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.

Taipei’s Night Markets

Yes. You can use Facebook. No. They do not spit as you walk past. Yes. Cars stop for pedestrians. No. The cars do not swerve in and out of the designated lanes. Most certainly the people of Taiwan are the nicest and well-mannered people I have encountered in quite some time. Nothing beats hearing an “excuse me” as someone crosses in front of you.

A less than two hour flight covering 432 miles gets you to Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport. After a forty minute ride you can be in Taipei City—Taiwan’s capital. This past weekend the group visited Taipei, Taiwan, or as known to those in Taiwan, Taibei (台北). We arrived at night in what I thought to be a Las Vegas imitation. Flashing lights and signs adorned almost every building near our hotel.

If you are eager to jump right into Taipei’s shopping world, then a trip to a night market is just for you. After arriving at our hotel, the group went to Shilin Night Market, only a few metro stops away from us. Shilin is one of the most famous night markets in Taipei. While I acted like a six year old at Disney World and wanted everything I saw, I left empty handed. Don’t worry; I made up for it the other nights.

The shopping experience in Taipei is very different from the shopping experience in Shanghai. If I want to shop in Shanghai, I have to get to Qipu Road Clothing Market before it closes at 6pm. Since I feel guilty going shopping before I finish my homework, it is difficult to make a trip to Qipu during the week. Night markets in Taipei are open from late afternoon until midnight and some are open later on weekends. The concept of a night market allows you to work, explore Taipei, or be lazy during the day, and then enjoy a nighttime shopping spree.

While Taipei has several night markets, I only visited the Shilin Night Market and the Wufenpu Night Market. Shilin is a mix of clothing vendors (those with whom you can bargain), food vendors, and actual stores. Wufenpu lacks food vendors and most of the stores are willing to bargain with you. Be careful, though! Most stores at Wufenpu are not equipped with dressing rooms.

Do I prefer shopping in Shanghai or shopping in Taipei? I must say that I prefer shopping in Taipei. The clothes are are better quality, and I seemed to be better at bargaining with Taiwanese people, or maybe I paid more than I actually realize. If you find yourself visiting Taipei anytime soon, visit Shilin. Grab a bite to eat and start shopping. There’s nothing better!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wedding in Shanghai

On the third day of Golden Week, I attended a wedding in Shanghai with my friend Katie Wells. The parents of the kid I tutor, Harry Cao, asked me on the first Sunday of Golden Week if I had time and could attend a cousin’s wedding on Tuesday. I checked my schedule and told them I could while also asking if I could bring a friend so that I would not be alone at the wedding.

We both had no idea what to expect at this wedding. I was wondering if it would be a traditional Chinese wedding with a bunch of rituals or a Western style wedding where a pastor or priest would have them take their vows and a reception would be held after. Let me say that the wedding is like none that I have been to.

The wedding took place in a high rise building that held reception rooms. The family took Katie and I up an elevator and as we entered the 3rd floor we saw the wedding couple. They were taking pictures with the guests that were entering. So, I assumed the wedding had ended and this was the reception. As we walked forward, Katie and I were roped into taking pictures with the wedding couple before proceeding to the room where everyone was seated. We were seated with the grandparents and extended family members of the boy I tutor. They offered us drinks ranging from soft drinks to alcohol. We talked a little with them and waited, not knowing what was supposed to happen next.

All of a sudden a camera crew materialized with a lighting crew and the room was darkened. The spotlights were trained on the groom who appeared at the front and he started singing as the bride walked down the aisle with her father. She was wearing a white dress and the groom met her halfway as he sang. He stopped before and kneeled on one knee as he finished his song and then walked her to the front where the stage was. Then the Master of Ceremonies (MC) took over the rest of the proceedings. There was only one bridesmaid who brought the rings for both the bride and groom. They put the rings on each other’s finger, although the groom made everyone laugh when he put the ring on the bride’s wrong finger. Then they kissed and proceeded to pour wine into a wine glass pyramid.  They drank a glass of wine with their arms crossed and everyone cheered to them and their new life.After everyone cheered, they walked down the aisle as newlyweds. 

