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.


Dumpling Diplomacy

Saturday the School for Social Development and Public Policy, the Fudan University School that is sponsoring our study here in China, held a get together for the foreign students so that we could get to know the other foreign students as well as some of the Fudan students.  We all met out on the lawn of one of the main academic buildings for some icebreakers before moving inside to make dumplings.  Ali, Benito, and I were are bit skeptical as to what to expect from the event, but were all excited to meet new people and practice our Chinese skills.

When enough foreign students had arrived the Chinese students decided that it was time to begin introducing ourselves to each other with some games.  The first game we played was the human knot game.  For anyone who has played this game before you know that it can be taxing and confusing; now add in the fact that we didn’t all speak the same language and you get one hell of an interesting game.   One minute into the game we knew that we were in for a challenge.  We were all trying to direct people in both Chinese and English and translate for those who did not understand.  While we may not have learned everyone’s name in our group, that awkwardness of just meeting everyone was definitely gone after we spent 10 minutes all wrapped around each other.  There was one group of students who were having a particularly hard time unwrapping themselves, so a few German students who had finished early went over to observe and assist.  Whenever they could get a person free and untangled from the group a cry of “German Engineering” would erupt along with peels of laughter. Unfortunately, the German engineering was not enough to help them and they ended up being the last group to finish, but they all seemed to be having a great time.

The next game was again not so much of a getting to know you game, but rather a let’s just be silly and awkward all at the same time to lighten the mood type of game.  It involved two people standing facing each other and creating a roof-like structure with their hands while a third person knelt on the ground between them.  The two people standing made the “tree” while the person on the ground was the “squirrel.”  When the person in charge of the game called out “wind,” the “trees” all had to break apart and find a new “tree” partner and squirrel to cover.  When “fire” was called, the “squirrels” all had to leave his or her “tree” and find a new home, and when “earthquake” was called, everyone had to switch.  Again while this game also did not lend itself well to actually getting to know new people, it was a great way to get people to loosen up and become more comfortable with one another.  No one really understood the point of this game but we had tons of fun running around and grabbing random people to be our “tree” partner or screaming out that we had and empty “tree” for a poor “squirrel” to come and live in.

The next event for the afternoon was to proceed into the canteen to make dumplings.  This was the real time when we got to really meet some of the other students. We were all split into groups so that the foreign and Chinese students could get to know each other more. The Chinese students were very interested in where we were from and what we were studying.  We all had a great time trying to learn how to pronounce each others’ names as well.  With two German, one Swiss, one American and six Chinese students at my table the name part was defiantly a challenge.  The Chinese students thought it was hilarious to watch us try and make the dumplings.  None of us could figure out how to fold and press the dumplings the right way.  A few of the German boys even resorted to making disk shaped dumplings so they did not have to try and fold them.  All in all we met a lot of nice students, foreign and Chinese alike, and had a fun filled afternoon.  The dumplings were tasty and we found new friends to both hangout with and practice our Chinese with.  The Chinese students all seemed eager to know what we liked doing in our free time and wanted to get to know us better.  Overall it was a fun and exciting day filled with lots of laughter.

Street Food – a PK by Chai Lu Bohannan

Shanghai Street Food, by Chai Lu Bohannan from thefieldworker on Vimeo.

This pecha kucha made by Chai Lu Bohannan is a beautiful introduction to one of the joys of everyday Chinese culture ; a quick and tasty pleasure that everyone in the program has explored to one degree or another. Chai Lu was thorough and systematic in her investigation of street food; here is the CNN International link that she refers to in the video.

Here’s another take on street food in Shanghai, albeit one not as aesthetically-pleasing as Chai Lu’s.

Wedding in Shanghai

On the third day of Golden Week, I attended a wedding in Shanghai with my friend Katie Wells. The parents of the kid I tutor, Harry Cao, asked me on the first Sunday of Golden Week if I had time and could attend a cousin’s wedding on Tuesday. I checked my schedule and told them I could while also asking if I could bring a friend so that I would not be alone at the wedding.

We both had no idea what to expect at this wedding. I was wondering if it would be a traditional Chinese wedding with a bunch of rituals or a Western style wedding where a pastor or priest would have them take their vows and a reception would be held after. Let me say that the wedding is like none that I have been to.

