Skip to content

When did I grow up?

June 9, 2011

I turned 23-years-old yesterday. My Facebook wall saw more activity in that one day than in the rest of the year combined (which I know from the email notifications and because I spent part of the day in Hong Kong, not because I can access Facebook here). And I realized, I’m no longer college-aged.

When did I grow up?

My parents have always assured me that I am very mature for my age. I won’t argue with them on that point. But age-wise, and behavior-wise, I was still a kid. I was still entirely financially dependent on my parents, and entirely dependent on them in a million ways. My life was completely structured by outside forces or by groups of people I chose to join. My time was filled up with things, none of which had to do with building a livlihood or existing in the real world. I lived in a world of overlapping bubbles: the home bubble, the school bubble, the various extra-curricular bubbles. I took many things for granted.

The bubbles all popped and I landed in China, where I now do the following grown-up things that I’ve never really done before:

  • I pay rent every month.
  • I pay bills for things like my cell phone, water, gas, and electricity.
  • I work Mon-Fri, 9-5 at a desk job in a city. They pay me to work there.
  • I commute to said job, 45 minutes each way.
  • When I want to eat, I either have to cook or go out to eat.
  • When I cook, I have to go buy groceries first.
  • I read the news every day.
  • I understand what it means when someone says “the Dow fell 3 points.”
  • I book all my own plane flights.
  • I deal with my own documentation issues (like my visa).
  • I pay taxes. (To China, for now. Meh.)
  • I get tax refunds. (From the US government.)
  • I plan vacations.
  • I have grown up friends. Most of them are older than me. Some of them have babies. One of them just had a baby on June 7th.
  • I make my own life decisions. Nobody else structures anything for me (not even at work).
  • I read a lot of nonfiction books.
  • I read New York Times editorials, and discuss them with my boyfriend.
  • I have been dating the same person for 2 years and 8.5 months. (Best years of my life <3)
  • I think about things like getting married, and they don’t seem weirdly distant or impossible the way they once did.
  • I can live anywhere.
  • If I want to learn something new, I have to motivate myself. Nobody, or no institution, will do that for me.
  • My choices have real consequences, and the right thing to do is often very hard to figure out. Surprisingly hard.
  • I write a blog.

I don’t know how this happened. I used to think of this time, this post-college time when I would be an adult for realsies, and picture myself as a confident, powerful, successful woman. In my imagination, I would always have straight shoulder-length hair, be wearing a sharp suit, and have a briefcase. Like the one my dad always carries to work. I would be a high-powered lawyer like my dad, or a businesswomen, or some professional. The office I worked in would be very black-and-white with a lot of glass. I would drink coffee and tell other people what to do, and get paid lots of money to buy more suits.

Now that I’m here, and my life is nothing like I imagined, my image of my future self has also changed. Career-wise, instead of a clear picture, it’s a fuzzy, ever-changing kaleidescope of possible futures. I have no idea where I’ll end up, but I seriously doubt I’ll look like a high-powered business exec. That’s not the life I want for myself (except maybe the telling people what to do part). I don’t want long work hours, I don’t want fancy expensive clothes. I want a job where I connect with people. I want a job where I can think outside the box. I want a job where I’m not tied to a computer all day, doing what others expect of me obediently and getting a fat paycheck. But other than those vague guidelines, future!morgan changes moment by moment, as new ideas and possibilities flit across my mind.

The one picture that is clear for me is my future self in the home. In the home, I’m a wife and mother. I have a big family – lots of children, but also extended family nearby, in and out all the time. I have a big bright kitchen where I cook a lot, for all the people. I’m surrounded by people I love and their laughter. This is the most important thing to me, to fulfill this vision. Whatever happens with my career, well, it’ll happen. There will be ups and downs. But if I create a life for myself where I’m surrounded by loved ones, and part of a real community, and rooted in a home that I love, I’ll be happy. That’s what matters most to me.

I know I can make this vision a reality. I just know it. I’m so blessed to have already found a partner who wants all the same things, and values these things most highly. With that picture in my mind, I can’t wait to keep growing (up)!

