China has more illiteracy than you may think

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:18 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past winter, I spent 3 months in Fujian researching hairstylists as part of my dissertation fieldwork.  Since my research was being partly supported by a small research grant, I had to keep track of basic living expenses such as food, hotels, and transportation.  In order to get reimbursed for an expense, I would need a receipt.  Since my grant was from the US, and not China, there was no need to obtain the official “fa piao” receipts, which are required by most Chinese firms and organizations for reimbursement.  Instead, all I needed was a written record, either a print out from a cash register, a hand written “shou ju” receipt, or in most basic circumstances, a written note with date, price, and what I had ordered.  

Since my default meal is usually at a cheap, mom-and-pop restaurant in which the cash register consists of a drawer full of cash, many of the receipts I obtained were of the hand-written variety.  This daily act of receipt gathering led to an inadvertent experiment with an unexpected result:  There is a lot more illiteracy in China than I had previously thought.  This was revealed in the uncomfortable situation in which I would ask for a written receipt, and receive an embarrassed reply indicating that the restaurant proprietor  could not write Chinese characters.  While nowhere near the majority, this situation occurred enough times during my three months in Fujian that I started to take notice. It was always from a female proprietor of a family-run restaurant, usually between the ages of 30-60.  The solution was for me to wait until her husband or child returned, or to have me write my own receipt.  

Before going further, it should be mentioned that illiteracy in China is low. This was not always the case. For much of China’s Imperial history, literacy was reserved for government officials, as was the case for the clergy in many Western societies. One of the most important accomplishments of the Chinese Communist Party was lowering illiteracy, particularly by making primary education available to girls.  

Literacy is difficult to quantify, but the CIA World Factbook estimates China’s literacy rate at 95.1% for individuals over 15 as of 2010 (97.5% for boys and 92.5% for girls).  Of that small percentage who are illiterate, presumably most would be elderly women in remote areas, who came of age before girls were commonly educated.  (Previously, the only people in China who I had encountered who couldn’t read and write fit this description).  This is why I found it surprising to encounter so much illiteracy among restaurant owners, who were well below this age threshold. Also, in reflection to another group who come from one of the least educated strata of Chinese society:  hairstylists.

Of the several hundred hairstylists and other service industry workers I have befriended, interviewed, and observed over the years, never once have I encountered one who couldn’t read a Chinese newspaper and fill out forms with written Chinese characters.  (I have incidentally met a few who could not read pinyin, the Chinese Romanization system, taught in primary grades).  The median education level of a hairstylist in China is probably around 8th or 9th grade.  When I broach the topic of schooling, responses I receive are usually to the tune of “I hate school, so I quit.” or “I suck at studying.  It’s meaningless to me.”  Yet, it would not be a stretch to say literacy is universal among this population.  Which is all the more reason I was surprised to find it, inadvertently, among restauranteurs.    



Barbershop Owners to Government: Please Regulate our Industry!

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:43 pm by Benjamin Ross

IMG_5325The Chinese hairstyling industry as we know it today is the product of market capitalism. Before the 1980’s, most Chinese haircuts happened in state-run barbershops. But as China experimented with a market economy, the hairstyling industry blossomed. The 1990’s was the golden era for hairstyling. Anybody who knew the trade could make a good living, by the day’s standards. A 45 year old stylist recently told me that in the early 1990’s, he was able to make 500 RMB/month (a high salary for the time), whereas previously he had worked a danwei job and was only making 100 RMB/month.

But these days, the outlook on the industry is not rosy. Incomes have stagnated while living costs have increased. There are several reasons for this, but the most commonly sited one by insiders is that there are simply too many hair salons. There are several reasons for this, the most obvious being that the golden age attracted an entire generation to learn the trade. Now this generation is at the age when they expect to open up their own salon and be the boss, the natural progression within the industry.

One solution, which I am hearing more and more salon owners suggest is government regulation. “This industry is 乱 (in disarray). Anybody can open a salon. You can study the trade for 3 months, then open up a salon and be a boss. There is no government regulation whatsoever,” one informant tells me. The example of Japan is often suggested as a model to follow. In Japan, stylists must attend a formal training school for 3 years before they begin working. “Because of this, not only is the industry more 珍贵 (legitimate), but stylists have a higher standing in society, since they are cultured and educated,” another informant tells me. But most importantly, Japan’s system provides a “们康” (gatekeeping mechanism) which levels the number of stylists entering the industry at any given point. “The government, they don’t care about us (不管我们). We want to be regulated by the government. It is the only way to save this industry,” another boss tells me. Even pure market capitalists want government regulation sometimes.



