Happy Birthday, Wei! (祝你生日快乐,魏!)

On Tuesday, our Chinese teacher Wei Laoshi (魏老师) turned twenty-six years old. To celebrate my classmates and I took her out for dinner and drinks nearby campus. While walking to the restaurant, I thought about how we Davidson students have grown closer to Wei over the semester. Wei Laoshi is not a Shanghai native. She comes from a farming family in the countryside of China. Her hard work and academics brought her to Shanghai for college and graduate school. Her lighthearted personality, jokes and stories make our Chinese class interesting and entertaining. Although she is a tough professor, she is also approachable and personable. Moreover, she has made an effort to get to know each of us through our one-on-one sessions with her.

Earlier in the semester, we learned that Wei had never had a birthday party or birthday cake. She explained to us that, unlike American culture, birthdays are not emphasized in Chinese culture. Her friends never took her out to celebrate her birthday in college or graduate school. This was not considered mean or forgetful; it is simply not expected in Chinese society. This was shocking to most of my classmates, including myself, who were showered by birthday gifts and parties from family and friends every year. Wei did mention that her birthday was especially important and sentimental to her mom. On her birthday each year, Wei calls her mom on to thank her “for doing such a good job on this day X years ago.”

We were all excited to throw Wei a small celebration. Julie and I ordered a cake and appropriate “2-6″ candles. We honored Wei’s request and brought her to Helen’s, a western styled restaurant and bar. After eating dinner, we brought out the cake and sang Happy Birthday in Chinese. The restaurant even played Happy Birthday for Wei over the stereo system. Wei could not hide her excitement. With a smile stretched across her face and her eyes closed, she made a wish then blew out the candles.

The guests of the party slowly left the one by one. Soon, only Dan, Julie and I remained at the table with Wei. We stayed a while talking about life in Shanghai, love and dating. While finishing the cake, Wei introduced us to two terms: Phoenix Man and Peacock Woman. A Phoenix Man is an intelligent, hardworking man from the countryside who finds success in a big city such as Shanghai. These men are seen as phoenixes “reborn” into the urban, modern way of life. A Peacock woman is a spoiled girl born and raised in the city. According to Wei, the Phoenix-Peacock love story has been extremely popular in the plots of recent television shows and romantic movies. She knows of a few Phoenix men at Fudan and claims they all want quiet, obedient wives. I had never heard of a Phoenix Man or a Peacock Woman. This is just one example of many things Wei has taught us outside of the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation of Mandarin. I am so thankful for time our class has had with Wei and all of the things I have learned from spending time with her. As Wei says, “You are all my friends!” And I am confident that we Davidson students all agree.

Silk Orders at the South Bund

The sound of a sewing machine rumbling reminds me of my mother. My mother, Ivy, works as tailor in a local boutique in Durham, NC. As a child, I could usually find my mother in her sewing room working on her clients’ clothes or a sewing project for fun. Many of the garments my sister and I wore growing up were custom made by my mom. My mother sewed us many things, including, smoking dresses, bedspreads, and Halloween costumes. She would often bring my sister and I along to shop for buttons, zippers and thread. While walking through the fabric store, my hands would move across the endless rows of fabric rolls; cotton, fleece, polyester, leather, silk and satin.

Last week, I made a trip to the South Bund Fabric Market in Shanghai. This market is popular among travelers and locals looking to buy custom made shirts, dresses, suits and jackets. When I walked through the front doors of the building, my mind immediately flashed back to the times I spent roaming different colors, textures and prints with my mother. The South Bund Fabric Market is a three story building jammed packed with individual vendor stalls. I was a bit overwhelmed at first; every stall was covered in fabric, model designs and finished orders from floor to ceiling. I did not know where to start.

After wandering around some, Shanel and I entered a stall on the first floor that was recommended by our professor. We were both looking to order traditional Chinese dresses known as cheongsams (qípáo). From my understanding, one or two storefront merchants operate each stall. These merchants help customers pick designs, choose fabrics and measure sizes. Orders are then sent to neighboring buildings and laborers to be made. Customers typically wait about one week to pick up their custom made pieces.

The stall we selected was about ten square-meters in area and was run by a husband and wife team. Before making any concrete decisions, we asked the storekeepers how much one cheongsam would cost. The woman merchant grabbed the calculator from her desk and typed “450¥.” We knew this was a good and fair starting price, but proceeded to bargain for a discount. In the end, we agreed to buying five cheongsams between the two of us priced at 360¥ each. So, this meant each custom made silk cheongsam cost about $60, a price impossible to find back home.

