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What’s the Difference Between a Duck? (AKA: Nonessentialized Chinenessness)

What’s the Difference Between a Duck?

When I was a kid my dad used to always joke around and ask me this question. We’d be in the car or at dinner and he’d get serious and look me in the eyes and then say, without any hint of a smile, “What’s the difference between a duck?” For years I never said anything other than, “A duck and what else?” and he’d just repeat the question with a big smile on his face until I just gave up frustrated. When I was a teenager I realized that there was no wrong answer—and there was no right answer either—and any answer would stop the annoying questioning.

I was reminded of this question as I had the opportunity to listen to a sales professional from Taiwan speak to a group of businessmen and educators about working in China last week. He’s a well educated professional and has done business in Shenzhen for a number of years. In his presentation he made a point that I’d never heard from a Chinese before, and it got me thinking. He said, “Foreigners have a racial/cultural excuse when they want to get out of something or want to say no to something here in China. We (Taiwanese) don’t have that option. We’re expected to be Chinese, just like they are.”

This reminded me of the experiences of an ABC (American Born Chinese) woman that I knew that worked in here in Shenzhen about twenty years ago. She was born and raised in a Chinese immigrant family in the US and went to a PAC 10 school on an athletic scholarship. though ethnically Chinese, she was, in her own words, “more American than Chinese.” She came to China with an MBA and was fluent in Mandarin. She had a good job (title) and was excited to be here, the land of her ancestors. She originally hoped that this would be a real educational experience for her—she would learn about her family and China and she expected to learn to love her Chinese ancestry.

Unfortunately for her, the opposite happened. She was frustrated that she was expected to play a very specific (and for her, limiting) role—one that she did not fully understand. Being seen as a (local) Chinese woman, meant that she was expected to be, “less than the men.” She told me that she had more education and more work experience than most people in her company but she was seen as not only a junior employee but a woman as well—meaning she was even less than the junior men. She was explicitly told that she was supposed to dress “pretty” (according to local standards) and that she should keep her head down and fit in, rather than stay to stand out and try to get ahead. As an athletic, rather tall, culturally American, educated woman, playing this role was too tall a request and eventually proved to be impossible for her.

She told me that she “understood the words” that were being spoken to her, but she “didn’t get the hints” behind them. She looked and sounded “Chinese” and so was expected to play the role that she physically resembled. But she didn’t fully understand her part, and the more she learned the less she agreed with the expectations being placed upon her. She eventually left China and got a job working for a US company (in the states) and an interlocutor between Chinese and American businesses.

The Taiwanese professional that I heard speak this last week had a similar point to make. He “looks” the part and so is supposed to play the role. Those that don’t look the part, foreigners, are given great leeway (read: allowed to bumble though negotiation protocols that Chinese are expected to know). It’s just assumed that foreigners don’t know what’s going on and so get a pass.

For me at this time, this highlights a scale of Chinese and foreignness—it’s isn’t as simple as you are or you’re not Chinese. Ditto being or not being foreign—although this is a bit harder “not to be.” I have a buddy from the States that went to college here and has lived most of his adult life since age 18 in China. It’s been decades for him in China and he consciously recognizes that returning to the West is a “foreign” experience for him. While he’s occidental and will never be considered “Chinese” by the locals here, he himself feels more comfortable here in China.

So what is the difference between a duck, or in this case, a Chinese? Culture isn’t a racial, or ethnic, or even geographic distinction—those it’s often used colloquially as such. It’s learned set of behaviors and ideals that are specific to a time and space. “He’s Chinese,” or “She’s Hong Kongnese,” or “He’s an ABC” point to location, a nationality or an ethnicity as the defining cultural markers that are often generalized across a large spectrum of people with a similar attribute. But this is not only essentializing but problematic to recognizing cultural differences and understanding how these differences in affect understandings and behavior.

To see how this might look in another context, think about claiming that Americans all have something culturally generalizable and significant in common other than a common nationality—though even that would likely be understood differently. Generalizing third generation immigrant Cubans living in Miami, Bill Simmons from Boston, my ranching-family from Wyoming, multi-generation Mormons in Arizona, Japanese immigrants living in San Francisco, or someone of African-American descent in Atlanta would certainly be too general and/or completely inaccurate to give any real understanding of culture in America.

China needs to be understood in a similar way to the diversity in the US or the EU—a collection of very different small countries and groups rather than a singular cultural and historic monolith. Chinese working in the company (where I’m conducting research) are from more than 12 difference provinces and speak 7 different “native” languages before their common-use language, Mandarin. Some are urbanites with educated parents, some are from (much) smaller hometowns, and some are first generation college grads from large east-coast cities. Within the employee pool there are stark generational differences, with some being graduates of the best colleges in the country and some who were forced to skip years of school due to politics. Of course there are economic differences as well—significantly influencing how life in Shenzhen (the highest per capita GDP city in China), as well as rapidly developing China, is understood and experienced.

Back to the Taiwan professional, he finished with a final thought about economic development and how it’s changing the cultural habits of urban professionals in China today. He said that drinking and eating out are popular here because there isn’t yet a culture of other social activities. For the most part, he said, the middle class in Shenzhen don’t yet go to NBA games with buddies. They don’t go biking or running with neighbors. They don’t golf on weekends with their professional counterparts. Classes, church groups, home improvement projects or yard work are just not part of most urban lifestyles in China. While these types of activities are increasing as disposable income rises, they’re not yet anywhere near the norm. But food and drink are relatively cheap, are available everywhere, are extremely convenient and require no special training, have been culturally acceptable for generations, and can accommodate any size group or type of group.

The point isn’t that there are problems with China, or that this Taiwanese professional’s and the ABC’s experiences are standard. Rather that there are likely as many definitions of Chineseness as there are Chinese. Many MBA types might exasperatedly exclaim, “Well what the hell’s the use in knowing that everyone different?! What can we generalize and apply across people and industries and cities? My answer? Difference. Each experience will be as unique as the people participating. Don’t overly generalize urban Chinese or the Chinese experience. Don’t assume that your experience in Beijing will be repeated in Guangzhou.

I realize that this isn’t a new concept. I actually wrote about this years ago—the generational and regional differences in China. But I think that it’s still true, despite the standardization of education, the increasing control of the media and the seeming globalization (Westernization) of Chinese cities. There is much localization of neoliberalism that makes for unique adaptations to globalism. Diversity may not “look” the same here as it does in the West, but that doesn’t make it any less of a reality in Chinese businesses.

Post Script: As I’m typing this blog up in a local Starbucks, there is a saleswoman pitching some electronics and her company to a client from a phone company in Zhejiang. The guy has just arrived in SZ and has been waiting for her here for about 1/2 an hour. They’re sitting in the seats right next to mine, him next to me and she across the table from us. They are talking about parts and standards and markets. About 15 minutes into the conversation, she pauses for effect and says, “The truth is that foreigners think differently and have different expectations than we do.” At this comment, Chinese guy on the other side of me, studying for some US graduate exam, and I both look up at her and I catch her eye, right as she continues to say, “Foreigners just don’t think the same way that we do.” And while I’m looking right at her, with a kind of surprised smile on my face, she says in Chinese to me, without skipping a beat, “Excuse me for that“ (buhaoyisi, 不好意思). In Chinese I say to her, “No need to apologize” (Buyongkeqi, 不用客气). She smiles and then just continues right on with the sales pitch to her client about how we think differently and how that makes our markets different. At this, the Chinese student laughs and smirks. The sales lady talks for another 20 minutes and then, despite me trying to start a conversation with her on her way out, she doesn’t make eye contact with me and continues with her client; and I’m left without the follow up questions that I was hoping to get.

5 Years Later…Back Home in Shenzhen.

After a few years in school, being back in Shenzhen, where I lived for almost a decade, has been an enjoyable readjustment. I moved back into our own home in Futian and now conduct PhD research in an office very close to where my own office was a few years back. My routine hasn’t change that much. But Shenzhen has.

A couple of general observations.

First, the pollution seems to be much less than it was before. There have been, so far these last two weeks, multiple days of clear blue skies. Streets seem to be cleaner and less covered with trash. To me this is major. As people are actively planning career moves away from Beijing because of pollution (Doing Business in China: Pollution puts a Chokehold on Business Owners) this is a positive for Southern China—which I’ve always claimed was better for Business than Northern China anyway (further from Beijing and it’s controlling govt, closer to HK and it’s legal rights and int’l connections, longer history of development and capitalism, a “freer” attitude, int’l business history, etc.). Of course this decrease in pollution can be seen as either a victory for govt regulations and clean-up efforts, or a sign of the slowing down of the economy and the shift of manufacturing away from Guangdong Province. It’s probably some of each. Either way, it’s cleaner.

Second, in the last ten years the subway in Shenzhen has grown from 2 lines with about 20+ stops to 10 lines with more than 200 stops. I’ve had some personal history with the subway that wasn’t all that positive, but I have to admit that it’s quite convenient now. I use it every day that it rains–which is a couple days a week right now–when I’m not on a bike.

Third, when I lived here before bikes in the city were illegal. Now? You can’t get out your front gate without tipping over rows of public bikes—Mobike, Bluegogo, ofo, etc. There are literally tens of thousands of bikes parked on the streets—and thousands more moving through the streets at all times of the day. With a swipe of your phone and about 1RMB per ride, you can grab a bike off of any street curb and leave it at any other curb. fullsizeoutput_3a35They’re everywhere. Right now it’s “cool,” “new,” and trendy—not to mention convenient! Not sure how long it will last though. We’ll see what happens in 8-12 months when all these bikes start breaking down and rusting out; piling up on corners and against trees and buildings. There are already alleys that I pass when I jog in the AMs where I see piles of broken bikes. But there is real optimism as the smartest of these bike companies have already eliminated parking frames, tubes in the tires, chains, and other removable and breakable parts. Fewer things to break or steal means more use and fewer repairs. And of course, they’re selling advertising space on the bikes as well.

Fourth, to paraphrase Fletch, “Awww. Come on, guys. It’s so simple. Maybe you need a refresher course. It’s all WeChat now days!” WeChat: all day, every day, until the sun goes out. On their bikes, while they do taiqi or run in the park, while driving, on dates, while eating, while talking on the phone to others—everyone seems to be using WeChat. It has become the norm for a billion people. It’s increasing a culture of atomization—as if Chinese citizens were not already atomized enough in cities (living next to others but without any connection to the people around them). Ironically, foreigners seem to be using even more than Chinese!

The obsession with WeChat is understandable, because it’s SOOOOoooo efficient and convenient. You can do almost everything on WeChat—pay utility bills, pay for groceries, rent a bike, buy movie tix, chat, watch movies, use it as a facebook/snapchat equivalent, order coffee/flowers/books, order take-out food, check your bank balance, “see” a doctor, read the news, translate documents, park you car, take/edit/share photos, lock doors, monitor your kids at school, use maps, shop online, etc. It’s every single app on your US iPhone in one single app. That means there’re only one password and one bank account and one interface to EVERYTHING in your life. Every store you go into asks, “Cash or WeChat.” WeChat has replaced credit cards and is quickly replacing cash (except for in the subway). It’s amazing, and more than 1 billion people are using it everyday, all day long. As China grows, WeChat will too.

Of course, it’s also very scary.

The same company that has built WeChat (Tencent) is also working with the govt on China’s social credit system (Sesame). The govt is tapping into this digital resource to expand the enforcement of it’s new (started just last year) personal income tax. Not just everything you pay for, but everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, and everything you search for is recorded in one place. What could go wrong with that?!

Fifth, the censorship is more extensive, but seems to be somewhat random. Sometimes my school email works, but most of the time it doesn’t. Ditto, but even more so for Gmail. Once or twice a week I can pull gmail. And google maps worked great last Sunday night but never before or since. A VPN works well, but that means that emails are not synced across devices—a pain, but better than not getting emails at all.

I think that there is a real conflict in the hearts of Chinese people about this censorship. A good friend said to me last night, “There is only good news in China. Nothing bad. Only ‘China government blah blah blah.’ It’s really developed and convenient now but we don’t know any of the real news. We have lots of TV and internet but we really don’t know anything about China.”

She’s right. It’s amazing how much news about China is blocked in here. Articles that are blocked that I’m linking to this AM include some foreign comments about China’s One Belt One road (OBOR) development in Thailand/Mekong region (Reuters), a questions about the slowdown of the Chinese service economy (Financial Times), all of the WSJ, Bloomberg, the NYT, as well as access to many scholarly document services. The entire Google universe is also blocked—maps, groups, email, search (but not google drive!?). Of course Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are all blocked as well.

Sixth, while the economic numbers are not bad, there seem to be a worsening case of under employment here. Younger people in “my” office are talking about how glad they are to have a job.

For the first time in the PRC’s history millions of students that have been competing educationally since before first grade have now graduated. The result of that intense decades-long competition is highly qualified students going to relatively poor quality universities and increasingly getting degrees in fields that are not necessarily employable. China needs lawyers, engineers, accountants, computer technicians, and other technical people. And they can’t produce enough of those. And as they try to copy/compete with the West they’re also starting to produce increasingly more history, philosophy, and area studies majors. The result is massive under employment in China right now–even for technical grads like engineers. Increased rates of college admissions and graduation combined with inadequate schools have produce too many poor quality graduates. Student with less-than int’l standard degrees can’t find full employment even in a good economy. Add to this the reality that economy has indeed slowed down (regardless of what the govt says) and what you get is coffee from 20-somethings with MA’s and foot massages from 20-somethings with BA’s.

For example, I just got a foot massage in a shop next-door to a Starbucks in downtown Shenzhen. The guy working at the counter in Starbucks has a masters degree, but he’s not the manager, and the girl that gave me a foot massage has a bachelors degree in Japanese. Both of these people spoke very comfortably with me in English. Neither of them are doing what they went to school for; both of them moved to Shenzhen for better opportunities after graduation but neither have been able to find degree-related work in more than a year of searching. The manager at Starbucks is completely frustrated. He doesn’t know what to do or where to go—he can’t afford a car or house (read: can’t get married) on a Starbucks salary. The girl at the foot massage place, on the other hand, isn’t happy about her job, but couldn’t find anything else. She’s happily resigned though; she’s is making like $35 an hour with tips (yes, everything that she touches is below the knees). The money is so good now that she thinks that she’ll continue to do foot massages for a couple more years before she goes to get a job in her major; and she only wants to find a job in Japanese so that she can “find a decent husband” and have face, because “nobody wants to marry a masseur.” I suggested to both of them that they start looking at jobs in other countries since there are so many businesses that are looking for educated Chinese/English (Japanese) speakers outside of China.

It seems that China is still losing its best and brightest because it can’t employ many of them domestically. Add to that most older people that are financially successful are actively moving their family and money out of the country (hence the govt’s limitations on the moment of capital abroad). Students with debt in China is also starting to become increasingly common event as well. Debt, underemployment, unrealistic expectations for marriage (a house and car), and the need to care for aging parents is going to frustrate an increasingly large number of young Chinese.

I was talking with foreigner here and she mentioned that while she’s not working in her major either, she’s making good money and the opportunities and adventure in China are enticing enough that she wants to stay.