Friday, December 3, 2010

Capitalists: Taking All Comers

Globalization entails an undeniably creepy element of reliability, especially when it comes to food. Everywhere you go it seems as if corporate cancers have begun to feed on (as well as feed) the locals, the whole world becoming like a backdrop to a bad science fiction novel.

Even amidst the most ancient food cultures and in the most impoverished settings, you can find Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders, heralding a new era for the people who stand beneath their florescent glow.

But when we see so many brands, like recurring nightmarish memories, situated in bizarre contexts, it is not so simple as to claim cultural imperialism on the part of the west.

I mean, people like the stuff. I know I do.

I'm a pretty dedicated coffee drinker so Starbucks is not only a comfort but a necessity here in China. And not just for foreigners like myself.

"I just like to go there on the weekends, and just sit there for a few hours," a chinese friend told me while we were walking through Xidan shopping district, after having remarked on the pervasive presence of Starbucks in Beijing.

And why shouldn't he? The environment that Starbucks has created at many of its venues here is not only cozy, but also incorporates Chinese design and art. Starbucks, like other brands, has made an effort to be region-specific.

Starbucks has green tea lattes and a meal at KFC comes with a side of rice rather than mashed potatoes.

I have read quite a bit about the success of KFC, McDonalds, and other fast food chains in China, but frankly, one doesn't have to read much to understand the phenomenon.

The price point for these places is a little higher than traditional Chinese fare, but the expanding wallets of Chinese customers seem to match their expanding waistlines.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

At Home in China

The conclusion that where you live is who you are might seem overblown, but its certainly reflected in the homes I've seen in China. The home is one of the most intimate spaces and we fill it with things that tell us stories about our own lives - relics, status symbols, indulgences. When you buy your first home you make it a shrine to yourself, defining your space and letting it define you. The behavior is hardly culture-specific, but the objects you choose may be.

Early in my stay I spent a weekend with a couple who lived in the Beijing suburbs just beyond the fourth ring. I had been sent to live with them to experience a "typical" Chinese home and family and what I experienced was anything but "Chinese."

If they did not live in Beijing, their gated community would be fit the archetype of the American suburbs: space for two cars, a jacuzzi for the master bathroom, and a full living room set situated around a television larger than the couch.

The reality was perhaps unsavory, but increasingly typical.

This revelation was hardly a shock, but it did make me aware of the fact that my own petty cultural expectations would not always be met. Chinese tastes for western homes can be explained in much the same way as our own: they are not only affordable, but also in style.

Dai Shuo, a friend and tutor of mine, recently moved into an apartment on the outskirts of Beijing that his family lived in for a number of years with his girlfriend where the two had the opportunity to decorate the space however they chose to.

The apartment is still in transition, but many of the materials that they have selected so far are, not surprisingly, non-traditional.

"My parents chose this light," Dai Shuo said, directing my attention towards a chandelier that projected red, green, blue, and orange light through fake crystals onto the ceiling and walls.

Looking up at the little light which could turn the atmosphere to anything from "strip club" to "sanctuary" I was reminded once again of my useless nagging prejudices.

In bemoaning the advance of western culture I had inadvertently saddled the Chinese with some a responsibility above my own to cherish their ancient culture. It has taken some time, and I'm still moaning, but I'm trying to let it go, at least for my sanity.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Original Free Market

Beijing is an international city and my neighborhood is full of foreigners, but one of the only places where I continue to get strange looks is at an outdoor market. This is where the Chinese shop and where watching a laowai negotiate the price of peppers is something of a novelty.

Supermarkets might feed the stomach and shopping malls can feed the ego, but only an outdoor market feeds all the senses. Outdoor markets arent just about food or goods - they are, after all a sort of precursor to the all-in-one store.

There is also an undeniable social element. Vendors give a face to your food.
This isn't to say that an item, whether it's a grapefruit or a Gameboy, has any greater mark of authenticity or quality just for being there. The open-air market is full of guarantees from the mouths of hucksters, not written or disclaimed in the fine print, so there is an implicit tradeoff of authenticity of goods for authenticity of experience.

The hordes of people that can be found in a market place on any given day are a reassurance that this is one cultural staple that is not going to be scratched from the urban landscape any time soon.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Young Professional, an Old City

If you want to get a feel for the population size of Beijing, try taking the subway. Once the flood of people has pressed you up to a pole and you are sucking air from a vent in the ceiling, the scale of the city should become clear.

In Beijing words like "overpopulation" are not hypothetical scenarios, but lived, not to mention inconvenient realities. Just trying to get from A to B, whether by subway or expressway, can be a complicated - and sometimes harrowing - venture.

