The Spectacle

To be Black is to be dangerous.
To be Black is to be ignorant.
To be Black is to be lazy.

Our society perpetuates ignorance. According to our one-sided lens of the media, I am a loud-mouthed ho’ who is promiscuous, broke, and living off of food stamps. That might explain why as I walked past, a local woman stared me down as she inched closer to her husband and child. Or why when Nicky, DJ, and I are walking many women shift their purses closer to them. Or maybe that’s why the bus driver pushed me to avoid me entering his “personal space” (HILARIOUS given no one here has the slightest conception of that, at all). Either way, China’s claim to “Welcome you with open arms” is a bit far stretched.

I came here well aware that I am a far cry from the norm, but it has occurred to me that I am one of Shanghai’s newest spectacles. The infiltration of foreigners of course generates stares, yet some of these instances went beyond simple expressions of curiosity, to invasive scrutiny resulting in my discomfort. To add to the my affliction, while looking up information about the notorious 查克力市 (Chocolate City), I stumbled across a few articles, one of which thoroughly disheartened me 1. In fact, it was the subsequent commentary from the locals that literally brought me to tears:

“The majority of blacks are representatives of promiscuity, violence, and AIDS.”

“Blacks are simply a low-level race—– This comment is something I heard elsewhere. Think about it and you know it is true… In reality, black people are gluttonous and lazy, unrealistic, and those who can work hard are rarer than rare, wanting in their bones to do little but still get a lot. They don’t seek to improve themselves!!”

“Chinese people know their place and are orderly wherever they are, an active and motivated people… As for black people, they are lazy and carefree wherever they are, and like to cause trouble, not diligent in learning, nor in work.”

“What can Africans bring us besides AIDS?????!!!! I am a customs officer who monitors infectious diseases, just look at how many people checked that are AIDS sufferers from Africa and you’ll know we should keep such garbage far away.”

Clearly negative notions of “Blackness” have penetrated not only our nation, but also abroad.

Photo courtesy of MacDougall’s “The Visual in Anthropology” 2

This is frightening.

But none of this is new. Selling the fractured image of the “Other” has always been profitable. Not only did media generate revenue by creating a spectacle of the “Other” (through exhibitions such as those in the World Fairs and commemorative postcards), but it also reinforced a Westernized notion of civility and primitiveness through means of visual comparisons:

“For a general public imbued with ideas of Social Darwinism, the visual appearance of exotic peoples was the most obvious way of placing them on a scale between civilised man and animal.” 2

Since the colonial era, the camera has helped establish the social construction of racial superiority. While ethnographic films and documentaries are meant to facilitate an appreciation for other cultures, often ethnographic research was performed to manipulate “human categories reinforcing colonisers’ sense of difference as their sense of power.”3 In other words, the media has done a fine job of projecting prejudicial images for ages.

Unfortunately, the damage is done. Though we are living in an age of increase global awareness, much more progress is necessary. As disturbing as the reality check was, I will not passively accept the negative stereotypes that follow me wherever I go. Rather I must challenge myself to impact the community, as it has done to me. While I may not be able to change the world myself, I do hope to demonstrate the pride, joy, and beauty in being Black, that has been all too neglected in the media.

2 David MacDougall. 1997. The Visual in Anthropology In Rethinking Visual Anthropology. Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy, eds. Pp. 279. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
3 David MacDougall. 1997. The Visual in Anthropology In Rethinking Visual Anthropology. Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy, eds. Pp. 280. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

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.