Category Archives for "Culture"

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 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.

Sep 12

The subways smell like waffles — 6 unique (but small) things about Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea

Living in a foreign country for months, you notice a lot of differences from your home country big and small. At first, the smallest things are exciting and worthy of comment. (I even wrote an article Korean convenience stores!) Just walking down the street or going to a market is an adventure. Later, you become accustomed, and it takes a lot more to interest you.

In Korea, there are the obvious cultural differences: taking shoes off inside, suana (jjimjirbang) culture, Kpop, weird karaoke videos, and college drinking parties

There are also so many small things I had been wanting to write about, but which couldn’t fill a whole article, so I will combine some:

Christmas Decorations Up Year-Round at Restaurants

Walk down the street in a leisure district anytime of year and pay attention to the windows of bars, arcades, and other joyous places, and you will find snowflake decals, jingle bells, Christmas trees, and maybe even an image of Santa or two. Korean businesses love Christmas imagery, even though a minority of Koreans are Christian.

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This decorative style isn’t limited to Korea, however. Christmas decorations are also prevalent in China, a country whose government is antagonistic towards religion. Playing pool one evening in August in the southernmost resort town of Sanya, I asked my Chinese compatriot, “Why is Santa on the wall?” She said it was probably because the big, jolly, smiling man gave customers a happy feeling.

Apartment Blocks All Look the Same and are Branded

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Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, by user Thomiccor. CC 3.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo by Samuel Orchard. Via Wikipedia and Flickr. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Photo from Wikipedia, user ahflahxh. CC 2.0.

Food Waste Separated from Trash

My first morning after eating breakfast in a guesthouse, I was taken aback by all the labeled trash bags and the process by which we were supposed to separate food. You can’t (or, rather, aren’t supposed to) throw food waste away in the ordinary trash in Korea. Instead, people should put food in special bags they have to pay for, and food waste is used for composting and biomass.

Many Koreans and residents of Korea find this annoying. A measure of the dissatisfaction is the piles of trash bags and boxes on street corners. Lots of people drop their trash off and then pile trash upon trash. The Korea Times also points to a lack of trash cans as a reason for waste on the street.

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Smell of Waffles in Subway Station

Walking down the halls of a subway station to make a transfer, a sweet smell wafts in the air. Waffles. Waffles and coffee are often sold together in in Korea, and waffle-coffee shops are frequently located within subway stations.

Batting Machines in Every Consumer Leisure Area

A common image at night is seeing drunk Korean men circled around a punching machine comparing the power of their fists. These games have a bag attached to a lever to be punched, or a soccer ball to be kicked, and they’re often located outside of arcades or batting cages.

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Speaking of batting cages, mini-bating cage games are also easy to find. Called “home run rooms” in Korea (홈런방), the machine shoots 10-15 pitches from 20 or so meters out for 2000 won (US$1.80) or so, and a sensor measures how hard the batter hit it and gives points for “singles”, “doubles”, “triples”, and “home runs.”

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When you sing karaoke, you are being watched

One night I sang karaoke with a Korean guy, and we snuck a bottle of soju into the room, which we were periodically drinking from the bottle. About halfway into our hour-long KTV session, the door opened, and a hand came in and swiped our soju before we knew what was happening. The hand of a karaoke hall “waitress.” Did they have a camera in the room filming us drinking? Why did it take them so long to catch us? They didn’t demand we buy anything or pay a fee. Of course karaoke halls want to keep outside drinks out, but that’s the first time anywhere I had been caught drinking after I successfully smuggled drink in.

Medical and Legal Elitism

There are three elite universities in Korea, and if a doctor or lawyer graduated from one, they really want you to know it. Professionals place the emblem of their prestigious alma matters on their windows and doors with pride in order to attract business. The logos that a traveler to Seoul will notice most often are those of Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Together the top three universities are referred to as SKY.

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Americans might call it “elitist,” but just like the Korean Constitutional Court, the U.S. Supreme Court is made up almost entirely of law graduates from its elite universities—the Ivy League. Americans just don’t wear their school logos on their chest. “Ivy Leaguer” is used as a term of derision in political discourse. Considering the state of American politics, the attacks on successful people and the crisis of anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts,” maybe there is something to be said for the Korean way.


