo where everyone in your social circle is connected, without having to go through the hassle of connecting with a VPN.

Now while we may have different ways of accessing our friends and social circles, I think one thing is clear.  The Internet is a key component to all of our lives and will stay that way for a long time.

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