Advertisements

The Hunger Games – eerily similar to China?

June 3, 2011

Okay: obviously, the Chinese government doesn’t take poor children from across the country and pit them against each other in a battle to the death. I make no such claims. But I must say, after reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy about a dystopian future America, I was unsettled by the similarity of her world to China, right now.

In the Hunger Games, what used to be America is now Panem, a country where most of the people are very poor – many barely surviving on their poor rations – while an elite lives lavishly in the Capitol, where the totalitarian government reins. The people of Panem each live in a district with a production specialty. The protagonist, Katniss, lives in District 12, the coal mining district. District 1 makes luxury goods, District 3 is the factory hub, District 6 is lumber, District 11 is agriculture, etc.  The districts that make expensive things – like luxury goods and seafood – live more comfortably than those who make cheaper essentials, like agriculture and coal, who basically live in poverty.

In the Capitol, however, people live in the utmost luxury. They eat so much that it’s commonplace to purposefully induce vomiting to allow more eating. They voraciously consume government-produced entertainment (the pinnacle being the Hunger Games, akin to the Roman Games), they are obsessed with fashion, and their lives are full of comforts that all they can worry about are the most superficial things. No one in the Capitol ever has to worry about having enough to eat. The Capitol is a lot like the developed urban West today. And it’s a lot like Shanghai.

Despite the parallels between the lives of those in Collins’s fictional Capitol and my life at home in America, the China parallel stuck out much more clearly because China’s inequality is far worse than America’s. Sure, we have a huge wealth gap; but that’s largely because the rich are so goshdarn rich. In China, it’s much worse, because the gap is due much more to the large number of people still living in poverty.  China’s GDP per capita is $3774.  America’s is $48,989. Check out this chart. Wow.

Meanwhile, most of us in Shanghai live very, very comfortably, and the best off (including most foreigners) live lavishly. Parties late into the night, dining out constantly, shopping all the time, sipping our lattes that cost more than the entire day’s meal budget for most Chinese families.  Who produces all the goods we gorge on here? The people in the inland provinces–like Panem’s Districts. Mongolia does coal. Guangdong does textiles. Yunan makes coffee. And only 25% of rural Chinese families owned a refrigerator. There’s no way they take hot showers on a regular basis.

The difference in lifestyle between those in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, and Shenzhen (China’s richest cities) and the rest of the nation is stark. I know this because of my visit to Henan province last year. I was in a touristy area, but I was still blown away by the dirty, drab, overcrowded cities we drove through. I saw abject poverty–people living in their own filth, begging for food.  I also remember being shocked after  learning about the housing for teachers during my summer at Harvard Beijing Academy. While the pampered American students (like me)  got to stay in air conditioned private rooms, with maid service and private bathrooms, the teachers–most hailing from poorer regions of China–were crowded into tight barrack-like rooms with no air conditioning, and had to walk a block to get to the shared bathroom. I brought two suitcases full of clothes, but most of my teachers only had two or three outfits that they rotated. It’s an entirely different standard of living.

Furthermore, as in the Hunger Games books, many people in China still have barely enough to eat. This is why the accelerated inflation over the last six months has made Beijing absolutely paranoid. They do NOT want an uprising. And like in The Hunger Games, the government suppressed uprising how? With an iron fist. I’m sure you’ve read about the Chinese government’s reaction to uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. Or even the crazy over-the-top crackdown on the non-existent revolution named after a flower inspired by the Middle East (I’m still careful not to type our the name here).

Granted, I should be fair to China’s government: over the past 30 years, millions of people have been lifted out of actual poverty. Since the Mao days, everyone’s lives are getting better as the country gets richer. Few are actually starving to death, whereas millions did under Mao. Things are getting better.

But the truth is, most of China’s new wealth has gone to the big coastal cities (China’s Capitol), and most of the people in the countryside and migrant workers live lives in stark contrast to the wealthier members of society. Lives without the basic comforts and securities people in the cities have come to expect. They don’t have clean water (factory pollution is a huge problem). Often, they don’t have running water. Few can afford to buy a car.

