Category Archives for "Culture"

Nov 04

Drinking baijiu with Derek Sandhaus, author of Drunk in China

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Literature

On November 1, the same day his book was released, I interviewed Derek Sandhaus about his new release, Drunk in China. The book explains baijiu, the fiery white spirits of China, and the culture surrounding baijiu through the lenses of history, society, cuisine, and Sandhaus’s experiences drinking baijiu. 

Sandhaus has been living in China on and off since 2006 where he worked as a writer. After returning to the U.S., he ended up back in China in 2011 as the boyfriend, then husband, of an Foreign Service officer. That is when he started to become interested in learning about and writing about baijiu, chronicling his experience at the blogs 300 Shots at Greatness and Drink Baijiu.com, and launching the brand Ming River Sichuan Baijiu. He is the author of four books, including Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and, now, Drunk in China.

I interviewed him at one of Washington, DC’s most authentic Chinese restaurants, Sichuan Pavilion, where we talked about a wide range of topics while drinking baijiu and eating twice fried pork, dry fried green beans, and fish-fragrant eggplant.

In Drunk in China, you say you need 300 drinks of baijiu to hit the “taste threshold,” the level at which you are accustomed to the taste of baijiu.

There’s an idea of a taste threshold, that if you don’t like the taste of something, if you keep drinking it, you will become used to it, which isn’t true in all cases, but is often true. Common examples are coffee and beer. You begin to like it, and then you start seeking it out and savoring it.

So my friend said that they’ve done the study on different drinks. He asked me, ‘Do you know how many drinks it takes to become accustomed to baijiu?’ I asked, ‘How many?’ and he said 300. 

So, one of the ways I began to organize my early writing about baijiu is I started a blog called Three Hundred Shots at Greatness. I went out and bought different kinds of baijiu and thought I would chronicle my experience going from not liking baijiu to loving it by the time I got to 300.

I think, in retrospect, that’s kind of a misguided notion. It rests on a fundamental misunderstanding that baijiu is one drink.

Baijiu is any kind of Chinese liquor, like the equivalent of ‘Chinese food.’

What’s this misunderstanding about baijiu?

I thought baijiu was one drink, like tequila or bourbon. In reality, baijiu is any kind of Chinese liquor, like the equivalent of ‘Chinese food.’ Different parts of China make different kinds of baijiu, which are very different drinks that taste very different from each other.

What I noticed when I went out and bought five bottles of baijiu is that those five bottles don’t taste anything like each other. So, for me, the process was exploring different styles of baijiu and finding out what style I liked best. 

By the time I had about 50 or 60 shots, I found a kind of baijiu that I thought was great. I really liked it. It was made by the Luzhou Laojiao distillery in Sichuan, from the same distillery as the baijiu we are drinking now. In China, you could buy this for 7 or 8 US dollars. The one I tried that I really liked was about 200 USD. It was at a diplomatic function I’d been invited to. 

That’s when I was able to really appreciate baijiu for what it was. Then I could see, even when I am drinking a lower-end baijiu, I could still see what they were trying to do.

What exactly is baijiu in a technical sense? What is the difference between baijiu and huangjiu?

Huangjiu, “yellow wine,” is a Chinese grain-based drink, that is fermented but not distilled. Baijiu is fermented then distilled. But it’s not as simple as saying that baijiu is distilled huangjiu. It is true that you wouldn’t have baijiu without huangjiu coming first. However, they differ production-wise in a number of other important ways.

In China, when the food went bad and decomposed, it smelled sweet, people they thought it smelled delicious.

Basically, the origin of East Asian alcohol is something called qu, which is the result of East Asians were working with soft grains, as opposed to in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, where they were using barley and grain, which are hard-shelled grains, that you had to mash and turn into flour. In China and Asia, the grains that they were using in the ancient world were rice and soft-shelled grains, which had an exterior that allows you to eat it without much intervention. The oldest way to consume them was to boil them into porridges. Starting about 6000 BC, they started steaming grains. When you steam a grain, you do some interesting things that break it down so that it is easier for it to interact with its surroundings. If you have a bowl of rice that has been steamed, when it is decomposing, it will start to absorb the things that are in the air—mold, yeast, and bacteria. As those things interact, it starts to ferment naturally, and it develops a sweet smell. 