The wedding took place in a high rise building that held reception rooms. The family took Katie and I up an elevator and as we entered the 3rd floor we saw the wedding couple. They were taking pictures with the guests that were entering. So, I assumed the wedding had ended and this was the reception. As we walked forward, Katie and I were roped into taking pictures with the wedding couple before proceeding to the room where everyone was seated. We were seated with the grandparents and extended family members of the boy I tutor. They offered us drinks ranging from soft drinks to alcohol. We talked a little with them and waited, not knowing what was supposed to happen next.

All of a sudden a camera crew materialized with a lighting crew and the room was darkened. The spotlights were trained on the groom who appeared at the front and he started singing as the bride walked down the aisle with her father. She was wearing a white dress and the groom met her halfway as he sang. He stopped before and kneeled on one knee as he finished his song and then walked her to the front where the stage was. Then the Master of Ceremonies (MC) took over the rest of the proceedings. There was only one bridesmaid who brought the rings for both the bride and groom. They put the rings on each other’s finger, although the groom made everyone laugh when he put the ring on the bride’s wrong finger. Then they kissed and proceeded to pour wine into a wine glass pyramid.  They drank a glass of wine with their arms crossed and everyone cheered to them and their new life.After everyone cheered, they walked down the aisle as newlyweds. 

The room then brightened again and everyone in the room started to eat. The dinner was Chinese banquet style, which consists of a revolving center piece that has food and everyone shares the food. The family we sat with was very hospitable and offered Katie and I every dish to us first before taking some. After a couple of minutes, the room darkened again as the bride walked with the groom in a new dress, this time cream colored. They went to a second table on the stage and proceeded to light candles with a fencing foil that had a candle on the tip. After lighting all the candles they then held the foil together and prayed to what I assume was their ancestors. Then the in-laws came on stage and gave a speech on how they had come a long way and wished them a happy life. The family walked down the aisle, the room brightened again and everyone went back to eating.

There were so many dishes being served at the table. There were at least five different types of meat dishes, like chicken, duck, beef, crabs, and pork. There were also many different vegetable dishes and big bowls of soup that everyone shared from. During the dinner, the family asked Katie many questions about America and complimented her on her Mandarin. The boy, Harry, actually said he thought that Katie’s Mandarin was better than mine. Everyone had two wine glasses, a large one and a smaller one. Harry’s grandfather poured Katie and I a cup of baijiu, which is Chinese white liquor, although it is distilled. The baijiu had a nice smell but burned like hell when drinking it. I was forced to cheer with baijiu every time the grandfather cheered Katie and I because I was a male. In both of our smaller glasses we had Tsingtao beer to help us with the baijiu.

Midway through dinner, the MC started two different games. One was drinking game where a person would bid how many cups of soda they could drink. If they were able to accomplish it, they won 1000 yuan. Our family bid 18 cups of Sprite and won 1000 yuan. They bid 60 cups of Coke later but could not pull it off and a different side of the family chugged the whole bottle and won. The second game was for the children to name the song that the DJ would play and if they guessed it right, they won a towel. The parents of the children would tell them the answer and the kids would race each other to tell the MC. Our family was very competitive and won at least 10 towels. The atmosphere was filled with laughter and fun. The bride and groom were going around to each table during the games and were toasting all the guests. The bride would also offer a cigarette, usually to males, and light it for them as part of tradition.

The bride and groom then disappeared again after toasting everyone. Harry’s mother explained to Katie and I that in some Chinese weddings, the wedding feast took 3 days! Thankfully for us, the wedding we were at was only one. She also explained that in Chinese tradition, the bride would have either 3 or 4 dresses to change into. As she said this, the bride and groom came out again and this time the bride was in a red dress. They went up on stage and cut the cake which was the sign that the wedding was coming to an end. After cutting the cake, the MC told all the single people to come up on stage. The bride was getting ready to throw the bouquet. The family and I forced Katie to go up on stage where three other girls and children were all lining up. The bride looked backwards and then threw the bouquet. A little boy caught it, but gave it back to the bride because he did not want to get married yet. The bride then threw the bouquet again and the girl on Katie’s right caught it. As everyone proceeded to leave the stage, the boyfriend of the girl who caught the bouquet got on stage, kneeled on one knee and asked her to marry him! Apparently there is an unsaid tradition in Chinese culture that the boyfriend of the girl who catches the bouquet will go and propose to her after she catches the bouquet, and she says yes. When I heard this from Harry’s mother I was glad that Katie did not catch the bouquet. I apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Wells. Not that I would not propose to her if she caught it, but I would not know how to explain to Fuji and Mr. and Mrs. Wells how I ended up accidentally engaged to their daughter 1 month into the trip.

