Archive for Shanghai

Stereotyped: Asian students are not regurgitating robots and Western students actually work hard too.

Image Collage by Ruby Gee

One cool thing about being a youngish-looking Asian American is that if I don’t open my mouth, I actually blend in quite well with the crowds of native Chinese that walk the streets of Shanghai everyday. This comes in handy from time to time. For instance, I can easily stroll into any Fudan University classroom and sit in on majors-only classes that are generally not open to foreign students due to my lack of Aryan/Desi physical features.

This one time, I was sitting in on an Ancient Chinese Essays class and the teacher randomly picked on a student to talk about her interpretation of the passage. An interesting open discussion on the contextual meanings of a particular line followed.

At the time, I kept thinking about how this scene would boggle the minds of some less-enlightened-folks back home, whose minds are engraved with images of weary looking Asian students pouring over government issued textbooks as an unsmiling professor drones on and on about the textbook content. This image of course, may have been possible in the archaic days of the Cultural Revolution, but certainly does not apply now. Though I’ve noticed a sense of reservation and shyness among native Chinese students, the higher education culture (at least on the humanities side) seems to be shifting towards a discussion-and-project-based model.

Similar stereotyping occurs among some students over here in Shanghai, though they at least have the excuse of limited access to the outer world in terms of online resources and travel visas. The flawed perception is that American and European students have it much easier in terms of workload. Class time is spent idyllically on green lawns, as students argue with their teachers over abstract concepts. In this romanticized world of academia, teachers actually care about their students as individuals, and field trips are not only delightfully enlightening, but to be expected.

I wish.

Even though my home university back in the states is as close as it gets to heaven for academic nerdy-types (we’re actually ranked for having “the happiest students,”) I can only think of a handful of classes that would fit the peach-colored visions that native Chinese students sometimes hold regarding American education. Rice University is exceptional in all senses of the word, but we have our share of PowerPoint lecturers and students that pull multiple all-nighters to prepare for exams. You should see Fondren library (at Rice’s campus) during midterms and finals – the space is packed, with serious-looking students banging their heads against their Differential Equation textbooks, only occasionally stopping for water and Facebook.

I guess the points I’m getting at are rather trite in our politically-correct culture today: don’t generalize, stereotyping is wrong, you should have a balanced viewpoint of perceived cultural differences. But really, this uninformed East vs. West educational dichotomy thing, it’s really getting old. Can we all just be educated and well traveled already?

(disclaimer: cheekiness intended for this post)

Stereotyped: Young Shanghai Conservatives + Party-crazy Expats

Young Shanghai - Purity Myth?

Young Shanghai - Purity Myth?

As Family Mart’s prominent displays of attractively-packaged condoms at every checkout counter seem to suggest, China’s sexual revolution has arrived – but many natives allege that Shanghai is still pretty conservative when it comes to love and dating. Among the Shanghainese couples I know, a majority either claim to be either high school sweethearts or in their first relationship. Mind you, I associate mostly with university-aged Shanghainese, who have grown up in a highly internationalized environment. Despite their open-mindedness toward Western ideals though, these rather conservative Shanghainese youths are unaccustomed to going on double dates for fun, and would never dream of meeting a potential partner in a bar or club.

On the expat side, I think it’s pretty normal to meet people of the opposite sex at a bar or club, and to date more for fun than to tie the knot (especially when you’re a fresh-faced twenty-something). Doing shots, hooking up, getting wasted – all of these are commonly heard in public conversations across college campuses in the West; dating life seems to move at light speed for the young & attractive. The type of conservatism championed among Shanghainese youth could only possibly be mirrored in places in the US like the Bible Belt, but even in conservative American towns, I would imagine that very few can truthfully assert that they’ve only been with one other person their entire life.

I personally think that China’s one child policy, in combination with the prevailing social emphasis of family in Shanghai’s society, has a lot to do with the alleged dating conservatism of Shanghainese youth. I threw this theory out to my Shanghainese friend Li, who agreed and supplemented that even on the male side, there’s intense pressure from Shanghainese parents -and both sets of grandparents- to settle down with a nice Shanghainese girl ASAP and fulfill the usual filial piety duties of grandbaby-making etc. We get the same sort of nagging on the expat side as well, but most of us at least have siblings to divide the unwanted attention. Particularly for guys on the Western side, the pressure to settle down doesn’t really start becoming an issue until you hit your early thirties. That leaves plenty of time for – usually more secular and liberalized – expats to explore the wilder side of Shanghai’s nightlife.