Bonus: Korean celebrity fan ads

Enter any subway station, and you will notice young Korean heartthrobs plastered on the wall ads. Often the ads wish a happy birthday or congratulations. Kstars are so loved by their Korean and foreign fans that they will actually pool money together to buy ads. At the bottom of an ad, sometimes you can see the names of Chinese fan clubs who paid for it.

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One Chinese fan even paid close to $10,000 to place an ad in the Choson Ilbo congratulating a member of a group on winning an award. Fan groups say they like putting ads on the subways in high-traffic, high end stations like Gangnam, because they think their idols might actually see them there.

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After the ads go up, often fans will place handwritten notes.

Fan Notes

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May 16

How Korean students party at “one-day pubs” (일일호프)

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Drinking , Korea

May is the month of college parties in Seoul.

At 5 pm on a Friday night, May 12, students dressed in Hogwarts School of Wizardry cloaks were taping ribbons onto the street in Sinchon district, along with signs and arrows. Others dressed as characters from Hiyao Miyazaki films held signs advertising “one day pub” parties. Some intersections had six different ribbons crisscrossing leading to six different parties.

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May is the month of college parties, and Sinchon is the college party district.

On the northeast of the ring subway line around Seoul, Sinchon is located at the nexus of Yonsei University, Ewha Womens’ University, Seogang University, and Hongin University. Along these narrow streets, where neon lights adorn three-story shophouses, masses of young men and women walk to and from bars, karaokes, barbecue restaurants, burger shacks, Japanese izakayas, arcades, and cheap student guestrooms. Groups gather outside convenience stores drinking beer on the street or challenging each other to see how hard they can hit the Dragon Punch power game.

On any given weekend in the spring, there are always a lot of ribbons on the street. It’s perennially marked with green tape stuck to the pavement. But the parties really get going in May.

“Ewha Nursing,” a sign says. “Performance at 8:30.” One group has a raffle game on cardboard. I pick a post-it note and win a free order of chips with purchase of a drink if I attend their party.

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I don’t end up attending their party. Instead I and Pato Rincon, my classmate from Indiana University who is also in Seoul and is just getting started as a writer (read his debut piece for Bombs + Dollars), go to the event at Barfly held by Ewha University’s foreign studies students featuring their dance team. The pretty girl standing outside in baggy hip hop apparel wearing a bandana couldn’t have influenced my decision.

Inside, after paying a ₩5,000 (US$4.47) cover each, we bought beers for ₩4,000 each. The underground bar was dark with colored lights, red and green streaming lights, and bright Finlandia adverts. Most of the tables were reserved for Ewha students. Pato and I took a seat at the bar. Behind the counter, a bartender was pouring Barton vodka (on whose bottle the word “vodka” is written in larger letters than the brand name) through a funnel into empty Finlandia bottles and adding juice.

“This isn’t what I imagined when you said we were going to a college party,” Pato said.

After all, we had had the experience of drinking together at house parties in Bloomington. Not so in Seoul, where the population is dense and houses are smaller. Instead, students and other groups rent out pubs (known as “hof” (호프)) and have the place to themselves for a day or night. The practice is called “ir ir ho-pe” (일일호프), which means “one-day hof.”

Typically it is the freshmen or underclassmen (underclasswomen, more often, it seems) who host parties to connect with each other, earn money, or meet upperclass friends. The large number of parties hosted by women in Sinchon could be explained partially by the fact that Sinchon is so close to a few women’s universities, and the fact that female students are not surprisingly used to promote mixed parties. One person suggested it was a good way for Ehwa students to meet boys at other universities, such as Yonsei. But Yonsei students have hosted their own parties for particular groups, too, including the Yonsei hockey team.

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Students began lining up in front of a marked dance floor. Anticipating an event, we took places along the edge. Before long, Kpop began playing, and girls in hats and jackets, including the girl who was promoting at the door, came out to dance. Showing their power and precise dance moves, they earned big applause. They took off their jackets and top layers and confidently put their bodies on display for the next song.

