Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jiao Wars: Simplified Case Study of Symbolic Capital

In China, the currency is the renminbi (人民币), abbreviated RMB. It is literally translated to “the people’s money”—no doubt a fitting name. The renminbi can also be called the yuan (元) or the Chinese yuan, abbreviated CNY. And, colloquially, it is know as the kuai.

In relation to the US dollar, the exchange rate generally lingers just below seven, usually 6.7-6.8 something. To make things simple, we’ll call it seven. One US dollar is equal to seven kuai. For cost of living reference; a can of Coca-Cola is about 2.30 kuai, a hamburger at McDonald’s is about 7 kuai, a decent city bike costs about 250-300kaui, and, in Shanghai, the starting fare for a taxi is 12 kuai.

The most basic denomination is one kuai (yuan, RMB, CNY, etc.). Here in Shanghai, one kuai most frequently takes the form of a silver coin; areas further from the mint still use paper for the one-kuai denomination. One kuai is equal to approximately one dime and a nickel.

The smallest denomination is the Fen (分-pronounced fun, how nice). It’s worth .01 kuai; it takes 100 fen to make one kuai! Up from the Fen you have the Jiao, which is worth one tenth of a kuai—basically the dimes of China. Then you have the wu jiao (five jiao) coin, similar to a fifty-cent piece. And then you have the kuai. The mighty, mighty kuai. ATMs only dispense 100-kuai notes: the largest denomination available and equal to approximately fourteen USD. Other paper denominations of kuai include; five, ten, twenty, and fifty.

The wu jiao and the kuai have relative buying power. You can get a baozi (叉燒包, steamed meat bun) for nine jiao and street breakfast bread for seven jiao. Let’s just say that if I drop a kuai coin or a wu jiao coin on the street, I have the motivation necessary to bend over and pick it up. Not as much can be said for the jiao, and certainly not the fen. A dropped jiao is an abandoned one. A dropped fen is a blessing.

As interesting as Chinese currency is, this is not a critical history of money in China. This is about war. A dirty, scheming war currently being played out in the Zhong Xing building of Shanghai High School International Division. Yes, in the depths of these dark winter months we have diverted ourselves with the duplicity of “jiao wars.”

It began quietly and without warning. A jiao left here, a jiao slipped there. But in the confines of our, well, extremely confined offices, tension are swift to escalate. Already the methods of warfare have advanced. Everyone is hoarding ammunition (collecting those useless jiao) and plotting the next big strike.

Jiao wars arise from the frustration of an accumulating currency that has no worth. Imagine this; you go to buy a coke at Lawson or All Days or Kedi or any countless convenient store chain scattered throughout the city. It costs roughly 2.30 kuai. You pay with three kuai, or perhaps five kuai—ten kuai if you are unfortunate and a poor planner. Your change will include jiao (two, most likely) a wu jiao, and maybe some kuai coins. The change is carelessly thrown into a pocket or a purse, and off you go to conquer the rest of your day.

Throughout the day, the composition of change in your pocket varies, but you will certainly favor the use of, well, useful coins. A kuai here, a wu jiao there. The jiao and the most unfortunate fen will be ignored, perhaps even avoided. When you retreat to the comforts of home after a day in the city and empty your pockets on the kitchen counter, the damage clearly presents itself. You have amassed perhaps ten or fifteen jiao without realizing.

What to do? Use them? But when? And how? For what? Throw them away? No, it’s money—even if slightly worthless. And so begins your unintended collection of jiao and fen. Mine resides in a tin Ritz cracker can, which is now almost full. What to do with all that useless money? Spread it among the poor in Shanghai? Use intention and financial planning to actually spend it over some many months? No, too helpful, too practical. Of course, use that annoying for highly evolved pranks and scheming in sterility of cubical life.

And so the war has been waged.

A few days ago, I returned from class to find the book I am currently reading filled (painstakingly, no doubt) page by page with jiao. One jiao every five or six pages. It’s a five-hundred page book. It took time. It took dedication. Another time, I went to put my hood on and sent jiao flying all over my apartment. Apparently, someone had managed to sneak a handful of jiao into my hood as I said my goodbyes in the office at the end of the day. Jiao have been hidden in desks and dropped in teacups—how atrociously unsanitary! I know as the war continues and as we develop more advanced jiao technologies to keep up with other jiao warriors, the casualties will cumulate and prisoners will be taken.

Although the Jiao Wars are a fun distraction from bleak office life, a few of us began asking rather interesting questions about the social implications of our actions. What does it mean when money is treated with such frivolity? If were in the states and someone loaded a book with dimes, I would certainly keep them and use them throughout consumer interaction. Why not with jiao? Why do we so quickly discard them? Why is our valuation of them so low?

The Jiao Wars represent one of the many areas where I feel slightly imperialist in my interactions with this society and culture. Devaluing money, an important aspect of cultural identity, because you come from another culture where the money is more valuable has distinct implications of power imbalance and social inequality. To make a game out of what we consider useless money (useless only because we live at a standard higher than the vast percentage of Chinese) has great symbolic power resulting from the accumulated symbolic capital, to use Bourdieu's terms, of being a laowai (foreigner) in China.

Of course, as a sociologist, I cannot let a simple office ‘game’ remain simple. It is my job and my passion to investigate all of my social interactions and interpretations with the sociological lens, pulling forth otherwise unnoticed imbalances and systems of inequality. Even in Jiao Wars.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

From the depths

Winter has come on mighty strong here in Shanghai. The freeze of mid-January requires masochistic tendency; forcing oneself to venture out into it, to go about necessary errands that would otherwise be quite leisurely and pleasurable. The inescapable demands of city life do not allow for the hibernation permitted in rural areas during these months when life really should be nothing more than suspended animation. In this dead winter, the sun rises later and disappears into the horizon far too soon. Fewer people linger on sidewalks, at bus stops, outside cafes. There is set determination on the faces of those passing by. Determined to escape from the cold. A hopeless determination because the cold in Shanghai permeates everything.