Meanwhile, China’s number of millionaires is growing faster than anywhere in the world, as is its market for luxury goods, high priced real estate, and Bordeaux wine. The wealth is very highly concentrated at the top. The government is fully aware of the widening income gap, and the problems it presents.  Recently, Beijing cracked down on luxury ads in the city, not wanting to draw such public attention to the income gap.

The government is so afraid of rebellion that, in reaction to recent uprisings in Mongolia, Beijing pledged a huge amount of money to go towards development of the region and preservation of its culture. They also cracked down heavily on protest–but the greedy Capitol in The Hunger Games would have reacted much, much more harshly in such a situation, and never, ever would have pledged more investment to appease protesters.

The saddest part is, I know that the parallels between The Hunger Games and the developing world are much, much scarier in other parts of the world, like war-torn sub-Saharan Africa. People really are starving to death, and tearing each other to bloody shreds, while fat cats in government live exorbitantly luxurious lifestyles of the backs of the practically ensalved populace.

China isn’t nearly as bad. At least there’s relative peace. But how much oppression is that peace and harmony (and efficient infrastructure building) really worth? Before reading The Hunger Games, I thought it was worth a lot, and underrated by people in the west. Now?  I don’t know anymore.

I’m becoming more and more disillusioned with the benefits of authoritarian government, and I suspect that the income gap problem will persist until there’s a major change in government. I don’t think it necessarily will happen through revolution (in fact, I really hope it doesn’t), but it needs to happen.  One day at a time.

Shanghai vs. Hong Kong

May 18, 2011
tags:

The Bund at night. Some kinda magic in person. Also, the green speck off to the right is the building where I work 🙂

And the winner is… Shanghai! After a three-day stay in sticky-hot Hong Kong, I can faithfully say that I prefer Shanghai. I think the city is easily more pleasant and livable city than Hong Kong overall, although Hong Kong has its high points. I’ll break it down for you interested parties, or offended Hong Kong lovers, in categories that are in no way ranked (just numbered because of my love of lists).

Disclaimer: This list entirely subjective, and does not claim to be anything more definitive than my personal opinion. Finally, I’m considering these cities as places to live, not as travel destinations – and I’ve never actually lived in Hong Kong. Just so that’s all clear up front.

1. WeatherWinner – Shanghai

This is just too easy. Unless you’re a mutant who thrives in an opressively hot, humid environment, Shanghai wins by a landslide. Shanghai has a beautiful spring and fall. Summer is humid and hot, like in Hong Kong (though I would bet not nearly as bad), and winter is cold, but not too cold. It’s similar to the weather in New York. Hong Kong is grossly hot. Yuck.

2. Environment: Winner – Hong Kong

This one is also way too easy. Hong Kong is clearly the winner, becuase it’s surrounded by lush greenery, mountains, and blue skies. Shanghai is flat and polluted, and there aren’t nearly enough green things like trees or parks. Here, Hong Kong takes the cake.

3. People Density (a.k.a. crowded-ness): Winner – Shanghai

I was convinced Shanghai was crowded. It was the most crowded place I’d ever been, especially during rush hour on the subway. But I was wrong. Shanghai is full of wide, open spaces and is sparsely populated compared to the horrific density that is Hong Kong. Granted, not all of Hong Kong is crowded all the time. Rick and I stayed in Kowloon, in the Mongkok district, which is hear is one of the most crowded areas of the city. Still, no matter what district I was in, and at any time of day, I was blown away by how many people could squeeze onto one sidewalk.

4. Urban Design and Aesthetic Appeal: Winner – Shanghai

The Pudong skyline and the Bund are prettier than anything Hong Kong has to offer at night. Wider streets and sidewalks make for a happy Morgan. Finally, Shanghai has a far superior aesthetic appeal, in my opinion. Hong Kong is narrow and small and cramped, with way way WAY too many flashing neon signs and buildings covered with advertisements. The clutter makes my head hurt–too much visual stimulation. +1 Shanghai.

