Yeye and Nainai

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As the saying goes, life is all about “seeing and being seen.” There are plenty of people to see in Shanghai: the rich, the young, and the fashionable. They are the up-and-coming stars of Shanghai’s future. Chairman Mao is a distant memory to them, and communism has always meant “capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” as Jeffrey Wasserstrom calls it in China in the 21st Century (97). When I am out and about, though, it is not my youthful peers that catch my eye; it is their parents and grandparents.

The aging generations of China have experienced a great deal in their lifetimes. Many experienced the Cultural Revolution. Some were part of the Great Leap Forward. Some even saw the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party. In a city with so much emphasis on the future, the aging generation is living proof of the city’s tumultuous history.

Families are ever important in Chinese culture, and children traditionally support their parents as they age. Adult children will often send home weekly paychecks in gratitude for all their parents did for them. However, with the aging group of One-Child Policy babies, sometimes called “Little Emperors,” it will be harder and harder to support the aging generation of Chinese grandparents. For each only child, there are four grandparents to support. The pressure to succeed monetarily ever increases on the “Little Emperor,” or grandparents are left without a retirement plan.

Besides age and money, the digital age also separates the age cohorts. In most countries with internet access, there is a distinct divide between those with internet and those without. The internet can offer a wealth of information, but the elderly generation is often the slowest to adopt new technologies (as makes sense). In China, the divide is even wider because of the “Great Firewall,” a term referring to the Chinese government’s internet censorship (Wasserstrom 86). VPNs and other proxy servers can go around the firewall, but that technology is limited to the savvy. So, in such a futuristic, technologic city, the elderly are often left without the internet’s information.

Before coming to Shanghai, I thought that aging in China must be pleasant. In conjunction with Confucian principles, the ancestral line is cherished and respected; however, in a city that adapts so quickly to the waves of the future, it seems that the attitude towards the elderly is changing as well. I rarely see a younger person move to give their seat to an older person. People push past each other roughly, regardless of age. Maybe these examples are just cultural differences in manners, but they could also be signs of deeper cultural changes. As Wei Laoshi told me, adult children still send their parents money, but it is often out of duty and obligation, not necessarily love. With the tide of Western culture infiltrating Shanghai, I wonder how the aging generation will fare. Will the younger generation still hold onto their Confucian reverence, or will the aging generation be left behind as the youthful generation embraces their individuality?

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You Came to Shanghai Single…

This past Tuesday night Benito and I attended a Chinese wedding; contrary to popular belief we weren’t the wedding.  The cousin of the kid he tutors was getting married and the family invited him to come along.  He did not want to go alone and I thought it would be a great opportunity to observe the differences between American and Chinese weddings so I agreed to go with him.  Five o’clock rolled around and Benito and I were outside in our wedding attire waiting on his family to come pick us up.  When they got there we all piled in the car and headed into the city.  The first difference I noticed occurred before we even pulled away from the dorms.  The family was not dressed up that much and Benito and I looked as if we were attending a pretty upscale event.  We secretly worried about being over dressed but there was nothing we could do about it at that point so we sat back and enjoyed the ride to the wedding.

When we got there the bride and groom were taking pictures with the guests as people arrived.  The family we were with shoved us in front of the camera with the happy couple, yet did not take a photo themselves.  The bride and groom looked at us as if to ask who we were and what we were doing at their wedding but did not say anything.  We proceeded into the seating area and took a seat at the table that was set out for our family.  Upon being introduced to the other family members at the table one couple got up and left, I guess they did not want to sit with the foreigners.  During my whole time in China thus far, that evening was the first time that I was the only white person in the room.  As I stated earlier it was a truly a humbling experience.  I got lots of looks from the other guests as if to ask who I was and what I was doing there, but no one said anything to me and they all seemed to be okay with my presence. Once the bride entered I knew that I would no longer be the topic of conversation anyway, so I was okay with the added attention for a little bit.  After a few minutes of small talk and lots of puzzled looks from the people around us the ceremony began.  The ceremony was unlike anything I had seen before.  Rather than the traditional Western practice of the father walking his daughter down the aisle to the waiting groom, the lights went out and the groom began to sing to his bride lit only by a spotlight.  After a few verses the bride came in escorted by her father and met the groom in the middle of the aisle.  The groom kept singing, knelt down on one knee and seemed to propose again.  Her father gave his daughter’s hand to the groom and then the two proceeded to the stage.

