Emily Ford is a European who has been living in Shanghai for 6 months…
and has decided that she wasn’t living an authentically “Chinese” life, whatever that is.So she decided to change her life for a day try to live like the locals, and she made the mistake of writing about it for a rather popular online Shanghai news site, The Shanghai Daily.
All day there have been vicious posts about her story. Her story isn’t awful, but it certainly isn’t anything special and it isn’t something deserving to be on a big platform like The Shanghai Daily. Most of the criticisms come from Ford’s negative portrayal of foreigners. “OMG! People wear pajamas in the street. OMG! There is a tradition in Shanghai expat media of having a foreign clown to write about their ‘adjustment’ to living in China.” said one person.” Emily managed to “to inadvertently confirm every negative stereotype people have of overprivileged, naive laowai living in an expat world of their own,” the Shainghaiist said. “Sick of this kind of attitude,” another said.
I’m not one to criticize how other people choose to live their lives, no matter where that is. I make no bones about the fact that I cook American food at home, a lot, but I know lots of people who don’t. “I didn’t come to China to eat American food,” people tell me. And that’s fine. Whether or not someone wants to have a daily latte at Starbucks is no matter to me.
What I find offensive about the article, though, is how she is actually quite judgmental and racist in an article purporting to do just the opposite. She classifies having a coffee at Starbucks as being “non-Chinese,” as if “real Chinese people” don’t drink coffee at Starbucks and that there is something foreign and elitist about being a person who does. She completely ignores the fact that the over 1,000 Starbucks coffee shops around the country aren’t supported by lucrative “laowai” money, but by young, affluent Chinese patrons.
She does the same thing with taking the bus. She is somehow a super-awesome person for eschewing taking a taxi home (within walking distance) and attempting to take the bus. As if Chinese people don’t take taxis and they exist solely for the convenience of rich foreigners. Here, she ignores several facts. Plenty of Chinese people take taxis. Taxis couldn’t afford to operate if they simply waited around for expats all day to take them where they needed to go. She also ignores the extreme car culture of China. What does she think when she sees Ferraris and Bentleys drive by? That they are all driven by foreigners? More and more Chinese own cars, and nice ones at that. Also, Shanghai has gone to great lengths to make their routes accessible to foreigners by publishing the routes online in English. She is being foolish (and possibly endangering herself) by not taking advantage of that and risking getting lost.
What is her point? What is her narrow definition of “authentic Chinese?” What I get out of this is that to be “authentically Chinese” is to be poor. Only poor people don’t go to Starbucks. Only poor people eat convenience store food stewed in gutter oil. And only poor people take the bus. But there are many places, in fact most of the rest of China, that aren’t like Shanghai. If Ford wants to have an “authentically Chinese” experience, I highly encourage her to go with a friend home for Chinese New Year and see how most Chinese people live away from the Western city of Shanghai.
My husband brought out an interesting point when he asked “what does she expect to be ‘authentically Chinese?’ I mean, what’s authentically American?” Great point. Even I can’t answer that question. If a Chinese person living in America wanted to be “authentically American” for a day he would go eat ________. How would you fill in that blank? I know many people would probably say McDonald’s, but in America, I know many people who don’t eat there. Just like I know people who don’t shop at Wal-mart and who aren’t overweight.
Ford’s attempt to find an “authentic Chinese” experience is an exercise in futility since she is trying to find something that doesn’t actually exist.