A Peculiar Piece of Shanghai

Three weeks exactly until we depart, and Justin and I decide to finally explore the infamous Hongqiao “Pearl City” Market. It wasn’t until hours later, after already thoroughly exploring the establishment, did we fully grasp how bizarre it was. Upon entry, you are not greeted with shouts and cries for attention, quite a contrast from Han City. Rather, it appeared to be a calm environment, where vendors waited inside their shop quietly, paying little mind to potential customers. Furthermore, it was (relatively) clean, un-crowded area. There was no sense of urgency or hustle and bustle. In fact it didn’t seem like a “fake” market at all.

Shortly after a quick run-through of the establishment, any notion of serenity was demolished. Never have I witnessed such discourteous behavior at any marketplace.

With over three months of serious (bargain) shopping experience, Justin and I came equipped with enough information in our knowledge-bank to get the biggest bang for our buck…or Yuan. Yet, even as the ultimate shopper duo, we were confronted with several unanticipated problems. Many times we had to walk away empty-handed. Frustrated by the complete stubbornness of the vendors, we failed to make potential good purchases…(for us) that is beyond abnormal, that is unheard of!

How was it that as seasoned shoppers who abide by the law of bargain struggled to make a deal?

For those of you whom are unfamiliar, the rule of thumb is to internally assess the value of the desired item, determine a maximum purchase price, and stick to it. If the vendor is uncooperative, walk away. Even so, this is all apart of the negation process and usually a counter bid is offered. Not a Hongqiao though. Not only was their merchandise lower quality, but the vendors were excessively rude! Charging ridiculously high prices and would actually stick to them. Multiple times, Justin or I would offer a more reasonable price, of which they would completely dismiss. Insolently a fake shoe vendor yelled “Bye!” in attempt to get us out their shop.

To top off the experience, we had absolutely no luck catching a cab. Even though the top light was on, indicating vacancy, three times consecutively, we were rejected when attempting to get a taxi. In the second attempt, the man incomprehensibly shouted at us in Chinese. Unable to get a ride home, we grabbed bite to eat and brushed our shoulders off. We tried to bargain some more with street vendors, one of which FOLLOWED us for three blocks and STILL would not concede to my asking price. This affair further reinforced the peculiarity of Hongqiao.

Even after Justin and I’s adventure, I am still at a loss for words. I don’t know what part of Shanghai we were in, but clearly their clearly conducting bizarre business. In the end, I’ll just have to chalk it up as 很奇怪 (hen qiguai=very strange)experience!

Rethinking orientations

This past summer, the Shanghai Taiwanese Student Organization, or Taisheng Zonghui, held a two-day “explanation meeting” for Taiwanese students who would be beginning classes at Mainland universities in the Shanghai-Zhejiang area starting in the fall. The event included presentations and discussions led by former and current Taiwanese students studying in the Mainland and officials from the Taiwanese Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Ministry of National Defense to introduce incoming students to information about the Mainland and challenges they might encounter there. Another topic of discussion was Taiwanese regulations regarding recognition of degrees from Mainland institutions, and officials from the Ministry of Education and Executive Yuan were on hand to explain current and proposed regulations, particularly in regard to Mainland medical degrees, which are not currently recognized in the Republic of China. Officers from the Taiwanese Student Organizations (Taishenghui) of the Shanghai-Zhejiang area introduced their schools to their incoming classmates, and the representatives of the Fudan University Taishenghui were careful to explain the reality of life at Fudan University. Participants had the opportunity to interact and exchange with taishang, Taiwanese businessmen conducting business in the Mainland, and learn about the current status of taishang and the history of Taiwanese studying in the Mainland.

The event also involved informal discussion and bonding between new students, their incoming peers, and their upper-classmates. Officers of the Fudan Taishenghui taught the incoming students how to play Sanguosha (Three Kingdoms Killers), a card game widely popular among college-aged Mainlanders, in the hopes that it would help them more quickly assimilate into Mainland life.