The rings were brought down the aisle by the maid of honor and then the emcee for the evening read the vows as the two attempted to put the rings on each other.  I say attempted, because the groom reached for the bride’s right hand first and tried to put the ring on the wrong finger before she pulled her hand away and everyone burst into laughter.  Once the rings were successfully on the correct fingers the two kissed and then walked back down the aisle to clapping and cheers.  At this point everyone returned to their tables and began to eat dinner.  Throughout the evening the bride and groom returned multiple times to the stage to pour a wine waterfall, share a glass of champagne, cut the cake, and toss the bouquet.  The later of which I was forced to participate in.  Being one of the few unmarried girls at the wedding I was told I had to go on stage to try and catch the bouquet.  As I stood on stage I fervently prayed that the bouquet would not come in my direction, as I did not want the bride to have to say that some random foreign girl caught the bouquet at her wedding.  Thankfully the girl next to me caught it, but what followed was even more nerve wracking.  The boyfriend of the girl who caught the bouquet was called on stage and had to propose to her in front of everyone.  I can only imagine what would have happened if I caught it and Benito was forced on stage.  We joked about how we would have broken the news to Fuji if it had happened as one of his favorite phrases from this trip has been “You came to China single, you will leave China single.”

Compared to the bouquet scare, the rest of the evening was fairly calm.  We watched and laughed as the guests participated in trivia and drinking games.  Everyone seemed to be having a great time.  The newlywed couple came around to every table and toasted with the guests while the bride lit cigarettes for all the men.  When the bride reached our table she did ask “你是谁?”  After the mother explained that Benito was her son’s English tutor and I was his classmate, however, she seemed happy with the answer and greeted me warmly before moving on to the next table.  The family was a ton of fun to be with.  The son won multiple prizes from the trivia game section of the evening and the grandfather won one of the drinking games.  The guys filming the wedding joined us for dinner and were very interested in what we were doing in China and if we were having a good time. The grandparents kept trying to have conversations with us in Chinese and most of them worked out well.  After we regretfully informed our table that we had class the next day, Benito and I were able to get away with only a few celebratory bijiu shots.  The family we were with was great and I had tons of fun at the wedding.   They were very helpful in explaining who everyone was and what was going on.  The wedding was not only a fun and relaxing evening, but also an exciting cultural experience and one that I am not soon to forget.

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.

Illuminated Cultures

With the Golden Week right around the corner, a group of students and I went to see the annual Shanghai International Lantern Festival (上海国际灯会) at Lu Xun Park. We arrived in the late afternoon and explored the front portion of the park. Named after a famous 20th century writer, Lu Xun Park provides a large, calming space for people of all generations to enjoy. The trees, curved paths and ponds offer a sanctuary away from the loud, bustling city of Shanghai. While walking around the park, I observed children playing with their friends, locals practicing t’ai qi and groups of retired residents playing cards.

After an hour or so of walking, our group left the park to eat dinner and wait for the sun to set. We knew the Lantern Festival’s lights turned on at 6:30pm sharp, so we hurried back around that time. We used our Fudan University student cards to enter at a discounted rate of 35 Yuan, and the fee was well worth the sight!

Lu Xun Park transformed entirely. The daytime’s natural, calming atmosphere disappeared and the park became a colorful, exciting spectacle. Hundreds of red lanterns lined the paths filled with groups of friends and families. At the entrance, the Oriental Giant Dragon, a 200.2-meter long handmade dragon sculpture, was glowing, moving and breathing smoke. Near the center of the park, vendors, entertainers and food booths provided another layer of entertainment. Mal and Charlotte courageously ordered some stinky tofu (臭豆腐). The bland taste did not live up to the dreadful smell, but it was still exciting to try a bite.

My favorite part of the Lantern Festival was the large light displays positioned alongside the paths. These displays highlighted important symbols and representations of Chinese culture. Additionally, displays of icons from cultures outside of China existed further into the park. My favorite light displays included The Journey to the West, Korean drums, Disney princesses, the London Olympics and the Indian elephants. Although the Shanghai International Lantern Festival is linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese holiday, it includes displays representing non-Chinese societies and histories. For instance, the Great Wall display was placed next to the Egyptian pyramids display. The juxtaposition of eastern and western images throughout the park parallels other signs globalization throughout Shanghai and China. With modernization the barriers among cultures dissolve and the exchange among cultures increase.

Even after more than two hours of sightseeing, there was still more to see and do. The Lantern Festival is only on display during the weeks leading to the Mid-Autumn Festival and Golden Week. Since lights will be taken down in the near future, the festival is something to be treasured. I look forward to seeing what other special events Shanghai has in stored for China’s weeklong celebration.

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.

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