Archives for September 2012

Through the Eyes of a Young Girl

Throughout this trip, my friends and I have had great fun trying to spot the cutest Chinese babies we could find.  Whether they be on the subway, the bus, or just walking down the street, we enjoy pointing them out to each other.  I don’t know what it is about cute babies that makes you just want to smile.  They seem to make everything else melt away as you pass by, and if you happen to catch one laughing, it’s the highlight of your day.

This past Friday, Fuji took us to Lu Xun Park, the one we were supposed to go to earlier to take pictures of the older people in the morning.  When we got there the park was filled with couples and families visiting the park and enjoying the sights of the 2012 International Lantern Festival.  The families were all out enjoying the beautiful light show and festivities.  In particular, the kids seemed to be having a great time running around and basking in the glow of thousands of LED lights.

While gazing up into the lights the kids seemed to exude happiness.  You could feel the joy flow out of them as they ran from one light display to the next, or ran in circles with their new light-up swords and wands.  The parents were happy that their kids were thrilled and the whole family seemed to be enjoying the adventure.  The light-hearted spirit of the mid-autumn festival hung pleasantly in the air.  With camera in-hand and Fuji’s ever-present encouragement to capture the world around us, I set off to try and bottle the essence of the kids’ joy in a photograph.

As I began to take pictures of the kids, unexpectedly the parents encouraged me.  They would walk over and point at me so the kids would look and the little ones really seemed to enjoy it.  One little boy with a light up sword began to have a mock fight in front of me, providing wonderful colorful photos.  When I knelt down to get closer to the kids’ level, one mother pointed her barely walking daughter in my direction.  As I snapped pictures of her daughter ambling toward me, the mother laughed and encouraged her daughter to look at the camera.  When I showed them the pictures the girl just giggled and kept saying “wo, wo.”  The joy in her bright young eyes lit up the night.

The juxtaposition of my mild unsettled feeling when being photographed by locals to the evident desire of the Chinese families to have me take their kids photos is pretty funny.  Where I am slightly put off by the idea of showing up in their family photo album of their trip to Shanghai, the mothers wanted their baby to be the one in my slideshow.  This contrast is something I have yet to fully grasp but I hope to keep exploring throughout my time in Shanghai.  Until then, my friends and I will continue to search for the cutest babies in Shanghai in order to try and capture the joy they exude so that we too may view life though the eyes of young exuberant Chinese kids.


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.

Cupping in China

During my time in Chaozhou, I had the opportunity to visit a hot springs.  While at the hot springs, we were treated to many of the extra cost perks, such as the fish pool and the molten lava area.  Unfortunately, my group had too many people and so we could not all receive massages from the limited number of staff available.  We decided our trip leader, Edward, was most deserving of a massage and so he disappeared into the back room.  When we met up with him an hour or so later, Edward seemed very relaxed.  He then proceeded to show us his back.  During his massage, he had decided to also get a cupping treatment.  Essentially, the masseuse had placed many glasses all over his back and lit the tops on fire.  The cups act as suction devices as all the air is removed.  This creates large round marks all over the receiver’s back.

When we asked Edward what this was for, he began to explain to us the concept of yin and yang.  He told us that each person has a natural yin and yang but that the two can easily get out of balance.  This can happen from too much stress in your life, or a myriad of other causes.  When you eat too much spicy food or simply have too much anger and stress bottled up inside, your yang will overpower your yin. Supposedly, when you have too much yang your breath will begin to smell.  The cupping treatment is done to help remove the yang from your body and restore the natural balance of yin and yang.

When looking at this technique, and other traditional Chinese medicine techniques, it is interesting to see the fine line between science and religion that many attempt to draw.  These ways of doing medicine from so long ago are based on ideas of yin, yang, and qi, which all seem to be not provable through scientific methods.  Yet they also seem to work in healing many sicknesses and ailments. On top of this, many of these traditions have been built on religion.  As Palmer tells us:

Attempts to secularize the techniques cannot obliterate a millennia-long history of their being embedded in religion. The lineages of which many masters are the inheritors, the religious symbolism of the classical texts describing the techniques, and the magical content of the kung fu films and novels that permeate Chinese pop culture, all conspire to make the religious roots of Chinese body traditions resurface. (p 102)

No matter how hard we try, people will continue to eat special herbs or practice daily routines that they believe will help them live a healthier life.  While they may believe in modern science, people also tend to believe whatever helps heal them the fastest.  If their ancestors relied on a certain God or herb to get better, why shouldn’t they do the same?