The effectiveness of these activities in preparing Taiwanese students for life in the Mainland is questionable. The most significant issue encountered by Taiwanese students I’ve spoken to at Fudan University seems to be their difficulty in relating to and connecting with Mainland peers. Most Taiwanese students, it seems, spend the majority of their time with Taiwanese classmates rather than Mainland classmates. Various reasons are given for this, with the most commonly mentioned being differences of “education.” It’s understandable: Taiwanese culture and Mainland Chinese culture, after more than 100 years of effective separation, are different in some essential ways, and cross-cultural relationships are not easy. Take a poll of students studying abroad in the United States, and I can almost guarantee that the majority of them will report that most of their friends at school are fellow foreigners. Taiwanese in Mainland China are in a special position. Because of the special political relations between Taiwan and Mainland China, Taiwanese students in the Mainland are neither international students, nor are they local (Mainland) students. They speak the same language, eat the same food, and grew up in a culture with the same roots and similar history to their Mainland peers, but they are somehow, almost inexplicably, different. Not surprising, then, that it’s difficult for many to forge relationships with their Mainland peers.

The activities organized by the Taishenghui may be inhibiting active relationship-building with Mainland peers, however. When Taiwanese students come to the Mainland, they encounter some initial barriers in relating to their Mainland classmates due to differences of cultural and educational background. Normally, they would have to push through these barriers in order to escape the solitude of the exchange student in a new place. Now, however, upon arriving in the Mainland, they’ve already established relationships with many Taiwanese peers, and it’s easy to fall back on these relationships as a safety net and give up on establishing relations with Mainland peers altogether. While the Taishenghui summer explanation and introduction activity undoubtedly is a great event and very effective at helping incoming Taiwanese students adjust and easing their concerns, it may have negative effects towards their overall level of assimilation down the road.

I have often wondered if the same thing can be said of the STRIDE program at Davidson College. STRIDE is a special orientation and support organization for minority and first-generation students at Davidson College. Prior to school beginning, STRIDE participants have the opportunity to meet with other students, both incoming and current, and faculty members to discuss being a minority student at Davidson College and the challenges that prospect entails. This undoubtedly has many incredibly beneficial aspects for incoming students. However, the question should be asked whether or not it inhibits the long-term integration of participants into general college life.

It’s possible that the positive effects of orientation activities like STRIDE or the “explanation meeting” of the Taisheng Zonghui outweigh the negative impacts down the road. However, we should rethink these types of activities and make sure that is truly the case, and, furthermore, be aware that orientation activities of this sort may not be the optimal activity for all students.

Dance Judging

I had a very Chinese experience recently when I went to have my dance reviewed & judged by the senior members of FDANSO, the group in which I’m choreographing a dance to be performed on November 27th. I had missed the first round of judging because I was in Beijing, but my group still performed without me. So this was the first time I was performing the piece with them in front of an audience. I thought I was acting cool but as I was sitting and waiting for my group to go one of my friends said, “Are you ok? You look really nervous. Relax.” So I suppose I wasn’t very convincing.

We were in this big multipurpose room on campus where everyone could sit and watch the pieces. After each dance the judges, mainly one guy, would talk for at least 10 minutes in a tone that I knew was not positive. I was anticipating a few critiques, but I was not exactly ready for the Tiger-Mom-esque criticism. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, though. I knew that this was a cultural experience and nothing they could say would discount the work me and my dancers had done. That said, it still wasn’t easy.

A really awesome group would perform and then I would hear the guy say, “Last week you were the best dance. This week you are very average. Lower level.” Then a popping/locking duo went and looked like they were straight out of one of those super cool YouTube videos. Everyone in the group was cheering and smiling, but then the judge said, “You must stop looking at the ground. If you look at the ground, the audience will hate you. You will be boring.”

