Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Contradictions, Qipaos, and Characters - CHINA

What a foreign way of life! Having been to Europe, Latin America, and Africa, I now realize that you haven’t truly “been abroad” until you’ve been to the East. In Europe as a white American, I blend into the background. In Latin America, everything is just a little brighter and louder than America, but still not so foreign. In Africa, my expectations for development were so low I’m sorry to say I wasn’t too astonished by anything. China, however, was different. From the systemic contradictions to the plethora of umbrellas, China held one surprise after another.

China’s development was impressive, but my experiences demonstrated that they still have a long way to go. For instance with all the pollution, traffic, and general overcrowding in Beijing, I’m amazed they were able to pull off the Olympics. Only by shutting down factories both to cut down on pollution and to encourage people to visit relatives in rural areas were the Chinese able to make way for Olympic guests. This, however, was a temporary fix and the city seems to be struggling to accommodate the population and reign in pollution. Some (not me) might argue the lack of Western toilets and toilet paper may be a cultural preference, but it is pretty clear sanitation overall and water quality is still an issue in Beijing, Hufei, and Shanghai so imagine what the smaller towns are like! Not to mention the personal sanitation issues of spitting and allowing children to defecate on the streets. When we visited the industrial park in Hufei, the power went out twice killing the productivity of the call center upstairs. Perhaps the economic Tiger of the East is not so scary after all.

Having read that China is a country of contradictions many times before my arrival, I thought it might merely be a rhetorical tool for authors to hedge their bets about China’s future, but now I have seen some of these ironic paradoxes firsthand. It is commonly known that civil disputes or protests are on the rise in China, yet many everyday forms of expression that I’m used to as an American were noticeably absent. For instance, I only saw graffiti once during my two weeks – on a random late-night cab ride through Shanghai – also missing were flyers, street musicians, street surveyors with clipboards, and picket lines in general. In America, these blend into the background, but in China the dearth of physical evidence of individual expression I had heard and read that I shouldn’t be worried about being attacked or mugged in China (maybe just pickpocketed) because the Chinese want to save face and make a good impression especially amongst foreigners. They had no problem ripping me off with steep prices in the market though. I often had to haggle down to 25-30% of their initial price. When I had lunch with a Chinese-American friend in Hong Kong, there were two menus – one in Chinese and one in English – everything was the same but the prices! They blatantly discriminated against English speakers by charging 10-20 yuan more per dish. For many of our lectures by Chinese professors, I found you had to read in between the lines of contradiction. Dr. Yu Yongda informed us of his “Advantage Integration Theory” which diminishes the role of natural resources or comparative advantage in a country’s development yet clearly China needs to hone certain sectors or skills if it is to be competitive globally. Once, Dr. Lu Wei even said, “Sometimes you can signal left, but turn right.” Even if I could remember the context, I don’t think that would make much sense, but to the Chinese people subtleties such as this can indicate a lot and can help clarify such contradictions. Reviewing what I have written thus far, I can see how it might seem as if I have a negative perception of China. But the Chinese people made all the difference in the trip.

My favorite part of the trip was building a relationship with my tailor’s family in Beijing. Having arrived early to Beijing, I spent a couple days wandering the city by myself and happened upon a back alley pedestrian street which was under heavy construction. Despite the physical mayhem of the street, the businesses flanking either side of this treacherous obstacle course were still open. This dusty venue is where I found my tailor in a small shop. I had priced qipaos (traditional Chinese dresses) all day and wanted to see what they had to offer. The store itself was not that impressive but they had a decent selection of qipaos and I found one I especially liked. “How much?” I asked an eager 13 year old girl. She grabbed her calculator and typed in 600. I typed in 200 and she laughed and typed in 450. I laughed and typed in 250. She shook her head and retyped 450 but when I started to walk away she agreed to 350. I said I would need to try it on first. I stepped into the makeshift dressing room which consisted of a curved shower curtain rod and a sheet of fabric. I needed only to put my arms through the dress to see that it would not fit. I stepped back out and shook my head. The girl frantically started gesturing and saying “custom, custom.” Then I noticed the disgruntled old man who had been staring at a computer screen and listening to Chinese talk radio quietly. He grunted at the girl and picked up a phone. The girl was able to communicate that I should wait. Five minutes later the energetic and smooth talking Jian Nan came bouncing into the store with her strawman of a husband in tow. Next thing I knew, I was agreeing to being measured for a custom qipao that I would only pay 420 yuan for. The 80% downpayment up front made me nervous, but Jian Nan showed me “many picture of happy Western customer” and reassured me that “we a business, we go nowhere.” Looking back, I wonder if she was hurt by my skepticism. After all, the Chinese have guanxi. When I came back to pick up my dress two days later, I brought a friend to buy a suit. The family was thrilled and Jian Nan let me pick out a scarf for free. She asked if Eric and I were boyfriend/girlfriend – all Chinese seemed very relationship focused – who is who in relation to one another at all times. I said no. She said “better or else you have babies and work too hard – always working to take care of them.” I asked her how many children she had. Obviously, she was a lower income working class girl so how could she afford more than one child? She and her skinny husband have two – they paid a heavy tax for their second child but it was worth it she said. The government is apparently caring less about this now and not enforcing the tax as much. China must be realizing the critical demographical situation they have created. Only while Eric was getting measured for his suit did I discover that the recalcitrant old man was the actual tailor and not Jian Nan. She was just the mouthpiece. I think she mixed up her pronouns somewhere because she seemed to really know her stuff and run the place, I thought SHE was the one who made my dress. Yet, her only talent is her English. That’s fine – she’s got the gift of gab even if her grammar is a little rough. They Jian family was so sincere and appreciative of my business, I wish I could go back and ask them more questions about their life and business!

Everyday encounters such as mine with my tailor and his family held their share of wonder and were the moments that made the trip worthwhile. I shall cherish many random endearing moments as well. Apparently Chinese people only like intense, slow songs for karaoke or else they are incapable of singing fast songs in English. These ballads make for some entertaining moments! Also, Chinese people are very fastidious about not having food stuck in their teeth and habitually use toothpicks after meals, but are very careful to cover their mouths. Yet, they lack any other table manners! I arrived a day early and went on a tour with a group of Chinese strangers, my first meal was a baptism by fire in not caring about other people’s germs when they used their chopsticks to eat off communal plates. Then, there were the umbrellas. So many and in so many varieties! The Chinese seem to be very conscious of protecting their skin – or perhaps staying cool? Everyone seemed to have one and many made bold, often glittery fashion statements with them. Shortly after arriving home, news coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre started picking up. CNN and BBC reporters were sent to Beijing to film segments on site, but plain clothes police officers bared any decent footage with their umbrellas. The result was a hilarious but sad dance while reporters tried to sincerely engage with the camera on a serious subject while dodging an army of umbrellas.

I loved my time in exotic China, but unlike any other trip abroad I’ve taken, I was excruciatingly thankful to be coming home to the United States of America despite the characters and genuine people such as Jian Nan that I met while I was there.


Lex said...

One of the things that I have learned in Asian countries about the umbrella things is really a status element. If your skin gets tan then that means you work in the fields. If you keep your skin as light as possible it shows that you don't have to go outside. Also, with the dark hair their heads get really hot really quickily from the bright sun. I've been called crazy many times though for wanting to have tan skin. Many places actually have whitening salons like we go to tanning salons and most of their shampoo has herbal hair darkening agents. Status and beauty--universal drivers for behaviour.

Adwell said...

Beautiful story about the tailor's family. Thanks for sharing it. Let's see a photo of the lovely dress :-)

P.s. My word for verification is "combdork." I'm amused.