The room then brightened again and everyone in the room started to eat. The dinner was Chinese banquet style, which consists of a revolving center piece that has food and everyone shares the food. The family we sat with was very hospitable and offered Katie and I every dish to us first before taking some. After a couple of minutes, the room darkened again as the bride walked with the groom in a new dress, this time cream colored. They went to a second table on the stage and proceeded to light candles with a fencing foil that had a candle on the tip. After lighting all the candles they then held the foil together and prayed to what I assume was their ancestors. Then the in-laws came on stage and gave a speech on how they had come a long way and wished them a happy life. The family walked down the aisle, the room brightened again and everyone went back to eating.

There were so many dishes being served at the table. There were at least five different types of meat dishes, like chicken, duck, beef, crabs, and pork. There were also many different vegetable dishes and big bowls of soup that everyone shared from. During the dinner, the family asked Katie many questions about America and complimented her on her Mandarin. The boy, Harry, actually said he thought that Katie’s Mandarin was better than mine. Everyone had two wine glasses, a large one and a smaller one. Harry’s grandfather poured Katie and I a cup of baijiu, which is Chinese white liquor, although it is distilled. The baijiu had a nice smell but burned like hell when drinking it. I was forced to cheer with baijiu every time the grandfather cheered Katie and I because I was a male. In both of our smaller glasses we had Tsingtao beer to help us with the baijiu.

Midway through dinner, the MC started two different games. One was drinking game where a person would bid how many cups of soda they could drink. If they were able to accomplish it, they won 1000 yuan. Our family bid 18 cups of Sprite and won 1000 yuan. They bid 60 cups of Coke later but could not pull it off and a different side of the family chugged the whole bottle and won. The second game was for the children to name the song that the DJ would play and if they guessed it right, they won a towel. The parents of the children would tell them the answer and the kids would race each other to tell the MC. Our family was very competitive and won at least 10 towels. The atmosphere was filled with laughter and fun. The bride and groom were going around to each table during the games and were toasting all the guests. The bride would also offer a cigarette, usually to males, and light it for them as part of tradition.

The bride and groom then disappeared again after toasting everyone. Harry’s mother explained to Katie and I that in some Chinese weddings, the wedding feast took 3 days! Thankfully for us, the wedding we were at was only one. She also explained that in Chinese tradition, the bride would have either 3 or 4 dresses to change into. As she said this, the bride and groom came out again and this time the bride was in a red dress. They went up on stage and cut the cake which was the sign that the wedding was coming to an end. After cutting the cake, the MC told all the single people to come up on stage. The bride was getting ready to throw the bouquet. The family and I forced Katie to go up on stage where three other girls and children were all lining up. The bride looked backwards and then threw the bouquet. A little boy caught it, but gave it back to the bride because he did not want to get married yet. The bride then threw the bouquet again and the girl on Katie’s right caught it. As everyone proceeded to leave the stage, the boyfriend of the girl who caught the bouquet got on stage, kneeled on one knee and asked her to marry him! Apparently there is an unsaid tradition in Chinese culture that the boyfriend of the girl who catches the bouquet will go and propose to her after she catches the bouquet, and she says yes. When I heard this from Harry’s mother I was glad that Katie did not catch the bouquet. I apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Wells. Not that I would not propose to her if she caught it, but I would not know how to explain to Fuji and Mr. and Mrs. Wells how I ended up accidentally engaged to their daughter 1 month into the trip.

