A Soiled Tradition

Early Thursday morning, the group got ready to head out for a two-day trip to Suzhou and Tongli, an ancient water village.  We soon realized we were not the only people in China who had the idea to travel to these famous towns during the long, country-wide holiday called Golden Week.  The crowds were overflowing and we could see and hear people in every corner of the gardens, bridges, and restaurants.  There were children, teenagers, adults, and elderly people exploring the towns and taking lots of pictures.  In the midst of these large crowds, especially in Tongli, there were a few clues that gave away who was and was not a local.  One woman in particular drew my attention because she was washing a towel and wiping it on her face.  I saw her exit a small home in the village that was right near the water before coming toward me.

The quotidian act of immersing a small face towel into a river would not have been something to catch my eye on any regular day, but in crowded and tourist-filled Tongli, it did.  I cringed as I watched this woman drop her towel into the river and repeatedly wipe her face with it as I thought about all the bacteria in the water.  I thought about the number of people who had traveled through the river on the boat tours, the number of people who had spit in the water, and the number of sewage systems that directly or indirectly lead into that same body of water.  I looked down at the murky, green water and thought about how it could make her physically ill.  This event was a microcosm of a wider critique by Elizabeth C. Economy in her book The River Runs Black.

In this book, Economy discusses the impact of densely populated China bearing an insufficient amount of resources and, as she describes it, a tradition of using nature to fulfill human needs.  Historically, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have all influenced the way people see nature and their relationship to it.  Taoist school of thought in particular teaches that humans are one with nature and that they have a responsibility to create material things out of nature for sustainment.  The high levels of population growth, the pollution that comes as a consequence of that growth, and the policies in place to make China more “productive” make it unsafe for everyday people to use natural resources in their backyard.

Shanghai: An International Community

Anyone know that little voice that sprouts up inside your head on Saturday night that says “tomorrow is Sunday, you’re going to church, right?”  This little voice has brought me to one of the most beautiful places in Shanghai, the St. Ignatius Cathedral.  The plot of land on Puxi Road, right near Nandang Road, has been owned by French Jesuits since the early 1600s and the structure visible today was built in 1910.  The church is affiliated with the Catholic Church and is now a member of the Diocese of Shanghai.  A British priest oversees the only English service, which takes place at noon on Sundays.

The first time I walked into the cathedral, I really did not know what to expect.  The grand towers and large, beautiful doors gave me the impression that it would be pretentious and gaudy.  As I walked through to find a seat before the beginning of the service, I saw many different faces and heard many different languages among the participants that were present.  Children and families as well as young adults and elderly people, especially elderly couples were congregated together inside the church for the English service.  I was surprised to see how many people knew each other in such a large church and were conversing with each other and with the new participants who were welcomed by many around them.  People surrounding me were impelled to shake hands with each other and greet each other as if they were family members.  It was as if there was something much stronger than the service that was ready to begin bringing people together and encouraging them to get to know each other.  Very soon, one Chinese phrase came to mind: “wai guo ren,” which means “foreigner.”

I have never visited another city in the world where I have witnessed so many people who are not natives create communities using a plethora of diverse pathways.  Of course, the church is a mode of creating community and camaraderie among its participants, but why are there no Shanghainese present at the service?  Before entering the establishment, I was under the impression that a parochial church like this one would work to forge relationships among people of different ethnicities, especially among both locals and foreigners, who have religion in common.  After having been to a few church services in Shanghai, I realize that it is because there are so many cultural commonalities among foreigners (and here I specify Westerners), that these wai guo ren create their own communities separate from the natives.

St. Ignatius Cathedral is only one example of exclusivity among foreigners that is plain to see in Shanghai.  With its crown molding, towering archways, and depictions of the Virgin Mary and other saints, it is the epitome of Western culture right in the middle of booming Shanghai.  This is a place where Western culture can be experienced and praised.  Hopefully it is used as a “touch-base” point with the feeling of home for most people instead of a means for creating an exclusive community and avoiding immersion into a culture so rich and with so much to offer.

Stirring Up Alliances

The Student Activities Fair is a much anticipated event on Fudan University’s campus where students are given the opportunity to showcase their talents and efforts so as to recruit new members into their clubs. Some of the clubs being showcased were service-based while others were just for fun and still others were affiliated with sports teams. Chinese students were enthusiastic and welcoming, especially the ones who spoke English well or could find a representative to explain their club’s purpose and goals to the wide-eyed American students on the hunt for some new local friends. Each club had a group of students standing in front of its booth holding posters and dressed up to attract attention and potentially new members to help achieve its goals for the 2012-2013 school year. Some of the clubs I came across were the Global Awareness Club, the Theatre Club, the Technology and Education Connecting Cultures Club and the Association of Philharmonic along with the ever popular Coffee and Cocktail Society, which is particularly emblematic.

The representative for the Coffee and Cocktail Society was dressed in a tuxedo and invited me over to chat with him and to take a look at the booth he and his friends had set up. I could see that this group was not created to incite debauchery; instead, it was created to teach Chinese students an American outlet for establishing “guanqi,” or personal connections, which is a traditional Chinese idea. As Lyn Jeffery describes in her article “Placing Practices: Transnational Network Marketing in Mainland China,” marketing has changed the way many social interactions occur among Chinese people and between Chinese and Western peoples. Chinese are now more aware of Western practices and many times try to appeal to Western ideals of typical social situations in order to properly establish guanqi, even if that means learning how to drink coffee and make cocktails.

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.