Chinese popular music is not for everyone. When I say “not for everyone,” I am referring to those citizens of the world who are neither a) part of China’s roughly 1.5 billion inhabitants or b) have been in China long enough to be desensitized to the point where they can open up to the idea that not all Chinese pop is as horrendous as that which dominates 99% of the radio waves.
This past weekend, a friend from Fuzhou came to visit me in Chicago. Accordingly, I set my iTunes to play some of my own personal favorite Chinese artists, including Zheng Zhi Hua, Wu Bai, and the now-defunct Hong Kong rock band Beyond. In the middle of Beyond’s anthem 抗战二十年, I asked my friend what she thought of the song.
“It’s so…old,” was her response. This would not be so significant if it weren’t for that this is the same response I get 99% of the time when asked by Chinese people who my favorite Chinese singers are. The “It’s so…old” is usually accompanied by a non-verbal but completely understood, “You are such a dork for listening to that stuff from the 80’s and 90’s.”
Old or not, I have found that most of the Chinese pop music I can stand to listen to does come from the previous two decades. Over the past decade most Chinese popular music has increasingly devolved into the shells of shallow American pop songs, with their words replaced by even sappier Chinese lyrics. The artists mentioned above, while not musically spectacular, do have a certain element of soul to their music which is absent in most contemporary Chinese pop.
So now consider the my situation had it been in the United States. If I were to tell several American friends that two of my favorite musical groups were U2 and the Talking Heads, would it elicit a response of “Gosh, those guys are so old”? My guess is probably not.
China is in currently the midst of a period of change more rapid than at any other point in its history. Many observers would argue that the greatest mass improvement in living standards in human history has also come at the expense of one of the world’s longest lasting cultures.
To say that the musical group Beyond is anything more than a footnote in China’s 5000 year history would be a stretch. But in terms of the short history of rock music in China, Beyond is as influential on the Chinese scene as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones would be to that of the West.
Discounting cultural works, especially music, on account of them being old (but not necessarily out of date), is nothing foreign to the China or the US. But the degree of street cred I lose from confessing to liking artists such as Beyond, Zheng Zhi Hua, and Wu Bai does leave me a little worried about the future of music in the Middle Kingdom. And if popular music is indeed a microcosm of Chinese culture itself, then we could be headed towards a period of even more drastic change than we have seen in the past few decades. As for me, I will still be listening to Beyond and the Talking Heads.
After spending the majority of the past two months in my hometown of Kansas City, I am now in Chicago beginning the next phase of my re-entry into American life. One of the reasons I chose Chicago was because of its ethnic diversity. As are most larger American cities, Chicago is full of ethnic enclaves scattered around this city. One of which is the Chicago Chinatown, home of the much of Chicago’s Chinese population as well as numerous restaurants, groceries, boutiques, and small businesses.
After my experience working in a Fuzhou barbershop last May, I thought it would be only fitting for my first experience in Chicago Chinatown to be a haircut. There are actually several barbershops in the Chinatown, but I chose one called “Urban Roots,” because it most closely resembled a “middle class” Chinese barbershop, like the one where I had worked in Fuzhou.
|“Urban Roots,” one of Chinatown Chicago’s finer haircutting establishments
With its bright colors on the wall and the mellow sounds Chinese pop music, the interior of Urban Roots looked and felt nearly identical to a Chinese barbershop (Chinese in the sense of actually being in China). The entire staff was Chinese, as were all of the other customers, and by the subtle look of surprise from the boy behind the counter, I am guessing they do not get too much non-Chinese clientele. Walking through the door, there was one blaring difference. Rather than being greeted by a chorus of “Huan Ying Guang Lin!” from the entire staff, a young boy behind the counter casually asked me, in accented English, “How can I help you?”
After telling the boy I wanted a haircut, I was led to the back of the salon by a woman in her mid-thirties. She sat me in a padded chair and leaned my head back into an attached sink, and began washing my pre-cut hairwash, just as they do in China. Conveniently located on the wall, at a perfectly aligned angle from where my head was tilted back, was an LCD screen playing Chinese karaoke videos. As I sat there, I felt for a moment as if I had been teleported back to Fuzhou.
The hair wash woman didn’t speak much English, so we chatted in Mandarin, and she told me she was from Guangzhou and had lived in Chicago for around 7 years. I told her how I had lived in Fuzhou for 3 years, and we exchanged stories and feelings about our years living in each others’ respective countries.
Throughout our exchange, one thing stood out as a blatant difference from China. That was that a woman in her mid-thirties was washing my hair. In China, working in a barbershop is a position considered to be low on the totem pole of social status. Furthermore, the job of a hair washer (or little brother/sister) is even lower than that of a barber. Most little brothers and sisters in Chinese barbershops are fresh out of high school, (or sometimes middle school) and rarely, if ever, older than their early twenties. Additionally, hair washing and cutting in China is a field still dominated by men, as many Chinese women stay at home to fulfill domestic responsibilities, especially those past child bearing years. Seeing a woman in her mid-thirties washing hair in China would probably be even less likely than seeing a 6 foot gringo from Chicago doing the same job. It would simply involve too much loss of face.
In China, face is a factor which can often determine which jobs are acceptable and which are not. Working as a businessman in a large company, a teacher in a university, or a government official comes with it a high degree of face. Work as a commissary employee, construction worker, or hair washer does not. This is why virtually none of the thousands of barbershop employees in Fuzhou are actually from Fuzhou. Rather, they come from small townships and rural areas in Fujian and surrounding provinces. A Fuzhou city native might consider working in a barbershop in say, Shanghai, but doing such work in their own hometown would cause too much loss of face. It would not even be an option.
When Chinese go abroad however, all of these rules are thrown out the window. Once in America, working in a barbershop, a restaurant, or a laundry service does not bare the embarrassment it would cause if such jobs were worked in China.
A close Chinese friend of mine, who comes from a wealthy family in Fuzhou, explained it to me like this, “If I went to Hong Kong, or England, or the United States, I could work a part time job such as one in a barbershop. But I could never do such work in Fuzhou. It would bring too much embarrassment to my family.”
One component of this is financial. Wages in Western countries are many times higher than those in Mainland China, and blue collar work in the West can lead to a life of comfort and luxury in China. Would an upper-middle class American with a college degree feel comfortable working as a cashier at McDonald’s? Would it be a job that he would want his friends to know he was working? Not likely. Now, imagine if McDonald’s restaurants in Canada were paying $250/hour, but Canada’s borders were closed, and only 5,000 Americans per year could emigrate to Canada to work. Suddenly the job, and the status which comes along with it, becomes more appealing.
After my hair wash, I was lead over to the barber chair to meet my new barber, a Chinese man, also in his mid-thirties. I greeted him in Mandarin, to which he replied, in English, “I don’t understand Mandarin, only Cantonese and English. I’m from Hong Kong.” Like the situation with the woman who had washed my hair, you would never see a Hong Kong native working in a Chinese barbershop in mainland China. Hong Kongers in mainland China find themselves propelled to the top of the social ladder, and certainly would not be cutting hair in the mainland. (I can’t comment on how this would play out in Hong Kong itself, since I haven’t spent enough time there). However, in the US, this job is perfectly acceptable by Chinese social norms.
After my haircut was complete, the woman from Guangzhou gave my head another wash, thus completing a process which was nearly identical to that which I had received so many times in China. The only major difference of course was the cost…a walloping 26 dollars, not including the 4 dollar tip I gave the barber. In Fuzhou, the cost of a haircut at my barbershop was 30 RMB (aprox $4), and as is custom in China, there is no tip.
My experience at Urban Roots not only gave me a sentimental throw-back to China, but it served to reaffirm a good lesson for all those coming from China to the United States. Here in Chicago I can have an authentic dim sum lunch, watch CCTV, and get a Chinese haircut complete with 2 washes and karaoke videos, but life in the US is not the same as it is in China, and this applies for both Chinese and laowai (which by the way, we are also referred to as by Chinese in the US). Long-standing beliefs and traditions, such as the concept of face, can last for millennia when maintained within their native countries. However, when exported to foreign lands, they are often no match for the social and economic forces of life abroad. And who knows?…Maybe someday doctors and lawyers from Chicago will emigrate to Fuzhou to cut hair.