The Chinese way of examining the body and health is definitely an interesting one.  I find it fascinating to hear about the one spot on my foot that will relieve my headaches or a certain herb that will clear my sinuses.  But after seeing up and close two people who have received a cupping treatment (Edward and Tommy), I’ve decided my yang will have to stay too high because I don’t plan to have cups lit on my back anytime soon.

Get in the Cut

It was that time of the month; when it’s been too long since one’s last haircut. I’d like to point out that my hair was already not looking it’s best because of how humid the air is over here (Shanghai means “on the sea” and is at sea level). Add to that the fact that I have to be really stingy when using my hair products due to their unavailability in China, and you can only imagine how unkempt my hair looked like. If you know me well enough, you probably know how vain I am and how the state of my hair can possibly have me emotionally compromised. Which is why I decided to just go somewhere and get a haircut because after all, it couldn’t get any worse… right? Wrong.

I chose to go to the hair salon right across from my gym. As I approached the place and [struggled to] read the sign, 3 girls grabbed and hurled me into the salon. Before I could even explain what I wanted, I was getting my hair washed and my head massaged in the process too. It felt great. I thought, “this is nice” (that was probably the point of the hair wash/head massage). The girl was smiling and giggling the whole time. I’m assuming it had something to do with the color of my skin and/or the texture of my hair. I was then directed to what seemed to be a private VIP booth for the actual haircut: I was separated from the other customers by a very nice color glass wall with designs of all sorts; my chair also looked different and was very comfortable. I’m sure I was charged extra for all that… Oh well, “YOLO”.

Then, what seemed to be the oldest stylist in the salon came and asked me what I wanted. I explained to him that I wanted my hair trimmed to half the length of what I currently had. He told me “OK no problem”. This is where things went downhill: he proceeded to form an island of hair at the top of my head by shaving the sides only, as well as the bottom half of the back. He proudly asked me what I thought of it.

At that point there was a little crowd surrounding us, fascinated by the whole event. How do I know? Maybe because they kept taking bits of my hair that had been cut off, and feeling them between their fingers as well as blowing them off their hands. They were overall just really intrigued by this texture they had never come across before. Imagine discovering a new color: that’s how fascinated they were.

I explained to him that I wanted the same thing he did on the sides, all over the head. He said “OK”. 5 minutes later, my sides were completely shaven and the island at the top of my head remained untouched. Needless say I was extremely pissed. He noticed that, and when I asked why he wouldn’t shave the top he said no because it looks better like that. I was flabbergasted because 1, I looked like a total idiot (pic related) and 2, and I couldn’t believe what he just said: he clearly knew and understood what I wanted but decided to completely disregard it because he thought his vision was better.

He asked me to pull up a picture of what I wanted on my iPhone, which I did by showing him Kanye West on one of my album covers in iTunes. He deeply apologized for his mistake and promised he’d do better next time.

I decided to just go ahead and have my whole head shaved. I don’t particularly like doing that but it’s better than the monstrosity on the left. Using state of the art technology (Photoshop), I was able to recreate what I looked like before the clean shave. I know you probably would have preferred an authentic shot, but I was absolutely not in the mood to take a picture of myself at that moment. If you’re wondering about the Bane mask: I have frenemies and therefore cannot afford to have the original picture circulating online.

I couldn’t be mad at him: even though he understood what I wanted and did otherwise, I still feel like had I been more fluent, things would have gone better. And while his actions would have been intolerable in other countries I’ve lived in, I’m now I China. I have to come to terms that occurrences that initially seem outrageous to me are considered normal here. Still, I’m the last born and a little more spoilt than my 2 elder siblings. Having someone go against my will is always a little hard to swallow. I mean, who likes to be forced into things right?

This led me to think about gentrification, here in Shanghai. The first time I ever gave thought to this phenomenon was when we visited Yuyan Garden, what used to be a powerful Lord’s house/domain/villa, and is now a tourist spot.