Finally it was time for my piece. I was prepared to put on a good show, make eye contact, live in the moment, all that good stuff. The music started and as soon as I looked up at the head judge’s eyes, he had this look on his face as if someone was holding dog poop in front of his nose. Confused and disgusted, I would say. So I would look at some of the other judges, who’s faces weren’t much better, and then back to him, and he still had that face! I just kept on swimming, finishing the piece with mostly smiles and cheering from the audience. Then my dancers gathered around and prepared for the whipping we were about to get. He talked for about 10 minutes, but here is the abbreviated version:

“It looks very sloppy. Not everyone is doing it correctly. Last week was disastrous, this week you are barely average, but only because he (*points to me*) is here. He dances with great power but the rest of you (*flails his arms and hands in the air in no apparent pattern*). You must practice more. Ugh.” *Throws his arm in the air as if he was swatting a fly, then assumes a face of utter disappointment.*

So, that was great!

I suppose going from “disastrous” to “barely average” is an improvement, right? I talked to my friend Yazhi afterword and she explained to me how it is typical Chinese style to only mention the bad things so that people know what to improve on. She said there is so much pressure to produce a high-quality show because Fudan University ranks the student organizations 1-5 stars, and beyond 5 star there is “Model 5-Star,” which is the title FDANSO currently has. (The only other group on campus to have this, she said, was the Den Xiaoping (Chinese Communist Party reformer) study club for “political reasons.”) This means they get more funding & support from the school. We have something similar at Davidson, but nothing that involves the level of scrutiny and pressure at Fudan.

I learned a lot about Chinese culture and myself from this experience. Back at Davidson I review dances for the show, but my feedback typically only includes, “Good job, keep practicing! I love it!” While here the attitude is totally different. Yazhi said that Chinese people aren’t mean, they just want to produce the best material possible. She said that China has so many people that it is impossible to not judge and rank everyone in the name of efficiency. I learned that more than ever here, but I am still super thankful for the opportunity to show work in Shanghai and to learn how to function so far out of my comfort zone.

Silk Orders at the South Bund

The sound of a sewing machine rumbling reminds me of my mother. My mother, Ivy, works as tailor in a local boutique in Durham, NC. As a child, I could usually find my mother in her sewing room working on her clients’ clothes or a sewing project for fun. Many of the garments my sister and I wore growing up were custom made by my mom. My mother sewed us many things, including, smoking dresses, bedspreads, and Halloween costumes. She would often bring my sister and I along to shop for buttons, zippers and thread. While walking through the fabric store, my hands would move across the endless rows of fabric rolls; cotton, fleece, polyester, leather, silk and satin.

Last week, I made a trip to the South Bund Fabric Market in Shanghai. This market is popular among travelers and locals looking to buy custom made shirts, dresses, suits and jackets. When I walked through the front doors of the building, my mind immediately flashed back to the times I spent roaming different colors, textures and prints with my mother. The South Bund Fabric Market is a three story building jammed packed with individual vendor stalls. I was a bit overwhelmed at first; every stall was covered in fabric, model designs and finished orders from floor to ceiling. I did not know where to start.

After wandering around some, Shanel and I entered a stall on the first floor that was recommended by our professor. We were both looking to order traditional Chinese dresses known as cheongsams (qípáo). From my understanding, one or two storefront merchants operate each stall. These merchants help customers pick designs, choose fabrics and measure sizes. Orders are then sent to neighboring buildings and laborers to be made. Customers typically wait about one week to pick up their custom made pieces.

The stall we selected was about ten square-meters in area and was run by a husband and wife team. Before making any concrete decisions, we asked the storekeepers how much one cheongsam would cost. The woman merchant grabbed the calculator from her desk and typed “450¥.” We knew this was a good and fair starting price, but proceeded to bargain for a discount. In the end, we agreed to buying five cheongsams between the two of us priced at 360¥ each. So, this meant each custom made silk cheongsam cost about $60, a price impossible to find back home.

Through watching my mother sew, I have developed an appreciation for good craftsmanship and hands-on work. My mother has built up her clientele based on her quality workmanship. In the tailoring business back home charging $60 for a custom made cheongsam would result in negative profits. The South Bund Fabric Market’s low prices are made possible by China’s abundance of willing workers and low labor costs. Our vendor told us that the price of fabric and materials make up most of the retail price. The prices we encountered were lower than “off-the-shelf” items back home. For example, Nicky ordered three custom fit suit sets for the price of one off-the-shelf suit in the United States.

I see that sewing is a disappearing trade in the developed countries. It has become a specialty skill as more and more textile factories get outsourced to developing countries. There seem to be more tailoring booths in the South Bund Fabric Market building than there are in the city of Durham. The difference between tailoring prices and choices in China and the United States interests me. In my Chinese Marketplace class, my group is researching and conducting a field study of the South Bund Fabric Market. We will be digging deeper into the vendors’ daily lives, the power structure within the market and the supply chain. But, for now, I am most excited to pick up my three cheongsams tomorrow afternoon.

Wall Walking: Adventures on The Great Wall

On Friday the 2nd, the second day of our Beijing trip, our fearless guide Erik led us on a hike of the Great Wall.  We were in a bit of a rush as we had to hike up to, along, and down the Great Wall in less than two hours because we were racing the setting sun.  We had all seen the Wall from the bus as we drove in and were excited and ready to start the hike.  The trek up to the Great Wall was a hike in-and-of itself, but nothing compared to the actual wall.  I am sure that at one time the wall was pristine and beautiful, but after thousands of years of erosion, wear, and exposure to the elements, it was not so pretty anymore. Don’t get me wrong, the views were stunning and the sheer size of the wall took my breath away, but the immaculate pictures you find in books are not what the “real” wall looks like.

As Fuji said “we hiked the authentic wall.”  What he meant by that was that the wall was not in the best shape and had not been kept up well over the years. For example at times the stairs had been so worn away that we were climbing stairs that were 2-3 feet tall in one step.  At other points there were sections of the stairs that had been eroded so much so that the remaining stone resembled piano keys.   At times there simply were no stairs – just bare rock face.  Still other stones had turned into gravel so you clawed your way up.  In other spots there was no wall beside you, you were merely walking on a stone slab with nothing to stop you from slipping off the edge.  Needless to say we were all on edge during the walk (pun fully intended).

At the posts along the wall you generally had to either climb down or up steps to continue on out the other side, for some of them you even had to go down and then back up the other side.  A few of the double stair ones had narrow ledges of rock running along the edge of the outer wall that you could shimmy across if you felt brave enough.  In the beginning we all went down and back up the stairs, but towards the end we were all tired of the stairs and began to brave the ledges more often.  At points along the wall instead of creating stairs the builders simply made the path very steep and then at the last possible moment would introduce the steps.  We all decided that we actually preferred the stairs to the steep graded path.  After walking the Great Wall I will never look at stairs the same again.

As cold, tired, and exhausted as we were, we could not get enough of the view and just the mere fact that we were standing on the Great Wall.  A structure built thousands of years ago, by hand, reaching over 13,000 miles long.  It was an awe-inspiring journey.   When we first made it to the Wall we just stood and took photos for a solid five minutes. We were all overwhelmed by the view and the sheer history of the place.  Simply standing on the Wall and seeing the amount of work and time that must have gone into creating and building it was enough to take you feel very small in the big scope if things.

During a sunrise hike the next morning a few of us took the once in a lifetime chance to call loved ones to say hi from atop the Great Wall.  Everyone’s parents, grandparents, and siblings thought it was really cool to get a phone call not only from China but from the Great Wall.  Wall walking, if it happens to be on the Great Wall, is not only physically taxing but emotionally charged.  For countless reasons it took my breath away.  I know the term “journey” is typically reserved for trips that take more than two hours, but the emotional and personal strength needed to complete this hike counts as a journey to me, even if just a personal one.