Paying the Price

I had my first chance to do some serious bargain shopping at the Silk Market in Beijing this past week. I had bargained for little knick-knacks before from the many tourist destinations we visited, but this was the first time I had intended to buy actual clothing items for myself. We entered the Silk Market during mid-afternoon on a Sunday, and the isles were packed. I was immediately bombarded with scenes of local Chinese people bargaining loudly with salespeople, little children trying to squeeze by, and a general mass frenzy fueled by the desire for consumption. It was quite intimidating at first, especially when I got to the floor with all of the sneakers on it and I knew that I wanted to buy something. Can you spot me in this picture?

Just walking down the isles can be a challenge, especially when they see that I am a foreign guy who can likely afford, and stupidly fall for, paying a higher price for goods. They constantly shout out, “Hello, my friend, come look, good price, you want some shoes?” I took a few walks around the stalls until I caught a glimpse of some Jordans on one of the displays. I walked into the tiny store stall and the game was on.

The sales woman was very busy, so asked me right away which shoe I wanted. I said I just wanted a look at the Jordans, and I got them from the wall myself. Since the store is so small they have to keep the shoes in separate storage, so as soon as I asked if she had a bigger size she wanted to establish what price I would pay. She said, “This is a very high quality shoe, real leather, very special. I’ll give it to you for a very special price,” and proceeded to get her calculator, punching in the number, “780.” This is roughly $125, about market price for Jordans in the United States. I knew that the shoes I had in my hand were, in fact, not real Jordans, and that there was no way I would be paying that much. I did like the shoes, though, and set my highest price at 150 for a new pair since I saw some scuffs on the ones in my hand.

After a long wait while her assistant fetched my size and she told me I had nice eyes, I saw the new pair. It still had odd marks on the tongue. I said I did not want them anymore, and tried to walk out. The woman, as I expected tried to stop me and asked what my highest price is I said, “80,” about $12. She looked at me in disgust, and let me walk out a bit. Not three steps later I hear in Chinese, “Fine! 100! 100!” I turned back and said loudly over the crowd, “No, 80. 80 is good.” The woman then came out into the crowd and held onto my arm, repeatedly saying, “100, 100.” I tried to move my arm away but she was holding onto me really hard. I did not feel threatended at all, but she was certainly being pretty forceful. A small crowd began to form around us and I was feeling the pressure. I wasn’t going over 80 though. I freed myself and took several steps away, when over the crowd I heard, “FINE! 80!”

What this experience taught me, among other things, is that you pay the price for something no matter what. Though I got the price down, I had to spend a great deal of time and energy in order to purchase it. The challange with bargaining is figuring out how to meet at the margin, where your willingness to pay meets their lowest price. I think I did that successfully here. Especially in light of our readings this week from Fake Stuff, I found it interesting and exciting to immerse myself in this public-yet-underground world of fake markets. Though I don’t plan on going back there anytime soon!


Mass Culture: Gangnam Style

By now everyone has heard of “Gangnam Style,” a pop record released by K-Pop star Psy with over 576,000,000 million views on YouTube. This meteoric rise in popularity and recognition is simply unprecedented in the world of music and, I would argue, is indicative of the new nature of global culture. This example is remarkable given the fact that Psy was virtually unknown in the United States and, solely because of a single 4-minute music video, became a guest on every popular television program on all the major networks.

Walking around Shanghai, the record is inescapable. And in traveling to Taipei, Nanjing, and Suzhou, I can surely say that the song was played at least once during each of my days there. I did not understand the magnitude of Psy’s success until I began reading and viewing material from popular American media outlets like SNL and The Ellen Show, listening to their introductions that usually followed a script like, “Please welcome the most popular global music star today…” The fact that I can hear the same artist in my daily life abroad in China as my brothers are listening to in the car in Maine is astonishing.

