We seem to have become a partly nocturnal species.
So many people who work into the dark hours; so many more who party into or even through nights; so much we do these wee hours.
Just as my wife and I were waiting for our flight from China to Austria, from her country to mine, we caught the movie “For All Eternity” on TV. The story of an Austrian woman who fell in love with a Chinese man and followed him to China, all in the middle of the tumultuous 20th century.
I feel quite at home in China, to the point where the familiarity makes it difficult to write or photograph anything meaningful. What so many reporters, let alone tourists, consider strange, I consider quite normal…
And yet, I’m not entirely sure I would want to move to China; what my wife and I want from life makes Europe rather more appealing…
Jocelyn Eikenburg, author of the fabulous blog “Speaking of China” (which is all about “Asian Male / Western Female” couplings and, more generally, intercultural relationships – which is how we got in touch and what I now, again, guest-blogged about for her, too) recently went the opposite way.
The USA, that great melting pot / mixed salad of peoples, turned out rather less welcoming than expected, and so she and her Chinese husband moved (back) to China.
Focused on making oneself at home as I am, and knowing how often people think you can only be at home in places offering the comforts they’ve come to expect as normal, it was the perfect reason to ask Jocelyn for some insight…
So, let me turn right over to her:
By Jocelyn Eikenburg
One fall, after returning from a summer spent living with my in-laws in China, I took out my digital photo album to show my American friends what their home was like.
There was the kitchen in their home, with soot-stained walls from years of burning wood to fire their huge wok. There was this shot of their doorway, fringed by red couplets that faded in the sunlight as well as a random motorcycle and piles of tools, pails and rope in the corner. And then there was the foyer, with a pile of black knitted hats dumped all over the unfinished concrete flooring – the same flooring used in almost every room in their house.
I assumed my friends would be curious and even a little surprised by what they saw. But what I never expected was how stunned they were about my in-laws’ home. In In their American world of sparkling granite countertops in the kitchens, tidy and uncluttered front doors, neat little garages that hid away things like motorcycles or tools, and floors covered in carpeting, tiles or wood, my in-laws home just didn’t compute. Which of course, left them with one simple question for me:
How could someone ever feel at home there?
It’s a fair question. After all, I thought the very same thing years ago when, in February 2003, I first walked through that doorway. I puzzled over the faded red couplets, the concrete flooring everywhere, the soot all over the kitchen ceiling, the random piles of stuff in corners of the yard, and most of all, the utter lack of central A/C or heating. I remember settling into one of the many no-frills wooden stools huddled around the dining room table, wondering how anyone could feel comfortable eating in a chair with no back to it. For the longest time, I kept putting off returning there – always telling John to give his parents excuses why we couldn’t go.
I’d love to tell you there was some great epiphany, a sudden “a-ha” moment that changed how I felt about that home and even them. But when does life ever work like that? No, it was more a matter of time – of me getting used to their house and then discovering the greatness under its roof. (See my post “8 Surprising Things I’ve Learned from Living in China’s Countryside” for more on this idea.)
With each subsequent visit there, I started finding small little things that I really appreciated about the place. John’s mother would always go above and beyond to stir-fry an impossibly large number of vegan dishes (more than a person could humanly finish in one meal). Most of the food on the table came from the family’s garden behind the house, and it was some of the freshest and most delicious produce I had ever tasted. John’s father would draw and hang these pastoral village scenes on the walls of their home, inspiring all sorts of delightful conversations about the little river town where he used to live as a boy. Relatives and neighbors would wander in and out of the house, bringing us their smiles, laughter and – more often than not – some delicious treat to take home. (For that matter, even John’s parents insisted on sending us back to the city with ungodly amounts of food!)
Ultimately, I came to realize that what helps you feel at home in the most unlikely places is the people. When you are surrounded by such warm generosity and hospitality, you feel loved – and you’ll come to love the people behind that house, no matter how different it is from how you grew up.
Love is a powerful thing. Powerful enough to change how you think about a foreign country, culture or even a house.
In 2009, my husband and I returned to his family home to find an enormous addition to the home, including a clean and modern new suite just for my husband and me. The bedroom had wooden flooring, painted walls, a flatscreen TV, a comfy bed and a beautiful view of the garden out back. The bathroom included a flush Western-style toilet, white tiled walls and flooring and solar-powered hot water for the shower. It was everything I had ever wanted in that house in all the years we had been visiting there.
My father-in-law later told me, “This is your home,” words that almost brought tears to my eyes. I thought about all of the years I had spent learning to adjust myself to my in-laws’ home, never imagining that one day they would actually adjust their home for me. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
Jocelyn Eikenburg blogs about love, family and relationships at Speaking of China, and calls Hangzhou, China – her husband’s region – home.
With all the panting about China supposedly having overtaken the USA as the world’s largest economy already, it often sounds as if the Chinese must all be worker bees (on that note, the book recommendation on the right) with nary a minute to catch their breath.