When the flour they were eating in the Middle East went bad, it got moldy and smelled bad. But in China, when the food went bad and decomposed, the fermentation made it smell sweet, so people kept it around, because they thought it was delicious. So those grains were fermenting naturally. Then they found that if they dried out the grains, you could take the grains that had naturally decomposed, mix it with some water, and that’s qu, the principal agent of fermentation for East Asian liquor. It’s usually shaped into a ball or a brick. For most rice wines, it’s made of rice. For most other liquors, including baijiu, it’s made of wheat, or barley.

Now they use that technique for all kinds of fermented foods—soy sauce, vinegar, tofu, all the pickled meats and vegetables, too.

With huangjiu, they press the liquid out of the mash, and that’s the alcohol.

With baijiu, it’s different. They never press the liquid out of the mash. The way they get it out is they distill it. They put it in a pot still and run steam through it. As the steam heats up the mash, the ethanol within the grains will reach a boiling temperature and begin steaming off the top of the mash.

What kinds of regional differences are there when it comes to the taste of baijiu?

What people who make baijiu are trying to do is come up with the perfect flavor combination to go with the food of that region. So in Sichuan, you have very spicy, bold flavors. You’ve got lots of fermented condiments with a lot of funkiness to it. You’ve got a lot of ginger and chili and garlic. Then the baijiu in Sichuan has some sweetness to it. Like the one we’re drinking now, it has a bit of pineapple, licorice, even a little funky cheesiness. Something this sweet can really bring down the spiciness. And the spiciness can bring out a lot of the complexity of this drink as well. 

So I think an important thing to do when you want to experience baijiu at it’s best is to figure out where the baijiu that you’re drinking comes from, and pair it with the food to get the best flavors of each.

What would you say to foreigners who think baijiu is undrinkable, some foreigners who reject it after a few sips or those who might not even want to try it?

One thing that’s very important is that at the moment you encounter something that really blows your mind is to not immediately discard that experience. When you taste something where you think, ‘That’s not how things are supposed to taste,’ or when you experience something where you think, ‘That’s not something that’s supposed to happen,’ don’t immediately think there’s something wrong with it. I hadn’t gotten to that reflective state either, when I first arrived in China. Most of the world hasn’t gotten to that state when it comes to baijiu, but had I not gotten there, I would have missed out on so many amazing experiences in China.

If we were drinking in China, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao, it gets “loud and hot.”

Talk about the social function of baijiu.

If this were a restaurant in China and we were drinking baijiu together, the night would reach the state at a certain point that they call re-nao [roughly translated as “exciting”/“lively”], “loud and hot,” where you’ve been eating for a while, you’ve been drinking for a while, you’re kind of drunk on the spice, you’re drunk on the liquor, and you’re in this mood of pure joy. You can bounce around a little bit; you can go sit at a stranger’s table and make a toast to them, invite them to join in your revelry. 

If you look at alcohol in China, that is how it’s always been. It’s always been a communal experience. Going back 7000-9000 years, people have always been using alcohol to create this sense of shared connection. 

It’s the way most people in China socialize with each other. If you only drink at the local Irish pub in China, you’re not going to experience this part of Chinese culture. You’re basically saying, ‘My drinking, the way I experience China, has to happen on Western terms.’

You include a lot of your own experiences in your book, your experiences in China, trying baijiu. It seems to me kind of like a “baijiu memoir.”

About half of the book is my story and half of the book is the alcohol’s story in China. I do go in and out of those threads throughout the book. 

It was important for me to put the book in the first person, to be upfront about who I am, what my experiences are. If I am a white American going to write this book about a Chinese liquor most Americans are unfamiliar with, I want to let readers know how I relate to it and where my knowledge comes from. 