The State of the Hairstyling Industry: The Iron Ricebowl Nobody Wants

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:09 pm by Benjamin Ross

“Hairstyling is a crappy industry to be in right now.”
“You can’t make any money.”
“It’s too much work, and not enough return.”
“This industry sucks (这个行业不行)“

This is the consensus I receive when I ask point blank: “What do you think about the current state of the hairstyling industry?” On the other hand, when I ask, “What is the best thing about this industry?” I get answers like this:

“You will always have a job.”
“You will never starve.”
“It’s impossible to be unemployed.”

This is quite the paradox. Usually when we think of a “crappy industry,” the first thing that comes to mind is unemployment. According to the 2014 CareerCast Jobs report, the worst careers in the US were news reporter and lumberjack, both industries which have seen massive unemployment and layoffs in recent years. Presumably, an industry where there is always work would be a good one, right?

I’ve been researching hairstylists and their career trajectories full-time in Fujian now for about a month, and one pattern is clear: Finding a job in the hairstyling industry is easy. Career advancement and self-actualization is not.

I’ve asked multiple stylists how they would go about finding a job if unemployed, and the answer goes like this: “Easy, just walk around, find a salon which is looking for a stylist, and start working. It wouldn’t take more than a day.” The average stylist deals with many forms of uncertainty. Unemployment, however, is not one of them. “The good thing about this industry is there’s always employment. You’re never going to starve,” one informant tells me, echoing an insight I hear again and again.

China is in the midst of an expanding labor shortage, which is becoming more acute as the One Child cohort ages into employment years. In addition, China’s maturing economy means there are increasingly diverse opportunities for young people seeking work. Meanwhile, while China has experienced significant inflation over the 7-8 years, while the earnings of hairstylists have remained flat. “The stylists I have working in my shop today, they don’t really make that much more than those ones 7 or 8 years ago when you were working for me,” Li Wen Zhong tells me. These incomes are usually around 2,500 to 4,000 per month, with free housing.

Because of this, stylists feel the constant push to expand into bigger and better things. This usually means opening up their own barbershop or salon. However, unlike the dearth of stylists, there is a glut of barbershops:

“Everybody in this industry wants to be a boss. Everybody! But look around. There are barbershops everywhere, and not enough customers. Most barbershops will fail. It’s a terrible industry.”

My tracking of former stylists echoes this assertion. Many (probably most) stylists leave the industry within 5-6 years. Never once have I been told somebody left because they couldn’t find a job. Instead, the desertion point usually comes when one realizes that the road forward is too jammed to make it worthwhile to wait one’s turn.

So there you go. You’ll never be unemployed or hungry as a stylist. But you probably won’t realize your dreams either. And for most stylists in 2015, that isn’t enough.



There is no 门槛 in this industry. Anybody can do it.

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:48 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’ve learned a new word during my fieldwork : 门槛. It regularly comes when I ask people why they joined the hairstyling industry.

“This industry has no 门槛, it doesn’t matter your education level, your gender, your social class, your intelligence. Anybody can do it.”
“For many occupations in China, there is a strict 门槛, in this industry anybody can join.”
“I am not intelligent. I did not do well in school, so I needed to find an industry without a 门槛.”

Google translate defines 门槛 as a “threshold.” The way I hear the term used is more like a “gatekeeping mechanism” or a “ system of credentialization,” and in the hairstyling industry there is neither, provided you are physically able to do the work. Most hairstylists I’ve spoken with have completed elementary school, and some have finished 初中 (junior high). There are a few who stopped schooling after elementary school, and few with some 高中 (senior high). By in large though, hairstylists represent the lesser educated (institutionally speaking) social strata of Chinese society. Even hairstyling training school, which is becoming more and more common, is never a requirement for employment. A teacher at a training school told me,

“Yeah, sure, the students get a certificate from completing my program, but that certificate doesn’t mean anything. It’s hard to find workers now, so anybody can get a job in the industry if they are willing to start from the bottom. And if you want to get a high-level job, the boss will just ask evaluate your technique. Nobody will ever ask to see any kind of certifications.”

This is different from the opposite end of the educational spectrum in China, where a hyper-obsession with degrees and certifications leads parents to spend spend thousands of RMB (and undoubtedly ruin many childhoods)absence in the race to a high score on the college entrance examination. These days, more and more of my middle-class big-city Chinese friends are telling me that a bachelor’s degree from an elite university isn’t enough anymore to get a good job. You need a master’s or PhD, and if it’s from the United States or Europe, all the better.

No matter how much we think otherwise, educational requirements and other institutional gatekeeping mechanisms are inherently skewed towards those who have the best access to the resources necessary to obtain them. The hairstyling industry on the other hand, because of a lack of 门槛, is largely removed from these inequalities which affect many other industries. And while some hairstylists start out with more resources than others (i.e. financial help from parents), this support is generally minimal since most come from humble backgrounds in rural areas.

Since job placement and upward mobility in the hairstyling industry are determined almost entirely by one’s individual skills and technique, there is little potential for any form of corruption in the industry (The potential for graft is often cited as a reason not to eliminate China’s standardized college entrance examination). You can’t “sneak through the back door,” since the front door is wide open, and there is no way make your way to the top through payments and bribes, since employment is based almost entirely on actual skill level.

People often ask me why, of all the potential topics in China, I study the hairstyling industry. This is a complicated question with many answers, but one I keep returning to is that the people around me who I see become successful, do so almost entirely on two factors 1) their skills and technique and 2) their attitude and work ethic. In a world absence of 门槛, it’s refreshing to see those who make it to the top are doing so on account of their own hard work and talents.



安全感: A Feeling of Security

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:07 pm by Benjamin Ross

Chinese people aren’t rich. They’re poor people. They may look like they’re rich, but they’re actually mostly poor. If you want to understand Chinese people Ben, you only need to know 3 words: 安全感 (feeling of safety). This is why Chinese people are always working so hard. It isn’t actually for the money. Make more and more money for that 安全感. In China, there is no 安全感. People are always afraid the government could come and take their savings. This is why all Chinese people want to go abroad. Abroad there is a 安全感. Your money is safe, plus there are welfare benefits. In China, there are no welfare benefits for most people. Do you know what Chinese people fear most? Getting sick. If you’re a regular worker like a hairstylist and you get seriously ill…you just wait to die. If you have a baby in a hospital, it will cost around 6000-7000 RMB. That’s basically two months of salary for a stylist. Maybe make about 500,000 RMB, and then you’ll have a 安全感.

This is a fieldnote excerpt from a chat I had with Cheng Rao (pseudonym) who runs a hairstyling school in Fuzhou. We were sitting in his office drinking tea, and I had told him I was interested in the career aspirations and trajectories of his students. What are their dreams? What are their material aspirations? Why do they decide to become hairstylists? Rather than provide an answer specific to the industry, Cheng generalized the Chinese working class as a whole. He continued:

People in China don’t really buy brand name stuff because they like it. It’s all about face, a show that they have that 安全感. Even if they’re rich, they’re still mostly just poor people. But at least they can show they have 安全感.

Hairstylists, and this includes those who have “made it,” either by opening their own salons and schools, or selling hair products, are by and large members of the working class. A typical stylist in Fuzhou makes around 3,000 RMB per month (Just under $500 USD). By any metric, hairstylists are not wealthy. Yet in Fuzhou, you would be hard pressed to find one who does not have either an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy, which are each slightly more expensive in China than the US. As a Westerner, it’s easy to pass quick judgement on somebody who spends over nearly 2 months salary on a cell phone, and then still complains they don’t have enough money for a safety net (I do this all the time, consciously and subconsciously). But it’s a question I’ve been pondering for years. Is everybody acting irrationally? Or is there some deeper logic to this ostentatious show of wealth from people who don’t really posses it? Cheng drew upon consumption patterns into his analysis of the 安全感.

安全感, I believe, is a universal concept. Many of us take it for granted in developed countries, since a) we are generations removed from struggles for survival and b) we have more developed social security safety nets provided by the government, relatively speaking. The procurement of a safety net, and the need to display to others doesn’t figure into our daily routines. For those who don’t take a safety net for granted, it’s existence, or lack thereof, constantly bears on their decision making: Where to work, who to associate yourself with, who to marry, who to loan money to, how to evaluate your children’s (or children’s potential spouse’s) ability to care for you in old age.

For Cheng Rao, not only is 安全感 a salient good, but so is the perception to others that one indeed possesses 安全感. His opinion is just one take on the issue, but it’s a viewpoint I plan to explore as I talk to more industry workers about their perceptions of success, wealth, and security.



3 Gorges Dam Propaganda

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:58 am by Benjamin Ross

Today I visited the 3 Gorges Dam Museum in Chongqing.  Here are some of the exhibits on what’s become of the over 1 million people who were relocated by the project.



The Chinese backpackers have arrived!…but where are all the guys?

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:45 am by Benjamin Ross

I’m in Chongqing for a few days, and I’m staying at a youth hostel. Yesterday I made friends with two of the travelers and in my room and we decided we would go out for hot pot (the local specialty) that evening. By the time evening rolled around, our group had snowballed to 7 backpackers. We had a recommendation for a place, but that was met with friendly bickering as we all haggled with each other to decide on the most appropriate place to sample Chongqing hot pot. After about half an hour of walking around the central area, we settled on a place to eat, and settled on a meal meat, tofu, and vegetables boiled in pot of scalding spices.

Up until this point, nothing from this story would have been out of the ordinary. What made it a first time experience is that all the other travelers I was with were Chinese, and women in their 20’s taboot. Youth hostels are nothing new in China (On my first backpacking trip in 2004 I stayed exclusively in hostels in Xi’an, Chengdu, and Kunming). And neither is traveling new for Chinese. Any Western traveler in China is bound to have bumped into the infamous herdlike Chinese tour groups.

But the idea of backpacking, and youth hostels, and independent travel is still relatively new for Chinese, and if my informal observations are correct, it is growing exponentially. The first time I stayed in a Chinese youth hostel (2004), I was with my Chinese girlfriend at the time. As we checked in, I remember they asked for both of our passports, and when my girlfriend said she didn’t have one, there was a moment of panic and disbelief among the staff. After a brief silence, she pulled out her Chinese ID card and asked if it would suffice. With a look of reassurance, they smiled and said it would be ok. Apparently room requests from Chinese nationals (this was in Xi’an) were not a common reassurance. When I returned to Fuqing, and my university students asked about my trip and accommodations, I told them I stayed at a youth hostel (青年旅馆), and none of them had the slightest clue what I was talking about. My how things have changed.

This will probably be the only youth hostel I’m staying at this trip, so it’s hard to make any real conclusions at this point. However, it is interesting to note that all of my roommates thus far have been Chinese, and have been female, the majority of whom being college students. As I was writing this piece, I asked my roommate, a Peking University student from Tianjin, about this gender divide, and she said that Chinese guys are more “宅“ than women, unlike England, where she had previously traveled, and where, she said, it tends to be the opposite.

I’ve always been a fan of youth hostels, not just for their cheap and convenient accommodations, but for the chance to meet and exchange ideas with travelers from across the world. Back when I was living in China fulltime from 2004-2007, youth hostels in China were primarily a Western institution, even though staff and ownership were mostly Chinese. Thesedays, the site of young Chinese students bypassing tourgroups, and backpacking independently around their country brings a smile to my face. And afterall, sleeping in a room full of female Chinese college students ain’t too bad either.



Chengde Excursion

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:30 am by Benjamin Ross

One of the requirements (perks) of my TA job in Beijing is accompanying students on weekend excursions around Beijing.  Most of these excursions are within an hour drive and take up only the better part of a single day.  But for our big over-night excursion, we got to go to Chengde, the imperial retreat (think Forbidden City meets Camp David) of the Qing Dynasty Emperors.  Chengde is located in Hebei Province, a 3 hour drive from Beijing, and is one of the more interesting “vicinity of Beijing” trips I’ve done.

Chengde is home to a multitude of sites, including 8 imperial temples, a mini imperial city, and even a miniature Tibetan Potala Palace!  However, many of the sites were undergoing significant renovations.
These pics are from the Puning Temple.
In addition to the typical Han Chinese features, the Puning Temple  incorporates Tibetan architectural and accents, such as these prayer wheels.
and many of the temples incorporate both elements of Han Chinese architecture.
…as well as Tibetan architecture.
The imperial gardens, which have now been converted into a public park.  Locals can gain access for a yearly fee of 50 RMB.
During the Qing Dynasty, only the emperor and his nobles would have been allowed access to the gardens.
Tower in the Imperial Gardens
Modern Chengde’s skyline, of sorts
These pics are from the miniature Potala Palace, a copy of the one from Potala in Lhasa, at 13 the scale.
And one final temple, which contains of a dome shaped after the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
Here’s another skyline shot of Chengde.  That’s the mini Potala Palace in the background.
And finally, a class picture!  Good times in Chengde.



The “How to Get into a PhD Program” Workshop

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:45 am by Benjamin Ross

Walking around a university campus in Beijing the other day, I came across this advertisement.

Let me do my best to translate…

Tiandao Workshop.
Future Academic Elite Plan
The fast track to full scholarship PhD applications

Open training course
Real experience of the full stipend PhD process
One on one training + polishing from a foreign teacher,
the solution to confusing applications
Elite group of returning PhD’s, will provide you with real-life DIY experience

Six elite courses, and also interview counseling
Audience: 2014 top rated PhD applicants
Starting time: May 2013 boutique class, July 2013 summer vacation class
Register before April 15 and enjoy a discount of up to 3000 RMB

For more information, check out Tian Dao Study Abroad’s official website. You can also search for our official WeChat page.

Now, let’s introduce the “prominent alumni” shown at the bottom of the poster.

Student Wang, Harvard University, Biomedical PhD, Zhongshan University, Biology BA

Student Han, Harvard University, Statistics PhD, Qinghua University, Natural Sciences BA

Student Chang, Princeton University, Computer PhD, Qinghua University BA

Student Xing, Univesity of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Botany PhD, Beijing University, Biology BA

Student Feng, Texas A&M University, Engineering PhD, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Engineering BA

Student Song, UC Santa Barbara Chemical Engineering PhD, Beijing University of Chemical Technology, Chemical Engineering BA

Student Su: UCLA Psychology PhD, Beijing University Psychology BA

When I first stepped off the boat in China in 2004, the national obsession was learning English.  Increasingly it appears that English proficiency is a given, and that a foreign degree, particularly a PhD from an elite university in the United States, is becoming the new gold standard.  For pricing perspective on the workshop, the *discount* they are offering of 3000 RMB is equal to about $480 USD off of the full price, which is not listed.  If the cost of this event is any indication, maybe there is indeed a bright future for American PhD’s in the consulting business.



Curbing government waste, one doggy-bag at a time.

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:53 am by Benjamin Ross

Tonight I saw something I’ve never before seen in China.

Along with several colleagues, I was meeting with high-level representatives of an organization funded by the central government. After two hours of meetings, the representatives suggested we adjourn for dinner. We were taken next door to a fancy restaurant where we were seated in a private room, and treated to a delicious 10-12 course Chinese meal complemented with an expensive bottle of baijiu. We slowly dined on exotic Chinese foods, passed along stories, and toasted each other with baijiu and beer. (Anybody who has lived in China has no doubt attended at least one of these banquets, if not 100)

After an hour and a half, our host for the night asked for the check, and then it happened. He asked the waitress to box up the leftovers!

This may sound insignificant to those who unfamiliar with Chinese banquet culture, but in the 4+ years I have spent in China, never once have I seen a host (overtly) ask for a doggybag. More likely, several excess platefulls of food are left behind on the table, as a failure to order excessively or a desire to take home lunch for tomorrow would present a colossal face-losing proposition.

I mentioned the doggybag incident to a Chinese colleague on our way home, and he said that it has been an imperative of the new Chinese Regime to eliminate profligate spending on things such as banquet dining. In addition to ordering a quantity of food commensurate with the number of people dining, government officials have been encouraged to take home leftovers, in order to curb waste.

While this was only an isolated incident, I did find it quite striking, especially since this is the first of such banquets I have attended during this trip in China. I’ve often estimated that you could feed several Third World Nations off of wasted leftovers from Chinese banquets, so hopefully this incident is indicative of changing trends in the Middle Kingdom. Oh, and by the way, our host also took home the rest of the baijiu.

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