Eye-Catching, To Say the Least

The ethnic diversity of the Davidson in Shanghai students makes us stand out from the crowd. With hometowns from the west coast, the Midwest, rural North Carolina, southern Florida, and even France, our entrance to Shanghai made an impression. Those of us with non-Asian ancestry have distinct features that make us stand out in a group of Chinese people. As for me, I knew my white skin and red hair would not blend in with the crowd.

Shanghai is arguably a global city. While the fascination with westerners is very much alive in China, walking down the streets of Shanghai, especially near the universities, will get you a few stares, but venture downtown to tourist areas and you can expect to have your picture taken. There you will meet Chinese people from the countryside and other rural areas of China who are mesmerized by westerners. During orientation week the entire group visited Nanjing Road, a popular attraction for tourists and eager shoppers. While sitting down at a bench, a Chinese girl and her mother passed by but not before they stopped near me. The mother wanted her daughter to take a picture with me, but the little girl was too shy. I politely smiled and waved goodbye. Other times the attention has been more drastic. In one particular case, a group of young Chinese adults stopped and immediately stared at me as I walked by them.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

A group of westerners traveling together can be easily spotted. Anytime the entire group ventures out I am on the lookout for peoples’ reactions. During any visit to the Bund, at least one of us is asked to pose for a picture. Our first night out a Chinese man was determined to be in a picture with all of us. Since the United States has many ethnicities with very distinct characteristics, this new attention proved to be a new concept for us. Even though we are quick to detect physical diversity, many of us are unaware of China’s diverse population.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that while China is considered to be ninety percent Han (he deems this a “problematic” number), the country is not without diversity, containing even more ethnic classes, speaking different dialects, and exhibiting different cultures than one might realize.[1] Wasserstrom believes Americans have a “too-limited appreciation of China’s diversity,” and suggests that misconceptions about China’s diversity are hundreds of years old, aided in part by war and visual representations such as books and film.[2] Shanghai provides a useful example to correct this misconception.

One unique quality and clear distinction between Shanghaiers and other mainland Chinese people is language. Shanghaiers have their own dialect called Shanghainese. Unlike the United States where everyone who speaks English can be understood, Chinese people who speak Mandarin cannot necessarily understand this specific Shanghai dialect. Shanghai is home to many young adults. Wasserstrom believes generational gaps also contribute to China’s diversity. He acknowledges that generational gaps exist throughout the world but believes China’s is most noteworthy. According to Wasserstrom, in 2007, the number of individuals under thirty years old constituted forty percent of China’s total population.[3]

While physical appearance is the most obvious form of diversity, various dialects and ideologies can deepen a population’s diversity. Even though they are watching me and thinking about how different I look, I am also watching them and wondering about their story. Being diverse is not always about standing out in a crowded space.


[1]Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China In the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, Kindle edition, 2010), location 1818. http://www.humanities.uci.edu/history/faculty_profile_wasserstrom.php.

[2]Wasserstrom, location 1785.

[3]Wasserstrom, location 1817.

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.

 

The World Wide Web

I’ve never considered myself a good blogger. While I own a personal blog and have posted on it from time to time, I’ve always had trouble getting my thoughts down on paper.  I’ve had moments when I wanted to write pages and pages about Jeremy Lin and the “Linsanity” debate or about my experiences as an Asian American.  Yet after thinking and preparing to write these posts, I found that I could not get myself to type these posts out.  After considering why I could not get my thoughts onto my blog, I realized what was stopping me.

The Internet is a big and scary thing.  I knew that once I put my ideas up on the web, they would be out there for all to see.  Anyone could read, comment, or judge me based on what I wrote.  This simple thought scared me.  It is true that the Internet is one of the most powerful tools we have.  If you’d like to know which actors starred in the Harry Potter movies or find out the birthday of our 22nd president, these answers are literally a click away.  Or if you’d like to find your long lost kindergarten friend, chances are Facebook will help you find them.

But how much do we really know about the Internet?  How long will the little bits of information that we post online stay out there, floating around in some mysterious space? Every month or two a story will come out about a man who lost his job because of a dumb status update on Twitter or a wild picture of his party the night before on Facebook.  The Internet is helpful but also a very powerful tool.

While most of the world has the ability to do almost anything they want on the Internet, this is not the case in China.  “The Great Firewall” which blocks websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube limits Chinese Internet users.  This display of censorship show just how powerful the Internet can be.  The Chinese government is afraid of negative press coming from these websites.  They know that having open access to the web will cause people to point out the downfalls of the government and could potentially lead to protests in the future.

But while many sites are blocked by the “Firewall”, this does not mean that they are inaccessible.  Computer savvy individuals (or those with smart friends) can use Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, to mask the computer’s location and make the user appear to be somewhere else.  A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation about VPNs with my mom.  She asked me why more people didn’t use VPNs, consider how easy they are to download and use.  After asking a few of my Chinese friends about this, I came up with a general answer to her question.

First off, you must know about a VPN to use one.  While simply downloading a VPN and using it in China may seem like a no-brainer to an ex-pat who has been told about the work-around by friends, many Chinese citizens likely have not been exposed to them.  Those who have are likely from urban areas like Shanghai or Beijing and have been introduced to VPNs by a co-worker or friend. According to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “This creates another divide among Internet users in China, separating those who are versed in using such techniques from those who are not.   (p. 86).  While there is a class of Internet users in China who have more access, my second point explains why I believe this divide is a small one.

Second, and more importantly, using VPNs can become very inconvenient and unnecessary to many Chinese locals.  To a Chinese student, having a Facebook may not be very useful if none of their other fellow classmates have one.  Personally, I created a RenRen (the Chinese equivalent to Facebook), but since I only have 12 friends, it is almost pointless for me to ever sign on.  I think many Chinese students must view Facebook in a similar way.  It is simply easier to use a site such as Weibo where everyone in your social circle is connected, without having to go through the hassle of connecting with a VPN.

Now while we may have different ways of accessing our friends and social circles, I think one thing is clear.  The Internet is a key component to all of our lives and will stay that way for a long time.

Wisdom, Wrinkles and Workouts

Lu Xun Park is a green space located in the middle of residential high rises in the Hongkou area. Katie and I arrived in this neighborhood early on Saturday morning, hoping to capture some photos of the older residents practicing t’ai chi in Lu Xun. Getting to Lu Xun Park proved challenging. After walking around the neighborhood block for half an hour and asking the locals for directions, we managed to find a smaller park hidden behind cement walls. We walked down the park’s path following the music playing close by. With each turn, I observed people peacefully practicing their morning exercise routines within the enclaves of the garden. In the main opening a large group was following the instructional voice of the loud music. The older men and women of the group massaged their temples, patted their legs and swung their limbs in unison. Seeing as it was only 6:30 in the morning, I was thoroughly impressed by the group’s energy and movement.

Without wanting to interrupt their routines or show disrespect, Katie and I asked for permission to shoot photos of the individuals nearby. Our one question quickly evolved into introductions with over ten exercising participants. Our new friends were eager for a photo shoot and a conversation. What struck me the most during our exchanges and conversations was the reoccurring subject of age. As I attempted to chat in Mandarin with three older women, each one voluntarily and proudly stated her age without being asked.

“I am seventy-five,” said the first woman gazing up at me.

“I am eighty-eight,” stated the next in line.

Lastly, “And I am ninety!” the last woman exclaimed.

Their age transparency was refreshing and, in my opinion, contrasts the majority of American women who intentionally try to mask and hide their age. The elderly exercising in the park and on the streets of Shanghai represent the importance of longevity in Chinese culture. Nonetheless, the American and Western concerns for youthful beauty and sexuality are visible in Shanghai.

According to Suzanne Z. Gottschang, “the importance of sexuality and interest in bodily appearance are increasingly a concern that urban Chinese women must contend with as a part of their identity” (2001: Kindle Location 1173). Gottschang observes new mothers in urban China and their reactions to commercialized breastfeeding campaigns versus formula company advertisements. Both the government’s posters and the formula company’s brochures emphasize the prepregancy, fit body. This strategic tactic is ideal for reaching a generation of women who strive against the signs of aging, including motherhood. I question whether this advertising approach would have been appealing to the elderly women of the park when they were beginning their journey as mothers.

Elmo Goes to China

Elmo’s journey, to be archived, began from Davidson College in a small town of North Carolina. He came with his owner, Shoko Whittemore to Davidson possibly from Tokyo, Japan or a storage box in Davidson. One of Shoko’s friends gave Elmo to her as a parting gift and a remembrance token. Elmo was interviewed on his thoughts about China. Here is the interview.

Interviewer: Elmo, how did you end up in China?

Elmo: First of all, Elmo was never planning to go to China. Elmo’s original plan involved spending my fall at Davidson College in Tomlinson with Elmo’s loving owner Shoko. It all started with some of Shoko’s friends coming over to help loft her bed and one of them, a brutish guy named Benito saw Elmo and grabbed me from the pile of stuff outside of Shoko’s room. He basically told Shoko to lend Elmo to him or there would be problems. So, Elmo spent about three days being this guy’s object of mockery. He would put Elmo on top of ridiculously high places, hang Elmo from the ceiling, and…

Interviewer: Elmo, we are asking you about how you ended up in China.

Elmo: Elmo’s sorry. It was just a horrible three days. Anyways, this fiend, Benito, was planning to return Elmo to her beloved owner when someone said that Benito should take Elmo to China. Elmo thought, “NOOOO! Not with that Benito!!!” Unfortunately, a guarantor named Yeeva Cheng promised Shoko that she would help watch Elmo in China. So, Elmo left on Wednesday with the group of Davidson students China bound.

Interviewer: So, you had no choice in the matter. Well, how do you like China Elmo?

Elmo: Wait. Aren’t you going to ask Elmo if Elmo feels like Elmo’s rights were abused or something like that?

Interviewer: Uh, no. You’re a doll and under the United States Constitution, dolls are not recognized as citizens and therefore have no rights.

Elmo: Elmo is not just somebody’s doll!!! Elmo iS ELMO!!!! ELMO SHOULD HAVE RIGHTS JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!!! SESAME STREET CHARACTERS SHOULD ALL HAVE RIGHTS!!! WE WILL BE FREE!!! AAAAHHH!!!! (CRASH).

Interviewer: Security! Restrain him!!!

Unfortunately, the interview ended with Elmo’s tirade and he had to be sedated before becoming violent. However, Elmo seems to have calmed down and is enjoying the trip in China. He currently resides in Shanghai, China and is actually participating in a photo project known as Elmo in China, and is the main focus. He is known to photo bomb pictures of Davidson students and professors. His album can be found on Benito Yon’s Facebook in the Album section: Elmo in China.

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