Learning through China’s Juxtapositions: Christmas Music in March
Updated: Mar 13, 2018
“How long can you keep this up? One blog post a day is a lot,” my father asked me during one of our phone conversations. I originally started this blog when I gave up Facebook and Instagram for Lent. Although I wasn’t particularly active on either platform, I discovered that I spent a lot of time looking at other people’s lives and living vicariously through them. As I embarked on Lent, I realized that I needed to focus on living my own life and enjoying all the activities that surrounded me in China.
However, I was a bit worried about this sustainability of my blog as I sat down at a Starbucks. I have been suffering from insomnia recently and to be honest, the very last thing I wanted to do at that point was write a blog post. And then, Starbucks inspired me.
It wasn’t the coffee that particularly inspired me. It was the fact that I was sitting in a Starbucks in China and, looking around, I was able to witness the juxtapositions of a country that had risen so quickly. It made me realize that I could probably live here for twenty years and still be able to write a blog post a day, if I put my mind to it.
The first juxtaposition was the location of the Starbucks, which was on a pedestrian street near Qianmen, the ultimate symbol of “old Beijing.” The name Qianmen refers to both the original gate constructed during the Ming dynasty that allowed people to enter and exit the inner city of Beijing, as well as to the market shopping street that leads from this gate. I first learned about Qianmen when I read Lillian Lee’s famed book, Farewell My Concubine. I was enthralled by her descriptions of the market, the sights, the smells, and the food that proliferated along this street – so much so that I felt the need to experience it for myself.
Today, Qianmen is one of my favorite “touristic” locations and I take all of my visiting friends here. It has been developed to retain its original Chinese characteristics, catering mostly to domestic Chinese tourists. The street is full of candy and sweets shops, as well as stores to buy souvenirs. There are other special shops – like the Inner Mongolian food experience shop and the Chinese Rice Wine Museum. There is also a branch of the wax museum Madame Tussauds, which highlights both western and Chinese celebrities. In the streets alongside, you can find a plethora of Chinese restaurants, each of which has their own “promoter.” Similar to ancient China, these men will stand outside the restaurants on the street and shout in a melodic voice the restaurant specials, trying to convince you to come inside. (When you have 30+ restaurants, the competing voices of these men create a very interesting sound!)
Alongside this incredibly touristic, Chinese-style street, there is one street full of new, sleek buildings. It is a beautiful pedestrian street with a stone road. It will be the location of the new Muji hotel and a 24-hour branch of the Singaporean bilingual bookstore Page One has already opened. It was in one of these modern buildings that my Starbucks was located. However, as they are trying to appeal to Chinese tourists, this particular Starbucks branch was full of Chinese-style furniture.
As I sipped away at my coffee, I saw a group of three old men sitting at some tables across from me. None of them wore fancy clothes. One of the men was carrying what looked like a plain black purse, although he was there without a woman. All of them had at least two ridiculously expensive phones. At one point, one of the men grew tired of the conversation with his friends, leaned back in his chair, and fell asleep. The other two men engaged in a rather intense conversation about politics. This went on until one of them turned on a video of the Chinese national anthem, “The March of the Volunteers.”
This is truly when I entered into the “Twilight Zone.” As soon as I had walked into the Starbucks, I had noticed an unusual quirk: they were still playing a Christmas music playlist, even though it was already March. Subsequently, over the sounds of the jingling “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, I began to hear the cries of the Chinese national anthem, “Rise up all of you people who refuse to be slaves.”
I continued to look around me. In a nearby table, there was a woman in designer clothes and a Chanel handbag (which for some crazy reason she felt comfortable setting it on the table and then leaving to go to the bathroom.) At another table, there was an entrepreneurial young woman who was engaged in live webcasts. Live streaming media personalities are estimated to be a $5 billion industry in China. Many young women broadcast their lives in exchange for monetary gifts from their viewers, as well as promotions. Recently, a young male broadcaster, who made money by climbing to the top of skyscrapers illegally for money from his viewers, fell to his death and made international headlines.
At one point, a group of military men started marching down the pedestrian side street in unison. (Currently, in Beijing, the two congresses are converging and the military has a much stronger presence than normal.) As I had a table next to the window, I got a front row seat. The problem was that the street was full of pedestrians who had to get out of the way. A group of older Chinese people, eating the traditional fried bread (similar to churros), stepped to the sidelines and continued to eat, seemingly viewing the military march as entertainment.
It was an overload of the familiar and the unfamiliar; the comfortable and the uncomfortable. And, in my opinion, this one drink at Starbucks exemplified a concept that I think is extremely important when considering living/studying/working in China: life here simply doesn’t make sense. There are no rules or norms.
Many westerners recognize this fact and they normally attribute it to China’s economic rise. I agree with this to a large extent. Although the Chinese quickly became comfortable with modern conveniences, very few actually grew up with them. I will share another Starbucks story to make this point: Once, when I was at a Starbucks on Financial Street in Beijing, a good looking and relatively young Chinese man sat at a table across from me. As he drank his coffee, he pulled three hard boiled eggs out of his designer backpack. He began cracking them and ate all three before going back to work. Another example is when I went to the seamstress to get pillowcases made for the pillows in my new apartment. (I had bought very large pillows for a sofa and wanted them to be black to match my neutral color scheme.) As soon as I entered the shop and told the shopkeeper what I wanted, all of the workers tried to convince me out of it. “Black is not so pretty, what about this one instead?” They pointed to a neon flower power fabric which came straight out of the Brady Bunch and had the English words “Pretty Flower Forever” printed upon it. (Luckily, I was able to convince them to make me the black pillowcases!)
I would venture to say, however, that it is not just economic issues that make China this way. Many Chinese believe that nothing is truly good and nothing is truly bad; everything exists within a shade of gray. A good man can do bad things in life and still be remembered as a good man. Likewise, a bad man is also capable of doing good at some point. This is exactly how you can view the legacy of Mao Zedong in China. Many people, particularly in the older generations, suffered greatly during the China of his policies. (Even the current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, was sent out to the countryside during the midst of the Cultural Revolution.) Yet, these Chinese will still buy the Mao pendant to hang from their cars’ rearview mirrors and will cry at his Mausoleum. The duality of thought is one of the greatest cultural differences between China and America. One of my Chinese friends once told me that he had a difficult time understanding American movies, asking me: How can the bad guys be so bad?
I end this post by offering up one piece of advice to anyone who wants live in China one day, wants to visit China, or just wants to learn more about China: you must become comfortable in juxtapositions. They are truly the best way to learn. While juxtapositions often make westerners uncomfortable, it is only in these juxtapositions that we can get a true picture of Chinese society.