Sunday, April 20, 2008

Er Nai, the long-winded version

Understanding a new culture really is like peeling back the layers of the oft-cliched onion, and there is a significant difference between "understanding" a culture and "knowing". As wonderful as books are, they are no substitute for experience, at least in my case.

It has taken me years and years to understand the ideas which any textbook on Chinese culture teaches, such as filial piety, ancestor worship, or the Mandate of Heaven. If I am actually just extremely dense, I nonetheless find comfort in the phenomenon that media and society reward people who succeed due to life-long obsession with their work, and not people who are just good at something from 9-5. In other words, immersion--in my case, just being here everyday--and not any actual talent, is what differentiates those who "understand" from those who "know".

My peeling of the Chinese cultural onion happens at instants, like epiphanies. My most recent cultural epiphany was on the "er nai" (二奶, mistress) system. In recent months, I had become more concerned and frustrated with the er nai culture here, probably for personal reasons: I was getting closer to marriage myself, and being surrounded by people whose own marriages have been violated worried me about the sanctity of my own future relationship.

An er nai is a woman who basically contracts herself to a man for money, property, and material objects, which the man provides in secret (from his family) and indefinitely or until he gets sick of the er nai. Er nai are nearly always young women, say 20-30 years old, and their level of education can vary from none to college-educated. Being an er nai is basically a paid job, as er nai will not hold a job at the same time. Er nai who meet their sponsor through work will resign before officially becoming er nai. It's almost as if they agree to leave society: their friends are mostly other er nai, and many lie to their parents that they are making good money as a company employee in the big city, as the social status of an er nai is so low as to be shameful to their family and former friends.

As an American--and I believe I represent many Americans in saying this--having an affair is considered a grave offense, legally and socially. In an organization I worked in during college, one coworker's affair with the daughter of a professor at the university resulted not only in his divorce, but also ostracizing by coworkers.

So to be in China, and to hear daily of acquaintances' various net relationships, meetings in hotel rooms, and kept er nai, it is just a little difficult to imagine why society is not in an uproar. As a woman in a relationship, I worried if, when I get old and ugly and domesticated, my future husband would ever take an er nai, as some of his acquaintances already boastfully have done.

But, to my confusion, Chinese society has not fallen apart. Sure, some people get divorced, but mostly for other reasons, like irreconcilable differences. Most people know about a partner's infidelity, and live with it. How is that possible? I finally made the connection: because people in China don't marry out of love, they marry out of considerations like stability, similar backgrounds, and parental approval. Women marry men who have: 1) an apartment, 2) a car, and 3) a high salary. Men marry women who are attractive and "motherly": they don't have to be good conversation (i.e. intelligent) , but they have to be able to take care of the husband and his family, and be capable of having a boy a kid. In other words, because love is not the moral core of marriage, as it is in the West, having an affair is not socially so condemned (it is illegal, though). An er nai does not interfere with marriage because the man does not necessarily expect sexual satisfaction from his wife in the first place, and an er nai has no parenting skills or requisite social status which could be used to supplant the wife.

As for what marriage means, it's important to also understand that Chinese do not think of themselves as self-reliant individuals who look for a mate to share their lives with; they provide one half of the family equation, and look for someone else for the other half. Chinese choose the partner who they think is the absolute best they can get based on their own merits, and the bar is set very high to start. Personal love between two people is not part of the equation, though.

And so, once I understood that marriages do not necessarily relate to love or desire, infidelity and the er nai system made perfect sense, and even necessary. Regardless of how thick a veneer society paints on top of human instinct, physical sexual desire needs to be channeled in a way society can tolerate. If people were forced to either romantically love their wives or give up sex, society would fall apart. The er nai system actually keeps society stable because it is a channel that everybody--husbands, er nai, and even wives (albeit conceptually, if not personally)--accept.

Understanding how er nai and affairs in general made sense in the China context, and not in the Western context, I realized (again in an epiphany) that social phenomena in general could be analyzed as part of a "social ecosystem". In an ecosystem, each organism plays a specific and important role in keeping the system alive, and the entrance of foreign organisms can disrupt the system. A social ecosystem would work the same way. For example, in an ecosystem where marriage is based on mutual love, infidelity is shunned because it only breaks the system; in an ecosystem where marriage is based on mutual material and social benefit, infidelity supports the system by ensuring people also have a sexual outlet if needed.

