The River Gone Black

As I further slip into the cadence of this upbeat Shanghai life, things, once considered bizarre and outright wrong, now qualify for the titles of mundane and well accepted; this especially goes for topics concerning the standard of sanitation. However, I was recently reminded of my (involuntarily) subdued concerns last week when I found my apartment threshold loitered by the grounds-crew. It had to be anywhere between 5 – 7 of them, well equipped with (disfigured) brooms, buckets and Mr. Muscle soaps and, unbeknownst to me, they were lined up to fight the thriving cesspool that accumulated outside my kitchen window. After accessing the situation and realizing that I was soon embarking on my final moments with my living, neighboring pollutant, I snagged my camera to catch the final shots of what I whimsically, but appropriately dubbed “The River that Gone Black.”

It’s only sheer coincidence that the cleaning crew came to our apartment moments after Fuji’s class ended, and even more improbable that they were there on the first day of our discussion of the The River Runs Black by Elizabeth Economy. The conjunction of these odds forced me to revisit our initial Shanghai days, wrought with complaints over the Tonghe’s inhospitable conditions and overall cleanliness (or lack thereof). The incessant sulfuric smells, the occasional insects, and the mounds of rubbish are all mere examples, and all of which raised questions on the infrastructure that allowed things to be this way. With slightly irascible members in our group, needless to say, there were outcries to fix our current conditions (and I must say that I appreciate my currently clean kitchen view). I furthered my thoughts with, if these personal accounts are of the microlevel, then would the 500,000 protests (loc. 408) mentioned in the book be the macrolevel? Would the corollary then conclude that all of the overarching developmental problems of macrolevel China obstinately trickle down to the microlevel and leave us with what we figure as haphazardly constructed?


I first came across the phrasing “haphazard development” within our first few days in China, and I specifically remember Fuji used the poorly constructed drop-ceiling as an example. I wanted to rhetorically suggest that if the construction adequately fulfilled its function, then why be concerned with the manner of its construction. Elizabeth, however, disputes that notion with her alarming statistical data on the connection between haphazard development and environmental degradation. She figures that what maintains this tendency is the maxim of “first development, then environment,” (loc. 1892), despite the fact that the costs exceedingly outweigh any benefits.

Rhetoric on the environmental protection is gaining momentum and dynamism in Chinese society, and thus desire and need to rectify this collective goods dilemma is too. However, this progressive direction is tenuous and only seems to take root on a superficial level; only by suffocating the deeply routed environmental exploitation that had marked/marred Chinese history would this movement blossom. Conversely, the previously mentioned maxim is tenacious and is instinctual trend of the masses. It just seems that concern for the environment isn’t as genuine on a systemic level. Elizabeth mentions the governmental efforts to clean up of lake Dianchi, but officials concluded it would take 30 years to revert it back to sanitary state because of the monumental damage. What was more shocking is that that figure doesn’t even include the governments (in)ability to prevent nearby polluters (loc. 2416). It’s gut-trenching to know that even after Dianchi’s cleanup, there is promulgated concern that the lake will face threats of pollution.

This example of the blatant disregard and apathy for the environment, despite all efforts to revitalize is an overwhelming and ever-present concern that plagues contemporary China. In ways, my microlevel analogy seems farfetched, but I hold that there is some merit in it, primarily because of the disregard for space. What is environment to its people but a magnified take on space to a man… I look outside my window where my cesspool was and I see an agglomerate of cigarettes, trash and debris in its place. I now wonder to myself if this continual apathy for the surrounding spaces looms something comparable but magnified for macro China.

Satire Style, or Evan Osnos needs to watch some TV

In the wake of the astronomical global success of Korean pop singer PSY’s hit song “Gangnam Style” – which now has over 450 million views on YouTube alone – a debate has arisen over “how Korea did it” and whether or not China can “do it too.” In last week’s New Yorker, Evan Osnos argued that China lacks Gangnam Style:

In China, the Gangnam phenomenon carries a special pique. It has left people asking, Why couldn’t we come up with that? China, after all, dwarfs Korea in political clout, money, and market power, and it cranks out more singers and dancers in a single city than Korea does nationwide. Chinese political leaders are constantly talking about the need for “soft power”—they have dotted the globe with Confucius Institutes to rival the Alliance Française, and they have expanded radio and television stations in smaller countries that might be tired of American-dominated news. Last year, the Communist Party even declared culture a national priority and vowed to produce its own share of global cultural brands.

So, should we expect a Chinese Gangnam soon? Don’t count on it. “PSY is a satirist, making fun, and having fun,” said John Delury, an expert on China and Korea who teaches international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Korea tends to have more irony and satire in its comedy than China, and there aren’t the impediments to exporting things that question or poke fun of Korean society, politics, etc. And I think somehow people all over the world feel invited to join in, despite a huge cultural difference, when someone from a foreign place is making a bit of fun of themselves. That’s inviting. But China, especially acting in its official, soft-power capacity, is only comfortable exporting things that show off the greatness of its ancient civilization or economic development. That’s not terribly inviting.”

In other words, China could not currently produce Gangnam Style because its culture does not value satire and is so insecure with itself that it is only willing to produce cultural products displaying its own greatness.

