generations, again

The other day over lunch, a good friend expounded on the characteristics that distinguish children born in the 80s, 90s, and 00s based on what she understood of their parents, who were born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s respectively. Continue reading

handshake with the future: shenzhen’s maker plus culture

The world has glommed on to Shenzhen’s Maker culture, but what is often left undetected is just how Maker Plus the city actually is. Yesterday afternoon at Handshake 302, we held the opening for projects by interior design students from the Guangdong Xin’an Polytechnic College. During the opening, the conversation about their work focused on bridging the distance between design and implementation. A key thought came from Lei Sheng, Handshake 302’s master craftsman (seriously, he can make anything): in an information age, information isn’t the most important element for creativity. Instead, the knowledge of making things with our hands–craftsmanship–is the key to a successful design career.

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Hair Washer Number 5

Her last name is Xu, but she insisted that I call her by her number, 5, Hair Washer Number 5. She called me Pretty Lady, or 美女 (meinv), a common form of address for women between the ages of 17 to mid 30s, but nothing I’ve ever been called. After I laughed and asked if I was truly a meinv, Xu explained that women like to be called pretty, and even when they were as old I was, to call them Auntie (阿姨 ayi) or Older Sister (大姐 dajie) might make them unhappy. I acknowledged how difficult it was to know how to address strangers, especially without an introduction.

Xu came to Shenzhen 3 years ago, when she was 15. She has been working in the beauty industry for two years now and took a job at this salon, which markets Korean style service and products because “For people without education, or money, or status,” she explained, “the only thing we can do is learn a skill and make our future ourselves.” She hopes to learn enough to someday open her own shop. She works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, but says that once her trial period is up she will have one rest day a week.

As she kneaded my arm, Xu shyly asked, “What do you do when you’re upset?”

“I meditate and go for walks.”

She nodded slowly and then, eyes intently fixed on the skin of my inner arm, she told me that this afternoon at lunch she cried from weary exhaustion. Then her manager and several co-workers urged her to stop crying and toughen up, after all, if she didn’t learn to eat bitterness when she was so young, it would only get harder as she aged.

I asked if the crying helped.

“No, nothing’s changed.”

I fumbled to clarify, “I didn’t mean the question rhetorically. I just wanted to know if you felt better after you cried.”

She nodded her head once.

“Then cry,” I said, “and when you feel better, analyze your situation and figure out what to do next. You’ll make worse decisions when you’re tight and unhappy than you will after a good cry.”

She looked at me and then resumed kneading my other arm, adding softly when she finished, “Next time you come, ask for Number 5 and we can talk again.”

Humbled, I left the salon, hoping for the courage to return, ask for Number 5, and listen to her story.

life seasonings…

Yesterday had lunch with friend and his son, a member of generation 90. The conversation turned to memories of life as an early 80’s college student in Beijing, while son politely played games on his phone.

Me: What interests me about your generation is that although today y’all are friends with your classmates, your children might not necessarily be friends because they are from different classes.

Old Zhang: That’s true. The country (国家) paid for us to go to college so once we were in, everybody was the same [economic] class. Now these young people have a hard time of it. I really feel sorry for them. [laughs] For example, falling in love. When we were in college we were all the same, so all you had to do was find someone you liked and then figure out how to open your mouth. But kids today [son looks up from cell phone], they have to match up everything – the right car and clothes and job and house. Love is just like salt, it’s the seasoning you add for flavor, not the dish itself.

[Old Zhang notices son looking up and continues in another vein]

This is why I’m encouraging him to get religious belief. It doesn’t really matter what. The point is that all our beliefs – in a better society, in the four modernizations, we achieved. There’s nothing left to do. Or, we don’t know what to do. That’s why belief is important.

Me: Or salt?

Old Zhang laughs, son goes back to game.

Who’s in charge?

As the biennale approaches, many documents have to be translated and I’ve found myself doing on the spot translations by text message. I mentioned to a friend that I had finally figured out that if I gave two possible translations – one more or less literal, the other more or less poetic, my interlocutor was usually satisfied with the translation. However, if I only gave one possible translation, then my interlocutor inevitably came back with questions and challenges to my understanding.

My friend nodded and asked, “Haven’t you heard the popular saying, ‘Leaders love multiple choice questions’ (领导最喜欢选择题)?”

I noted that this strategy also works with recalcitrant eaters as in, “You can eat your cornflakes with milk or without milk” because the child thinks she’s in charge even as she eats the cornflakes.

If possible, my friend’s smirk deepened.


Lately I have been writing about Generations 80 and 90 because much of what they do and think mark interesting sites of departure from older generations. Today, a brief comment about my experience watching Beijing Opera with an 80 year-old friend.

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population updates (of a sort)

third day back in shenzhen and i chanced upon one of my favorite conversations: speculation about shenzhen’s actual population and how these figures are generated.

based on conversations with real estate developers and housing agents, as well as published reports and blog postings, i’ve been guestimating shenzhen’s population at around 14 million. recent articles also place shenzhen’s population at 14 million, with 2 million residents with hukou and 12 million without.

according to yesterday’s cabbie, he heard a china mobile advertisement that claimed they had an audience of 16 million. to his way of thinking, this meant that shenzhen had a population of at least 16 million. he then mused that it was likely that shenzhen had “more” than 16 million. he figured: (a) anyone without hukou registration wouldn’t come to the door to respond to the census; (b) only people working at tax-paing work units can be properly counted; (c) many people have more than one child, and the extra (超生) children may be registered in other cities; (d) censors can’t actually make it to every single residence in shenzhen, so they have to depend on what people say, which means there’s error built into the system even before they begin counting; and thus (e) for the sake of a more reliable estimate, they should pad their figures by “several (几)” million.

two points: first, we don’t know how many people live in shenzhen and the rate at which people are coming to live in the city. should urban planners be aiming for 30 million by 2020 (based on the idea that the population has been doubling every decade)? second, where can we go for reliable information? is estimated audience size more or less reliable than published accounts?

reliable population data matters because it is thet basis for decisions about how many roads to build, how much water and electricity to supply, where to build schools and hospitals. in other words, a working definition of urban quality of life is at stake in this data. perhaps more importantly, there seems to be little consensus on how one might usefully guestimate all the people living outside tax-paying channels. this is an acute problem in shenzhen (and much of guangdong, more generally), where a significant majority of the population is self-employed. consequently, even as it is difficult to make informed decisions about the scale of public services in shenzhen, urban planning is made even more difficult by the fact that there has been little accounting of / for those outside the system, which leads to questions about public policy and welfare.

all this to say, urban planning questions are questions about who has rights to the city and the level of responsibility a city government has to provide a minimum quality of life for all residents; questions, that is, of what it means to be a citizen. so yes, the production of reliable population data is a question of citizenship and urban justice because equitable planning is the political expression of our commitment to each other.

go figure.

p.s. for a sense of how shenzhen’s population is represented on the english language web, i popped over to wikipedia. shenzhen was not listed in the article on chinese population and demographics. this information was based on the 2005 census, which estimated shanghai’s population at a mere 10 million! in the list of most populous cities worldwide (2009 data), shanghai had burgeoned to almost 14 million, while beijing came in at slightly over 10 million. shenzhen was again conspicuously absent from the list. nevertheless, in the article about shenzhen (once again in wikipedia), according to shenzhen’s official population (including people without hukou, but apparently not including the homeless and squatters, who have occupied shenzhen’s edges, including the areas under bridges) is listed at 14 million.

going, going, gone …

Shenzhen’s mayor Xu Zhengheng (徐宗衡简历) has been arrested for graft and yesterday the resume of the new  mayor Wang Rong (王荣简历) was broadcast on televisions throughout the city, including on street corners, buses, and taxis.

And not even with much of a wimper, let alone bang. What has been interesting is the lack of conversation about the scandal. Maybe people haven’t spoken to me about the topic because I’m foreign, but it could also be because Shenzhen people take corruption to be business as usual. When the topic did come up, most complained that Xu Zhengheng had gone too far (太过分), or that maybe somebody was gunning for him, or maybe that possibly didn’t have any friends in Beijing. The general consensus, however, was that if Xu Zongheng had  had been content with five million, even 10 million, all would have been well. However he just “went to far”. Indeed, I heard graft figures as high as “several hundred millions (上亿)” for himself and even more for his “network”. Rumors rumors…

The most interesting analysis came from one of my better connected friends who said that this case showed that there was a clear difference between “the people’s will (民意)” and “righteousness (正义)”.  He thought the arrest of the mayor was a good sign (of oversight) and expected to see more arrests follow.  However, in his opinion tolerance for graft and corruption had a deep history in China, so taking a few million, especially if you worked hard for the city wasn’t a problem, but in terms of making China a “just” society more had to be done. He also thought this general tolerance for some level of graft explained the difference between the amount of tax revenue the city generated and the actual amount of money going in and out of the banks. How, he wondered, could the government know, come to terms with, and actually regulate all the economic activity in Shenzhen, let alone Guangdong and the rest of the country if at every level the “people’s will” allowed for leaders to take an unreported portion of the profits for themselves?

taxi talk

A few days ago, during rush hour, I was in a cab heading east on Binhai Road. We had just darted onto the expressway, when traffic slowed. And slowed. Until we were inching our way forward in a simmering mass of cars, many of which were trying to push their way forward by straddling lanes. Which in turn, slowed us further.

The cabbie had his radio dial turned to the morning traffic report. I was craning my neck, trying to figure out just why the snail’s pace. We inched. We sweltered.

He said, “Probably another accident.”

I grunted. He took a swig from his water bottle. We oozed forward another three inches.

At the Mangrove Park bus station, we saw the accident. Two cars were parked at the  divider between the expressway and the station offramp, effictively closing down two lanes – the offramp and the southern most lane. This caused major congestion because there were drivers who, in order to arrive at Mangrove faster, had straddled their way over four lanes to the lane furthest north, and then needed to force their way back to the exit lane to get to the bus station. Yes, because those two cars had blocked the offramp, those who weren’t already in the exit lane were having difficulty getting back, creating more back up and generalized highway irritation. The cars’ drivers were talking on cellphones, glaring at each other.

We had past the accident and were moving a bit faster when the traffic report announced that there was a serious traffic jam at the Mangrove Park bus station because the traffic police had yet to arrive, make the accident report, and have the cars removed. In Shenzhen, cars in accidents are not moved from where the accident takes place until after the accident report is made, otherwise, neither can make insurance claims. According to the report, the cars had been at the offramp for over two hours, which meant that the traffic police had not yet shown up.

“That explains it,” I said, although we still hadn’t picked up all that much speed.”Where do you think they are?”

The cabbi nodded thoughtfully and then made five key points about the nature of corruption in Shenzhen:

  1. High-ranking Shenzhen leaders all have two jobs (兼 – jian is one of those fabulous words that refers to the way that Chinese bureaucracies are knit together).  Clearly, it’s difficult to do both well.  The Municipal Party Secretary, Liu Yupu (刘玉浦) for example, is also one of the Guangdong Provincial Party vice secretaries. According to the cabbie, the Secretary was just biding his time until he was promoted.  “As long as he doesn’t make any mistakes, he’ll be fine.” On that note, Liu Yupu replaced Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠), who after five years in Shenzhen is now the governor of Hubei 兼/jian vice Party Secretary of Hubei Province.
  2. The Shenzhen government is too polite. Back in the cabbie’s home county, the county boss doesn’t back down from anything he’s said, even when he’s wrong. Then, if someone goes against the county boss, well the court does what the court needs to do (该怎么判断,就怎么判断!). In contrast, the Shenzhen government allows the people to talk back. For example, he noted the ongoing 操 contraversy in the Futian court, which was itself a hot topic on the traffic report that day.
  3. The Shenzhen government only pays attention to big events, like preparing for the Universiade in 2011. It doesn’t pay attention to the everyday lives of the people.  The Shenzhen government is, he said, a show for outsiders. And, he added growing increasingly vehement, now they want us to promote Shenzhen to visitors. He then gestured contemptuously at the traffic outside and asked rhetorically, “How in good conscious can I promote THAT?!”
  4. The police take bribes. So if there’s no benefit to coming to the scene of an accident, they won’t come. Just like this morning, he mused, they’re probably having dim sum at a 5-star hotel.
  5. Shenzhen people are themselves morally bankrupt. Everyone with a driver’s liscence knows the traffic laws and everyone has passed the test. In fact, he muttered, they probably could quote all the relevant laws. However, once they’re on the street, they don’t have the breeding and temperment (教养 and 素质) to do what they should.

His discourse lasted about thirty minutes, or the time it took us to crawl from the Mangrove Station offramp to another accident at the entry to Xiasha New Village. Like most populist worldviews, his was a fascinating mix of fact and fiction, liberalism and conservatism. It was also much more entertaining that the traffic report.

What’s your experience?

Yesterday, a journalist interviewed me about differences between US and Chinese education systems. The heart of the matter was how might Chinese students apply successfully for US university and college admissions. I blah-blahed for a while – on the different social functions of testing, on the relative importance of excelling in one subject, rather than having good grades in all subjects, and on the advantages of finding an environment that fits the student, rather than choosing a college based on how famous it happens to be in China. Thus far, a rather ordinary interview. Or so I thought.

At the point when I was blathering on about how the ideal function of a US college education was for students to figure out their intellectual interests and then professionalize at the graduate level (as opposed to many other post-secondary systems, where professionalization happens at the undergraduate level because many countries track students into the humanities or sciences as early as high school), the journalist sighed (?!) and said, “You’re really idealistic.”

I’ve heard this. Frequently. It’s as if idealism was a bad, bad thing. My stock answer du jour is, “In the context of the US college system, it’s practical to assume that students will change majors once or twice, may transfer to another school, or could take time off to follow other passions. It’s safe to say, most will stumble into a job after college and then professionalize on the job (and even more likely professionalize through a series of jobs) with a possible detour through grad school.

“That’s just it,” the journalist jumped in. “In China we don’t have so many choices. It’s even worse when you reach middle age. Then the job chooses you. Living for one’s passions is a luxury that Chinese people don’t have.” And then he added the zinger designed to end the conversation, “You don’t have this experience of living for other people because you’re not Chinese.”

Bracketing the fact that the journalist was younger than me and I haven’t yet admitted to middle age-dom, his rebuttal was similar to other responses (especially from parents) that I’ve heard. What’s interesting to me is what makes my response seem “American”. On the face of it, the journalist’s rebuttal assumed that realism means getting a secure, high-paying job right-out-of-college. This seems to me a pretty standard response to capitalism as we know it wherever we happen to live. Specifically, I think Chinese and American parents share this definition of realism, especially about their children’s college education, because they are anxious about what will happen to their children once launched and they know that it’s harder to make a living in an uncertain economy.

Making college “about” getting a job is actually magical realism (of an albeit cross-cultural kind), rather than hopefully and practically idealistic. Imagine parents stirring the pot of destiny, thinking, “If I can control what college my child attends, then I can protect them from unemployment, debt, and exploitation. My child will never experience the humiliation of unemployment and the sadness of insufficient medical care.” Fingers wiggle, green smoke appears –Poof – “You won’t ever have to suffer the arrows of outrageous multi-national fortunes.” In contrast, it seems to me that protection from the injustices of an economy out-of-control (and I think that’s a constant state of being, rather than a momentary aberration) is more likely to come from discovering and nourishing passions that will make our lives more meaningful, and by extension, make the world more beautiful than it is to come from placing one’s faith in name-brand schools and top-ten jobs.

So I return to the question of what made my understanding American, rather than optimistically idealistic within a global context. I believe my American-ness hinged on the journalist’s belief that “Chinese” people live for other people and “Americans” live for themselves. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also had this conversation with other Chinese friends. When it’s pointed out to me that “Chinese” people live for others, the examples tend to be about sacrificing oneself for the greater good. – 牺牲你一个,幸福千万人 and 舍小家为大家 being two recent contributions to the debate. When I counter that I’m not opposed to living helpfully, I just don’t see how my unhappiness (and even death should sacrifice go so far) would improve the world, I have heard, that this is precisely the cultural difference that they are talking about. The sacrifice of a few for the many does lead to greater happiness. If I had the experience (体验 – which I understand to emphasize embodied knowledge of the walked-a-mile-in-a-man’s-shoes variety) of living for others I would know in my bones that this was true.

And yet. Throughout the public sphere, Shenzhen inhabitants butt in line to get on the bus, cut off other drivers to make a U-turn, and push themselves in front of me to buy breakfast buns. Why don’t the activities of lining up and waiting for one’s turn count as “living for others”? This kind of living for others I do quite well. However, my Chinese friends tell me these behaviors are examples of 素质 and 文明 – breeding and civilization. In contrast, living for others is about one’s relationships to 自己人 – one’s people. On this explanation, “living for others” defines degrees of intimacy; it is not about one’s relationships with strangers. So two points. First, what makes me American is an unwillingness to participate in forms of intimacy that are defined by a willingness to sacrifice myself for my family and friends. Second, in those contexts defined by a lack of intimacy, what makes one Chinese is full throttle “living for oneself” and giving over to one’s (unlimited) desires.

It seems to me that in defining cultural difference between Chinese and Americans, it’s more important to establish where and when self-expression (defined as giving over to one’s desires) is socially acceptable, rather than positing “selfless” Chinese and “selfish” Americans. Certainly, many Chinese have experienced the liberating effects of Shenzhen in terms of being unconstrained by the desires of family and friends back home. Indeed, this lack of constraint is what makes Shenzhen seem “un-Chinese”. My experience has been that the more friends I make, the more is asked of me in terms of social commitments. So that despite a zero intimacy starting point, I have been and continued to be socialized according to Chinese norms that are tempered with the “knowledge” that I am American and hence of the selfish ilk.

What’s your experience?