As you can see, the buildings are very traditional. I really enjoyed observing the details in the murals up to the very tips of the several roofs. Then, I noticed 2 skyscrapers in the background, one of which was still under construction. I also noticed how they both cast their shadows over Yuyan Garden. It seems like nothing but it spoke a lot to me and brought up issues of social inequalities and gentrification:

Yuyan Garden represents traditional China while the skyscrapers in the background symbolize development and industrialization as they cast their shadows over traditional China, in effort to embrace [state] capitalism. While I highly doubt historical sites such as Yuyan Garden will be razed in order to build a mall, there are still a lot of old buildings and homes that are sacrificed in order to further develop Shanghai. While the government isn’t [always] responsible for such, it is always one of the major actors.

Indeed, the government fosters an environment conducive to gentrification by mobilizing the resources necessary to overcome fragmented property right issues, and by investing in infrastructures and embellishment policies, all of which benefit the goals of gentrifiers. So what happens when those ends are met?

Fancy malls everywhere that wow even a Chicago girl like Shanel. Shanghai looks great but at what cost? How are the people doing the jobs no one wants to do (mopping floors, keeping the streets clean etc.) expected to live in Shanghai where there is such a huge denivelation between their income and the cost of living? Some have no choice but to leave Shanghai. Those who choose to stay are subject to very low life conditions: I’ve seen several street cleaners (they’re easily spotted because they wear uniforms) spending the night on their carts on the sidewalk.

That was just one example that underlines essential questions: are we witnessing reckless development? If so, how long will it be sustainable? How long before Shanghai becomes another Washington D.C. or New York City where (by my West Texas or Charlotte, NC standards) life is ridiculously expensive? What will become of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that serve delicious food but whose revenue cannot match the cost of running a business in a continuously more expensive financial environment?

The only hope to see those issues solved in a positive light (for the common man) lies in the hands of the government. Indeed, China’s state controlled capitalism is the only thing capable of slowing down rampant classic capitalism and the negative externalities associated with it, such as gentrification.

Thinking about the victims of gentrification helped me feel better about my [traumatic] experience at the hair salon. While I was forced into something I didn’t want, my hair will re-grow. Unlike me, displaced Chinese don’t have the option to just wait and start over. I personally find it ironic that they have to turn to the government, which is both the cause and the solution to their problem.

Talking About You: Traitor

American Born Chinese, also known as ABC’s, are always looked upon as not fellow countrymen but as a different breed of Asians. This story begins at the Lantern Festival in Lanshun Park, where many Chinese children were with their parents or grandparents. There were also Asian and foreign couples at the park. I went with a group of Davidson students and took pictures of the different exhibitions. When I looked around me, the only person next to me was Katie Wells. We became separated from the main group and had lost them. Katie and I decided to continue forward and take more pictures of the park. Katie focused on the small children in the park, while I focused on the lit attractions that were scattered all over the park.

As we walked together, I started to hear different Chinese people saying “Mei-guo Ren”, or Americans. I did not notice it at first since the Lantern Festival was so beautiful. But as we walked further into the park, I listened intently to the conversations of the Chinese people who were talking. They were talking about Katie and I and how crazy or treacherous I was for walking with a foreigner instead of with an Asian. Only two couples had talked, but as Katie and I decided to go home, another couple started clucking their tongues as soon as I walked past them. I did expect this to happen to me. Of course I would seem like a traitor for speaking English instead of Mandarin or some form of Chinese while in China. But only now have I understood that instead of an occasional person giving me an evil glare or talking badly about me, it was more than I had anticipated.

It seems there are still pockets of xenophobia among the Chinese population. China has been suspicious of foreigners since the humiliating defeat of the Opium Wars and the imperialism of different Western countries. These events definitely left a black mark on China’s history. The Chinese government has always made a push for nationalism through propaganda and subliminal messaging. I thought that a century would change the older and current generation’s minds into forgiving foreigners and the people who are associated with them. However, I am wrong and have personally seen and been the target of old and young couples disapproving of me hanging out with foreigners. Chinese nationalism is definitely stronger than ever and is a force that has caused xenophobia while causing most of China to always be wary of foreigners.  I hope that one day the people of China would all be accepting of not only foreigners but also their countrymen who live in other countries and become a welcoming country like Canada.