The song itself is a point of connection for me and many of the new people I have met while abroad. In the dance group FDANSO, we commonly warm up to Gangnam Style, and one girl is choreographing to the song (aka copying the music video) for the show in November. Everyone “knows” all of the words, or can at least shout the lyrics loud enough to blend in with the crowd. I find it funny when the line “Hey sexy lady” plays and people look at me in amusement of the seemingly random English addition.

The larger point I wish to make is that we now live in an age when practically anyone, or any song, can become a global phenomenon over the course of just a few days. What determines this success is not necessarily related to the talent, reputability, or origin of the material itself. In truth, Psy is not an amazing singer or dancer, and the now iconic choreography for the song is quite elementary in terms of its difficulty and artistry. Nevertheless, Gangnam Style has shown us that the combination of music, uniqueness, and the internet (when mixed accordingly) can have gargantuan effects on global culture.

Taipei: Blending the Urban and Rural

Taiwan is a truly remarkable place. After traveling there for a few days, I see it almost as a novelty in the Asian world, an effectively free country that appears to have done a lot of things right in terms of fostering a positive environmental and political discourse. So often I feel that scholars focus on the negative effects of the industrializing countries of Asia in terms of reckless pollution and political suppression, but in Taiwan these issues seem to be more muted. The city of Taipei, in which my peers and I spent the entirety of our stay, is almost seamlessly incorporated into the surrounding environment characterized by dense forest and rolling mountains. There are no skyscrapers besides the lone Taipei 101, which serves as almost a comical structure amidst the otherwise mid-ride urban building developments. As one of the local people said to me, “I think it is ugly. It makes no sense! We spent way too much money on that.” Nonetheless, the city of Taipei seems to dissolve into the mountains surrounding it, as one can see from any one of the gorgeous views seen at the top of one of the peaks surrounding the city, or the top of Taipei 101. These images made me think about American perceptions of what cities should be and how people are assumed to live in such environments.

I feel that in the United States urban areas are simply considered the opposite of rural ones. One can live in the city or the countryside. The compromise, which has become a popular American phenomenon, is the existence of suburbs that combine the conveniences of a city and the comforts of a less populated environment. But what I saw in Taipei was the mergence of the urban and rural, apartment buildings built right up to the tree line of huge mountains, for example. Or riding on a metro that suddenly went from traveling underground to a raised track overlooking a forest canopy. A local Taiwanese woman I spoke with said she lives 20 minutes outside of her downtown office, in a small, quiet apartment in the mountains. This account represented a unique harmony between what I previously assumed to be contesting lifestyles. I can certainly see how Taipei can be an exceptionally livable city, one in which people aren’t necessarily faced with the decision between inhabiting a peaceful environment and one that reaps the benefits of industrialization. Though there are various economic challenges faces the city and the country of Taiwan, from what I can see that Taipei has struck the balance between modernization and preservation of the ever-vital natural environment.

Starbucks: Am I “Cheating?”

I felt odd this morning for some reason when DJ called me and asked where I was, because I was at Starbucks. (I have made it a conscious effort to avoid American restaurant chains most of the time while in Shanghai, but the past two Sundays I have found myself camped out at Wujiaochang with a cappuccino and my MacBook.) I suppose I felt like I was “cheating” in some way, that I was bypassing the uniquely foreign experiences that are the reason for which I came abroad. But as I looked around the whole store, I saw only Chinese customers. This made me think about what it means for something to be “American,” and furthermore, whether or not I am in fact “cheating” by dining at these type of establishments.

Starbucks is unique in that it can be considered a higher-end restaurant chain, on a similar level as the Häagen-Daz restaurants in Shanghai. It’s clientele is primarily middle to upper-middle class people who have the disposable income to spend on high priced coffee, a luxury good with relatively elastic demand. Many of the people I saw in the store had iPhones, MacBooks, or other expensive electronic devices, providing further evidence of their healthy economic standing. This reminded me a great deal of the United States in terms of Starbuck’s typical demographic.

