All Posts byMitchell Blatt

About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

Oct 15

What it’s like living in a Chinese corental with 8 flatmates, a crazy downstairs neighbor who hates us, and a landlord who doesn’t take shit from us or him

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Living in China

When I arrived in China six years ago, I was a recent graduate fresh out of college with no idea how to rent an apartment in a foreign country and a stipend much too small to cover a studio apartment in Shanghai.

So I did what any foreigner in that situation should do: I rented a room in an illegal co-rental apartment (hezu) with eight flatmates. What I learned from that experience is that living in a hezu is a great way to make Chinese friends and become accustomed to life in China.

After I found an internship in 2012, the first thing I did was to get a list together of apartments from the website 58Tongcheng, a sort of Craigslist-esque website for which professional real estate listings are a main feature (“a magical website,” according to its commercials). Quickly I learned that the listings have almost no relation to the apartments an agent will show clients.

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I called to express interest in a promising apartment listed on the 27th floor of a building a few subway stops away from downtown. The agent told me to meet outside Lujiabang subway station and took me to the 23rd floor of a tower with European-esque colonnades and design ornaments. The apartment was new, he said, and I could tell, because there were still wood planks lying against the wall, and tape and paint on the floor and walls. It wasn’t the place in the listing.

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Nonetheless, I liked what I saw. It had five bedrooms, a common room, a refrigerator, and a spectacular view from the glass-enclosed balcony. I quickly decided I wanted to live there. There was only one problem: I was a foreigner. Only Chinese could live there, the landlord said.

I felt the sting of discrimination. Why couldn’t foreigners live with Chinese? I knew some foreigners in China could be loud and obnoxious, but I wasn’t that kind of foreigner. Why’d they show it to me in the first place if I couldn’t live there?

I told the landlord, “Wo hui shuo zhongwen” (“I can speak Chinese”), and I appreciate Chinese culture, so I should be able to get along with the others.

“That’s not the problem,” Landlord said. It’s just that the apartment, you see, was not technically a legal living arrangement. After all, Landlord had taken what was licensed as a single-family apartment and turned it into a flophouse. She had put up makeshift walls and rewired the electricity. Even the kitchen was a bedroom.

“Only ‘family’ can live there,” she said, referring to an apparently loophole. Why couldn’t I be “family”? “Aren’t I your nephew? Don’t you have a ‘sister’ who married a foreigner and had children?” I asked.

The landlord was charmed and eventually let me stay. A Chinese friend negotiated to cut the price by 200 yuan a month. I moved in a few days after signing the contract and was disappointed to see that the balcony had disappeared. There was a wall in front of it. The landlord had created yet another new bedroom!

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Besides me, 8 other people were living in the hezu, a word that means co-rented apartment. They were male and female, old and young. I was the only foreigner. Four of my flatmates were recent college graduates like me who had moved to Shanghai for work. Among them were three women, two of whom worked as models, and one man who worked first as a real estate agent and later as an event host. Next door to me was a young couple and their infant baby, and, in the smallest room, was an old man, who collected the rent.

The day I moved in was July 4, America’s Independence Day. In order to celebrate, I offered my flatmates American whisky. “I brought this from America, it’s one of my country’s biggest brands,” I said, as I unveiled the Jim Beam. We clanked cups together, gan bei-ed, and then went to a dinner of hot pot. To celebrate a country that aspires to be a melting pot, I felt whisky and hot pot was an ideal meal.

Before long, conflicts began. The root of the conflicts stemmed not from my being a foreigner but rather from all of us being outsiders—foreign to Shanghai. Some Shanghainese who had moved to Shanghai a decade or two ago don’t like recent arrivals, especially those from neighboring Anhui, a less prosperous inland province where a few of the models were from, whom they view as “uncultured” “peasants.”

The man living on the floor below us was one such person. Despite us following Landlord’s request not to be too loud, the man below quickly went to war with us.

He would knock the women’s clothes off the drying poles when it was hanging to outside the windows. He came to our apartment one day and got into a fistfight with the husband living next door to me. One night in winter, we heard a loud crack. The next morning, we discovered the crazy man had smashed the bathroom window from below. Showering was very cold for the next month until Landlord finally had it fixed.

Worse than the December cold was the scorching summer heat. With 8 people in the place and the temperature hitting 40 degrees C (104 degrees F) a few times, we had air conditioning cranking to the max all summer long. Often the power would go out. After all of us called Landlord to complain, she would eventually come late the next day, sometimes two days later, to fix it.