But it did not happen and the bullet was dodged. Slices of cake were passed around to each table and everyone started to wind down. To say the least, the wedding turned out to be very interesting. China has started to adapt to Western culture immensely. The clothes the bride and groom wore were all Western style and the cake was also Western style. However, Chinese culture is still strong as the food, the tradition of greeting all the guests and wearing of three different dresses still happened. China is opening up to the rest of the world while still keeping its own culture. It is starting to fuse itself with Western ideals and it will be interesting to see how it will look in a couple of decades. Will it start to look more like America and Western Europe in the name of modernization or will it become a more fused Chinese/Western culture?  I believe that the Chinese identity will not disappear because what I am seeing is Shanghai, China. Shanghai does not represent the rest of China, but the place where most of the modernization is taking place. I know that the rest of China is still waiting for modernization like Shanghai but are not receiving it because they are further inland. The people of China will make the decision when they reach that fork, but until then, China’s culture is still stronger than the Western influences that are constantly moving in.

Fashion Takeover

China’s desire for self-identity is present more than ever. According to Lizhu Fan and James Whitehead, “At this stage in China’s history, middle-class Chinese are consciously endeavoring to interpret their lives for themselves” (Lizhu and Whitehead 2011: location 546). Having been here three weeks, I am realizing that mainland Chinese citizens, at least those in Shanghai, are expressing and interpreting their self-identity through fashion.

Recently, I visited Xintiandi (新天地). This affluent area is filled with designer boutiques and expensive western restaurants. While strolling along the cobblestone streets, there are no cars allowed, a group of university students studying fashion design stopped me. They asked me about my home country and my perception of fashion. Each smiled when I told them I live in America. After a further inquiry about their second question, I compared American fashion to Chinese fashion. To me, the Chinese are more outlandish and daring with their outfits. According to many Americans, any outfit that includes more than a tshirt, jeans, and shoes is considered outlandish. Of course, that is not my opinion. I want Americans to be more outlandish and daring with their clothes, add some spice. In this case, I used those two words with a positive connotation. These Chinese students had no idea what I meant by outlandish, and I enjoyed explaining it to them. They asked me about my favorite designer and one word I would use to describe fashion. Miuccia Prada was the first designer that came to mind and individuality, true yet cliché, seemed to be the right word.

During the conversation, the students remarked that my outfit (shorts, a button down, and sneakers) looked comfortable, a term I usually apply to sweat pants. They suggested that Americans always look so comfortable. I was unsure how to react to their statement, so I smiled and thanked them. My outfit intrigued them so much that they wanted a picture, and I obliged.

This afternoon I had the opportunity to attend Shanghai’s biannual event called the Design Art and Fashion Fair (DAFF). Along with a few runway shows, music, and vendors, many well dressed and on-trend people attended the event. The vendors offered anything from cheeses to custom-made vans, but the people are the ones to watch. The photos used in this blog post are from the event.

Clothing is the best form of expression, especially for the Chinese. Even though China lacks many of the freedoms enjoyed by Americans, more and more Chinese citizens are determined to define their identity through personal choice. Determined to distance themselves from the message behind the Mao suit or their school uniform, this personal choice can include having or lacking religion, deciding where to eat, deciding what to eat, job choice, or even the simplest task of deciding what outfit to wear. After years of blending in, China is ready to stand out.

 

 

Bargain Culture

“Aight here’s the plan: DJ, don’t have more than 700 Yuan in your wallet. We’re going to stroll in, and Ima tell him that we found a gym that’s charging 700 Yuan but is much closer to our dorms which is why we want an extra 50 Yuan discount. Shanel, I need you to randomly ask how much it costs. Just give him some hope that we might be bringing some more customers, that way he’ll be more inclined to give us an extra discount. Also, DJ… just don’t say anything! Got it?”