Through watching my mother sew, I have developed an appreciation for good craftsmanship and hands-on work. My mother has built up her clientele based on her quality workmanship. In the tailoring business back home charging $60 for a custom made cheongsam would result in negative profits. The South Bund Fabric Market’s low prices are made possible by China’s abundance of willing workers and low labor costs. Our vendor told us that the price of fabric and materials make up most of the retail price. The prices we encountered were lower than “off-the-shelf” items back home. For example, Nicky ordered three custom fit suit sets for the price of one off-the-shelf suit in the United States.

I see that sewing is a disappearing trade in the developed countries. It has become a specialty skill as more and more textile factories get outsourced to developing countries. There seem to be more tailoring booths in the South Bund Fabric Market building than there are in the city of Durham. The difference between tailoring prices and choices in China and the United States interests me. In my Chinese Marketplace class, my group is researching and conducting a field study of the South Bund Fabric Market. We will be digging deeper into the vendors’ daily lives, the power structure within the market and the supply chain. But, for now, I am most excited to pick up my three cheongsams tomorrow afternoon.

An International Space

Four times this semester I have found myself at the Kerry Parkside Center (嘉里城) in Pudong District, Shanghai. The site of upscale apartment housing, a five-star hotel, and a shopping mall, the Kerry Center seems like modernity incarnate. Its developers would certainly have you believe as much, and the presence of dozens of internationally recognizable stores and restaurants seems to suggest that the Kerry Center is a particularly international and cosmopolitan spot in a very international and cosmopolitan district of China’s most international and cosmopolitan city. Supporting this notion, each time I’ve visited the Kerry Center, I’ve had an experience that has reinforced in my mind the idea that the complex is meant to be a new cosmopolitan core of Shanghai.

My first visit to the Kerry Center was only a few weeks after I arrived, when a friend and I attended the Kerry International Beer Festival. Coming to Shanghai, I had been surprised by the sheer number of foreigners living and working in the city, but I was truly blown away by the crowd present at the beer festival. More than two-thirds of the people present were Caucasians, from all over the world, of all different ages, and from every walk of life. As my classmate Tommy pointed out, you could really see the Shanghai expat community at this beer festival, and it left me with a lasting impression of the Kerry Center as an international space.

My second and third visits to the Kerry Center were occupied by meals at two different restaurants located in the complex and conversations of a very international nature. My second visit was a trip to the Blue Frog Bar & Grill, one of the restaurant’s many locations throughout Shanghai. I went with my roommates, a Chinese American from California and a Taiwanese who studied high school in New Zealand and is attending college in the US. As usual, our conversation really was a cross-cultural experience. My third visit to the Kerry Center was to have lunch at Baker & Spice (a Chinese cafe with a very cosmopolitan atmosphere and very international prices) with several Taiwanese women whose husbands work in Shanghai and learn about their experiences living in the Mainland. This visit also elicited a lot of cross-cultural exchange (which will be discussed in great detail on this blog at a later date).

My most recent trip to the Kerry Center was to attend the pH Value Fashion Show held at the Kerry Hotel from Oct. 22nd – 23rd. I’d been invited by a classmate, whose uncle was one of the organizers of the event. We went for the evening of the 23rd, and saw the last event of the show. This was the first fashion show I’d ever given a second thought about, not to mention actually attended, and it was quite an interesting experience. The models were everything I’d ever imagine models to be (which is to say, incredibly skinny and strangely tall), the clothing ranged from (what I’d call) sensible to somewhat outrageous, and I was slightly underdressed for the event (most of the men wore blazers). Seeing the fashion show really reinforced in my mind the idea that Shanghai in particular (and, increasingly, China as a whole) sees itself on par with the West as an “international” place, with everything the West has to offer (including fashion shows!)

Yours truly crashing the red carpet at the 2012 pH Value Fashion Show in Pudong, Shanghai, PRC.

During each of these unique cosmopolitan experiences, the Kerry Center presented itself as a fashionable, modern area that was sophisticated and enjoyable. Every locale has a unique feeling to it, and the developers of the Kerry Center have been very careful to cultivate the feeling their complex has, shaping it into a global space in which its easy to forget that you’re in China at all.

Breathing Shanghai

In a city of 23 million people, staying healthy takes militant self-protection. For me, staying healthy in China is a conscious daily struggle.

In a city of pollution and overcrowding, chances for illness are ubiquitous. Public health crises are growing all over China. As Elizabeth Economy discusses in her book The River Runs Black, people throughout China are facing water scarcity, higher rates of birth defects and cancer, and poor air quality because of environmental degradation. Respiratory problems are rampant because of the poor air quality. Tap water can cause days of diarrhea and stomach pain. Viruses transmit rapidly because of urbanization and overcrowding. An infamous example is the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS in southern China. After failing to control the outbreak and failing to cooperate with the international community, China was criticized for its public health management. As the population grows and environmental destruction continues, the public health problems only increase.