Osnos points out that, at the same time as it mocks itself (see the lyrics in English here), Gangnam Style has all the characteristics of “earnest K-pop: highly engineered dance routines, over-the-top styling, and the Technicolor production values honed by Seoul’s hit-making industry.” What made Gangnam Style internationally successful, he claims, was not these factors, however, which are shared with the dozens of other K-pop groups that have failed to gain any traction outside of East Asia, but the fact that it’s clearly a self-critical joke.

This certainly is a large part of Gangnam Style’s success, but it clearly isn’t everything. As I’ll discuss in a moment, China has its own share of self-mocking cultural products, despite what Osnos seems to believe about the lack of a Chinese sense of irony and satire. What, then, are the reasons for Gangnam Style’s incredible success?

I believe there are several:

  • It’s amusing (ironic, self-mocking, or otherwise)
  • The dance is easily replicable
Yes, it’s a catchy tune; yes, the production is very flashy; yes, the chorus (“Oppan Gangnam Style”) is easy to remember and simple for non-Korean speakers to pronounce. These factors, however, are present in hundreds of other K-pop videos that were nowhere near as successful overseas (the nearest any video has gotten is probably SNSD’s Gee, which has only 88 million views, and I’m willing to bet an amount of money equal to the cost of Taeyeon’s plastic surgery that the vast majority of those views are intra-East Asian). I’d also argue that Gangnam Style’s success was also boosted by PSY’s supposed similarity to the American group LMFAO, the sex appeal of Hyuna (who appears in the video), and (some might also argue) PSY’s overall non-threatening nature, but these are not the point of this post.

Chinese culture is certainly not lacking in satire or unable to mock itself, however. Anyone claiming so hasn’t read their Lu Xun, at the very least. Official (government-produced or -funded) cultural products are certainly censored, and probably take themselves too seriously, as Osnos points out, but there is a whole world of cultural products created in China every day, over which the government exerts very little influence.The Chinese Internet is a large source of unofficial cultural products, but many are still produced for more traditional media such as television. A prime example of this is the popular television program 非诚勿扰 (If You Are the One, pronounced Feichengwurao).

Fei Cheng Wu Rao, which translates literally as “if not sincere, don’t bother,” is a dating show in which a male, normally between the age of 20 and 35, is brought on stage with 24 women of a similar age, each of which has a light that she can turn off at any point if she is not interested in the male. The show’s host, Meng Fei (who is commonly referred to as “Teacher Meng” by participants), facilitate’s the young man’s introduction of himself through a series of videos about his personality and interests, his work, his past romantic engagements, and his friends, occasionally interrupting with questions or allowing questions from the young women. Ultimately, if he lasts until the end of the introduction and questions and there are still women with their lights on, the young man gets to choose one to go on a date with, expenses paid by the television show.

If you think this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Check out part of an episode (with English subtitles) here. My observations of this show lead me to the conclusion that the people on the show are very materialistic and concerned with appearances. I’m not alone in drawing this conclusion; the majority of people I speak to about the show who have also seen it, both foreigners and Chinese, agree. And yet, the show remains as one of the most popular programs in the country and the highest rated program on its station. Why could this be?

Watch a few episodes and pay particular attention to Meng Fei, to the questions he asks and the comments he makes, and you’ll realize that Fei Cheng Wu Rao is really satire. I believe the contestants on the show are very sincere about being on the show, for the most part, but I don’t think the producers of the show are serious about hosting them. Ultimately, Fei Cheng Wu Rao is mocking the materialism and moral degradation that many Chinese feel has crept into their society in the last thirty years.

I believe Fei Cheng Wu Rao proves that it’s not fair to say that Chinese culture is unwilling to critique and mock itself. Why is it not as popular as Gangnam Style, then? There are dozens of reasons, most of them similar to the reasons why, say, The Goonies was popular in the United States but was not a large international success. Linguistic and cultural barriers can be difficult to overcome, and a catchy beat, easily replicable dance moves, and some goofy acting can go a long way in tearing those barriers down.

Is China going to have a “Gangnam Style moment” in the near future? I don’t know the answer to that question. Will it have one in the future? I can confidently say, yes, it will.

Update 16/10/2012: For more proof that China is capable of satire, check out these two articles by the Global Times (which is a subsidiary of People’s Daily, and nominally state-run): Why We’re Staying In China and Ask Alessandro

KFC’s Not So KFC Menu

“Welcome to KFC, where we do chicken right.” This familiar saying is heard upon one’s entry into any American KFC. Should one assume to hear the same when entering a Shanghai KFC? What about KFC in Europe? Surprisingly, the answer is most likely no. While KFC in China might look like KFC on the outside, take a look at the menu, and one will find it is not the same KFC food Americans are accustomed to eating.

The obvious difference is the French fries. That’s right, French fries. KFC in China has French fries, while American KFC offers potato wedges. How could KFC allow this? The potato wedges are KFC’s signature side, as most combos are automatically served with potato wedges. KFC in China also serves chicken sandwiches with corn, peas, and carrots mashed into the processed meat. Again, a completely different sandwich than what Americans eat. You will not find popcorn chicken nor will you find any resemblance of a leg and thigh meal. The KFC here also serves rice soup, almost like a porridge. Just by looking at the menu one would never guess a KFC offered such.