But the store was full of Chinese customers, and I was the only foreign person there. The menu had a wide selection of teas, and baked goods included red bean scones. Yet when I approached the counter the cashier greeted my in English and took my English order with a nod of her head (I didn’t exactly know how to translate “venti cafe mocha”). And on my cup she wrote “Sir,” so that when my drink was ready the worker said, “Here you go sir, please enjoy.” I felt like my hand was being held by the Starbucks employees in a way that was sterilizing any type of genuine interaction with the Chinese. This made me think a great deal about the concept of space. When I enter a Starbucks in Shanghai, I am in both an American and Chinese space. The company is, of course, and American-based entity. But the store itself also begs to assume the identity of the physical location and surrounding language. What I concluded was that it is the identity of the subject, in this case customer, that defines the space. If a Chinese person walks into Starbucks, he can consider that a Chinese space. But as soon as I walk in a Starbucks door, I feel like I am in a (predominately) culturally American space. And I think this phenomenon is completely intentional by the Starbucks corporation. In expanding to new markets, it is a significant challenge to strike the balance between adapting to foreign cultural practices while maintaining the fundamental elements of your products or services. Starbucks has done this in a way that, as I can see, has garnered massive success. I was able to got to their store and feel like I could have been in the middle of Manhattan, while I believe the Chinese people there thought of their experience as nothing more than getting some coffee at Wujiaochang.

So am I cheating on the Chinese experience by going to Starbucks? Yes and no. Yes because the company was made in America and my intention is usually to use it as an easy, familiar alternative to traditional Chinese options. But no because, as I saw, a sizable portion of the Chinese populace is choosing to eat and drink there just as I am. But really, I should probably just stop going there in general. It’s 太贵了, anyway.


Gardens = Serenity 吗?

It was great seeing the beautiful gardens in Suzhou this week, but it made me wonder how the Chinese actually consider and appreciate nature. Especially living in the booming city of Shanghai, it is easy to assume that the low air quality and lack of green space, among other urban side effects, corresponds with a lack of regard for the natural environment. And as The River Runs Black points out, one can basically assume this to be true. The rapid economic development of China has come at the cost of the health of the Chinese landscape and population. The government has repeatedly demonstrated that a regard for nature is secondary, at best, to the priority of economic growth and urbanization.

These circumstances made me think about the oddity that is gardens in general, and how they are appreciated in China specifically. It has always been my belief that gardens are meant as escapes or refuges from the urbanized world. We keep them in our backyards sometimes for growing food, but many times for the simple joy of tending to the plants and enjoying the blossoming of the flowers. I know from my conversations (and extensive tour of his crazy backyard) with Larry Ligo that gardens can be immaculately imagined and constructed, made strategically to induce specific responses both visually and on a deeper level. It was my general assumption that gardens are places to unwind and take the chance to observe and share space with the most beautiful elements of nature.

That’s why going to the gardens in Suzhou made little sense to me! I know they used to be private gardens that were serene, but they have now turned into thriving tourist hubs that are as bustling with people as city streets. I remember it was hard to even look up and enjoy seeing a tree or plant. I was able to snap this picture of a flower during one of our brief breaks from walking:

So even though this photo shows a beautiful, untouched, vibrant natural element, much of the trip was dominated by scenes that looked more like this:

This has all led me to think about how nature is perceived in China. Of course there is no simple answer. But what I have deduced is that there is an inherent desire in humans to be connected to nature in some way. Even as I look out my window, I can see trees and grass whose function is primarily superficial. And I can see that the gardens of Suzhou, though extremely crowded during Golden Week, are exceptionally beautiful and serene when absent such crowds. But I think the abundance of people and human influence that bombards these gardens is indicative of the stance that China has made in its relationship with nature. Though the Chinese still have an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, it functions now as a purely economic entity. The gardens are maintained not for the serenity they provide, but the revenue of its visitors. And as The River Runs Black explains, this type of mentality will continue to affect a gamut of environmental issues in China.