5. Public Transportation and Traffic: Winner – Hong Kong

These buses are nifty, nice British hangover. You can tour the city for practically nothing from the unblocked view up top!

This was a close one. The airports and subway systems are pretty much on par. Hong Kong barely inches out Shanghai because it’s got these nifty double-decker buses everywhere. Also, there are hardly any mopeds, a huge plus in my book. Finally, Hong Kong’s drivers aren’t nearly as insane as Shanghai’s. I never once feared for my life while in a cab in Hong Kong, like I have many a time in Shanghai. Plus, in Hong Kong people travel on ferries a lot! Cool!

But as for transportation cards, it’s about a tie. Hong Kong’s Octopus Card is awesome because you can use it at convenience stores and even some restaurant chains, like it’s a debit card. Shanghai’s Jiaotong Ka (交通卡) is awesome because you can use it to pay cab drivers, something the Octopus Card can’t do. But then, the name Octopus Card is way cooler. (Jiaotong Ka translates to “transportation card.” Clever, Shanghai municipal government. That was sarcasm.)

6. Language: Winner – Shanghai

This is a totally subjective answer, and many Westerners would likely disagree with me, but I highly prefer the Mandarin-with-a-little-English of Shanghai to the Cantonese-English-Mandarin-Indonesian-Tagalog mess that is Hong Kong. First of all, I speak Mandarin and English, but no Cantonese; so I’m fully functional in Shanghai, less so in Hong. (To be fair, nearly everyone in Hong Kong speaks English, lessening the problem.)  Second of all, I prefer the sound of Mandarin/Shangainese to Cantonese, with it’s 80 tones. (Just kidding – only 8 tones. Still.)  Finally, Hong Kong’s many immigrants speak a bunch of other languages, which make it even more of a Tower of Babble. Magnify the noise by the crowds (see #3 above), and I think you get my point.

7. Food and Dining: Winner – Shanghai

Xiaolongbao soup dumplings

A bit of a toughie. Shanghai’s food, it seems to me, is a tad more diverse and way cheaper. It’s also less safe (food scandals abound), but not if you shop at expat supermarkets. Plus, new restaurants and bars are constantly opening in Shanghai, and China’s multitude of regional cuisines are all featured in abundance–Sichuan food, Xinjiang food, Hunan food, etc. Hong Kong is more set in its ways. Finally, I’ll take xiaolongbao (delicate soup dumplings) and shengjianbao (fried, hearty soup dumplings) over dim sum any day. This is a close one, though.

8. Service Sector: Winner – Hong Kong

There is barely any service at all in Shanghai. In the average restaurant, you have to flail your arms and shout for five minutes before a waiter approaches you; and the waiters are usually impatient and in a bad mood. There are no tips, so nobody tries, and nobody really cares anyway (except the expats). In Hong Kong, there is pretty decent service. All service people speak good English. If they give you the wrong drink, they’ll replace it for free. They smile and stuff. It’s really nice.

9. Expat Scene: Winner – Shanghai

This is largely based on what I’ve heard, not on what I’ve experienced, but I think Shanghai is more international and younger than Hong Kong  (Hong Kong is quite British, and it’s an older crowd), and the expat social scene is better overall. More welcome to newcomers who are still finding their way, like me and Rick.  Also, Shanghai has many havens that feel like you’re back home. I found none of those in Hong Kong; even the Starbucks stores felt less like home than the ones in Shanghai. Some expat places in Shanghai are very unlocalized expat joints, you know? Maybe Hong Kong has those too, but I didnt’ encounter any.

10. Political, Internet, and Personal Freedoms: Winner – Hong Kong

This one’s a little too obvious to explain, so all just list a few things: Facebook, Youtube, Google services, visas, political protest, capital markets… you get the picture.