I recently sat down with Roy, an urban planning student who explains that they are putting in around 10 new subway lines for the city filled so far beyond its capacity.

"It would be unbelievable in other countries," Roy said, "but not in China."

Most of the masses, he went on to say, are not even Beijingers, but people from elsewhere in China. "Everyone wants to live in Beijing," he said with more than a little self congratulation that he was among those who had made it.

In this respect, Roy is a bit of a paradox in and of himself.

He is no native to the city, and while he has spent the last several years studying the ways in which people like himself are stressing the limits of the infrastructure, he has no intention of leaving.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Old Wall, New Invaders

I've been told that you can see the Great Wall from space, which is good because all you can see from the ground are the tourists. The wall is a Unesco World Heritage sight and a veritable wonder of the world, but its heralding as a "must see" has been its destruction.

The wall is, no doubt, a marvel of engineering (not to mention hubris and paranoia). Somewhat overly optimistically, I had come to the Great Wall hoping for to see some storied relic of the past, something beautiful, something haunting. Haunting my visit was not, but telling it was.

When I bellied up to the t-shirt counter with the rest of the tourists to grab some quick mementos I reflected on the phrase printed on my shirt, "I Climbed the Great Wall," it said. And yes, I thought, I did, but what else did I do?

Maybe I am too critical (the verdict is in), but the symbolism and arresting grandeur is quickly squandered by the hordes of tourist who mob the attraction at the designated points from which it can be accessed.

When I arrived back in Beijing, proudly toting my humorous t-shirt, I was informed by my roommate that I, like most people, had not seen the true great wall, but rather the Disneyland-style production put on for the tourists. He, he pointed out, could take me to the true wall, the one that was slowly crumbling to pieces and falling down the hillsides that it spans.

Accessing the wall in more remote areas could be more dangerous he said, but when you go to see the real ruins he said, there are no lines, no handrails, and no one pushing t-shirts.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hutong 2010

When we think of Chinese cities of the past, which is mostly in the fantastical way that hollywood has presented them, we think of grey brick and tile roofing, courtyards and ginkgo trees. We think, more or less, of hutongs, the iconic, insular alleyway communities that once made up the fabric of Chinese cities.

But as most people know by now, these traditional communities are being swept away by the flood of capital. It is no longer the new neighborhoods, but the old ones that feel out of place in Beijing.

My advice: see them while you can because while many pieces of Chinese culture are transforming rather than disappearing, these intimate urban settings are soon to be all but non-existent.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Country People, City Kids

Almost every home in the village - only a 40-minute car ride from Beijing - looks the same as theirs; windows framed in rough timber, covered in peeling paint or paper, a small courtyard full of vegetables with a blackened stove sitting in the corner, and an interior plastered with garage-sale-grade catholic iconography. Such was the home in which I was sitting on the first day of my weekend stay in Yanzikou village, a small community of about 260 farmers - now with internet access.

“Can I see the computer?” I asked the teenage boy and his older sister, and was taken to a room with a bed the size of a car seat, a few pieces of run-down furniture and a desktop computer jammed in the corner.

Just on the edge of the girl’s sea foam colored table, weathered and flaking from neglect was a pocket mp3 player, it’s red LED indicator blinking obliviously to its surroundings.

This is the modern age in rural China, I thought.

Material ambitions have outstripped the means to achieve them and while people may be living in houses without heat or proper plumbing, they have IP addresses and big screen TVs. That with Internet access comes the opportunity for all manner of enlightenment and apathy is no surprise, but against a rural, sometimes seemingly medieval backdrop, the change is more jarring.

In a small Chinese village most people are related and you do your social networking through your family, not your Facebook. Everyone in China gets referred to as “uncle” or “auntie,” but in these cases, the terms are literal and when you envision your friend’s you probably don’t see a thumbnail picture with their name under it.

As is the case most everywhere, the younger generation is more tech-savvy than their parents, but what that means is not only ability, but also access. Put simply, kids living in the village are no longer confined to it in terms of educational, cultural, or social horizons.

Take the girl for example: she not only uses the computer to earn a degree and one day pursue a job, but also keep up on her American sitcoms, and manage her social life. Not only that, but she also uses it to manage her spiritual life.

Her attendance of a school in the city keeps her from going to the Catholic church in the village, so she listens to sermons online for touch-of-a-button spiritual guidance. For the young student and aspiring professional the Internet has superseded, at the very least out of ease, her community as a source of council.

While their parent’s are more attached to the television as entertainment, the children and young adults have accepted the computer and the Internet as something much more – a cultural hearth.