Through research, I have found that, alas, I am certainly not the first person to think of society as an ecosystem, as anthropologists had "ecosystems theory" since the 1970s. One good thing about anthropology, though, is that it thrives on specific contextual examples to support major theories, so I can happily look for interesting examples of ecosystem theory in Chinese culture without necessarily rehashing. Even though anthropology has since then incorporated much more complex ideas of what an ecosystem is, like "complex systems science", self-organization and diversification, at this point I am still most interested in how aspects of society are related to maintaining balance and stability of the whole.

I can aspire to one day having an epiphany where more modern concepts of an anthropological ecosystem suddenly make sense. Until then, I am busy looking for other examples that can be explained in the simplest sense of the word: examples of habits or social phenomena I find absurd or offensive from within my Western/American ecosystem, but that can be completely rationalized once viewed from within the whole of their own system.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

In Defense of Your Ernai, by: the male ego

Ah, springtime in Jiangnan: fields awash in patches of yellow canola blooms...plum and cherry petals whipping around the picnickers beneath them...lovers meeting secretly before the wife gets home...

Yes, springtime is much more beautiful when it's shared with an er nai. And why not? You've got the money to keep one--rent an apartment, buy expensive gifts, and give her a handsome monthly allowance so she need not work. Besides, you don't love your wife in that way: you married her because it was time to get married, she was attractive enough, and even though you aren't, she chose you for your financial soundness. Your marriage was a transaction, but this is love! (well, lust, at least, but you need that just as much, maybe more).

So why not enjoy the beautiful weather with your er nai? What's that? You're afraid you might be seen by relatives or business associates picnicking there on the mountain, and be chastised by society? Don't be silly! Everyone does it; half of your own relatives have "worn the green cap" at one time or another! Besides, no one expects there to be a flame between you and The Missus; that's not what marriage is for. As for business contacts, you'll have even more clout when clients see your young, sexy er nai at the next banquet or karaoke fest. It doesn't matter that she comes from the countryside and is doing this just for the money; your associates are all men too, so they completely understand. Heck, some of them may text message your er nai in the next few days and hope for a little get-together themselves.

Wait...come back...why are you shaking your head? You're kidding me, your wife said that she is leaving you, and you have to go and save your marriage?! No, I can't imagine she could have found a better provider for her family, eith--wow, a 7 Series, was it? But the bag is probably a fa--well whadda know, that is a receipt from the LV store just in town. Now just calm down, these purchases mean nothing; I am sure her family will be up in arms about this spectacle. What do you mean they think "his financial success can give her a better material lifestyle, and that's what marriage is all about"? Now you're really talking nonsense.

Oh come on, don't cry, don't cry. You can stay with your er nai while this all gets sorted out...No, I'm sure that was not one of your business partners that just answered her cell phone; you must have dialed the wrong number. Try one more time.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Chinese cheese is superior to anybody else's

At the home of XM's mother's friend, Mrs. S-F, I was keen to see how she makes "tofu cheese" (doufuru, 豆腐乳). Much simpler than I imagined (I was thinking vats in the backyard), she put squares of regular tofu, soaked in baijiu into a Styrofoam picnic box and let them sit at 6-9 degrees C for a couple of weeks. When they grew a yellow mold, she put the tofu into jars and again let the jars sit for 20 days. And then, tofu cheese.

When I returned to the living room, her husband said to me, "I know why you are interested in tofu cheese." I thought, how does he know I enjoy learning about ye-olde-tyme ways of doing things, a la Renaissance Faire or Foxfire series? The answer: "Because it's Chinese traditional culture!"

Old China Hands should have been able to guess. Yes, 5,000 years of civilization brought us everything we know including doufuru, and all of it is sacred and untouchable. Unable to muster the expected reply, something standard and acceptable to the group, XM said, "Lauren just likes handmade things", and the conversation moved on.

Later that night, listening to the radio while XM worked on a drawing, the radio featured an interview with the headmaster of a local high school that was selected by the central government to participate in international exchanges. The school had hosted a group of kids from a school in Australia for two weeks earlier in the year, and also had a German girl on a one-year exchange.

On the program, the headmaster has a particular way of relating stories about these foreign students that irked me: while she praised them for certain "foreign" behaviors (zeal towards extracurricular activities, independence), all of these behaviors ultimately related back to how wonderful Chinese culture is. For example: "I was impressed that the Australian kids spent hours each night practicing the words to 'Jasmine Flowers' [Molihua, 茉莉花, a famous traditional song]. I was just astounded at how well they were able to perform it a week later." (Tone: It was a huge effort for them to learn a song in Chinese / I never imagined it was possible for foreigners to pick up Chinese/our song so quickly. )

I mentioned to XM this phenomenon of some Chinese people imagining China as the center of the universe. Is it really that shocking that foreigners can *gasp* learn a foreign language, albeit one that uses characters and tones? Is Chinese culture really so superior that foreigners are here only to bask in its wonderfulness? Maybe because I have travelled to other countries--heck, other places in China--I find it hard to interact with people who say things like "This teapot is superior - only in Jiangsu province can you find this clay." (Here I think to myself: yes, but other places have other clay, and then say, "Boy, that is amazing, you Jiangsu people are so fortunate; back home we have nothing of cultural value").

Because when you do travel, you realize that everybody (at least everybody in China) says that about their hometown (or about their province/China, depending on the scale they wish to pride themselves). And you realize, more importantly, that every place has something to be proud of, and everybody thinks fondly of their hometown, if not because it really is interesting, but because it's natural to have feelings for one's home.

XM assures me that this strange way of thinking and speaking is isolated to the older generation of Chinese, people now in their 50s and 60s. Why they think this way, we don't know. Maybe it comes from highly nationalist education in their youth, or maybe as a reaction to all of the (westernizing) changes of the past twenty years. I considered making the effort to share with them the interesting things I have seen outside of Nanjing, or Jiangsu, or China, but in the end I never do. I don't think they're so interested in listening, just talking. So even though I can't put on my really-impressed-foreigner face anymore, I'll still listen.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Don't Worry, Everything's Not Fine

Last night I was already asleep when XM woke me to see the special CCTV program on the violence in Tibet.

I had first read reports on H-NET a week before. These reports--blurbs from locals, monks and foreigners--gave the appearance of having squeezed through cracks in the Chinese security blockade, worn and torn from their long journey. They spoke of a hundred of dead, thousands protesting, riots at this and that temple. A jumble of unconfirmed, denied, renegade facts; it was as if the reporting agency had first caught witnesses in flight, and then purposely maintained the rawness of the reports as proud proof of their verity in the face of toned-down Chinese media reports. Seeing the state that the statements arrived in, I stereotypically assumed news in China would feature images of the Potala Palace encircled by dancing minorities carrying flags of the Five Friendlies with the train line in the background (antelopes in tow). Message to the world: "Everything's OK".

My eyes were bleary with sleep and myopia, so the imagery on the TV screen was hazy. There were flames, storefront gates being kicked, axed, and ripped off slowly but surely. Crying, and blood as a civilian was beat in the back of the head. Office furniture and goods being thrown energetically into the street. A middle school caught fire. A man angrily described while wiping tears on his sleeve how his sister wouldn't jump out the window, and burnt to death while he and his wife survived the leap.

I was stunned by the images, the deadpan narration. I was stunned in a 9-11 way, in a what-were-you-doing-when-President-Kennedy-was-assassinated way. This was not propaganda, at least not the obvious kind, the kind that tries to distract you from the truth. It was a real report--a special report, even--to explain what had happened in Lhasa during the past 7 days. And it came straight from CCTV.

After I overcame the haze of sleepiness, the report took on an the creepiness of an Edgar Allen Poe piece. I gradually, then acutely, became aware of a sound that by the end of the report was both enthralling and unbearable: the sound of raucous Tibetans hooting in a most shrill way. It was a continuous din, with random highs and lows, and in no way resembled the semi-organized rally cries reported at the temples. In retrospect, it seems closest to Native American whooping and chanting, but higher-pitched, and completely free-form. It was this eerie din that chilled and compelled me to write about this incident. If YouTube were not shut down (I suspect the Net Nanny no-no'ed some fresh "Free Tibet" propaganda from the opposing camp), I would try and find it there. I expect I will never hear anything like it again, heaven forbid I ever do if in Tibet. [I am now imagining myself surrounded by the omnipresent noise, running as fast as I can while sucking in each thin breath of air, and being chased by rabid zang'ao.]

When the screen went black at the end of the report, and we returned to our regularly scheduled programming, I too returned to sleep. Drifting off, I thought to myself, perhaps the Chinese government has turned a new leaf--heck, a new tree--and decided to take the brave position of opening up before the Olympics instead of shutting down. Today I have come to consider that the report was not entirely open: far few deaths have been reported here than abroad, I didn't see any information on the teargas and shots fired on temple protesters, and the reporting focused on atrocities committed against Han people--but still, I can't shake off the feeling that something has stirred in Chinese reporting. The real test: whether I can access my blog tomorrow.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Web 2.0 / Enterprise 2.0 in the Capital Markets Industry

A pilot study on awareness and use of Web 2.0 by Canright Communications and Evalueserve found that of the executives surveyed, 44% were “extremely” interested in Web 2.0 for business, but only 17% felt “extremely” or “very” knowledgeable about the technology.

The survey results—which were distributed at the Financial Markets World Web 2.0 / Enterprise 2.0 in the Capital Markets Industry event today—mirrored the speakers’ sentiments: the business community in general imagines grand possibilities for Web 2.0 technologies in the workplace, but the barriers to adoption, such as lack of understanding at the executive level or compliance issues, are still great. So great that the speakers were able to give only isolated success stories, and no universal suggestions, to the mostly financial audience.

I came to the event excited to be educated. I knew a little about Web 2.0, but I was overwhelmed by the possibilities I saw in the news and just wanted authoritative instruction on how to filter through all of the noise. (I also wanted to see David Teten, my colleague and co-Managing Director of Nitron speak and moderate one panel).

The most informative sessions to get the overview were Matt Nelson of TowerGroup’s opening remarks, and the last talk I attended, Dion Hinchcliffe’s ‘Applying Enterprise 2.0 and Web 2.0 in Financial Services: Early Notes from the Field’. In fact, Dion’s absorbing speech would have been better placed early in the day, as it provided a good background, real-life examples of Enterprise 2.0 successes, and a straightforward summary of its shortcomings.

Other speeches and roundtables drilled down on specific topics, like Instant Messaging, Collaboration, Web 3.0, and David’s talk on using Web 2.0 to source deals (I did not hear the last talk by Tom Steinthal of BSG Alliance). Since I was learning about these areas for the first time I was only able to understand on a superficial level, but was most impressed by Penny Herscher of FirstRain and her simple yet sharp insights (e.g., Web 2.0 will profoundly change buy side research).

Stephen Leung, a Senior Manager at BEA Systems, who was a panelist on both the ‘Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 in the Financial Services Industry’ and ‘Rich Internet Applications and the Client Portal: Using Web 2.0 to Improve the Client Experience’ panels, spoke loads on the infrastructure and applications side of Web 2.0, and probably received the most questions from the audience, but the discussion was unfortunately too technical for me.

Although the roundtable topics had various titles, and nearly all of the discussions went overtime out of lively discussion, I didn’t come out of the event in control of Web 2.0 like I thought I would; I just learned how much more there was to it, especially more creative uses of Web 2.0 apps for businesses than I could have imagined.

In following the “Top 10” theme used by Xignite Chariman/CEO/Founder Stephane Dubois to kick-off the first roundtable, here’s my Top 10 Learnings from the event:

10) Web 2.0 technologies should fit into existing workflow and should be invisible to users.

9) The finance world’s secrecy and competitiveness inherently conflicts with Web 2.0’s nature of viral, self-correcting information sharing.

8) Longtail, mashups, fine-grained entitlement, folksonomies, meta data, geo-tagging and MetaWiki are good things.

7) Individuals can use Web 2.0 tools to leverage existing social networks to generate sales or make deals. One can do this outside of any business structures, based on one’s own diversity of contacts, character, competence, the relevance and strength of one’s contacts, and access to information.

6) Executive decision makers’ lack of information on and understanding of Web 2.0—“What’s the ROI?/I don’t have time for this!/Kids these days and their crazy technology…”—prevent companies from realizing adoption. Any new technology would face similar barriers.

5) Web 2.0 is not a technology or a step in development, but a social concept.

4) Legal/compliance teams haven’t yet figured out how to effectively regulate Web 2.0 tools without reducing them to meaninglessness. But giving employees unbridled Web 2.0 tools is also incorrect.

3) Internal company Wikis—which act as a unified log for all project developments and conversations—are a successful example of Enterprise 2.0 in the real world. Key to success is to motivate employees to use it and control the structure themselves.

2) Each element of SLATES (Search, Links, Authoring, Tagging, Extension, and Signals) is required for a Web 2.0 tool to be effective.

1) There is no clear solution for how the capital markets industry should integrate Web 2.0 into business. The interest is there, but Web 2.0 is still effectively consumer-driven, not enterprise driven.

More discussion on Enterprise 2.0 is in order, but before then, more actual application of Enterprise 2.0 in the workplace would be more informative.

Originally edited and posted by David Teten on NextNY, Circle of Experts blog, and The Virtual Handshake blog.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Nanjing chosen as capital of China's new Cha-ching! Dynasty

Last week, Louis Vuitton opened its Nanjing store. It opened with all of the pomp and ribbon-cutting and champagne and full-page newspaper ads announcing itself that one would expect from LV anywhere in the world. What I didn't expect, though, was the literal mobs of shoppers that rushed the store the second the doors swung apart.

Nanjing people are known for their, well, modesty. They don't expect too much in life, so they're fairly content with what they have. Nanjingers don't have as a high a per capita GDP as the Sang-hei-nin down the river, but, as they like to say, at least they aren't in Anhui. Having acted as China's capital for the 11th time just last century (almost as many times as Xi'an), the past is a much more exciting topic than the future. It's almost as if the important modernization projects going on -- the skyscrapers, the subway, and booming new satellite towns like Jiangning -- are happening to them, not by them.

So I was taken by surprise by the photo in the Yangtse Evening Post of crazed shoppers clamoring for bags that have a six-month waiting list in Tokyo. I mean, what happened to the good ol' days when Nanjing girls wore polyester stockingettes that didn't match? When old ladies fought on the street? When summers were spent jumping off the Shuiximen city wall into the moat?

Two great quotes have been on my mind that are giving perspective to the designer phenomenon:

"Consumerism is the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their role in society."
--Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century

"Development can be a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy."
--Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom

Consumerism isn't new to Nanjing. Before, there were Playboy man-bags. Now we have LV man-bags. What is different, it seems, is how much brand has trumped other considerations, like quality and even personal taste. Average Nanjingers' happy-go-lucky status, perfected over the years, is becoming one of material competition seen in Shanghai. Gone are the days of hiking in the mountains or going to Confucius Temple for yummy snacks like duck-blood soup red bean porridge. Those are just for tourists now; ironically, the tourists now experience a Nanjing that no longer exists for the natives.

The obsession with branding is now literally like branding in the bovine sense. No longer do your clothes belong to you; you belong to them, which is demonstrated by the prominent logos. Example: there is Polo shirt now popular here (let me know if it's anywhere else) in which the teeny tiny Polo appliqué is replaced with one that takes up a 1/4 of the shirtfront. The sole purpose must be to see from space that you are Polo.

If you asked any of the twenty-somethings who went to Louis Vuitton on Day One why they liked LV so much, could any of them describe what I assume is the reason for its fame -- the craftsmanship, or the design? Doubt it. Even more essential, could they explain why they themselves are so attracted? Doubt it even more. These Gen-Y/one-child-policy children/little emperors, according my top source (XM's mother) care only about surrounding themselves with trappings of the good life, as defined by the society in which they are competing.

So, Nanjingers -- at least the young and salaries ones -- are giving meaning to their lives through spending all their cash on expensive stuff. I can't help but think, though, how is that contributing to their upwards development? Where do people go from here, except an endless spiral of wasteful consumption of stuff you don't know you actually don't want, you just think you do? 'Cause that what looks like happened where I grew up. This herd mentality (lots of cow metaphors today) is tying people down, rather than bringing the freedoms of development.

I admit I can't stop how Nanjing or its people changes, and I don't want to keep it from developing. I don't want to become its cultural warlord, either. Maybe my rant today is an expression of White Man's Destiny Part II: Revenge of the Other, in which I want to help Chinese rise not above their original savage ways, but above the McLifestyle, marketing savvy and consumption patterns that we have exported to them. Or maybe I just suffer from first-world ennui, and want to say that I live in--gasp--!!!CHINA!!! And I want !!!CHINA!!! to keep its stockingettes and man-bags and people yelling at each other on the street so there's something to laugh about with the folks back home.

But actually, I just want Nanjing to be a place where people are happy that they have so much already, 'cause mountains and and pipas and even awesome dead bugs have intrinsic value. And heck, at least it isn't Anhui.

Originally posted on Lost Laowai on August 5, 2007.

Year of the Not-So-Golden Pig

I am always a bit behind in writing and posting ideas. This post would optimally have hit the blogsphere, sometime, say, in the months before an estimated 22 million Chinese women conceived in order to give birth to babies before the end of the year.

But alas, it's too late to stop them. However, my inability to think of other stories journalistic integrity requires that I bring forth the information I know regardless of the consequences (not like I expect any Chinese mothers to be reading this blog, for foreigners, in English).

Dear readers, the most vocal elements of the Chinese press would have you believe that this is the year of the Golden Pig, a magnificent year full of wealth and auspiciousness (hence all the babies). Now, everyone knows it's the year of the pig because it rolls around every 12 years and is thus hard to get out of order between the dog and the rat. But whence the golden in the year of the Golden Pig?

Sneaky, brainwashing capitalists, that's who. According to Wikipedia and a number of skeptics and dissenters like this site (in Chinese), we are in the year 24 of the 60-year cycle, or the year of the Fire Pig. Yes, the Fire Pig, folks. (A couple of other sites dispute that it's actually the Earth Pig year, but my calculations still yield Fire Pig.)

I don't know who first came up with this idea that this year was golden, but it's been promulgated most evidently by jewelers, who—unsurprisingly—have seen great sales in golden pig items this year. Every few weeks my local daily, the Yangtze Evening Post, features an "article" about what kind of jewelery to buy. Soft advertisements Articles like this one drop names like Orient Department Store and Millenium Star Jewelers. Another one from the same paper, which was not reproduced online, discussed which kinds of jade from TESIRO were most appropriate for Golden Piglets to wear. English language media like the Shanghai Daily and even the Economist take the bait (the Economist actually just reports on the baby boom caused by it, and doesn't question the nomenclature).

Now, it makes sense that marriages and births would be up the past two years, since the baby boomers from the early 80s are now getting married and having kids of their own. I'm not against an increase in the rate of births and sales of diapers and baby insurance, per se. What bothers me is retailers' intentional distortion of 5,000-year-old oracle bone fact and slapping of "golden" on innocent zodiac animals.

The media deserve an even bigger reprimand for corroborating the falsehood, which has actually caused people to 1) have babies because it's a "lucky" year, overflowing schools and heightening the already-intense competition on these poor kids; and 2) spend their hard-earned kuai on useless golden-piggy merchandise. There are of course articles out there refuting the Golden Pig myth (how else would I have known?), but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears for the recently married/superstitious/illiterate/gullible crowd.

For the record, the next golden pig year will actually occur in 2031, which in itself is misleading. The original meaning of the character , is metal, not gold. So, in 2031 women will be birthing metal pigs. I suppose that is less painful than fire pigs. But fire pigs have such magnificent personalities! From one random site in Chinese (my abbreviated translation):

2007, ding hai year: (mountain-crossing pigs) are clever and intelligent, self-supporting, peaceful do-gooders, and wealthy. Women will be fortunate and stable.

First posted on Lost Laowai on July 7 2007.