Shanghai 6, Hong Kong 4 – Shanghai wins!  But I’m super biased. I’ve grown fond of Shanghai since arriving. It feels a bit like home now. Another reason for Shanghai’s win that I did not address above: Shanghai is full of this energy that Hong Kong lacks. Hong Kong has the bustle of New York, but it also has the sort of worn in feel of New York. It’s sort of a has-been city. Shanghai is an up-and-comer. It’s one of the centers of China’s modernization, China’s transformation. Hong Kong is old news, but Shanghai is it.

I’ve said my piece. Feel free to comment with your thoughts on the match-up.

Hong Kong is CROWDED

May 8, 2011

I thought Shanghai was pretty damn crowded. I was wrong.

Hong Kong is not at all what I expected. I miss the mainland – also something I didn’t expect. I will give a longer update when I get home to Shanghai (ahh, Shanghai! I miss the dry air!). But real quick:

Best things about Hong Kong: no internet censorship, no mopeds or scooters!

Worst things about: too many people, way too hot and muggy. Blech! I’m sick of wading through sweaty crowds of people already and I’ve only been here for two days.

Finally – Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! Love you!

How China taught me to love Big Business

May 5, 2011
tags:

The local bike repair and shoe repair stands near the Bund

We Americans, especially young and idealistic Americans, have a tendency to hate on big businesses. The image of Big Business as a juggernaut a greedy juggernaut, sucking all the goodness and life and uniqueness out of communities and replacing it with cheapened mass culture, is pervasive. Many resist patronizing places like McDonald’s or Starbucks, because they’re big characterless chains. It’s so easy to root for the local little businesses, and so sad when they close their doors. We want to blame the big guy.

China has taught me that we’re only seeing the very end of the Big Business story. Big Business revolutionized all businesses, big and small, for the better. I recognize this now because China is still in the middle – or arguably the beginning – of the business transformation, which is being pushed by Big Business. Let me explain:

Shanghai, and China as a whole, has an overwhelming number of small, family-owned businesses. The Chinese, despite the communist hiccup with Mao, are extremely entrepreneurial. Little businesses like those pictured above dot every Chinese city – a man or two with the miminum required equipment to fix a bike or a shoe,  or to whip up a bowl of chao mian (a.k.a. chow mein – fried noodles). They may pay for real estate, but many opt for a table or a stand.  You also pass countless salesmen on the street with bike carts selling fruit, or watches, or cell phone covers, or dishwear, or anything you can think of.  Most of these businesses (without real estate) are illegal, but they are so prolific that they’re overlooked; business liscense laws are not well enforced for the locals. There are no barriers to entry, barely any capital down. A tiny investment, and you’re in business.

Unlike in the US, most of these little local businesses offer products or services for much cheaper than their Big Business counterparts. They have to in order to compete because what they offer is typically of lower quality; and to stay competitive, they cut corners (illegally), and are likely to rip you off. A street food stand, for instance, might be using tainted or recycled oil and ingredients. The shoe repair guy is not offering refunds, so if he botches the repair, there’s nothing you can do. You could never sue these small business owners for screwing you or making you sick because China’s legal system is too underdeveloped (and the fact that the business is illegal to begin with), but if you could you wouldn’t want to anyway because they have no money to make it worth your time or money. As a consumer, you are completely unprotected when patronizing these tiny businesses.

As a small business owner in China, you’re also unprotected. Most small business owners in Shanghai are making just enough to get by. Every industry is seriously fragmented here, and competition is fierce. Small businesses have to keep prices (and margins) very low to compete with all the other businesses, especially those with better quality products and services. They bargain with customers, sometimes to their great gain–but usually bargaining customers push margins ever further down. Moreover, most small business owners have no safety net – no job security, no medical insurance. Their kids often stop going to school early to help with the family business. Many of these workers never take holidays. It’s a tough life.

In come the big businesses like KFC and H&M. Do these businesses but some of the little guys out of business? Yes. But they also provide a lot of jobs, and, perhaps more importantly in the long-run, they set a new standard. KFC and McDonald’s in China are little safe havens of cleanliness. You know every surface has been scrubbed, every ingredient is safe, every employee washes their hands. Stores like H&M offer receipts and discounts. You know your pants won’t fall apart at the seams a week after you buy them; but even if they do, you can go back to the store and they’ll certainly replace the pants for you. There are STANDARDS at these places – of quality, service, consistency. You can trust them.