While Americans love KFC, the Chinese would not eat the food served at an American KFC. After having been in Shanghai for one month, the only item I would expect them to eat other than chicken is a side dish of corn. After eating KFC for dinner tonight and checking the menu, the corn is on the cob.

I have been told that KFC is the most popular fast food restaurant in China, even more popular than McDonald’s or Burger King. Surprisingly, McDonald’s, with the exception of bubble tea, offers the same burgers and chicken sandwiches as seen on the menu at home. A reason for McDonald’s lower ranking among the fast food chains? Probably so.

As with any country, in order to sell a product it must appeal to the consumer. In China, that is exactly what KFC has done. Is KFC still KFC then? The argument could be made that changing a food product so drastically changes the experience one is intended to have while eating. While there is truth in that statement, the same scenario has happened in America. A perfect example is American Chinese food.

Chinese food in America is not the same as Chinese food in China. For example, the concept of the fortune cookie does not exist in Chinese culture and is not served at the end of each meal. To the Chinese, the fortune cookie is a Chinese American invention. Also, I have yet to see General Tsao’s chicken on any menu or an egg roll served as an appetizer. Just as KFC changed its menu to fit the needs of its buyers, Chinese food in America is changed to please the American palate.

After my first visit to KFC, I was a bit disgruntled to find the menu options drastically different, but I have realized that China could care less about my taste buds. I need to be less ethnocentric and learn to appreciate their food tastes. I have learned to eat real Chinese food, right? Adjusting to Chinese KFC should not be a difficult challenge.

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.

Glitz and Gutters

Shanghai is energetic, manic, sometimes dirty and strange, but always loud and beautiful. There are parts of the city that are breathtakingly stunning and modern. From my room, I can see all the way to the Bund with the distinctive TV Tower. As Nancy Chen notes about Chinese cities in the 1990s, “opportunities seemed to lie just at the surface,” but I think that quote still applies (2001, Location 168). When I walk around the city, I can sense that feeling of excitement and opportunity. The Bund seems to epitomize Chinese modernity and sophistication, even as other parts of China (and the world) fall behind. In Shanghai, there is constant construction, growth, and market, so that the city seems like it is literally swelling with potential. I took this picture from my room one night as the sun set because I think it shows how beautiful the city can be. The second picture is supposed to be an artsy photo of the city alight and active in the middle of the night.

As Louisa Schein points out, cities like Shanghai are growing so urgently because they are symbols of modernity in the consumerist global market (2001, Kindle Location 2860). Schein says that cities like Shanghai are demonstrations of material potential, even though many residents might not be able to actually afford these desirable goods (2001, Kindle Location 2864). In fact, most of the city is about showing off glamorous consumerism and technology. The number of skyscrapers and metro lines increase every day, but other parts of China remain rural and impoverished. I’m actually really excited for our visit to rural China because I think I’ll be able to better understand the contrast between glittering Shanghai and the rest of China.

Although Shanghai is vivacious and futuristic, there are signs of the city’s incredibly rapid and relatively cheap industrialization. Buildings might be tall and urban, but also dirty and lacking maintenance. So many people have cars that the roads are packed and more dangerous. Smells from trash and sewage drift throughout the city because of infrastructure problems. Gutters overflow onto the sidewalk and road routinely. Construction on a new metro line begins within sight of another line. Shanghai heavily promotes its upscale Bund area, but to me, these development areas with street food, mom-and-pop shops, and hole in the wall restaurants are some of the most interesting parts. If the city were complete and polished, it would look just like another Western metropolis.

As Professor Pan Tianshu described in his class “Chinese Marketplace,” there is also an interesting discrepancy between living in a developed area and being “civilized.” Living in a metropolitan area does not necessary mean that one is cosmopolitan. Being cosmopolitan requires wealth, fashion, and certain manners. Professor Tianshu explained that during preparations for the World Expo in Shanghai, residents were actually chastised for not acting “civilized” enough. For example, invading someone’s personal space was not “civilized.” To really develop their “civilized” cosmopolitan reputation, Shanghai is working on both economy and culture.

I was really struck by the developed versus developing contrast when we visited a café called Central Perk this weekend. Central Perk is a tribute to the television show “Friends,” so I was practically shivering with excitement to visit. As we walked through the surrounding area, though, I was sure that we must have the wrong spot. The area was more impoverished, and it was a far-fetch from the usual glitzy tourist attractions. Babies were going to the bathroom in the street, and there were very old buildings all around us. I wasn’t expecting much from Central Perk at that moment, but the café turned out to be gorgeous and richly furnished. When I walked into the bathroom in the parking lot next door, the sinks were marble and the toilets were Western and very clean. Below are two pictures, one of the area and one of the cafe. I was very surprised and a little confused because of the seemingly contradictory settings. With just a few steps, it was like I had walked from one side of the city to another. Around every corner in Shanghai, I feel like I can find evidence of both the futuristic metropolis and the developing areas.