Columns, Opinion

GIESELMANN: Youth culture in China

Once again, I step onto a crowded subway train.

The subway door beeps twice as a man hurries on during the last second. The doors close as the man squeezes in, creating a chain reaction that jostles everyone in a five-foot radius. I hold tightly onto the metal bar in an attempt to remain unmoved, but gravity emerges victorious and I inadvertently bump into the young woman on my right.

Though the weather outside is miserably cold and rainy, the subway car is made almost intolerable by the human heat emanating from every corner and crevice. I adjust my weight as the train begins to speed off, taking our 200-plus person caravan to our mornings at work. I check the progress of the train, detailed in an LED display above my head; a television positioned on the opposite side of the train plays a combination of news updates and video of cute animals.

Even with this constant stimulation, my fellow passengers remain mostly engrossed in their cell phones. Most people are watching content on their iPhones or tablets, usually TV shows of either Korean or American origin. I notice an episode of “House of Cards” to my left and a teenager watching the new “Thor” movie in front of me.

It seems that the only people not paying attention to their phones are the very old and the very young. The elderly seem lost in their thoughts, while the toddlers seem mostly interested in the world around them. I smile at the apparent symbolism and then push my way off the train as my stop comes into view.

In the stop a new throng of people surround me, this time pushing in the direction of the line I’m attempting to transfer to. Although the bright orange corridor is a little wider, I feel nearly as confined as I did in the subway car. Since I am a bit taller than the rest of the crowd, I duck and move between pedestrians in order to maximize the speed of my gait.

One thing I constantly notice in China is the number of young couples. Whether it is high school-aged flings or married couples with babies in strollers, I notice young Chinese people holding hands all over the place.

According to the fountain of knowledge that is my Chinese professor, the single-child policy that started in the ‘Reform and Opening-Up’ period of China’s development created a number of social phenomena — I’m kind of convinced this is one of them, though the direct influence is still a little unclear to me. I could just be imagining it, so I shake off the thought and continue on my way.

As I step onto the escalator down to the next connecting train line, I begin to notice all the fashion being sported around me. Fashion in China is incredibly interesting, especially amongst teenagers and young adults. China’s recent economic development has brought in a wave of foreign brands, so more traditional Chinese styles often juxtapose with brands like Gucci, Prada and even “streetwear” brands like Bape and Supreme.

A particularly poignant example of the influence of American culture in China appears right in front of me on the escalator: a Chinese woman who appears to be about my age sports a T-shirt with three words printed in large, English block letters: “NOISE. PARTY. LIVE.” This is a rather tame example of an style that seems to take me by surprise each time I notice it ­— clothing sporting words in English that make almost no sense to a native speaker. I’m sure my attempts to order pork buns off of a cart in Chinese are laughable to the “master” making the buns, so I allow myself a smile at the apparent language gap.

Of course, the foreign language education system in China puts our mandatory Spanish lessons in America to shame, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the object of my humor speaks the English language better than I do.

I encounter these interesting styles and occurrences every time I hop on the subway to work.

Spending nearly two hours every day in transit, I’ve made it a hobby to take notice of trends and cultures that seem foreign to me. Although at first I felt alienated in a country where I have a hard time communicating with the majority of the population, the longer I observe, the more I understand and the more I feel at home. I, too, spend time on my electronic device watching TV (though “Seinfeld” makes the rounds more than “House of Cards”) and I have begun to understand some of the motivation behind the recent fashion trends that I find in Shanghai.

Slowly but surely, I’m beginning to find a home in this city.

Tate Gieselmann is a College of Arts and Sciences junior studying abroad in China. He can be reached

One Comment

  1. Living with such intense population pressure unknown to Americans is definitely a new experience and takes some time to get used to. Some foreigners can never get used to it but it’s just a fact of life here in China. Is there more PDA in China now with young people than in the US? This shows change on both sides of the world. Only in the 1990s did Chinese begin to shake off decades of sexual repression and find some freedom to date and fall in love as they please. I think in that same time frame, young Americans began their own new culture that was less based on forming couples and single boyfriend/girlfriend commitments and shaped by their own social experiences with American love and marriage and economy that are so different from China. Always love to see the crazy use of English by foreigners all around the world. Like buying those tee shirts for myself and as gifts to take back to the U.S.