Within the hezu, however, we were getting along and making friends. I became good friends with the model, “Small A”, and the real estate agent, “Small W”. We all had dreams. Being young workers in Shanghai, we were intoxicated by the bright lights of the big city. We went to a nightclub one night and drank Qingdaos while standing at the bar and marveling at the spectacle of champaign being served with sparklers to tables with bottle service.

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Most nights, however, it was shao kao barbecue. Small W told me he was gay. He couldn’t tell his parents or almost anyone else, he said, but he trusted me because, “Foreigners are more open.” Now he’s married to a woman. Small A told me how tough it is to stand on your feet all day at expos for video games, wine, cars, and washing machines while keeping up a constant smile and cute demeanor towards strange men who ogle you. We all complained about Landlord and how she didn’t treat us well enough.

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But then one day we arrived at the apartment and there was a notice on the door from the police telling us to leave by the end of the week. Our illegal apartment had finally been uncovered and sanctioned. When I called Landlord, she told me not to worry. She was there quickly and had a curtain put over Small A’s door and left some boxes scattered haphazardly in the common room. When the police came back, she told them that we had moved out.

I did move out for good halfway through my lease. I had found a new job, which offered its own housing on site in a much nicer apartment with just two flatmates in Lujiazui, the posh financial district. In the ensuing six years, I lived in many different apartments in different cities, most of which were vastly more comfortably than that 9-person co-rental.

But none of them had the same charm and excitement. Living with 8 Chinese flatmates from different provinces who shared common goals and faced common challenges. Even Landlord ultimately stood up for us.

A few years late, I was reminiscing about those times with Small A, and I asked her if she knew why the man downstairs came to our apartment to fight. You didn’t know? she said. It was because Landlord left a used tampon on his door after he started bothering us.

Jul 09

What a flight from Japan to the U.S. teaches about Confucian values and capitalism in America

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture

It was a most disappointing experience to arrive at the Los Angeles International Airport in late June 2018 and transfer from a Japan Airlines flight to an American Airlines flight. It was an experience, I believe, that reveals much about the marketization and stratification of American life, as well as the need for virtue to coexist with capitalism.

I had been in transit for close to 26 hours, having flown JAL 38 from Singapore to Tokyo and then JAL 7018 from Tokyo to LAX. Yet I was feeling all right. I had passable (which is to say, quality, by airline standards) meals on the JAL flights, including a salad with smoked salmon. I had two bags carried by JAL for free. An uncle of mine greeted me at LAX and had lunch/dinner/whatever at a restaurant in the terminal, a great way to spend a 4 hour layover. But now I have arrived at the last of the enjoyable aspects of the experience.

As for the service and treatment by the airport and airlines in America, there is nothing much positive to say. Consider the contrast between Japan Airlines and American.

Boarding at the Singapore Airport, one of the nicest in the world, was an orderly process. Japan Airlines only has four boarding groups, the first two of which included priority customers. I was offered a selection of newspapers in English, Chinese, Malay, or Tamil. Arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport with 6 hours for a layover, I asked the friendly customer service representative how to get to Tokyo, and she gave directions to the Tsukiji Fish Market, where I ate fresh, delicious sushi. The security line in Haneda was fast and efficient. No need to take shoes off in either Singapore or Japan, and the attendants moved passengers through the line with not the slightest hint of impatience.

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merican visitors to the Los Angeles International Airport are greeted by an automated kiosk that prints your customs ticket. The machines are not so bad as far as automated kiosks go, but it’s representative of a broader American corporate push to get rid of as many human workers as humanly possible. Now you will see automated kiosks at Safeway, CVS, McDonalds, check-in areas for many of airlines and more.

Airlines in the U.S. are now trying to implement an “automated” security line, like the one I used when reentering the terminal at LAX. The conveyer belt system shoots out a bin at you, and TSA agents try to explain to confused passengers, as only TSA agents can, how the system works, then all the bins get stuck in a line going through the X-ray machine, and the passengers wait single-file to be scanned and have their genitals massaged by a TSA agent, and the whole fancy process doesn’t take any less time than the old way.

Once you finally arrive at American Airlines’ gate, after it has been delayed for four hours and switches gates three times, the gate attendants will call out boarding in slow, precise order, all the way through nine status-listed boarding groups, plus pre-boarding. The first five groups are all those passengers who paid extra for status tickets or frequent flier programs.

U.S. airlines have divided their passengers into dozens of groups based on price-discrimination and value to the corporation. Delta has six groups, consisting of 27 categories of premium members, including Diamond Medallion members, Platinum Medallion, Gold Medallion, and partner airlines programs like GOL Smiles. American has 22, and United, 19. If the order one boards a plane with assigned seats is so important to status seekers, one wonders whether Flying Blue Platinum members must feel offended and ripped off that they have to share the “Sky Priority boarding zone” with Flying Blue Gold members despite their clear superiority in miles earned.

Even low-cost Spirit has four groups, with the first two for premium ticket holders. At least American and United board active military members in the first groups. JetBlue and Southwest have military board in group three—after those who paid the most.

No newspapers are offered on the American flight. It goes without saying that there’s no food and no liquor and that, on an ordinary domestic flight, checked luggage costs US$25. It’s not just that America’s airlines offer worse domestic service than do foreign airlines. Their international service fails to live up to standard in many ways, too.

United and American don’t even offer free liquor on flights to and from China. United offers only free beer to main cabin passengers. American offers beer and wine on flights to China and Korea and spirits to Japan. Just for a few contrasting examples, Japan Airlines, Emirates, Lusthafna, Turkish Airlines, and Taiwan’s Eva Air, among others, offer free spirits to all passengers, ANA offers sake, and Air France brags that it is the only airline to provide free champagne to coach.

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merican airlines do not stand up well in international comparisons. AirHelp’s 2018 rankings show no U.S. airlines in the top 20. (The highest is American Airlines at #23, followed by United at #37.) Neither do the 2017 Skytrax World Airlines Awards. Airlines on the Asian continent dominated, taking nine of the top ten spots.

Skytrax also classifies airlines by star ratings. In North America, there is only one 4-star airline: Air Canada. The city/SAR of Hong Kong itself boasts three airlines rated 4-stars or higher, as does mainland China. Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore each have two.

Upon landing after a sub-par flight, American passengers are greeted by often-dilapidated airports serviced by subcontracted companies trying to nickel and dime them. Need a luggage cart? That’ll be $5 at most American airports. Those carts are free in Asian and most European airports. Finally, there will be no useful public transportation to take you out to explore most American cities—a reality that keeps the poor poor. (Those which do exist can’t match the 99%+ on time performance of the Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul metro systems.)

What’s the point? After all, most people don’t need luggage carts, since their luggage has wheels. But it’s just another example of how America tries to squeeze money out of people out of every opportunity for providing any kind of service that is regarded as simple hospitality by much of the rest of the world.

Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, “The love of wealth is … at the bottom of all that the Americans do.”

It’s not that America is a capitalist country. So are the countries of Europe, and so are South Korea and Japan. It’s that America has little concept of a public sphere. America is one of the most individualistic countries in the world, with a high degree of competition and a “winner-take-all” ethos.

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Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist who worked for IBM and taught at Maastrich University. He developed the “6-D Model”, a comparison of national cultures across six dimensions.

The United States is shown to be both extremely individualistic and scored low on long term orientation, compared to European and Asian countries, as well as more competitive (“masculine”) than average.

The explanation defines values as such:

Individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. … The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.

About the competitive nature of the United States, Hofstede Insights writes:

Behavior in school, work, and play are based on the shared values that people should “strive to be the best they can be” and that “the winner takes all”. As a result, Americans will tend to display and talk freely about their “successes” and achievements in life. … Typically, Americans “live to work” so that they can obtain monetary rewards and as a consequence attain higher status based on how good one can be. Many white collar workers will move to a more fancy neighborhood after each and every substantial promotion.

About Japanese attitude towards time, the analysts wrote, “The idea behind it is that the companies are not here to make money every quarter for the share holders, but to serve the stake holders and society at large for many generations to come (e.g. Matsuhista).”

American capitalism, combining an ultra-competitive nature and unbridled individualism, seeks to serve the interests of individuals and corporations. Luggage carts are there for airports and companies to make money, not to serve the passengers. Automated kiosks take work away from paid employees and force customers to do it. Boarding order becomes a perk and a status symbol.

This attitude pervades many aspects of America going well beyond airline travel. Americans, compared to Europeans, fiercely oppose regulations on businesses, with a view that more profit “creates jobs.” Cities and states sell off parking meters and highways to private companies, who quadruple rates and rake in profits at a rate of six times as much as they paid.