With so many one-day hof parties going on at the same time, Pato and I didn’t stay too long. After a few separate dance teams, the dance performance was finished, and we went out for some pajeon and eventually to another student party. The next one was in another underground pub, with no cover, but rather a menu with various Korean comfort foods. We ordered spicy rice cakes.

When we were heading back home just after midnight, the same students who had put down ribbons a few hours before were tearing them off the road and rolling them up. Groups of people were milling around outside 7-11 and GS25, and guys were punching arcade games. Another week, and it will be all the same.

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May 11

The end of the last matriarchal tribe?

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

Singaporean debut author chronicles the Mosuo of Lugu Lake as they face modernity–and possible extinction

The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong, I.B. Tauris

Throughout western China, minority ethnic groups are throwing off their traditional clothing, trading horses for automobiles, and choosing to sing Mandopop songs in karaoke rooms instead of traditional ethnic songs. When economic modernization demands different skill sets from the people and commercialization breeds different desires, traditional culture goes by the wayside.

I saw that first hand in the Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Dali (Yunnan), the Shui Autonomous County of Sandu (Guizhou), and the Qiandongnan area of Southeastern Guizhou. These villagers have access to new and beneficial luxuries. They can find higher paying jobs at home, in neighboring cities, or in factories in Guangzhou. Still, they try to hang onto traditional culture for tourism as well as cultural reasons.

Choo Waihong saw this situation playing out among the Mosuo people in the Lugu Lake area. Choo lived there for six years, adopted Mosuo culture, and became a figure in the Mosuo community. She wrote about it in her book The Kingdom of Women, published this year by IB Tauris.

The book begins with scenes of breathtaking vistas along mountain roads until Choo arrives in the land of the Mosuo and looks upon the Gemu Mountain Goddess, a female mountain deity who is worshipped by locals. The next day after she arrives is Zhuanshanjie (转山节), or Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival. Choo describes a splendid, large scale event with locals dressed to the hilt in colorful, elaborately embroidered, traditional ethnic dress; dancing, eating, prayer with incense, flute music, and Tibetan llamas all situated around a tent village. It was this passionate atmosphere in this beautiful environment that enticed Choo and convinced her to have a home built there.

Once there, she felt at ease amongst a society where women’s status was respected—even venerated. The Mosuo people are a matrilineal society—sometimes referred to as matriarchal, although whether they really are is contested. The Mosuo people are often said to practice “walking marriages,” where a man can walk up to a woman’s room and be invited in and kicked out at her pleasure. I heard that phrase a lot when I lived and traveled in Yunnan, particularly in relation to tourism promotion there.

But in fact, as Choo explains, the practice isn’t really a marriage at all. Women choose axias, long-term relationship partners, who come over at night but live at their mother’s house most of the day. They have a limited, but not nonexistent, relationship with any children they father. A couple may stay together for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, but in most cases they eventually move on and the woman takes another axia, often giving birth to children from multiple axias. Children are raised mostly by the mother, grandmother, and others in the family. The men of the family do the manual labor and the killing of animals for their family (that of their mother and sisters and their sisters’ children), and the grandmother of the household is the ultimate arbiter of major decisions.

Choo says this system results in women having a higher status, more autonomy, and freedom from some of the patriarchal strictures that are particularly evident in rural China. Women are free from social stigma attached to sexuality. Every woman is essentially a single mother (with a family to help raise and provide for their children). Women are not reliant on men for room or resources. Also, Choo says, women’s voices and opinions are respected amongst the Mosuo in a way they weren’t at the high-power corporate law firm where she used to work.

There is no Western concept, no traditional Chinese concept, no English word for the relationships in Mosuo society. “Walking marriage” is adopted partially to describe to an uninitiated audience, but also for tourism purposes. Ethnic tourism has been a growing industry in western China, particularly as train lines get extended and dirt roads turn into two-lane highways. Locals open restaurants and inns. The residents, who otherwise have started to leave their traditional attire in the closet, take it out and wear it to dance in front of tourists. Boys drop out of high school in order to pursue a career as a waiter.