My roommate inquires as he lays out a course of action to bargain. Nicky is assertive when it comes to bargaining and I’m just a novice. Until recently I thought that I understood the whole bargaining system, but the extent to which Chinese citizens bargain is unbelievable; my roommate, however, seems to have mastered the skills effectively. And with them, I watched in (contained) amazement as the gym membership prices dwindled from 900 to 700 to 650 yuan (元) for the entire three months. Directly after my roommate’s demonstration of effective bargaining, I began to practice those skills (as if tenants) to buy a Burberry jacket at what I shall call the “Name Brand Store”. As all of this transpired, the following questions fluttered to my mind: Are these products even real and either just redistributed or just stolen? If so, is this why the prices are super inflated with extreme flexibility? If not, what can I conclude about their quality?

The Name Brand Store

While I tried to reason with the sales associate over the relatively expensive price of this Burberry jacket (less than $100), Shanel tried desperately to reduce the price of 4 pairs of Tom’s to even less. I think what fascinated me most was watching the strategized discourse manifest between buyer and seller, comprised of sellers’ calculated shouts of intimate terms (friend, buddy, 很 帅) and buyers’ premeditated walkout with feigned frustration. In my case, the seller chased me outside the store to buy the jacket, after settling for two-thirds of the initial price and slapping me a couple of times. It seems that prices are overinflated because the perception is that Westerners are willing to pay for expensive names, even though it appears to me that those products were impeccable knock-offs (I know, ironic). Nonetlesless, there are other sentiments among our group. “Me and my roommate concluded everything is real,” Shanel started. “It’s probably just stolen…” So what am I bargaining for? Authenticity?


The concern for authenticity in this consumer world is ludicrous, self-contradictory, and yet astute in identifying our (Western) skewed association with brand and function. In short, we would rather pay the “extra” for the famed name associated with the product despite its function and/or quality. Although seemingly real, my inauthentic “Beats” are great headphones, with outstanding quality and surprising durability. Plus, Nicky bargained them to half the price ($60 to $30) of the knockoff and maybe more off the original brand. The only implication that they are inauthentic is a small typo on the prepackaging, which is so passible it’s basically real. If they are indeed fake, then it seems that Chinese producers go to extreme lengths to replicate every minute detail. This possibility resurges my concern for quality over famed name, and further leads me to conclude that a) the effort they place in replicating the products almost ensures genuine quality and b) even though the will prices are inflated, I can bargain down to almost the production cost.

 

Price is another big concern and it causes me to question if the locals are being offered deflated prices, if they have to bargain also, or if they are even being targeted at all. The Name Brand store seems to attract many foreigners with a poster that lists all of the brands present in stock, even eebok (Reebok?). On the flip side, there was an equal influx of Han browsing in the sections. Since the merchandise is apparently real (but stolen), it will appeal and entice Chinese locals – another means to continue this path to both modernity and cosmopolitanism. Plus, I will assume that they are being offered the same prices. But since bargaining is such an intricate part of Chinese culture, I will likewise assume that they are ideal bargainers. Conversely, street vendors who encouraged me to purchase those Beats knockoffs, may not be as appealing.

I feel that bargaining, an inherent aspect of Chinese culture, is vanishing and overshadowed by Globalization and Consumerism. Albeit not discussed often, the rise of multinational corporations (MNC’s) and other franchises fuel this Chinese desire liberate oneself, to be “relieved of the burdens of home, history, and tradition…” (Chinese Religious Life). In this liberation process, traditional businesses and market techniques (i.e. bargaining) become marginalized, maybe even ostracized by society. I’ve even noticed that it’s impossible to bargain at the Wanda marketplace (my favorite); I just wonder if Chinese bargaining will cease completely as the society continues to commercialize…

Still, I guess that I can and must take advantage of bargaining in my time here. I’ve only been here approximately a month and despite my recent success, I am still a novice at it. Although my findings are not empirical, my experiences taught me the following: a) this is foremost a business, b) drop all naiveté or ye be scammed, c) be unrelenting and resilient, and d) never settle until satisfied. With these guidelines, bargaining is a lot more effective and successful. I know for a fact, I will be schlepping Western merchandise from China to the States, whether fake or not – and of course after having bargained for them first.

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