Posted in Announcements, Barbershop at 10:34 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s been some time since I’ve updated this blog.

To see what I’m up to, check out my TEDx talk on Chinese Hairstylists. (Use this link if you’re behind the Great Firewall).

You can also listen the Sinica Podcast where I talk about my dissertation research on the Chinese Hairstyling Industry.



Sinica Podcast: Talkin’ about Chinese Stylists

Posted in Announcements, Barbershop at 8:49 pm by Benjamin Ross

In case you missed it, I was interviewed on a recent version of the Sinica Podcast, a weekly show put on by Jeremy Goldkorn, David Moser, and Kaiser Kuo.  We discuss the state of the hairstyling industry, that “other” hairstyling industry, and the service industry as a whole, among other issues pertaining to barbershops.  You can listen to the show here.  Also, check out Sinica’s archives for a wide variety of fascinating China-related content.      




Posted in Announcements at 2:50 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s been a long time since this blog has been updated, and I’ve received several comments asking whether or not this blog is dead.  There are several reasons I could give for the lack of material of late, but ultimately after wading through the first year of a PhD program, the blog has unfortunately been dropped several tiers on the priority list.  That first year however culminated in a 2 day preliminary examination which finished last week, and to exploit this spurt of freedom, I’m in Europe for 18 days.  It’s my first time here, and I’m going to be traveling through the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, trying to learn what I can about these countries as well as the roots of urbanization and the industrial revolution.  Rather than spend travel time on long posts, this trip I’m going to try posting scattered comments and observations at each stop, then when I get back to the US, posting polished photo essays.  I’m gonna try posting every day or two, so hopefully this blog will finally pick up some much-needed momentum.  First stop:  London



Canada round up

Posted in Announcements at 9:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

In the summer of 2010 I took a 2 week trip to Canada.  Here are the photo essays for each stop.


Niagara Falls




Quebec City



Ben’s going to Canada!

Posted in Announcements, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 9:51 am by Benjamin Ross

Firstly, my apologies to readers for the dearth of posts in recent weeks.  I assure you that the blog is not dying a slow death, but rather has just been temporarily neglected.  But the big news is….I’m going to Canada!  School doesn’t start until late September and with a wedding on August 28 in Boston, I extended the trip into another North American adventure.  On August 14 I fly to Toronto, then travel over land to Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, back to Montreal, to New York, and finally to Boston.  The working focus for this trip will urbanism and public transportation infrastructure in Eastern Canada, Canadian Chinatowns, and francophone culture in North America.  Like the last trip, I plan to take a lot of pictures and do a lot of blogging, with in-depth write-ups once I get back to Chicago. As my knowledge of the region is rather limited, please feel free to leave any travel suggestions in the comment section. More to come in weeks ahead.



A Case Study of Migrant Workers in the Chinese Hairstyling Industry (My grad school writing sample)

Posted in Announcements, Barbershop at 6:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

As most readers know, this past winter I went through the process of applying to Sociology PhD programs.  One requirement for all applications was a writing sample, preferably of an academic paper.  Looking back through my files from undergrad years, I realized that most of what I had written back when I was in college (I graduated in 2003) wouldn’t suffice for the type of grad programs I was applying to.  Since I wanted to focus my graduate studies on the urbanization of China, and to do so using ethnographic field methods, I decided to write a paper from scratch based on my experiences working in a Chinese barbershop.  Now that the process is over, I’ve put the paper online in PDF format.  You can access it at the link below.  If anybody has any trouble viewing the file, please send me a note in the comments section.




The Five* Year Plan: Ben’s going back to school!

Posted in Announcements at 11:00 am by Benjamin Ross

Back in October I mentioned that I was in the process of applying to Ph. D programs. Well, the yearlong process of researching departments, studying for the GRE, hunting down professors, sorting transcripts, writing essays, submitting applications, and waiting for responses is finally complete.

This fall I am going to begin a masters/Ph. D program in Sociology at the University of Chicago.  The focus of my studies is going to be Urban Sociology, and I plan to tailor my research towards the urbanization of China.

Over the past thirty years China has been the site of the largest rural to urban migration in human history. Similar to how European rural peasantry poured into North American urban areas in the decades around the turn of the 20th Century, Chinese peasants are now flooding Chinese cities at unprecedented rates. The migrants come to work in factories, on construction sites, in restaurants, barbershops, or any of the multitude of new jobs necessary to support China’s export market and nascent consumer classes.

In the wake of the United States’ own urbanization, the 1920’s and 1930’s saw a explosion of new sociological theory and research. Much of this body of research was conducted in Chicago, which was the de facto Shenzhen of the early 20th Century. Using models from American urbanization as well as current work done in China, I am hoping to examine the Chinese urbanization process and its corollaries as they are unfolding today.

For the first two years of my program, I will essentially be a fulltime classroom student. Years three and four will be spent teaching classes and starting independent dissertation research. From that point on, the focus becomes finishing (and hopefully someday publishing) the dissertation. This is where it’s difficult to predict a timeframe. Officially, funding for the program lasts 5 years, but the general consensus from current students and faculty is that 6 or 7 years is more realistic, and also preferred… hence the asterisk in the title.

While the American Midwest will now be my home for most of the remainder of the decade, I will likely be spending several summers, or possibly a semester or three, conducting fieldwork in the Middle Kingdom.

School starts in the end of September and at that time I plan to move to Hyde Park where I will probably remain for the first year or two in order to be close to campus. In the meantime I will still be interpreting, watching Chinese television shows, and hopefully blogging as well.

And yes, in case anybody was wondering, my writing sample for grad school applications was about Chinese barbershops. I’ll try to post it in the days to come.



East Coast Excursion ’09

Posted in Announcements, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 10:22 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past Thursday I sent in my last grad school application. On Friday I turned thirty. And tomorrow I am embarking on my first significant journey of my thirties. It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled extensively in the United States, with my last major trip being my road trip from Kansas to California in 2003. And with all the China excursions in the middle, it’s due time to explore more of my home country.

One of the most crucial skills I learned during my 3 plus years in China was the benefits of efficient circuitous traveling. In other words, choosing a starting and ending point, then traveling from start to finish with short overland trips, stopping frequently along the way, and always leaving room for improvisation. By my measures, the only region in the US which this can be accomplished with any degree of efficiency is the East Coast. So here’s my itinerary.

I fly into Boston the morning of 12/23. I head back to Chicago from Baltimore on 1/5. In between, I’m also planning multiple day stays in New York City and Philadelphia.

The reasons and goals for this trip are multi-fold. First and foremost, over the past year I have been reading extensively from the literature of urban sociology. As this is my hopeful future field of study, I want to take the chance to experience some of the earliest examples of urbanization in the Americas. Thus, I’m going to be shying away from the typical tourist draws and instead focusing on ethnic enclaves, transportation systems, sites of gentrification, areas which have experienced significant urban decay, and several of the districts and neighborhoods specifically studied in Sociology texts I have read. And yes, I will be visiting multiple Chinatowns along the way.

I’m also going to be catching up with various family and friends whom I haven’t visited in a very long time. My uncle my six cousins will all be in Boston for the holidays; Yueting, my best friend from Fuqing, is currently studying in Philadelphia; and I have various friends from college, Kansas City, and Jewish summer camp smattered throughout the East Coast. I’m also going to be scoping out several of the schools where I applied.

From a logistical standpoint, I am curious how my travel methods and techniques I utilized in China will translate into American public transit systems. I have lived without a car since I moved to Chicago in 2007 and am eager to further test what I hope will be the future of transportation in the United States. The circuitous travel method would never work in the Midwest, South, or West without a car, but I am confident I should be able to make all my destinations out East via subways, commuter trains, and of course the now-famous Fung Wa Chinatown bus service.

I’m going to be writing updates along the way, but probably will hold off on thorough write ups until I am back home since I’m going to be squeezing a lot into 2 weeks. I’ll also be tweeting a lot, so follow @BenRoss if you want to keep tabs. Oh, and as for finishing 《奋斗》, that’s going on the backburner until I get back. More updates from the road. Leaving for Boston in less than 12 hours.



State of the Blog; Plans and happenings, present and future

Posted in Announcements at 4:10 pm by Benjamin Ross

Hello readers.  It’s been a while since I’ve done a “state of the blog” post, and although I generally try not to convolute this blog with my own personal affairs, it’s been over two months since the last post, so I figured an update was necessary.

Being as I spent three months in Beijing last summer, this summer was my first to actually spend in Chicago.  Halfway through the summer, I also realized that it had been six years (since the summer after I graduated college) that I had actually spent a summer on American soil.  With that in mind, my goal for the past four months was to stay in one place and travel as little as possible, something I haven’t done much of since the last millennium.  Whenever possible I’ve been spending my free time exploring Chicago much in the same sense that I explore a new Chinese city whenever I first arrive:  taking public transportation to a random part of town, disembarking, exploring on foot, and sampling any strange foods which may appear along the way.  Chicago is one of the most diverse places on the planet, and my previous experience of living abroad for 3 years has served to engender in me a new found appreciation for vast depository of the world cultures which exist in the United States.

On the work front, I am still interpreting, primarily in the healthcare field, but I’m also starting to get some court gigs as well.  Interpreting has forced me to push my Chinese studies into directions I had not previously tendered with while living in China…for example thoroughly describing the process of a colonoscopy or a vaginal tissue biopsy.  Another pleasant effect is that my Chinese level has actually improved since I’ve repatriated rather than the typical attrition which comes along with not using language skills on a daily basis.

Recently, I’ve also begun a side gig as a consultant and translator for Lenovo’s soon to be rolled out design blog.  I’m going to be working with the Beijing team on brainstorming, idea management, and translating the blog into English for the international audience.  If budgets work out, I’ll hopefully also be spending a little bit of time in Beijing at some point over the next few months.

The biggest news however is that I am currently in the process of applying to Ph. D programs in sociology.  I am hoping to focus my graduate studies on the rapid urbanization of China and the incipient urban centers which are flaring up all across the country.  More specifically, some of the issues I’d like to address include urban growth patterns, suburbanization, ghettoization, social class, and migration as they relate to China’s rapid movement from an agrarian to an urban society.  I have always intended on continuing my ethnography work with Chinese migrant workers (and Chinese barbershops), and have decided a Ph. D program in sociology is the best venue in which to carry out these pursuits.

With all this going on, my blog has been noticeably lagging.  Suffice it to say, it is not easy to procure content for a blog titled “A Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom” when in fact the author is not in the Middle Kingdom.  Therefore I have opted to change the title to the more appropriate “A Midwesterner ON the Middle Kingdom.”  However, one aspect of China with which I am becoming increasingly familiar in Chicago is the Chinese American experience.  I have been spending a fair amount of time in Chinatown and have been becoming reasonably well acquainted with various aspects of the large Chinese community here, and hope to interject some of these findings and observations into blog posts in the near future.

With all that in mind, I am looking forward to a busy fall, and hopefully a nice little shot in the arm for “A Midwesterner On the Middle Kingdom.”  Thanks to everybody who has continued reading and look forward to more content to come.



From the Delta to the Backwoods: Two weeks in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui

Posted in Announcements, Travel Log (Asia) at 10:09 am by Benjamin Ross

Recently I returned from a month-long stint in China during which I was consulting for PacEth for two and a half weeks, and then traveling independently for another two.  At exactly 30 days, it was the shortest duration I have even stayed in the Middle Kingdom, but probably the most efficient in terms of both work, and play.

Nanjing Xinjiekou view from skybridge
Downtown Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, one of the more affluent major and modernized cities in the Middle Kingdom

My first two and a half weeks were spent working in Shanghai.  Located at the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta, Shanghai is the center of one of Mainland China’s two most prominent economic regions.  (The other being the Pearl River Delta).  Shanghai, Northern Zhejiang and Southern Jiangsu provinces collectively form a hyper-economic zone which has emerged as one of the wealthiest regions of modern China, representing the benefactors of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy.

However, right in the backyard of the Yangtze River Delta lies a province which bares little in common with the glamour and glitz of the Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.  With soil and farmland far inferior to the fertile Yangtze River Delta and no port access, Anhui is one of the poorest provinces in China.  Unlike Shanghai with its youngsters touting PSPs and its businessmen chatting on iPhones, its café culture and western markets with organic produce, Anhui remains stuck somewhere between the economic woes of the 60s and 70s, and the economic miracle of the past 30 years.  Public infrastructure is poorly maintained, expendable income is low, and its inhabitants live in constant knowledge that their brothers and sisters, just an overnight train ride away, are sipping lattes and updating their Facebook statuses on mobile wifi.

rural Anhui village street
A city road in Taihe, located in Northwestern Anhui, one of China’s most economically lagging provinces

What Anhui does have though is people.  With a population slightly larger than that of the UK, Anhui is the source of millions of laborers who make the short journey east to Shanghai to work as housekeepers, construction workers, vegetable vendors, and a multitude of other occupations undesirable to Shanghai locals.  Within Shanghai, Anhui people comprise the rapidly expanding urban lower class, needed to support Shanghai’s growing urban elite.  As the dominant element in Shanghai’s working class, Anhui people have developed a reputation as the shysters, sneaks, and beggars which populate the city and draw the ire of its locals.  In the eyes of most Chinese, Anhui is a destitute land from which people come out, but nobody ever (willingly) goes in.

This is exactly why I wanted to spend a week of my vacation exploring Anhui.  Embarking from Shanghai, my two week excursion took me in a clockwise direction through the prosperous Yangtze River Delta, to the backwoods of Anhui, back through the Yangtze River Delta and returning to Shanghai from where I flew back to Chicago on March 19.

The following series explores my recent trip from one of China’s wealthiest regions, through one of its economic backwaters, and back.  In all, my journey took me to eight different cities, and there is a corresponding blog post, with images, for each of them.

Part 1  Suzhou: Ancient Capital of the Wu

Part 2  Linan: Stomping Grounds of the Chinese Small Town Upper-Middle Class

Part 3  Huang Shan: The Famous Yellow Mountain

Part 4: Anhui: Industrial Capital on the Plain

Part 5: Fuyang:  Into the Backwoods

Part 6: Taihe: Rural Anhui in all its Glory and Grit

Part 7: Nanjing:  Cultural Oasis of the South

Part 8:  Yangzhou: Home of the World’s Most Famous Fried Rice…and Jiang Zemin

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