From the beginning, I noticed a difference in Shanghai’s treatment of health. Near our apartment complex, there is a large hospital. Whenever I walk by the hospital, I see at least ten patients milling around, smoking cigarettes, or eating at local restaurants. Sometimes the patients are wearing facemasks, but sometimes they aren’t. They wear hospital pajamas, but they can easily walk around the block and do what they please. Even if I am not near the hospital, I usually see at least one person wearing a facemask each day. I often wonder what they are afraid of breathing in. Although it is socially acceptable to wear a facemask, other Chinese habits seem less conducive to public health. It is not uncommon to hear someone spit or blow their nose loudly onto the sidewalk. Parents hold their babies go to the bathroom on the road. Squat toilets are often dirty on and around the toilet. Trash piles up throughout the city. For the squeamish or germophobic, Shanghai would be a hard place to live.

Despite the differences in public hygiene, Chinese superstitions about personal health are often surprisingly similar to my own habits. I burn incense because it relaxes me, and every temple has countless incense offerings. Incense actually helps to reduce anxiety and depression, so it makes sense that religious temples have incense to ease their visitors. My Chinese teacher also says that air conditioners and travelling make her sick because her body has trouble adjusting to the changes in environment. I am not sure why, but both of these are true for me as well. Finally, my Chinese teacher always suggests cups and cups of hot tea to cure illness. I drink hot tea endlessly when I am sick. Like drinking chicken soup in the States, we know our at-home treatments are helpful, even if we can’t explain why.

Shanghai is an interesting place to think about public health because every person lives the public health problem. No one needs to tell me there is poor air quality; I can simply feel it in my lungs. I do not know how public health will continue in China, but it is obvious that there is real potential for a crisis.

Hukuo (户口) in China

Earlier this semester, my classmates and I learned about Hukou (户口), a household registration system in China. In her article “Foreign Marriage, ‘Tradition,’ and the Politics of Border Crossing,” Constance D. Clark introduces and describes Hukou:

Hukou was a system of social control created by the Communist Party, which segregated the entire Chinese population into a two-tiered rural-urban ranking of privilege. Statuses of “agricultural” or “nonagricultural” meant that a person born into an agricultural family had no opportunity to convert to nonagricultural status and was therefore denied benefits allocated to those in the cities such as housing, medical insurance, food allotments, and pensions (Cohen 1994; Potter and Potter 1990). In many ways, the package of urban welfare came to be understood as socioeconomic rights that were the property of urbanites. (Clark 1999: Kindle Locations 1394-1398).

From my understanding, Hukou is a government instrument for manipulating and controlling the movement of people in China. The word Hukou is comprised of two separate characters: 户 and 口. Independently, 户 carries the meaning of family, and 口 carries the meaning of entrance or gate. So, the combination of the two characters is a fitting description of the structure. Without approved official documentation, a person cannot legally enter and establish a life in another province or town. This barrier has been and continues to be problematic for Chinese citizens, particularly those living in rural towns wishing to move and work in exciting and economically thriving cities. Moreover, the difficulty of transferring Hukuo registration has made the city the “preferred place to live and… a steadfast destination of desire for rural dwellers and exiled urbanites” (Chen 1999: Kindle Locations 133-134). Thus, the increasingly high population densities in Chinese cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, should be expected.

Before learning about Hukou, I took “the freedom of geographic mobility” for granted. In America, the government does not directly control the migration from countryside to city. In fact, the transition from small town to big city is a popular theme romanticized in novels and movies. During my childhood, my family moved every few years according to my father’s job and economic opportunities. Hukou would have restricted my father’s career and my family’s chance for economic prosperity. Chinese college students are facing this restriction of Hukou during their job hunts after graduation (Hoffman: Kindle Locations 757-758). If graduates do not get their Hukou registration transferred to an economic center, such as Shanghai, then they are forced to look for job opportunities in their hometown. This can be extremely disheartening for college graduates from small towns, since better, higher-paying jobs are located in larger cities.

The subject of Hukou surfaced during an interview with Ms. Li (李), a migrant farmer on Chongming Island. Recently, Ms. Li’s son returned to their hometown in Anhui Province to attend high school. When asked why he did not attend a high school on the island, she clarified that his registration was in their hometown. Therefore, he could only take his university placement exams in Anhui. Ms. Li hopes her son will find a job outside farming and recognizes the importance of an education for his future. Thus, staying on Chongming was not an option for her son. Additionally, Ms. Li mentioned her son’s desire to attend university in urban Shanghai instead of Chongming. As mentioned earlier, life in a larger city is economically and socially more attractive. Chongming Island is the least developed region of Shanghai. Ms. Li’s son is simply another illustration of the rural population’s longing for city life.

(Ms. Li is pictured above; population density map provided by china travel guide)

css.php