When I eat at KFC, I know I’m not gonna get sick, and that is so, so valuable here.

And for the employees – ah, where do I start? Medical, dental, job security! If you’re fired, you still get paid for awhile while you look for work. You have a guaranteed wage, so your income doesn’t fluctuate day by day. You get paid vacation and sick days. What the typical shoe repair stand owner wouldn’t give for a sick day that wouldn’t cause him to go hungry!

We Americans forget that at one point, our businesses were just as small, untrustworthy, and unregulated as China’s are today. There have been many major food safety scandals over the last two years here – I read about them in the news everyday – but America, too, had huge food scandals in 19th and early 20th century. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did not exposed the disgusting condition of our meat processing facilities until 1906, after which the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Until then, we had basically no oversight over the food being produced and sold to Americans. (The Food and Drug Administration didn’t exist until 1930.)

The “Big Business” that we demonized played a huge role raising the standards for all businesses in the US, so that now even all the local businesses are trustworthy, for the most part. After all, they have to compete with the big guys, so they have to play by the rules the big guys set, which are mostly good rules. Consolidation of industries makes them more efficient, safer, and better for the most part (unless monopolies take over).

I’m watching this shift happen right now in China, where the small business owner is often worse off in every way than the KFC employee, and my appreciation for how Big Business has impacted the world continues to grow. Thank you, Big Business, for improving all our lives! (Mostly. Those McDonald’s fries certainly aren’t making us any skinnier… another topic for another day!)

The ‘Great Firewall’ of China: what’s up with that?

April 19, 2011
tags:

THE GREAT FIREWALL FORBIDS YOU FROM FACEBOOK AND YOUTUBE, AND NOW MESSES WITH YOUR GMAIL AND GCHAT, MUAHAHAHA!!!!!


Nothing is sacred. The Great Firewall looms, its power grows, and now Google search, Gmail, Gchat, and all Google apps run through Google Chrome are taking a hit. None of them are completely blocked, but now they only work half the time. So, if we’ve ever been talking on Gchat and suddenly I sign out, it’s not because I don’t love you. It’s the Firewall.

What’s up with that? you may wonder. Well, basically, the Chinese government hates Google for challenging its censorship and embarrassing China in the process. Therefore, the government wants to make Google users miserable enough that they’ll abandon Google, without actually blocking Google’s services completely so that they can deny involvement and blame Google for the problems. (The world knows better.)

Also, by blocking foreign web companies like Google and Facebook that China cannot censor, domestic versions of these sites, like Renren (China’s Facebook) and Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) flourish, promoting the success of domestic businesses over foreign competitors and completely preserving the government’s ability to censor, censor, censor away.

Sadly for me, the situation is intensifying. Most of you probably already knew that Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. But did you know that Google-owned Youtube (oh, the pain), Google’s Blogger service (anything with “blogspot” in the URL), and Google Docs have been blocked for quite some time now? But before, Google search Gmail – and with it, Gchat – were untouched by China’s censors. No more.

Even worse, ever since the uprisings in the Middle East, a fearful Beijing has been redoubling its efforts to stop VPNs – Virtual Private Networks that allow people in China to get around the Great Firewall. My VPN service, Witopia, worked great in 2010. But Since January, nada. It’s a disaster. And, therefore, I have zero access to Facebook, Youtube, and Blogspot sites. This new development makes the internet censorship here much less tolerable for the expat crowd, myself included.

Wait a minute, Morgan , you may be thinking now, how do you get your blog posts on Facebook, then, and how do you keep posting on Twitter? Well, I use tricks. WordPress has a “publicize on Facebook” feature that somehow gets around the firewall. And I use a service called Twitterfeed (the website is ironically now blocked in China, whereas it wasn’t before) where anything I share through Google Reader is automatically published to my Twitter feed.

Unfortunately, now Google Reader is totally unreliable too. WHEN DOES IT END???

On the bright side, WordPress, which used to be partially blocked, is no longer blocked! Hooray! So blogging has become a bit less of a pain. Also, luckily China’s youku.com and tudou.com will usually have any internet sensation, for example Rebecca Black’s Friday, so I’m not completely cut off from US popular culture.

Also, guilty secret: there’s something so refreshing about the Great Firewall. It’s a great excuse for not keeping up with Facebook (which I was always bad at anyway), and Youtube no longer sucks up hours of my time. I’ve discovered things like the news, cooking blogs galore (except the ones @blogspot), and how to correspond with people I care about through email. By taking away my internet freedom, the Great Firewall has paradoxically freed from the burdens of online social networking. (This is the glass-half-full approach. It’s still damn annoying.)

As for social/political implications of the Great Firewall, as long as I still live here, I’ll stick with a safe “no comment; not my business how the government does things here.” I realize Bob Dylan got torn to shreds for that attitude, but I’ll take my chances.

(If you want to learn more about the Great Firewall, check out www.greatfirewall.biz; I can’t, because it’s blocked here–surprise, surprise–but apparently it has all kinds of figures on blocked websites, blocked terms, the speed of different websites, etc.)

China’s “Avatar” obsession

April 14, 2011
tags:

Huh, you might be thinking, looks like this chick Photoshopped a picture of herself with one of those blue Avatar guys. Too bad she has nothing better to do. You would be wrong. This modern young lady did little more than hop into one of the many conveniently located photo booths in Shanghai, where she can not only take passport photos, but also give them fun and exciting backgrounds!  I kid you not. Here’s  the context for the image above:

Bizarre? Yes.  But in China, Avatar is all the rage, and pop culture with Chinese characteristics includes things like putting the Na’vi next to Obama in photo booth funpix options.  In fact, Avatar is so popular that it’s made its mark on one of the most important of life’s ceremonies here: the wedding. You don’t believe me? Check THIS out:

I know. It’s appalling. And yet, kinda cute somehow. Kinda innocent, or something. Or just really weird.

What do the Chinese find so compelling about Avatar? Obviously, like those in the rest of the world, the Chinese flocked to the film for its wonderland of CGI-candy. But for many Chinese, Avatar seemed to be about China. After all, the government has been wreaking havoc on the environment and forcing people out of their homes, off of their land, for the sake of economic development – which often means sucking valuable resources out of the land (“unobtanium,” anyone?). Check out this video about forced evictions to see some more parallels.

Avatar was hugely popular while it screened in China, and it raked in $73.2 million from China in just two weeks. Then, it stopped making money in China, because the 2D version was pulled off 2 million screens when the government got antsy. 3D and IMAX showings stopped about a month afterwards.  Reports the Huffington Post:

There is also sensitivity to the movie’s plot, which revolves around the forced evictions of the alien Na’vi race by humans – a story line that some have said draws unflattering comparisons to China’s own, often brutal removal of millions of residents to make way for property developers. Columnist Huang Hung penned a commentary in the official English-language China Daily, saying the film had struck a chord with Chinese viewers. “All the forced removal of old neighborhoods in China makes us the only earthlings today who can really feel the pain of the Na’vi,” she wrote.

The government claimed it was to protect the domestic film industry against foreign competition, but it was pretty clear that the real reason was fear. Anything that has even the slightest chance of causing political instability, or provoking an uprising from the nation’s poor is immediately censored here.

But the ban didn’t stop Avatar from spreading around the country through illegal DVD copies, and the Na’vi have still managed to become hugely popular pop culture icons here (as you can see above).

And actually, there’s a slight chance that Avatar’s popularity nudged the government to address it’s nasty habit of uprooting entire communities while offering little compensation. In January, the government pledged to stop such evictions. We’ll never really know if Avatar had anything to do with this… but there’s a chance the need for change suddenly dawned on some high-level official while watching the film.

One last picture for the road: a group of teenagers from Hunan Province: