wither the future? some anecdotes from shenzhen under normalized grid management

Yesterday I spoke with a cabbie about the future. He was excited to learn that I hold a US American passport, and quickly reassured me that even if many Chinese people dislike the USA and its residents, he felt otherwise. He wants China to become more democratic and for more voices to be heard in political conversations. He emphasized that presently China only has one voice, making everybody else what we in the US would call “sock puppets” and in China are sometimes called “marionettes” or 傀儡. He also felt that Shenzhen’s housing market made it impossible for anyone not rich to purchase a house and make a life for themselves, so why not “lay down” 躺平. If you have a place to lay your head and enough to eat, why bother with marriage and children?

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the kids really are all right

Last night I had dinner with Joe, a gen-90 recent college graduate. He and several friends have a start-up that helps businesses expand through the powers of we chat and Tencent’s remarkable level of cross platform integration. Very contemporary marketing firm. In his downtime, Joe organizes summer programs that teach creative thinking, collaboration, and courage of independent thought to other young Shenzheners.

Our conversation and Joe’s passion, like last week’s trip to Beijing reminded me that there are new ideas and start ups perculating throughout Shenzhen. Green Mango is a group of young mothers trying to change the education system. Bean is a Seattle-based group of volunteers who contribute to community projects. ECSSZ is a group of street artists who engage in community beautification projects. Not to mention the young hackers in residence at Baishizhou.

It is all too easy to dismiss these small and idealistic efforts as unrealistic. In fact, Chinese parents like their American counterparts complain that their children are “不现实.” But that’s not point du jour. Today I’m thinking, wow. Just. Wow.

mapping Chinese creativity–shenzhen vis-a-vis beijing

Several weeks ago, Shenzhen hosted the Maker Faire, bringing tech savvy makers together to explore, discuss and extend hardwire creativity and innovation. This past week, Beijing has hosted Social Innovation Week, bringing changemakers together to explore, discuss and extend social creativity and innovation. In Chinese one character separated the two events. The Shenzhen hosted 创客 or “maker guests” while in Beijing the guest list comprised 创变客 or “make change guests”.

Inquiring minds might paraphrase Gregory Bateson and ask: is this a difference that marks an important cultural difference between the two cities?

As in English, the Chinese shift from the vocabulary of “hacker” to “maker” has signaled the increasing respectability of the techno-nerds. The Chinese is even more explicit in this respect. To my knowledge, the earliest translation of “hacker” was 黑客, literally “black guest”. The term highlighted the outlaw romance of hacking at (at least) two levels. First the obvious 黑 which describes renegades and their possibly illegal activities as in the expressions “mafia (黑社会)”, “no hukou child (黑户)”, and “black heart (黑心)”. Second, 客 refers not only to guests in the modern sense of the term, but also clients in the medieval sense of the term, the dependents on a lord who would provide service in return for protection. Unlike, the English, however, the expression “changemaker” is more obviously related to the hacker movement because the word is made (!) by inserting the character 变 or change into the net-popularized expression 创客.

The more pertinent question, however, seems to be: Almost a decade after China began promoting creative industries, do the respective localizations of these two events tell us anything interesting about how Beijing and Shenzhen function within the Chinese cognitive mapping of creativity and innovation?

The pomp and circumstances of the two events did not differ radically–both were located in marginal spaces (Anhuili and Shekou, respectively) that are nevertheless within the city center, broadly defined. The demographic of the organizers was similar, with generations 80 and 90 running the show, and a shared emphasis on networking nationally and globally. The staging of talks was different. Beijing opted for TED style talks, with speakers having 15 minutes to share their projects. This was supplemented by round table discussions. In contrast, Shenzhen opted for more traditional keynotes, with salon style question and answer sessions.

The important difference seems to coalesce around funding sources and industry support. Beijing garnered support from not-for-profits and international foundations. In contrast, Shenzhen had industry support, generally through China Merchants, which is rebranding Shekou and specifically through Shenzhen based companies and international think tanks that focus on techno innovation. In other words, while young people of both cities deployed creativity to claim a space for and to legitimate the status of Generations 80 and 90, the Beijing event constituted itself with respect to society broadly defined, while Shenzhen defined society with respect to entrepreneurship narrowly defined.

Impressions from opening events, below.

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are there any shenzheners?

The Shenzhen Volunteer Association claims that “If you come, you are a Shenzhener (来了,就是深圳人). The claim itself is fascinating because it not only flies in the face of traditional hometown identities, but also because it implies that those who were already here aren’t Shenzheners.

There are three main labels for people in Shenzhen: 深圳人 (Shenzhener),本地人 (local),and 外地人 (outsider). As a general rule of thumb, Shenzheners are as much a construction of ongoing municipal campaigns to generate identification with the city as they are the rich second generation who grew up here. The point is that in addition to refering to an individual’s hukou status, the label “Shenzhener” also and importantly refers to a recognizable lifestyle and aesthetic that in the US we would call “middle class consumer”.

In contrast, locals and outsiders refer to the hometowns of people who live in Shenzhen. Locals have traditional roots here (through a historic village), while outsiders came from elsewhere to live and work in Shenzhen. Technically, everyone in Shenzhen is either a local or an outsider. However, as indicated above, the category of “Shenzhener” is an ongoing social construction that transvalues local and outsider identities, usually by smoothing out differences in the second generation. Thus, the children of both locals and outsiders frequently identify as Shenzheners, even when their parents have Shenzhen household residency but continue to identify with their hometown.

The distinction between Shenzheners, locals, and outsiders points to the overlap between traditional Chinese hometown identities and the reform policies that created Shenzhen. On the one hand, Chinese people identify with their hometowns, creating identity out shared language, food, and customs, such as Shanghai or Hakka people. On the other hand, Shenzhen identity has been constructed out of the transformation of Bao’an, environmentally, socially, politically, and culturally. Shenzheners are the people who have participated in and/or benefited from that process. In contrast, locals remain identified with their natal villages, while outsiders continue to identify with theirs.

The symbols through which individuals craft Shenzhener identities are vexed by contradiction and uncertainties for three reasons. First, less than 3 million people (or 1/6) of the total population have Shenzhen hukou, which means legally most inhabitants are not Shenzheners. Second, if locals are not considered Shenzheners, it is because identity remains rooted in policy, rather than history. And third, even second generation Shenzhen residents remain emotionally embedded in hometown relationships elsewhere because their were raised by outsider grandparents.

Of course, therein lays the rub. The debate about who is a Shenzhener not only raises the question of who has rights to the city, but also the question of who is willing to be responsible for the city. To date, these questions have not been explicitly addressed, begging the question: is it enough to define a Shenzhener through how an individual has used the city (to achieve political and/or economic goals), or do we need to re-imagine the Shenzhener identity in terms of contributions to society?

可怜天下父母心: generation 80 and 90 go abroad

I tend to think that middle class Chinese parents have it good. Grandparents take care of young children, elementary school children go to school and can generally be pressured into doing several hours of homework a night, and older children hang out with their parents, not only out of respect, but also because they acknowledge that being with children makes parents happy. In fact, a visit to any park or mall, or even an ordinary bus commute suggests how well behaved Chinese infants are. One or two fuss, but most sit calmly on their grandparents’ laps or play with a water bottle. School age children get themselves to and from campus, attend cram sessions, and organize their homework.

Even after graduating from college, middle class children take care of their parents’ well-being. I know more than one member of Generation 80, for example, who returns home for weekly meals. Working Chinese children also arrange for their parents and parental-in laws to live with or near them in order to attend to parental needs. So common is the assumption of parental care that throughout Shenzhen, hospitals and shopping malls market themselves as places where children can express care for parents — arranging a mother’s dental appointment or family dinner, for example. Certainly, facilitating migrant remittances from Shenzhen to neidi and family network phone plans are huge sections of the financial and service industries. In other words, my experience has shown me the extent to which middle class Chinese children — even members of Generation 80 and 90 —  remain remarkably filial. Or certainly seem so when compared with their age cohorts in the United States.

I realize that mine is a minority position. Commentators in both China and the West have focused on how China’s middle-class parents work exceedingly hard to provide the material conditions for their only child to live well. These parents sacrifice all sorts of ambitions and desires so that their child can go a famous university. They also point out that since promulgation in 1980, China’s one-child policy has produced not a few “little Emperors (小皇帝)”, who in common English are simply “spoilt brats”. Now it may be that when two sets of grandparents and often a nanny orbit the lone descendent, some children become unreasonable. But not all. And certainly not the majority, who study hours as long or longer than their parents work to achieve academic results that will make their elders proud. Indeed, I am still impressed by the number of young Chinese people who make their parents’ dreams (rather than their own) their lodestar.

As I have begun to gather stories about generations 80 and 90 abroad, however, my perspective has shifted. I am beginning to realize the extent to which their parents have made these young people their life’s purpose. It is not simply that middle class parents bask in the glory of their child’s accomplishments, but also and more importantly, that they have crafted lives out of raising this child. These parents often confuse high grades with success and low grades with failure, or interpret independent thinking as “rebellion” and “intransigence”. Nevertheless, once their child successfully matriculates in an overseas high school or college, these parents suffer acute ” empty nest” syndrome, as we call it in the States not only because they realize that they will no longer be able to direct their children’s development, but also because they finally understand, no matter what and how they dream for their child, ultimately they cannot give their child a smooth and carefree life.

Yesterday, I helped a mother read and understand US insurance documents. Her daughter is in California and was in a car accident. The other party has filed for damages, and the daughter’s insurance company has begun to negotiate with the claimant’s lawyer. Ironically, the mother sold her own car so that the daughter could purchase a car, which she explained, “is more necessary in California than Shenzhen.” The daughter whose English is fine, but not strong enough to feel confident about her understanding of documents in legal English sent her mother digital copies, asking for guidance. The mother does not read English and used half a day to find a connection to me to make an appointment. After I explained the content to her, we came up with a plan of action and contacted the daughter, who is no doubt figuring out what needs to be done and doing it. Her mother, however, is in Shenzhen managing the anxiety of helplessness; she deeply wants to help her daughter, but cannot.

All this to say that I am hearing the expression “take pity on the hearts of the world’s parents (可怜天下父母心)” differently, and perhaps more accurately. I used to hear it as spoilt parent moaning about a child’s attempt to establish a bit of independence. Today, I am better able to pity parents, not because their child received poor grades or has a stubborn streak, but rather because they would do anything to make their child’s life smooth and happy. Of course, that is precisely what they cannot do, and so they suffer.

Interesting cultural postscript: in Chinese, empty nests refer to lonely grandparents and the phrase “empty nester” is translated as 孤寡老人. Thus, when their children go and remain abroad, Chinese parents not only become empty nesters in the US sense of “children have moved out”, but also potentially in the Chinese sense of “old person without a grandchild”.

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.

Meilin: historic footnotes

Located between Lianhua Mountain and the ridge of low-lying mountains that once marked the second line, Meilin interests for several reasons.

First, Meilin completes the central axis in the same way that Hong Kong does – as an historic footnote. Meilin and Hong Kong are the implicit extensions of Shenzhen’s ideologically charged central axis, which announced the SEZ’s transition from an industrial manufacturing economy to a financial service and high-tech research and development economy. However, Meilin was built for functionaries in the 80s and 90s, and realizes the scale and type of residential area to which SZ once aspired. Likewise, Hong Kong was the orientation of SEZ globalization throughout the 80s and 90s, but like Meilin, it was globalization on a different scale. Shenzhen’s post axis global aims have long since reached beyond Hong Kong.

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Second, the integration of Shang Meilin and Xia Meilin New Villages is neat because handshake building scale was the scale of 80s and 90s neighborhoods. Continue reading

what’s not to love?

This bit of gossip illustrates the social construction of Shenzhen identities, so I’m not just pandering to my baser nature. Really. It may even tell us something about the socio-economic conditions predicating the globalization of yoga. That said, I’m sure it says something about education at Shenzhen University – hee!

I practice yoga at a great studio. Like many studios in Shenzhen, classes are held during the day, evening, and weekends. Their main clientele are upper middle class women from 20 to maybe 55ish, however, most of the women are in their 30s and 40s. There are several male students, but in any class, they are usually a party representative (党代表), which is slang for the only man in a group of women.

One of my friends teaches at Shenzhen University and has, on occasion, introduced interested students to the studio. A while back, one of her male students started practicing and usually joined her for evening class. Then two weeks ago, my friend couldn’t go to class and so student went by himself and found himself the recipient not only of all that female attention, but also invitations for dinner and trips. He finally decided on one of the more flexible cougars and they have been dating since.

Here’s the interesting part of this story: no one had approached him previously because they thought he and my friend were dating! They finally dared approach him on a day when she wasn’t there. In other words, the working assumption of the women and staff at the yoga studio was that when men show up for yoga, its couple’s yoga. Moreover, that when a younger man and woman go to class together, it means that the young man’s virtue is probably up for grabs (so to speak).

As my yoga studio turns: What’s not to love?

another call for a housing boycott in shenzhen

Folks in Shenzhen continue to protest the price of housing. This time, an armless beggar wrote the boycott call on the chest of a Generation 90s young woman. The interesting twist in this story? The young woman is from Hong Kong. I’m not sure how the protagonists’ collaboration ties into the ongoing re-structuring of a grassroots Shen Kong identity and deepening cross border integration (as opposed to official planning). Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about the implications of this protest performance: it took place in Lizhi Park, Futian, neither of the protagonists is identified as a Shenzhener, and yet this protest was represented in the press (晶报) as a Shenzhen story. Details, here.

Update (Mar 1): surfing in Youtube, I discovered a report that she had first tried to get a place to live by offering her chest as a pillow. However, the “price was too high” according to a man in the street.

Advertizing and the Shenzhen Soul


Originally uploaded by maryannodonnell

The elevators in my building have three walls dedicated to advertizing; the fourth wall, so to speak, is a door. These advertisements change every week. What’s more, the advertisements in each of the three elevators are different. This means that every week, I encountered nine different sales pitches for appliances, cars, cultural events, family phone plans, and beauty makeovers. In short, the walls of my elevator promote a constantly changing version of the good home life, which is presumably affordable to those who live here – the catch is to make these life purchases desirable.

One of the latest advertisements for a beauty makeover claims to be able to remove all traces of acne and pimples. This advertisement disturbs me because its intended audience is Generation 90, teenagers who in addition are under the stress of the gaokao are being told they have no place to hide themselves and feel safe from prying eyes. Given the fact that most adults only notice a teenager when said teenager has blundered, the feeling of an ostrich unable to safely hide its head in the sand is probably spot on, if you’ll forgive the pun.

In English, I have understood the expression “to hide one’s head in the sand” to mean something like “avoid reality” or “avoid the consequences of my actions”. For me, being an ostrich has implied a kind of cowardice and a reluctance to take responsibility. In contrast, this advertisement focuses on being exposed – warts and all – to the gaze of others. In other words, the Mandarin interpretation of “to hide one’s head in the sand” focuses on a response to feeling ashamed – hide one’s face.

In other posts, I have spoken of the difference between lian (face as a metaphor for ethical sensibility) and mianzi (face as a metaphor for prestige and social power), what I hadn’t seen at the time was the way in which the emotional impact of these metaphors is cultivated through reference to actual faces. We effectively use shame to control the behaviors of others not only because we care about ethics, power, and other abstract values, but also because we have been taught to value some faces more than others and in the process become ashamed of our own.

Such is the cruelty of advertizing; it exploits cultural tropes for profit. More lamentably, when successful, the creative minds behind such symbolic manipulation are rewarded for their lack of lian by increased mianzi.