But it did not happen and the bullet was dodged. Slices of cake were passed around to each table and everyone started to wind down. To say the least, the wedding turned out to be very interesting. China has started to adapt to Western culture immensely. The clothes the bride and groom wore were all Western style and the cake was also Western style. However, Chinese culture is still strong as the food, the tradition of greeting all the guests and wearing of three different dresses still happened. China is opening up to the rest of the world while still keeping its own culture. It is starting to fuse itself with Western ideals and it will be interesting to see how it will look in a couple of decades. Will it start to look more like America and Western Europe in the name of modernization or will it become a more fused Chinese/Western culture?  I believe that the Chinese identity will not disappear because what I am seeing is Shanghai, China. Shanghai does not represent the rest of China, but the place where most of the modernization is taking place. I know that the rest of China is still waiting for modernization like Shanghai but are not receiving it because they are further inland. The people of China will make the decision when they reach that fork, but until then, China’s culture is still stronger than the Western influences that are constantly moving in.

Making Jiaozi: A Symbol of Tradition and Cultural Identity

For the sake of privacy, I’ve renamed the people mentioned in this post.

Today, I began my first day of English lessons with Emma, a cute but sassy eight-year-old girl who is an old classmate of Shen Yifei’s daughter.  We began lessons at 2:00 in the afternoon…and I got back to Tonghe at 6:00, so four hours at the Chuan household in total.  About an hour and a half into the lesson (Emma possibly has the longest attention span for a kid her age), we heard the sound of a knife chopping against a cutting board.  “How do you say jiaozi in English?” she asked me.

“Dumplings,” I answered.  “Do you help your parents make them?”

“Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I don’t.”

I was glad to find that Emma’s household still maintained the tradition of getting together with the family and making dumplings during holidays (in this case, Mid-Autumn Festival) or on the weekends.  Some of my favorite and clearest memories are of gathering around the kitchen table in Shelby or at the prep table at Chen’s with my parents and siblings and mass-producing enough dumplings to feed my massive family.  But when I came to Davidson and began hanging out with the Chinese international students, I was shocked to find that the majority of them did not know how to wrap dumplings.  For a long time, I associated the ability to wrap dumplings with “being Chinese”; I now of course realize that the dumpling is a pretty universal concept that exists in a broad range of cultures.  Nonetheless, as a huaqiao, I took such pride in knowing that I could make homemade dumplings despite the fact that my family had migrated from China two generations ago.  While the tradition is not one that will completely fade out any time soon, the idea that that such a valuable tradition has been dwindling in so many Chinese households is saddening.

I often wonder why such a tradition fades, or how the passing on of such a tradition is possibly related to understandings of culture and education.  It seems that some Chinese families choose to privilege their children’s formal education over the education that they would otherwise receive at home.  This reminds me of Dr. Pan Tianshu’s mentioning of the general Chinese understanding (or many other people’s understanding, for that matter) of culture and education; while so many people tend to conceptualize culture and education as a formal understanding of (particularly Western) music, language, history, and art, many people fail to realize that culture is defined by any lifestyle, traditions, or customs that enable a person to survive in or adapt to the surrounding environment.  Sure, making dumplings is obviously not crucial to survival and perhaps does not scream sophistication among Shanghai’s best restaurants and eateries, but it nonetheless became a tradition in Chinese kitchens.  Unfortunately, as more families decide that schoolwork, dance class, violin lessons or tennis are more important or more indicative of a well-rounded and “cultured” child, simple traditions such as making dumplings are no longer priorities.

I was glad to see Emma actively making an effort to help her parents make dumplings.  Though it’s a tedious and long process, I know she won’t regret it later on when she can say that she knows how to make homemade jiaozi.