I’m not saying that Westerners are sluttier than their Chinese counterparts, but for the most part, Chinese impressions of expats as sleeping around more, and having a more eventful dating life are true. I think a lot of Americans look for that adrenaline rush when it comes to love – if you look at the top hits on the American music chart, the non-breakup related ones are very “in the moment” and “I want you now” type songs that make you want to party. From many ballads that flood Chinese pop music charts every week, you get that in Chinese idealizations of romance, the quieter moments of life are often emphasized- sharing an umbrella on a rainy day, leaning against each other on the subway ride back home, holding hands while taking a walk after dinner.

I wonder if young Shanghai is really as pure and traditional as it proclaims, or if it’s all a façade of words to cover up lustful night outs and born-again virginities. Muse and many of the other nightclubs in Shanghai are filled with just as many Chinese playboys as there are Western ones, just as many ebony haired mini-skirt wearers as there are blonde ones – all of whom are just looking for a good time.

“What kind of fools do they take us for?” A hypothesis on Chinese-SHEX relations

Kuai (块)can make the world move a little more kuai(快)

The common 块 Kuai (slang for RMB or 元 yuan)

After a long week of eating nothing but xiao long bao and beef soup noodles, my Russian friend and I decided to do something about our Vitamin C deprivation and trudged through the puddle-ridden streets of Shanghai in search of fresh fruit. A few blocks away, on a bustling street corner, a burly, mustached man was chatting with another local in Shanghainese while presiding over a colorful array of produce, all organized into unmarked containers.

“你好,一个苹果都少钱啊?“ (Hello, how much for one apple) I asked the fruit seller on behalf of my friend .

Glancing at my friend’s amber brown hair and hazel eyes, he replied “五块钱” (“5 RMB”).

“五块一斤?“ (“RMB for a pound?”)

“五块一个”(“5 RMB for one”)

Though 5 RMB is not a lot of money, I suspected that we were being overcharged by at least 300% for some ordinary, locally grown apples (usually around 3 RMB a pound). My suspicions were confirmed when he refused to answer any my question of how much for a pound of apples, only repeating in “5 RMB for one”  and shoving five fingers in my friend’s face like she needed the clarification. Disgusted at the dishonest prices and treatment, I dragged my friend away as a matter of principle. Though I knew that a few RMB makes a huge difference to a lower class merchant – whose daily reality is 1 RMB bread for breakfast and 5 RMB noodles for dinner- my indignation at being taken as a fool unfortunately far exceeded my sympathy for his situation. Bluntly put, I would rather donate 50 RMB to charity than to be unreasonably overcharged by 10 RMB by a salesperson.

Indeed, it is AHH China! moments like these that make me feel like the relationship between 上海的本地人 (Shanghai natives) and 老外(foreigners) can be most aptly described as one in which natives see expats/foreigners being a source to draw from, particularly  when it comes to money and ideas.

In places like the People’s Square and Qipu Lu, salespeople are constantly on the prowl and treat foreigners –particularly non-Asian expats- like they have stickers on their forehead that say “Please rip me off. I have no sense of money’s value.” Even in situations when the relationship between expats and locals appear as less of a predator-prey archetype, expats still serve as a valuable source of western ideas, if not vital innovation.

I hypothesize that though not all relationships between locals and expats are strained by parasitism, an economical aspect of these relationships is inevitably drawn out when the human aspect cannot be fully realized due to linguistic or cultural barriers. In other words, it’s easier to exhibit poor morals toward a stranger with whom you feel you share no bonds with, and more importantly, fail to see them as fellow human being since you don’t really know their story.

Even though the understanding the perspectives of the Shanghainese is an important factor in improving relationships between expats and locals, local viewpoints in are often inaccessible to expats due to the language barrier, among other things. There remains the lingering question of course, is how Shanghai locals really view their expat counterparts – a question that I aim to answer in my series with my fellow SHEX writer Olivia through our 4 part series on cultural differences. Stay tuned!