Over the years she lived there, Choo says, she saw the scope and enthusiasm participants brought to the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival wane. She became so disappointed that one year she decided to fund it herself. With her 5,000 RMB (US$725) donation and the help of a hardworking Mosuo man, they put on a great festival. But how long can it last?

“In the blink of an eye, in the six years I have lived among this community, I have borne witness at first hand to how quickly they have moved from their subsistence-farming way of life to plug right into the new world as cogs in the burgeoning tourism industry of China,” Choo writes.

See also: Ethnic Culture Struggles to Survive in Guangxi, China

In the end she says many locals are forgetting their traditional culture and adopting perspectives of the nationally dominant Han culture. One of her goddaughters married a Han man and started a nuclear family. Some of the young, would-be liberated women now want to protect their “purity” for a marriage.

Economic growth has brought indoor-plumbing, hot showers, and washing machines to homes, but it has also caused status-seeking. Besides food, drink, and smokes, some young men have began indulging in hard drugs like opium and heroin, Choo writes in the final chapter.

I know well how entrancing the scenery of Yunnan can be and the culture of the local ethnic groups. While I spent a much shorter time—just three months—living and working in Dali, I often return in my mind to those stone streets and the special festivals I witnessed. The white-walled homes painted with black ink (a Bai style) are beautiful, but not the fact that students have to come from over 100 kilometers away to attend a decent school. Ultimately a life of backbreaking farm labor is not desirable. It’s not the romantic image portrayed in cultural shows and tourism brochures. But economic growth coming from outside too quickly can have destabilizing effects.

See also: Dali vs. Lijiang: The Paradox of Successful Ethnic Tourism Marketing

Choo ends on an optimistic note. Some traditions may break down, “But I do take comfort from the reflection that the last thing that will survive will be their core belief in the matrilineal principle,” she writes. How the Mosuo cope with modernity is a question that will play out, and similar questions will play out in ethnic enclaves and villages throughout China.

The Kingdom of Women is an entertaining contribution to literature on the topic, a look at far-flung culture and a beautiful land. It can be purchased in hardcover at Amazon for $16.51, as of this writing.

May 06

Why drunk Korean businessmen don’t make it to the sauna until 3 am

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Korea

It was Cinco de Mayo, and I and my university classmate who is now in Korea were on our ways home after having shots of tequila a few places in Seoul. Before I could transfer subway lines to complete my journey, the subway lines closed. In America, there would be one option: taxi/Uber. In Korea, you go to the jjimjilbang.

Jjimjilbangs are Korean suanas with hot tubs heated between 33 and 43 degrees Celsius (91-108 F), cold pools, and hot saunas and cold rooms where one can spend the night for 7,000 or 8,000 won (US$6-7). Customers take off their shoes and strip naked and go into sex-segregated bathrooms where they shower then relax in the pools. They are given pajamas to wear when sleeping on the floor.

Like us, there are many businessmen who stay out late drinking and don’t feel like going home. Drinking with bosses after work is a strong custom—and they keep the drinks flowing much later. When we arrived at the jjimjilbang in Mapo, we were the only ones there. The locker room was completely empty but for the manager. We had the hot pools all to ourselves. Two Koreans came in a little bit later. Still, by the time we went to bed a little after 1 pm, there were only two or three other people laying on mats, resting their heads on the hard square things that function as pillows, in the room up the stairs.

Waking up in and out a few times in the night, I noticed the room was completely full. Someone who was sleeping on a mat right up next to me rolled up against me. How did the place become so packed at 2 or 3 am? By the next morning, the locker room was bustling, and the pools were full of people.

There are two main clienteles for jjimjilbangs: Families and friends going for leisure, and people who stay out late. Three if you include the sub-category of people who get so drunk they can’t find their way to the sleeping quarters—let alone their own home—and then pass out on the floor of the locker room.

The clientele at this particular jjimjilbang appeared to be almost entirely people out drinking late. It wasn’t like the other jjimjilbang we had been that had fathers and sons in the pools at 8 pm. On the other hand, there was also no one passed out on the floor at 8 am. It must have attracted the successful businessmen who can hold their drinks.

The author in the cold room.

The author in the cold room.

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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.