NPR In China

what is the world beyond Tonghe, our international student dorm?

I have several necessary characteristics that change my dorm room into a home: lighting incense, wearing my wool socks, making tea, and putting on NPR. Like any addict, I go through phases where I listen to hours and hours of NPR. I have been known to listen to NPR during the entire drive from Virginia Beach, my hometown, to Davidson College–that is a solid six hours. Listening to the audio in China has been one of my strangest NPR experiences of all, though. I can listen to NPR and sometimes find out what is happening outside my own window in Shanghai.

Listening to NPR is relatively pretentious, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

I listen to NPR for endless reasons: to be better educated, to hear about the world, to fill the silence, or to soothe my boredom. Although I know that bias and perception influence any news story, I have never been more aware of that fact than while listening to NPR stories on China. I have only noticed a few stories on China, and most are in the context of the U.S. What does China mean for the U.S. presidential election? What does China mean for the U.S. fiscal cliff? Although I am living abroad in Shanghai, these stories do not mean much more to me than they did before traveling. These stories are written for Americans with an American education and cultural bias, and I easily fit that model.

Other new stories, though, have become exponentially more meaningful to me since coming to China. Stories that I used to ignore now represent and mean so much. For example, there was a very brief recent story on Haagen-Dazs winning an infringement lawsuit in China. General Mills, the owner of Haagen-Dazs, sued a clothing company named Harga-Dazs for name infringement. If I lived in the United States, I would not think twice about such a short snippet. But since living in Shanghai for four months, I can see more and more how small snippets like that one relate to the greater themes of globalization, intellectual property, shanzai (a name for Chinese copycat products), and cultural heritage.

As I thought about returning home to the United States, I reflected on how my study abroad experience will translate to my home life. I realized that studying abroad has changed my life in countless ways, even with small moments like listening to NPR. Studying abroad has widened my perspective on an infinite number of topics, and even  the most mundane details, like eating Haagen-Dasz ice cream, will now have a more global meaning for me.


Trekking the Wall

Climbing the Great Wall was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I learned about the Great Wall as a small child, but I never imagined that I would actually hike the ancient stairs. It was an amazing experience, and the hike flew by like a fleeting dream.

The Great Wall is usually packed with so many tourists that visitors often say there is a second “wall” of people blocking the hike. Fortunately, our thoughtful tour guide Erik took us to Jinshanling Park, which had far fewer visitors. In fact, at most parts of the day, we were the only people walking along the Wall. The Wall was steeper and rougher on our walk, too, which made the hike more exciting. It was incredible to walk along a path with so much history. I thought about all the people that must have worked or walked along the Wall throughout time. Hiking along the Wall made me feel like a player (albeit extremely minor) in China’s grand history.

Although we were alone for a portion of the hike, one woman hocking souvenirs did actually walk most of the hike with us. She couldn’t speak much English, but her reasoning was clear. If she hiked along with us throughout the afternoon, we would share a special bond and buy souvenirs from her. Her tactics did not work on some of us, but it definitely worked on me. I bought some souvenirs at a higher price than necessary just because I appreciated her presence. She had hiked alongside us, and she even encouraged Michael, Fuji’s young son, at some steep points. If that effort does not warrant a few extra kuai, then I’m not sure what does.

I have actually become aware that I am pretty mediocre at bargaining. I bargain half-heartedly, but I don’t have the necessary competitive or hard-nosed edge for serious bargaining. Others have the eagle-eye skill and desire to fight for a good price, but I usually just don’t feel the need to bargain passionately. Everything is so cheap in China that I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks if it helps the merchant. Unlike in the United States, I don’t feel like I’m being ripped off by corporate greed; I feel like normal people are just trying to make a living. So I buy a package of chopsticks for 20 kuai, and I figure that both of us are happy. The merchant made a profit, and I got a great cheap gift for my grandma.

The Great Wall hike took about three hours, and it was enjoyable the entire way. The next morning we did a sunrise hike on the Great Wall, and the sky was beautiful. At a certain point, Nicky had the brilliant idea of using his international cell phone to call his mom. In turn, each of us called our moms on the Great Wall. It was amazing and truly bizarre to call my mom while watching the sunrise on the Great Wall. Information and communication flows so easily nowadays, but it’s a wonderful and disheartening fact. Of course, most of me loved the opportunity to call my mom from the Great Wall. It’s fun, and she obviously loved the gesture. But another part of me recognized how completely strange the experience was. I can go around the world, but I’m still never more than $.50/a minute from home. Such advanced technology feels almost inappropriate on such an ancient structure. That sentiment relates to the whole argument of globalization, though. Culture changes, and the symbolic meanings around these ancient structures change, too.

Hiking the Great Wall was my favorite part of our trip to Beijing. The hike was unbelievable, and I am so happy that I had that opportunity.

An International Space

Four times this semester I have found myself at the Kerry Parkside Center (嘉里城) in Pudong District, Shanghai. The site of upscale apartment housing, a five-star hotel, and a shopping mall, the Kerry Center seems like modernity incarnate. Its developers would certainly have you believe as much, and the presence of dozens of internationally recognizable stores and restaurants seems to suggest that the Kerry Center is a particularly international and cosmopolitan spot in a very international and cosmopolitan district of China’s most international and cosmopolitan city. Supporting this notion, each time I’ve visited the Kerry Center, I’ve had an experience that has reinforced in my mind the idea that the complex is meant to be a new cosmopolitan core of Shanghai.

My first visit to the Kerry Center was only a few weeks after I arrived, when a friend and I attended the Kerry International Beer Festival. Coming to Shanghai, I had been surprised by the sheer number of foreigners living and working in the city, but I was truly blown away by the crowd present at the beer festival. More than two-thirds of the people present were Caucasians, from all over the world, of all different ages, and from every walk of life. As my classmate Tommy pointed out, you could really see the Shanghai expat community at this beer festival, and it left me with a lasting impression of the Kerry Center as an international space.

My second and third visits to the Kerry Center were occupied by meals at two different restaurants located in the complex and conversations of a very international nature. My second visit was a trip to the Blue Frog Bar & Grill, one of the restaurant’s many locations throughout Shanghai. I went with my roommates, a Chinese American from California and a Taiwanese who studied high school in New Zealand and is attending college in the US. As usual, our conversation really was a cross-cultural experience. My third visit to the Kerry Center was to have lunch at Baker & Spice (a Chinese cafe with a very cosmopolitan atmosphere and very international prices) with several Taiwanese women whose husbands work in Shanghai and learn about their experiences living in the Mainland. This visit also elicited a lot of cross-cultural exchange (which will be discussed in great detail on this blog at a later date).

My most recent trip to the Kerry Center was to attend the pH Value Fashion Show held at the Kerry Hotel from Oct. 22nd – 23rd. I’d been invited by a classmate, whose uncle was one of the organizers of the event. We went for the evening of the 23rd, and saw the last event of the show. This was the first fashion show I’d ever given a second thought about, not to mention actually attended, and it was quite an interesting experience. The models were everything I’d ever imagine models to be (which is to say, incredibly skinny and strangely tall), the clothing ranged from (what I’d call) sensible to somewhat outrageous, and I was slightly underdressed for the event (most of the men wore blazers). Seeing the fashion show really reinforced in my mind the idea that Shanghai in particular (and, increasingly, China as a whole) sees itself on par with the West as an “international” place, with everything the West has to offer (including fashion shows!)

Yours truly crashing the red carpet at the 2012 pH Value Fashion Show in Pudong, Shanghai, PRC.

During each of these unique cosmopolitan experiences, the Kerry Center presented itself as a fashionable, modern area that was sophisticated and enjoyable. Every locale has a unique feeling to it, and the developers of the Kerry Center have been very careful to cultivate the feeling their complex has, shaping it into a global space in which its easy to forget that you’re in China at all.

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.

There and Back Again

It was not until I returned to Taiwan after spending a month and a half in Shanghai that I really discovered just how different the cultures on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are.

Or, to be more accurate, it was not until I found myself acting in accordance with Shanghai culture (and against Taiwanese culture) that I began to realize the gulf.

In broad daylight, on the fairly busy Linsen North Road in Zhongshan District, Taipei City, I found myself stepping out to cross the road during a lull in traffic, at a point roughly equidistant from the two nearest crosswalks. As I did so, I had 5 revelations in rapid succession:

  • This is really rather stupid;
  • This is quite lazy;
  • This is probably illegal;
  • This is what people do in Shanghai, and;
  • This is not what people do in Taipei.

A month and a half spent in Shanghai, with its unique traffic patterns for both pedestrians and drivers had desensitized me to the sensibilities about traffic I’d learned growing up in the United States (as in, it’s probably quite stupid, not to mention illegal, to jaywalk). When I began to cross a busy street in Taipei I realized that jaywalking is not generally considered acceptable behavior there, as it is not generally considered acceptable behavior in the United States.

I discovered many further differences between Taiwanese culture and Shanghai culture over the next few days. “Night culture” was perhaps the most starkly different. Shanghai, which is often considered a “global” city, quickly shuts down after about 8:00 PM. Bars and nightclubs remain open, and it’s possible to find vendors hawking fried rice or noodles as late as two in the morning, but these are not really pervasive parts of the culture. Outside of the small areas of the city with a high per capita presence of nightclubs, the streets are almost silent at night. A garbage collector might roam the streets, picking up trash, but he’s invariably alone; a late night public bus might cruise its route, but it’s invariably empty; Family Mart or Lianhua Supermarket might be open 24/7, but, invariably, no one walks in during the late-night hours. For the average Shanghainese, night is a time to remain at home.

Taipei stands in stark contrast, with night culture is omnipresent. Night markets, the pride of the Taiwanese tourist industry, remain crowded by locals and tourists alike until 11 PM; college students stumble out of KTVs well after midnight; old folks sit around outside chatting until all hours of the night. Even late at night, the city still feels alive – while New York may be called the City That Never Sleeps, Taipei actually feels like the City That Never Sleeps.

Food culture also differs significantly between Shanghai and Taipei. In Taipei, friends connect over food on a regular basis – food is the basis for a large portion of Taiwanese social interaction (for really great examples of this, see the movies Eat Drink Man Woman and Au Revoir, Taipei, in both of which food is a central plot element). Food is also the primary focus of most Taiwanese domestic tourism. Whenever they go somewhere new, the main thing Taiwanese people do is try the special local treat (the variety and sheer numbers of these local delicacies is truly astounding for an island the size of New Jersey). In Shanghai, however, food does not seem to carry the same cultural significance. Oftentimes it can be nigh impossible to find something to eat during non-peak hours!

My analysis of Taiwanese culture undoubtedly carries a heavy bias, as the year I spent living there was highly formative for me, and I will likely always have an abiding love of the island and its people. We’ll have to wait for my classmates’ reflections on their time in Taipei to get a solid comparison of Taiwanese and Mainland culture. However, I think it really is fair to say that significant differences exist between the two, regardless of relative strengths and weaknesses. While these differences are not an insurmountable barrier, they do have the potential to inhibit unification, and culture is something that leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait need to be cognizant of.