Major League Baseball stadiums charge US$6 for a 14 ounce beer. At Korean baseball games, a beer on the inside of the stadium costs 3,000 won (US$2.69), same as it costs outside the stadium. And outside food and drink is allowed to be taken into the park. Chaebol companies own baseball teams in Korea almost as a national obligation. Europe, meanwhile, holds tighter to old world traditions of hospitality than does the U.S.

The stakeholders and society are much more important in a Confucian culture that puts a premium on upholding one’s obligations to society and comporting oneself with honor. Tomasz Śleziak wrote about Confucianism in Korea, “Since the Joseon period, maintaining the sense of proper social conduct –which is thought to lead to the general social harmony – has been highly promoted by central governing institutions…”

Max Weber thought that Confucianism posed a problem for the development of capitalism in China. It is true that merchants had long been at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Confucian societies. Confucius said, “Gentlemen are interested in virtue, vile people are interested in profit.” There’s even a chengyu (Chinese phrase) that goes, “All businessmen are rapists” (“无奸不商”).

Confucius realized, “Wealth and rank are desirous, but are useless if not attained through ethical means.”

In today’s economy, maybe Confucianism inculcates some necessary restraints to capitalism.

Jun 21

Dancing on the streets of Singapore

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Music

Singapore is a city-state known for peace and order. It’s a place where chewing gum is banned, and the airport refrains from doing final boarding call announcements to make it quieter. It’s not a place where you would expect to see people dancing to classic Chinese pop-rock music in the middle of a public sidewalk guangchang wu style.

But there they were on the corner of New Bridge Street and the lantern-adorned Smith Street at 8 pm shaking their hips, swinging their arms, and doing the twist. I began watching and talking to a local, and soon enough the woman had convinced me to join in singing and dancing. I have to try out the local culture where ever I go.

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Unlike Chinese guangchang wu, which features many slow 50’s and 60’s era songs with choreographed dance moves, the music in Singapore’s Chinatown is more modern, fast-paced, and swinging. The dancing is less choreographed and left up to individuals. Singapore doesn’t have the legacy of political dancing during the Cultural Revolution, which many of China’s public square dancing grannies experienced.

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Dancing at that intersection takes place every Saturday and Sunday evening, dancers said, but lately they have faced complaints over noise. About half an hour after I arrived, two police officers approached the music performer.

The dancing aunties and uncles were angry. “It’s always the same person complaining,” a few of them said.

“People can still use the sidewalk,” which was basically true, but the concentration of people did slow down, if not entirely obstruct, traffic.

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The tall officer examined the musician’s documents for a minute or two. The second officer tried to convince the travel writer to delete the photo he took of the scene. The officers left a few minutes later. The musician then began playing a little bit quieter.

By then, however, many of the original dancers had gathered to observe the public bus that had crashed into a car.

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Jun 01

Dali’s most important religious festival starts June 6: Photos

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Photos

During Raosanling festival in Dali, Yunnan province, people sing and dance, slaughter chickens, and pray in front of epic billows of smoke emanating from the most burning joss paper most tourists will ever see in one place at one time.

Raosanling is a festival of the local Bai ethnicity, who believe in both Buddhism and Benzhu folk religion. It lasts three days and is celebrated at three separate locations nearby Dali Ancient Village: Qingdong temple on the first day, Xizhou the second day, and Majiuyi temple on the third day.

Because it begins on the 23rd day of the 4th lunar month, it starts on June 6 on the Gregorian calendar this year. Here are some photos I took of the first day of Raosanling in 2013:
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May 22

Jinshan: The fishing village at the very south edge of Shanghai

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Travel

Shanghai is home to tree farms, streets lined with fishwives, and children searching for crawfish at low tide.

Jinshan, at the very southwestern corner of the administrative area of Shanghai, is a mildly interesting diversion, a fishing town that has been touristified over the past five years. There you can find fish being sold on the street, museums about Jinshan fishing culture, and an “ancient-style” street full of charming shops and cafes. Here I will tell you how to get there and share some of what to see.

The fishing village is called Jinshan Zui Fishing Village (金山嘴渔村 – Jinshan zui yu cun). The Zui character means “lips.” The restaurants along the road should have you licking your lips. Shanghai was once just a fishing village. Now this is one of the few fishing villages in Shanghai; Shanghai city is not known for fishing markets like Busan, Hong Kong, or even Seoul.

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The fish sellers are lined up on the street that runs along the coast. Behind the fish vendors is a wall and a long stone promenade overlooking the water. (Travelers were climbing over the wall and down a wobbly ladder.) The water, when I visited, was very low, and kids were playing in the sand. They were looking for crayfish in the rocks and concrete buffers.

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On the other side of the road, going away from the ocean, is the typical “ancient-style” shopping street with cafes, bars, souvenir shops, and snack vendors. It was scenic, with flowers, canals (although the water didn’t look terribly clean), and cafes with porches. The “ancient-style” street isn’t close to as scenic as the ancient streets of Suzhou—and Suzhou is just 30-40 minutes away by train, too—but Jinshan is cheaper and more of a daytrip within Shanghai.

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Food
The road by the shore is lined with seafood restaurants. They have live fish in tanks for selection. Independent travelers on budget might choose to have seafood fried rice (海鲜炒饭 – haixian chaofan) for ¥20-40 yuan. I asked for it, and the manager said it wasn’t on his menu, but he said he would make some up for ¥35 yuan, and selected some shrimp, clam, and other seafood, and had it fried with eggs and vegetables.

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How to get to Jinshan

Go to Shanghai South Railway Station (上海南站), located at the so-named subway station on Line 1 (red) and Line 3 (yellow). At Shanghai South Station, there is a station called Jinshan Station (金山站). Tickets are sold at a machine, which doesn’t require identification. Click through the buttons—or have a Chinese traveler in line help you, most of them are going to Jinshan, and they will assume you are, too—and select the final station—金山卫 (Jinshan wei).

Trains leave from Shanghai South about 2-3 times an hour, starting at 5 am and ending at 9:20 pm or so. Trains from Jinshan to the city start at 6 am and run until 9:55 pm. The journey for most trains takes 32 minutes. All tickets for the full trip cost ¥10 yuan (US$1.63) one way and have no assigned seats.

You can get from Jinshan Wei Station to Zui Fishing Village by taking a tax for ¥12 yuan or walking or waiting for the bus, which might come once an hour.

This restroom won awards as a "Model Toilet" and one of Shanghai's "Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets" of 2016.

This restroom won awards as a “Model Toilet” and one of Shanghai’s “Most Beautiful Tourism Toilets” of 2016.

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May 17

Kayne West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the experience of celebrity in China

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Music

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a much discussed article for The Atlantic earlier this May about the impact of celebrity and how, he says, it may have led Kayne West to pursue “white freedom.”

That is, “not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom.” Coates can fully explain his point in his own elegant language, and I encourage you to read his essay. I want to focus on just one aspect, that of celebrity, what it can do to a person, and how living in China affected West’s views towards celebrity.

As Coates wrote,

There’s nothing original in this tale and there’s ample evidence, beyond West, that humans were not built to withstand the weight of celebrity.

West spent one year in Nanjing, China, where I have been based for the past few years, and he said the experience affected him greatly. He was, according to one of his classmates, extremely shy, said one of his classmates at the local school he attended, whom I interviewed in 2012.

“I remember in primary school, he was a very shy and introverted kid. He didn’t like to talk a lot,” Hua [Dong] said in an interview with me. “When I just happened to find out a few years ago that he is now Superstar Kanye West, I was extremely surprised and extremely happy for him.”

Hua Dong is also a musician. He’s the frontman for the post-punk band Re-TROS.

West himself has commented on how much attention he received as a black man in China.

“I think being in China got me ready to be a celeb,” he said.

“At that time, a lot of Chinese had never seen a black person. They would always come up to me and also stare at me, fishbowl me and everything. And that’s kind of the way it is for me right now,” West said in an interview with Cris Campion of Sabotage Times in 2011.

I had discovered his interviews on the topic in the course writing an article in 2013 on how Chinese often like to take photos with foreigners and add friends. Even today, the phenomenon of candid photo-taking of foreigners persists in many smaller cities and central cities. It would have been more so when West was living in China and the attention (including negative attention) can be more pronounced for black people than for whites.

Having seen West news fill up the magazines and social, and having read Coates’ piece, I thought back about West on China. I cannot–certainly not in this medium–add anything to the conversation about West and politics and race, but if you want to read a little bit of background about one of the formidable experiences in West’s childhood, take a look: China’s Obsession With Foreigners And The Experience Of Kanye West.

Feature photo by Tyler Curtis (Flickr). Map from Wikimedia. Creative Commons.

May 03

Chinese people proud to see Americans love their culture

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Viral Chinese News

A fake controversy has erupted in America because a small group of Americans are outraged that an American wore a Chinese-style dress to prom. Chinese people, whose culture is actually being “appropriated” (so-called) here, couldn’t care less. If anything, they are happy to see Americans recognize the beauty and majesty of Chinese culture.

For millennia, Chinese have been proud of their extensive and refined (“博大精深”) culture. The Han Chinese have expanded their empire from Northern China to present-day China, absorbing dozens of ethnic groups (56, according to the official government count) into the Chinese race. Confucianism and Chinese characters spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The emperor of the “Middle Kingdom” received gifts from tributary states, whose officials were forced to kowtow, recognizing the culture of China, and China was happy to teach them how to be cultured.

In the process, the Han Hanicized ethnic groups they came into contact with and also were changed themselves. The dress in question, the qipao (旗袍), is a product of the Han people being culturally assimilated into the culture of the Machu, who ruled China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The Qing forced the Han to adopt Manchu hairstyle (the male queue/braid) and dress. The old Manchu dresses were originally long and loose but became tighter-fitting, and in some cases, shorter, until they came to be the glamorous style associated with Shanghai socialites and cigarette ads of the 1920’s.

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It is evident, then, that culture cannot exist without constantly changing and being influenced from all directions. If it were not so, we would still be wearing animal skins and plants over our genitals.

See also: Blatt: “Oberlin Students Don’t Know Anything About Ethnic Food”

Would the outraged Americans have preferred that the woman in question had chosen to wear instead the default Western-style dress, thus perpetuating the continued cultural dominance of white European culture in America?

Chinese people, for their part, wouldn’t. When I asked friends they thought about it on WeChat, here are some responses I received:

这就代表喜欢我们的中华文化
This means that she likes our Chinese culture

个人觉得美的东西共享很好啊
I personally think that sharing beautiful things is good

个人觉得穿旗袍去毕业舞会很好,如果没有违反dress code的话
I personally think that wearing a qipao to prom is great, if it doesn’t violate the dress code

There you have it: Americans speaking for Chinese are personally offended that anyone would wear a beautiful Chinese dress to prom. Actual Chinese people think it’s great.

Jan 21

High speed trains begin selling KFC

By Mitchell Blatt | China

On the high speed train from Nanjing South Station to Shanghai Hongqiao yesterday, an attendant went down the aisle pushing a KFC cart. I had always wondered why they hadn’t thought to do a tie up before. A passenger sitting next to me said McDonalds is also sold on some trains. All for inflated prices.

As Chinese trains had gotten faster and cleaner, the quality of the on-board food also got worse the past few years. The old slow trains had kitchens where passable—even tasty—stir-fried dishes were cooked (and still do on those routes where slow trains exist). High speed rail came along and got rid of home cooking, replacing it with reheated plastic trays of precooked food.

American brand fast food is no delicacy, but if you are going to eat a quick garbage meal, McDonalds is a lot tastier than what passes for food in the high speed rail dining car.

Upon arrival in Shanghai, the recorded announcement stated (in Chinese), “Jiaduobao reminds you, don’t forget your belongings…” (Jiaduobao is a brand of herbal tea.) The English language announcement included no such advertisement.

Oct 06

Silkworm pupae, urine fish, and farmer’s wine: A meal to remember in Korea’s culinary capital

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking , Food and Leisure , Korea , Local Politics

Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.

On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?

We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.

The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.

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After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.

Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.

Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.

Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!

The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.

Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.

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Sep 30

Is bike sharing trashing the streets?

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Bike sharing is fueling an entreprenuerial explosion in China, and Chinese consumers love riding short distances without having to buy their own bikes. Big companies like Mobike and ofo have already gone global, expanding into Britain and the United States respectively and other countries.

But walking down the street last week, a friend put a different perspective on it. She said it’s kind of like trash on the street.

Once hearing that description, I started noticing bikes everywhere I walked. Already the streets of China are pretty cluttered with privately-owned motorcycles and bikes parked alongside street vendor’s carts. Now rental bikes, which can be dropped off anywhere, add another element.

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Whole sidewalks are blocked.

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The city of Shanghai is thinking about introducing “e-parking lots” to control where bikes can be parked. Earlier this year, Shanghai confiscated thousands of bikes.

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.