Whether it’s breathtaking speed that makes for a need to catch some zzz’s whenever and wherever one gets a chance, or the opposite of being left behind and having not much to do, or nowhere to go, but to get a little sleep in public…Beijing’s urban life sure does sometimes, suddenly, offer impressions of a very different Chinese dream, consisting of as little as a little rest in the middle of the buzz and pollution and change.
This would be a place where it would be possible, well within a lifetime, to wake up from a sleep and suddenly find oneself in utterly changed circumstances, á Rip van Winkle… or not, but that’s the theme of a different photo project.
With those thoughts in mind, after having sought out The Silence of Sound in the (European) urban landscape before, I now went and documented a few of Beijing’s Sleepers…
Taobao, if you haven’t heard of it, is China’s dominant online shopping website.
To not have heard of it, however, you must be avoiding all China news; it is such an element of modern life and society. You must be avoiding all (China) business reporting, too, for the company that runs Taobao is Jack Ma’s Alibaba which just recently had its IPO on Wall Street – and it was the largest ever.
The topic that interests me about Taobao, and that has some connection with the interests on this blog, is not its economic valuation, however. Rather, it is the interplay of technological development(s) and social dynamics one can observe in and around it.
The main theme often seen and regularly reported on is simply that Taobao is a big online shopping platform which brings together buyers and sellers from big companies – Costco recently ‘entered the Chinese market’, after a fashion, by opening a Taobao store – to small boutiques, from rural farmers offering some of their produce, to high-end brands selling prét-a-porter, with many a store selling ‘surplus’ brand production, often minus the label, and some label-enhanced but non-brand production thrown in for good (or bad, fake) measure.
And so, the offerings range from the normal and usual – one can even order take-out food on Taobao – to the extraordinary and dubiously legal, from the pricy high-end to the low-price fake, grey import… you name it. Even plastinated corpses had been spotted.
It has garnered quite some attention just how many diverse things are on offer, but it’s not just the products but rather the hidden patterns that are so fascinating. From extraordinary production to digital farming and from a social media marketplace to a globe-spanning recommendation network, Taobao is really-existing cyberpunk.
One case in point: Farmers and the unique selling proposition of highly-local produce.
China has many a local food product, many a poor farmer, quite some interest in typical foods of particular regions, and generally few chances for farmers to somehow advertise their local products as something typical and high-value rather than something that just isn’t present on the marketplace and therefore not valued.
There has been a rise in interest in products coming to the buyer not anonymously, but directly from the farmer. Maybe preferably, a poorer local farmer who one can talk to and see if that person is likely to use whatever chemicals they can get their hands on in order to grow more and bigger produce or not. After all the food scandals that China has seen, this seems like a possible way to avoid adulterated food.
So, some savvy-enough farmers present themselves and what they have to offer, in text and pictures, on Taobao. I found the ShanHujiao this way, a peppery spice I had never hitherto heard of and would (were it not for Taobao) have had to go to rural Western Hunan or similar areas to ever discover (although its oil and some use of it seems common enough – when looking on Taobao, at least). That was not even grown, it was collected in the mountains… and I can tell because I saw the pictures and spoke with the seller.
Taobao – i.e., Alibaba – is looking to expand still further with this… and of course, to get to more customers as well.
Case two: One big problem intimately related to issues like food safety is the opportunism and lack of trust that is, unfortunately, often to be found in China.
It isn’t just to be found, it can seem quite necessary when so many people just seem out to make whatever they can, as quickly as possible, before either they are left behind or the times change and make it impossible to make it like that any longer.
Taobao isn’t just a collection of virtual stores where you shop and hope to not be ripped off, however.
For one, there is the option to chat with the sellers, and perhaps haggle about the price or at least for the cost of shipping to be included (if it isn’t anyways). That way, one can get an impression of how involved that seller is and how trustworthy that person at least sounds.
Secondly, there are recommendations and reviews which are an integral part of the shopping.
A buyer has to (well, is expected to) at least acknowledge that the product was received and is satisfactory; within a certain time, refunds and reclamations are typically (depending on store) possible – or there would be loud complaints that one would notice.
One finds displays of how long a store (and a buyer, by the way) has been on Taobao, what volume and value of sales they have made, and what ratings they have received. It is possible, and some stores try, to gain fake high rankings (e.g. offering products for a few cents, letting friends buy them and give good ratings, driving up supposed ratings and sales volumes), but it is also possible, and not all that difficult, to recognize when this was done.
It is rather reminiscent of the “darknet” that Daniel Suarez describes in his novel Freedom™, where its members rate each other based on their interactions and thus have a way of recognizing who else is a member and in what standing.
This techno-sociality mediated by Taobao extends further, for one cannot just find close to any product on Taobao, one can also find someone to find what is not to be found on Taobao by way of this marketplace.
There are people all over the world who offer to work as intermediary, purchasing and shipping what could otherwise not be purchased online because of international shipping restrictions (not the illegal kind but simply the many US webstores not willing or permitted to sell outside of the USA) or because interest just isn’t so high that the product is offered internationally. Of course, there are also attempts of getting around customs duties by having something shipped from such a ‘friend’ and declared as being of a value below that which makes the product incur duties and taxes… (and with China’s “luxury tax” on so many imported goods, making many – if not most – higher-value goods more expensive in China than even in Europe, this is quite a motivation for getting such things from abroad, at the very least from Hong Kong).
Finally, aside from this import of Taobao on social interaction, it is necessary to get back to economic considerations (and their social implications).
In spite of the allure of the large Chinese market, many products cannot be found in stores, even in Beijing. Japanese food, for example, is not unpopular, but an online store just has it easier finding enough buyers (and lower overhead) than a brick-and-mortar store.
For many products that can be found, such as electronics, there is no good way for one stall in an electronics mall of differentiating itself from the dozens of others offering the same selection of the same products. The Zhongguancun electronics malls are half empty and a cesspool of aggressive salespeople trying to push potential customers their way. It’s much easier and more comfortable to just make such a purchase online – and Taobao offers some of the best prices and best ways of checking out products, perks, and store ratings.
Not only electronics malls are in trouble, there are many ‘ghost malls’ that seem to have been built just because malls were all the rage and a property developer’s easy plan to a higher valuation for their construction. Stores, however, there are few – and the same as in any other mall – and customers, even fewer.
No wonder, again, when the comfort of Taobao wins.
Here, a side-effect and enabler of Taobao has to be mentioned: No small thanks to this marketplace, express delivery companies in China have developed quite the service network across quite a bit of China. Rural areas are still under-serviced, but even in second- and sometimes third-tier cities, there will be at least some express services.
The prices are generally, for someone used to US or European postage especially, low; the delivery can get things across China in a day, nonetheless (depending on service, of course).
This, of course, greatly contributes to the success of Taobao (and other online shopping sites), as well.
On this day, yet another social influence of Taobao has to be mentioned: China keeps looking towards domestic consumption as the future of its economy – and on the shopping extravaganza that is 11-11’s “Single’s Day,” set to break sales volume records again, it looks as if this marketplace may be the single biggest and best driver of said consumption.
Among the younger generation, certainly, it is one of the – if not the most – hotly anticipated days.
So, it may not only be that, as John Stewart noted, “The Communists Just Beat Us at Capitalism.”
There’s even more happening.
Views of Confucius have always been in a state of flux.
Back when the “Asian Tigers” saw their tremendous economic rise, it was Confucian ideals of hard work and obedience that were claimed to be responsible. Nobody was to criticize their political system, for it was just the way things were handled in a Confucian/Asian nation state, and these different governance styles and systems worked. It was “Asian Values” all the way.
When things aren’t going so well or problems are met head-on, the same obedience is blamed as the root of nepotism and a lack of creativity, however.
In China, the statue of Confucius may have had to go from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square again, but China’s relationship with its ancient sage star philosopher certainly has continued apace.
Here, too, it has continued apace in the usual ‘confusion’ way of this country’s recent history: He was, not so long ago, one of the old things to get rid of. Even then, the struggle against parents and teachers was all the stronger an issue because of the lasting effect of his teachings that call for obedience to these authorities, and obedience was a source of the whole new revolution, just in deference to a new father figure.
Family ties have continued to be of the utmost importance. Ancestors have to be remembered, fed and clothed; laws enshrine the need for children to care for and pay respect to their parents; traditional views of gender roles and relations hold some sway; families help each other and “help” of this kind becomes rather indistinguishable from nepotism and corruption. And, such ideas find wide transference to the body politic, as they always have.
Appeals to Confucian teachings have risen again. They have done so, in particular, as they have been considered potentially helpful for the purposes of the political sphere, all the more so as society is decried as having lost its moral footing and behavior, focused on the material side of things as it has become.
Between Wangfujing, Beijing’s preeminent shopping street, and the Confucius Temple, the two concurrent developments recently came together only too well.
On Wangfujing, the “International Brand Festival” claimed that better brands make for a better life and city and presented goods to aspire to.
Meanwhile at the Confucius Temple, it was the end of summer courses for middle school students. Time to pay respect to the sage, honor the parents, vow to be a good student… and to fervently love the country.
Handling such contradictions, problematic as we seem to see it, is just the reality of cultures. Life always stands between tradition and change, individual desires and decisions and cultural normalities and social pressures…
It is an oft-repeated trope that life in China (as in many a tropical and/or less developed country, but also in Southern Europe, for example) tends to happen “on the street,” using the curbside as an extended living room, much more than life in most of Europe, let alone the USA (unless one counts the drive-thru and the strip mall, perhaps).
Even as supermarkets are proliferating in China, with those in the “first-tier” cities surpassing the selection in all but the best, most international, of supermarkets in Europe, daily food shopping in many a part of China is still done at small, local, barely covered, markets. They are, taking a closer look (as we’ll do over on ChiliCult), great illustrations of the force that is at the root of China’s economic reforms and opening: the farmers and their enterprise.
In these few seconds, one of the markets in JiuBuJiang, my wife’s hometown: