Consumerism in Shanghai: A Universal Love for High Heels

I HATE dirty, unkempt feet. And yet, I am always looking down to observe foot-statuses. While feet range from aesthetically pleasing to outright monstrosities, I have involuntarily witnessed several offenses, much like the subconscious yet obligatory need to watch a car accident: regardless of how awful the scene, you still can’t help but take a peek. There is something emblematic about the condition of feet in relation to the sociocultural status of an international metropolis such as Shanghai.

Within the first 24 hours of landing, we found ourselves commuting everywhere, by foot. Just like millions of other pedestrians, we marched across the cobblestone pathways, which after miles of treading did much damage to our feet (well at least mine). Sore, dirty, and bruised, I couldn’t fathom how people, on a daily basis, were traveling much farther than us, and maintaining such an elegance and resilience about them. While on the other hand, after only a few hours, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But what really astounded me were all the women, who fashionably strut their stuff in high heels and wedges, as if the Shanghai streets were their own runways. In all honesty, the constant sight of well-dressed women in heels had me envious, and soon on the look out for sales at boutiques and stores that carry such delicious merchandise.

But wait, there’s a reason why I didn’t bring such shoes to begin with…they aren’t practical! If I am dying in flip flops and Sperry’s, what is the logical reason to purchase items I have at home? Clearly I have been sucked in by the dangerous allures of consumerism. Shielded by the Davidson Bubble, I have been largely estranged from shopping culture since I left Chicago. And while, yes, there are malls (somewhat) near Davidson (about 20-30 minutes away by car, of which I lack), the convenience of living in such a mega metropolis has truly enabled my inner (and outer) diva to indulge in consumer goodies.

The best (and worst) part is that there is no language barrier in shopping. You want; you buy (that is, unless you are shopping at boutiques and small markets where you must negotiate to avoid being suckered out of a good price). It intrigues me that the malls of Shanghai are so internationally diverse (more than 80 percent of the stores there, I had never even heard of, mostly because they are European). The variety of international brands and stores available, along with numerous fashion-forward models strutting across the city truly speaks on the image-conscious state of Shanghai. According to Lousia Schein, Shanghai has “an acute commodity desire linked to social status.” Susan Brownell further equates this desire to be seen as fashionable, urban, and modern to China’s yearning to take “it’s place on the cutting edge of global culture and style.”

So as I continue to attempt to subdue my fetish for high heels and wedges, at least I know I am not alone. Whether you want to strut your stuff across the city in banging heels, or rather rock Adidas; keeping up with your feet is a tell-tell sign of sociocultural status. To all you young urbanites, you are not alone! This is a global struggle! Victimizing young city goers everywhere, one consumer product at a time. Flashy advertisements of idealized models, athletes, and stars strengthen this dangerous allure. And while I am intellectually aware of such perils, the “glittering” Shanghai markets still captivate me.

Chaotic Order: A City of Dog Eat, Mao World

It’s a “dog eat, dog world” out here.

Cars, buses, scooters, motorized bikes, taxis, bicyclists, and pedestrians all fill the city streets with an upbeat rhythm of daily activities. Meanwhile, as the natives continue on their paths, not even blinking an eye to the (seemingly) chaotic multidirectional-flow of traffic, a flustered visitor ducks and dodges what can only be described as a merciless game of Frogger.

Everyone is on the move. The rule of the jungle applies here: everybody for themselves . To successfully live in an urban sprawl you must take care of your own or fall victim to the mighty metropolis. Simple, right?

Well this complex Middle Kingdom spares no pity. Who knew the urban likes of Shanghai could so easily and ruthlessly rattle a proud city girl of Chicago? (The “Utopian Bubble” of Davidson has to have made me soft.) Even so, our arrival immediately filled my heart with a reminiscent joy of home as I gazed at the soothing site of lit skylines and high-rises. It became clear to me that there is something fundamentally distinctive and yet so familiar about Shanghai.

The calm high I had reached from our late-night arrival quickly burst the following morning.  At five thirty I woke up to the roars of blasting horns, screeching tires, and shuffling street walkers.  I was definitely not at Davidson…but may be my very distant Asian home?

Whatever the case, the city qualities that was so inherent to me (that had been apparently washed away by a few years of down-south livin’), had been forcibly fed back to me via Shanghai’s excessive urban qualities. (Re) learning how to maneuver through traffic, crowded streets, using public transportation, and even to shop was a must; all of which require a certain etiquette, conduct, and finesse, specific not only to the global city goers, but most importantly to a Chinese way of (urban-modern) life. All of which was a bit hard to swallow.

While undoubtedly, Shanghai is an iconoclastic space, unique from  the rest of China, this metropolis embodies the complex construction of Chinese cities. Clearly Shanghai is a manifestation of global economic influence, yet, the underlying culture remains true to Mao Zedong’s (and other national leader’s) desire to maintain order.

With the current status of cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai, it is not hard to imagine Mao rolling over in his grave. With his modified-Marxist, militant, egalitarian style seemingly out of practice, it is ironic that some ideas remain saliently translated in the everyday lives of Shanghaies. His determination to demonstrate that China could excel or “even become equal to or surpass the strongest countries of the West”  (Wasserstrom 56) is definitely visible today. Sure, this is not what Mao had imagined (at all), but at the micro level Chinese cities like Shanghai have maintained a system of order. While it may not be visible to my untrained, Western eye quite yet, Shanghai is definitely a mosaic of traditional and modern qualities of life. So the next time I am pushed from check out as to allow the next customer to process their transaction, it might be more appropriate to say, “it’s a dog eat, mao world out here” instead.

Conversing with a Cabbie

Yesterday was my first time experiencing taking a taxi in Shanghai. As a form of transportation, taxis in China seem remarkably inexpensive from an American perspective. It’s a mere 14RMB (a little over 2USD) for the first two kilometers; a trip from Yangpu District, where Fudan University is located, down into the city proper costs about 50RMB. If you have two or three people going along with you, that can be a very affordable way of getting around.

This is assuming, of course, that you’re willing to brave a ride on Shanghai’s streets. For an American, Shanghai drivers (and, from what I hear, drivers in China in general) seem to have little regard for anything apart from getting to their destination as quickly as possible. Stoplights are guidelines; yellow solid lines are suggestions; pedestrians have de jure right of way, but drivers will just swerve around you rather than stop. Driving – or riding a taxi – in Shanghai is not for the faint of heart.

My roommate, a Chinese American from California, and I boarded at taxi from the 大众 Dazhong (The Masses or The People) taxi fleet and told the driver our destination: the Shanghai South Bund Fabric Market (上海南外滩轻纺面料市场 Shanghai Nan Waitan Qingfang Mianliao Shichang).

A few minutes after departing, our cabbie struck up a conversation, asking where we were from. He’d assumed that my roommate was Korean, and when I assured him we were both American (which prompted, in broken English, “Oh, America!”), he asked if he was a Korean American. I asked if he’d ever been to the states, to which he responded that he hadn’t: “My car couldn’t make it there!” (没有… 我的车子开不到阿 meiyou… wo de chezi kai budao a)He wanted to know where in the states we were from, and upon hearing that my roommate was from California, he asked how to say California in English. For reasons unknown, the pronunciation of the word was incredibly amusing to him, and he quickly started asking for other English proper nouns:

Cabbie: How do you say Oubama?

Me: Obama

Cabbie, laughing: Obama… What aboutXilali?

Me: Hillary [Hillary Clinton is often referred to by her first name alone in Chinese, I assume to differentiate her from her husband]

Cabbie, laughing more: Hillary… Hillary… Clinton?

Me: Clinton

Cabbie: Clinton. What about Buxi?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. Bush. Say it again?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. That one’s translated pretty well. [slight pause] I think Bush is strange: his dad was president, and then he gets to be president too? His dad isn’t even dead yet! [Laughs]

Looking back, it’s interesting that this driver, who had never been to America and couldn’t speak English (or even write it – later, when he had trouble pronouncing another word in English that he had asked about, I asked if he could spell English, to which he replied that he couldn’t) and whose radio was set, not on a news station, but on a station called “Love Radio” that alternated between popular Chinese and American ballads, was curious about the names of leading American politicians rather than leaders of pop culture.

The conversation turned as I asked if he could speak Shanghainese and explained that I was interested in learning some. He shared the phrases for “waiting for a red light” and “hit [someone] in the face” because he thought they were particularly funny, as the Shanghainese for these phrases sounds like “eat a red light” and “eat [someone’s] face” in Mandarin, respectively. I then discovered that the phrase “I don’t understand” is the same in Shanghainese as it is in Mandarin:

Me: How do you say ting budong?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, more slowly, afraid I mispronounced something: How do you say ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, being hopelessly dull at this point: How do you say the phrase ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: It’s ting budong! I’m Shanghainese, aren’t I?

I shouldn’t misconstrue all Shanghai cabbies to be particularly loquacious; a taxi I rode in later the same day had a driver who was quiet to the point of being taciturn, saying only “Where do you want to go?” and “Here you are.” However, my first taxi ride in Shanghai was an interesting and educational experience, and I look forward to more conversations like the one outlined here.

10 minutes and you know about Shanghai

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