At the same time, a lot of the attitudes I am critical of from foreigners who dismiss baijiu or who dismiss elements of Chinese culture are not attitudes from which I have been completely immune. I had some of those attitudes in the past. So what I am saying is I am not a remarkably tolerant or intolerant person. If I can get past some of the prejudices I bring to my subject, then so can some of my readers.

There are not many English-language books on the market about baijiu, and I would love for more people to write about it. I would also love to see Chinese, or Chinese-American authors write about it, because they would bring a much different perspective.

Bonus content: Derek Sandhaus talks about how Korean soju has changed since the 1960’s

May 27

Nanjing University of the Arts graduation show: Interview with the artists – 南艺毕业展览和采访

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Culture , 中文文章 Chinese Language Articles

Art works and designs created by 2019 graduates of Nanjing Institute of the Arts are currently on display at the school’s museum. The works are in all kinds of media, including paintings, printings, digital media, videos, video games, furniture, and architectural designs. One theme on display in many of the works was the interaction between China’s increasing modernization and nostalgia (or false nostalgia) for a simpler time. Two graduating artists who hit on this theme were Jia Wenda (贾闻达) and Zhu Tongtong (朱同同).

I interviewed them and share their works here.

Jia Wenda: Childhood Pleasure

First, Jia Wenda combined the iconic yellow duckie with the image of a playful young boy in his work Chongya. “Chongya” is a homophone that means both marching forward and water duck.

When Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant Rubber Duck was displayed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor in 2013, the duck quickly became one of China’s biggest celebrities. It went viral on social media and made newspapers and television broadcasts. The project would make official appearances in Beijing, Hangzjhou, Shanghai, and Macau over the next few years, and unofficial versions of giant rubber ducks are currently on display in lakes in Nanjing and elsewhere around China. 

According to Jia, the duck represents the innocent feelings of childhood. Even though few Chinese people have memories of playing with a rubber duckie, which was not widely available, as a child, the duckie is iconic, cute, and a stand-in for a host of feelings.

Q: In your view, what does the rubber duckie represent? The meaning?

对你来说,小黄鸭代表什么?有什么意义?

“If you ask me, because the rubber duckie is a toy that everyone can play with as a child, this represents a kind of romantic or cute feeling,” Jia said.

“对我来讲的话,因为小黄鸭是一个小时侯大家会玩的玩具,这个东西就代表一种浪漫或者可爱的感觉。”

Q: Why did you choose to have the boy holding a clothes-hanging fork (for lifting clothes to and from the drying line)?

为什么男孩在拿着晒衣叉?

“All of the materials represent childhood pleasure, so I thought, what things can reflect that kind of playful meaning. So the fork reflects how young boys like to play and fight, and they could have a little fight with clothes forks.”

“因为整个题材是代表一个童趣所以我就想用哪些物品可以反应那种玩了的意思。所以衣叉小时侯,男生和男生可以一起用衣叉玩或打架。”

Q: Your work has been very popular. Everyone is taking photos of it…

你的作品很受欢迎,谁都要拍它的照。

“In my point of view, making art is not exclusively for individual self-expression. Of course self-expression is important. But I also hope my work can be enjoyed by others and that it is not a ‘lone flower admiring itself.’”

“在我的观点里面,做一个作品不完全是一个个人代表。当然个人代表很重要,但是我也希望我的作品能够受其他人的欣赏,而不是孤芳自赏。”

After graduation, Jia is preparing to take the graduate school test and then go study conceptual art.

Zhu Tongtong: Entertaining Ourselves to Death

Zhu Tongtong’s mat, Hot It Is, Love It Is (多么热,多么爱), displays fun and interesting items of the internet and pop culture in striking color. If it looks overwhelming, that’s just what she was going for. She wants to explore the themes of “entertaining ourselves to death” and “excessive entertainment-ization,” she said.

Q: Why did you decide to make a rug?

为什么决定做地毯这种作品?

“I am a photography major, but early on when we were selecting topics, I wanted to do one related to installations. I made a total of two rugs. One is on display on the third floor of the institute of broadcast media.”