I am sitting at my kitchen window, drinking a hot cup of tea while watching a stray cat hunt birds on the roof ledge of the neighboring building. Its ragged white fur feigning warmth and survival. Even I can feel the cold air seeping through poorly insulated windows.

Everyone seems to have lost energy. Seems to have lost that essential life force. Seems to have lost the rosy optimism that warm weather brings. A bleakness has surrounded life in the city. Like watching someone scream through a soundproof window. As if there were a mute button for this metropolis. Everything is more lethargic and more urgent, simultaneously.

For me, each day passes with contentment and melancholy in equal parts. I am contented and thankful to have the life I have here in Shanghai, and it is precisely that happiness that makes me sad. It’s a happiness tinged with sadness emanating from transience. I know that I will not live here forever; I know that this life on the other side must end eventually. The spectrum of lives more fulfilling than the one I live now is so narrow, I assume it to be an impossibility to actually achieve.

Each bike or taxi ride into the city—from the depths of the south where I live, to the commercial heaven that is Xujiahue, to the quaint meanderings of French Concession alleys, to the Communist glory that is People’s Square—takes on a new nostalgia, as I recall all the wonderful times I’ve had in this city, all of the life it has given back to me. And the imaginings of future nostalgia, too, as envision what it will feel like in the final few weeks, few days, before I leave Shanghai behind. Perhaps it will feel like betrayal, and I the betrayer, to so simply move on. To so simply accept another city into my life when this one has given me everything I’ve asked for (except, buttermilk biscuits and Dr. Pepper, of course).

But then, I realize, this is a city. A city is no more than the buildings that comprise it, the stone and mortar that comprise those buildings. People come and go and the city makes no protest, feels no sadness, makes no pleads for fidelity. Really, I am dependent on something that has no use for me, and this makes me even sadder than thinking I will, one day, betray it. And, here, I am stuck—feeling that this reticent city is both callous and compassionate. Both heartfelt and heartless.

And, here, I am stuck in the cold days of January, thinking too much about nothing at all. But to share it with you is my pleasure.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Midterms et al.

We are now in the midst of midterm week. I both enjoy midterm week and despise it; I really like the week break from lesson plans and homework books, but I much less enjoy the mindless proctoring and redundant grading.

This weekend will be the huge Shanghai Alleycat Race. It’s a weekend of group rides, the main alleycat race, some fixie trick competitions, and a mini bike polo tournament. Although it is not the first event of its kind in China (I went to the first in Beijing in May) it is the first of it’s kind in Shanghai. I would like to inset the event flyer and a link to the website here, but due to my incapacitated blogging, I cannot. If you want to check it out, just type “Shanghai Alley Cat” into a google search bar. Believe me, it won’t e difficult to find what you are looking for.

I don’t have to do any proctoring today and I finished all of my grading from yesterday, so it’s a bit like a mini-holiday. Not sure what I am going to do today. Maybe go out to a café to read and write, maybe stay in for a while and watch a movie. I am still waiting for Where the Wild Things Are to reach the DVD stores here in Shanghai. No luck just yet. Probably another few weeks.

I should probably spend some time on my bike if I am going to be ready for the alleycat. Haha. The weather is finally getting cold in Shanghai (although it keep going back and forth) and I am now wondering how much I will ride during the winter. I have never really been a fan of riding in conditions I consider less than ideal, but so far things have been different for me in Shanghai in regards to that.

Check for updates this weekend about Shangahi Alley Cat and watch for a complete write-up from Hangzhou. Some funny stories to be had there.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


One Two

Let Us Recommence

I initially stopped blogging because The Great Firewall of China had shut down my access to blogspot. I thought it would be temporary, and I was okay with the notion of a break in blogging – for a little while.

Many a month has now passed, and The Great Firewall is standing stronger than ever. I have, thus, decided to begin blogging again. I do not yet have a VPN, so my access to this site is extremely limited. There will be no photos or videos. Only my words. Daft and boring as they may be. My apologies in advance.

I plan to write one paragraph a day. About anything. This may, in fact be my last year in China. Where to next, I can never be sure. I hope to save for myself the often fleeting memories of fast paced life lived in modernizing China.

I am going on a weekend getaway to Hangzhou starting tomorrow after work, so look for a weekend full of updates on Monday. Nothing like starting a blog and then immediately a backlog as well. Such is life. I am really excited about the weekend, as this will be my first real getaway since coming to China. Going just to go. And most importantly, to enjoy good company.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Deal as of Late

So, the wondrous months of the Olympics are far gone, and the Great Fire Wall has taken many websites hostage once more. YouTube was the first to go and now Blogspot has followed suit. Clearly, this poses a problem for my blogging abilities, since I have to jump through firewall hoops to make even the most simple of posts. Hopefully, this situation is temporary. However, the fate of YouTube (which has been blocked for a of couple months now) does not give rise to very favorable expectations. I will resume normal blogging as soon as possible, and until then I will post dry and photo-less updates about my plight against the Great Fire Wall. Until then . . .

Monday, May 11, 2009

Videos from Seoul

Some cycling on TV.

The random bus Stephanie and I took to the 'burbs.

An insane taxi.

The lift to Seoul Tower.