Why Singleton Lunch? Why invite someone to Handshake 302, have them prepare a meal, share it with a group of friends and strangers, and call it “art”? What’s the difference between a Singleton Lunch meal and more traditional forms of art like painting or theater or even a happening?
We know that Shenzhen is an immigrant city, but inquiring minds wonder: where do the immigrants come from? Based on the recent release of Shenzhen statistics (for 2015), I’ve come up with the following chart that gives a crude (very, very crude) approximation of where Shenzhen’s residents are from circa 2014. Of note, if Chongqing and Sichuan counted as one place, instead of as a city and province respectively, the area would be roughly tied with Hunan for second most common origin. And yes, this corresponds with my (again vague) impression that Guangdong, Hunan, and Sichuan/Chongqing restaurants dominate the city’s eating!
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.
I am currently reading Washington Square (Henry James) with students and had one of those “this time on steroids” moments. From the opening paragraph, “In a country in which, to play a social part, you must either earn your income or make believe that you earn it, the healing art has appeared in a high degree to combine two recognised sources of credit. It belongs to the realm of the practical, which in the United States is a great recommendation; and it is touched by the light of science–a merit appreciated in a community in which the love of knowledge has not always been accompanied by leisure and opportunity.” It’s Shenzhen. Only in contrast to 1840s NYC, in millennial Shenzhen, students are encouraged to learn math and become engineers or accountants, rather than doctors.
We know this story. Most migrants come to The City from poor rural farms to make their fortune, but they may also have come from less vibrant small towns; these migrants have created their world and are proud of what they have made; they believe in taking advantage of opportunity; they believe themselves to be more forward-thinking than hometown people (and indeed they may actually be); they expect their children to do better.
In fact, folks in Shenzhen constantly remind me that the city is an immigrant city, but I often forget how similar its history is to NYC, albeit on steroids, 250 years later. Or London. Or Chicago. Or LA. Or Mumbai. The story of capitalist urbanization has been a story of the transformation of rural migrants into the urban proletariat and the expansion and relative enrichment of the capitalist class – wealth sucks up, even if there’s more stuff and fewer trees than there once were. Just the other day, an American passing through Shenzhen told me that what America needed was an infusion of good ole fashioned immigrant hunger. “Just look,” he said pointing out at Shenzhen, “how well it’s working here.”
In the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx notes, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
And there’s the rub. Now that we’re well beyond farce, what do we call global urbanization?