“我是摄影专业的学生但是在选题初期的时候我就想做关于装置类的作品。我一共制作了两块地毯。一块在美术馆,还有一块在传媒学院三楼。”

Zhu Tongtong with her second mat in the broadcast school.

Q: Where did you get the inspiration for the objects you chose to portray?

你从哪里得到元素的灵感?

“My work used that kind of childish, cartoonish depictions, and combined a lot of contemporary Weibo trending topics with keywords the media frequently uses and symbols, in order to reflect the phenomenons of ‘entertaining ourselves to death’ and ‘excessive entertainment-ization.’ I also hope sympathy and a heightened state of awareness can be generated in the viewer who experiences the resulting familiar and unexpected feelings. 

The inspiration for this work came from conversations between my advisor and myself. I personally enjoy elements of relaxation, gaming, and entertainment fields. For a previous version, I used the style of a collage. After continuous searching for a solution, I determined to use this style.”

“我的作品是用这种幼稚化、卡通化的图形,结合现在当下微博热搜榜等媒体惯用的一些标题字和符号,来反应当下“娱乐至死”的“泛娱乐化”的现象,也希望观者在这种熟悉的又意外的效果中产生共鸣和警醒。    这个作品的灵感来源于我和我导师的交流中,我个人喜好偏向轻松、游戏、游乐等方面的元素,在前一个版本中,使用了拼贴的方式,再不停的检索的过程中,确定了采用这样的图形元素。”

Fans of Chinese pop culture might notice some of the names of Chinese celebrities behind the “@“ signs. There is Angelababy, the actress who has starred in the TV show Keep Running and films like Mojin and Young Detective Dee; Fan Bingbing, the highest-paid actress in China who played the empress Wu Zetian before she was accused of tax evasion; and Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, China’s (and the world’s) largest online shopping group. 

Besides the trending celebrities, some of the imagery is also clearly identifiable from memes and the retro style that is popular in the internet genre of vaporwave, an art and music movement that evokes “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” The flamingo, for example, is popularly associated with vaporwave, as are old fashioned entertainment technologies, like tapes and Game Boys.

“The friends surrounding me, including myself, understand that many youths today love retro style,” Zhu said. “For example, today’s vaporwave is already a popular element. Some photo editing apps can also synthesize vaporwave style and other popular style elements.”

Zhu will work in a commercial media production house after graduation. She hopes that she will also be able to continue to work to perfect this work, whether that means expanding on it or finding another medium by which to represent the theme.

Chinese Vocabulary Study

童趣 tong2qu4 – childhood pleasure, qualities that delight children and evoke childhood memories to adults, bold colors, cute characters, etc

孤芳自赏 gu1fang1zi4shang3 – a Chinese chengyu for narcissism, literally “lone flower admiring itself”

衣叉 yi1cha1 – a fork used to lift clothes to and from drying lines or drying poles

蒸汽波 zheng1qi4bo1 – vaporwave

May 17

A coffee and a view at Huinnyeoul Culture Village, Busan

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea , Travel

Visiting Huinnyeoul Culture Village today, I stopped by a popular young cafe cum bookstore, Book Coffee, or Sonmog Seoga (손목서가) in Korean. The cafe is run by a couple and serves drip coffee in an artsy environment with views of the sea, while selling Korean language versions of progressive publications. After opening in the early summer of 2018, it has amassed 4,000 followers on Instagram.

Sonmog Seoga fits with the vibe local officials were trying to create at Huinnyeoul Culture Village when development began in late 2011, turning the shantytown located high above the ocean into an arts and culture tourist attraction. The coasts of Yeong Island became home to many refugees displaced by the Korean War.

A visitor looks at one of the filming sites of The Attorney.

Eventually, the government sought to redevelop, and some of the homes became run down and abandoned. According to Kim Hye-Ran, then Director of Cultural Tourism Division of the Education and Culture Department of Yeong Island’s district government, they offered some of the dilapidated houses to artists. Soon murals got painted, the area became more famous, and it was used as a filming location for 2013’s The Attorney, about former president Roh Moo-hyun’s championing of a civil liberties case during Chun Doo-hwan’s period of authoritarian rule.

A cairn we built by the ocean.

Although it has become increasingly developed towards tourism, locals insist Huinnyeoul Culture Village is not as crowded or commercialized as the nearby Gamcheon Culture Village. Huinnyeoul also appears to have a clearer view of the sea. It is accessible via steps up from Jeolyoung Marina Trail.

Walking along the marina trail.

Book Cafe succeeded in its goal of creating a charming environment with pleasing aesthetics, quality coffee, and erudite selection of reading material. The magazines were mass market high-brow. Feminist (Womankind, Australian), secular science (Skeptic, U.S.), Korean literature (Littor, Korea), and politics/society (시사in, Korea). Not independent and not entirely local, but not found in the convenience store either.

Crowded as it is, and not huge in terms of space, it charges high prices for its coffee. Most cost 6,000 won (US$5 at present conversion).

One thing you will find a lot of at Huinnyeoul Culture Village.
Mar 18

Restaurant Review: Wu’s Wonton King in New York City (Manhattan)

By Mitchell Blatt | Chinese Restaurant Reviews

Wu’s Wonton King is a banquet-style southern Chinese restaurant on the east edge of Chinatown in Manhattan. It specializes in roast duck, bbq platter, and seafood, as well as wontons.

IMG_4119

The wontons with noodle soup ($6.99) were fresh-tasting, and the soup was salty like the taste in China. I requested pepper oil to go with it, because I like my wontons spicy.

IMG_4124

Looking at the menu, another item that looked tasty was fried rice. There are nine types of fried rice on menu ($10.99-$15.99), including crystal crab meat fried rice, salted fish & diced chicken fried rice, traditional Yangzhou fried rice, and Fujian fried rice (which I was told featured seafood).

Restaurant: Wu’s Wonton King

Address: 165 E. Broadway
Subway stop: East Broadway Station (F line)
Review: Worth coming from afar for wontons.

Mar 13

An interview with travel writer Alec Le Sueur, marketing manager of the first international hotel in Tibet

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Travel

Alec Le Sueur spent five years as the marketing and sales manager of the Holiday Inn Lhasa, the first international hotel to be opened in Tibet after China reformed and opened to the world.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

The Holiday Inn was known as “the hardest hardship post.” Nicholas Kristof once wrote an article about it titled “A Tibetan Horror Story.” It was two flights away from Hong Kong on the chaotic state-run Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, and for long periods of the year, the only meal to be had was spam. But the sights on mountains, Buddhist temples, traditional markets, and streets with yaks wandering freely were another thing.

Le Sueur chronicled the beauty of Tibet and the absurdities of running a hotel, where management duties were duplicated between a Chinese party and a foreign party that rarely saw eye-to-eye, where staff didn’t know how to use the new, technologically-advanced washing machines, where teaspoons went missing and a guard was hired to protect the toilet paper, in his book The Hotel on the Roof of the World.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Le Sueur’s witty and conversational style brings the place to life. Some of the scenes will look familiar to people who have spent time in China recently (Chengdu taxi drivers racing to the airport, rice wine banquets), but much else is lost into the past. Tibet has changed much. China’s airports are still chaotic masses of people, but they have changed, for the better, with modern airplanes and functioning logistical processes. The Holiday Inn has been taken over by the Chinese government’s managers, and new international hotels have opened up in Lhasa.

Le Sueur was also in Tibet at a time when pro-autonomy protests and riots broke out between 1987-89, and Tibet was under martial law for about a year, with no tourism. He mentions the political situation in so much as it impacted daily life and hotel operations, but he did not dwell on politics as a main subject.

Nicholas Kristof's 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

Nicholas Kristof’s 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

After five years, he left Tibet with his wife, whom he met while both worked at the hotel, and went with her to Belgium, which was the subject of his next book, Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land. He also left the hotel business and got an MBA in law firm management. He continues to contribute to travel magazines, including Food & Wine.

Following is my interview with the author:Continue reading

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.

photo1

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.

sparklers and fire dance

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.

shaokao

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 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.

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