My “Oasis”

While I came to China with a slightly different field site in mind- namely some store in which I could research how a company like Johnson & Johnson adjusts their marketing strategies to cater to a completely different consumer clientele in China- I wound up changing my field site to a coffee shop called “Zoo Coffee.”

I would be lying if I said that I did not have some sleepless nights prior to June 11th -the day that I left for China; on some nights I was completely unable to put my racing thoughts to rest.  For a period of time, I believed that distracting myself from any thoughts regarding China would be the best way to get some sleep at night and to keep me at ease.  After talking about my nerves with friends from school, and even a friend that had just come back from a semester in China, I was convinced that I should try and pin point what exactly it was that was causing these nerves.

I soon realized the fear of the unknown is what was contributing to the majority of these anxious and unsettling feelings.  I had no clue what to expect!  After all, China is literally on the other side of the world from where I was.  What was even over there?  Would anything be familiar?  Is the culture really that different?  What kinds of food will they have?

Anyways, before I get too carried away with this backdrop I am trying to paint, let me explain exactly how I came about the decision to have Zoo Coffee be my field site.  My personal reason for why I chose this specific field site actually happens to be a significant contribution to my research, and also the specific interaction I wish to focus on for this blog post.

It did not take long for me to feel as though I was a spectacle in China.  I already felt people’s stares the moment I got onto the plane to Beijing from my layover in Zurich.  I was met with more stares on the shuttle in the Beijing airport, seeing as I was the only white girl in the entire shuttle.  It soon became clear to me that China would be even more foreign and unfamiliar to me than I had expected.

I arrived very early (Beijing time) and in an attempt to force myself to adjust to the time difference, I pushed myself to venture off into wudaokou with two other girls.  The language barrier suddenly came to life, as opposed to hearing about it from friends, and seeing it in movies- we all struggled to communicate the little information we needed to with the cab driver.  I felt so useless, as I watched Leah struggle to agree on a price, remind the cab driver to run the meter since the driver had conveniently “forgot”, etc.  I am really struggling to convey the frustration and foreign feeling this was already- to feel so useless and dependent on others.  Before that moment, I was confident in my abilities to navigate around areas like NYC by myself, let alone do something as simple as take a cab with two other girls.

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This picture was taken at this dumpling restaurant during the time of this story. I had never seen dumplings served like this up until that point.

We had no idea where we wanted to go in wudaokuo, so she dropped us off in a location I probably wouldn’t be able to go back to (this is how clueless I was…). Starving, we all walked in pretty much the first place that appeared to be serving food.  No one took us to a table to be seated, so we hesitantly just sat at a table.  Soon, I noticed two or three guys staring at us, blatantly pointing, and laughing.  I assumed they were obnoxious customers.  We ignored this negative attention, and continued to wait to be served.  Anyways…We must have sat there for at least a half an hour before we realized no one was going to take our order.  We went to the front of the restaurant, and soon realized those people laughing at us happened to be people that worked there.  I was not at all familiar with this rude and unprofessional behavior.  This was a jiaozi/baozi restaurant we learned, and that we the only thing we could really order.

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So this was a fish that just flopped out of its tank at the jiaozi place. The people working there didn’t respond to this for a while. They acted very calm about it, and didn’t act as if anything was happening out of the ordinary. What?

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what the feeling I had was in this restaurant.  Undoubtedly a feeling I had never felt before, and certainly a feeling that made me realize China was going to be far more foreign to me than I had anticipated.  I felt clueless, ashamed, and pretty much helpless.

After eating, we left and walked around the area.  Before long, we came across a sign on a window that indicated wifi.  We were just talking about how we would all like to send an email to people at home and to fill them in on our trip over here, etc.  The sign “Zoo Coffee” immediately triggered feelings of familiarity to me.  For one, it was in English, as opposed to the characters that sat above the mini jiaozi restaurant.  The colors of the sign, and the way in which the sign was painted, was also more familiar to me.  It appeared new and well kept.  When I walked into the café, I immediately felt some sense of belonging- as if this is where I was “supposed” to go. I was nearing a comfort zone, especially in contrast to the feelings I experienced at the jiaozi place.  Zoo Coffee was familiar to me right away, it was something I knew, and it was an atmosphere I was used to experiencing in the U.S- it soon became clear to me that this would become my mini oasis during my stay at Tsinghua.

This significance of this narrative is how differently I was perceived in each of these places, and why I felt more comfortable in one over the other.  I was greeted at the food counter by a woman who was smiling and almost excited to take my order.  Her smile widened as I tried my best to order what I wanted in Chinese.

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Garlic Pasta at Zoo Coffee. Surprisingly, very spicy!

This smile was welcoming, and friendly- and was by no means anyway similar to the smirk and evil glares I had received at the jiaozi restaurant.   In response to my Chinese words, she spoke a few English phrases to me, such as “for here, or to go” or “do you want that hot, or cold.”

This picture was taken that very first day in Beijing. I couldn't help but take a picture as I was amazed at how familiar and "at home" it all felt. Note Leah using wifi!

This picture was taken that very first day in Beijing. I couldn’t help but take a picture as I was amazed at how familiar and “at home” it all felt. Note Leah using wifi!

This narrative is critical to my research, as I wish to explore how businesses such as Zoo Coffee cater to a most western clientele.  Why is it that I felt more comfortable there?  Why did I not attract disapproving stares or smirks here?  I feelings of vulnerability seemed to vanish in Zoo Coffee.  How do places like Zoo Coffee not only attract foreigners like myself, but almost communicate to the locals here that it is “normal” for foreigners to be here.  Was it the English friendly menus?  The Western toilets?  The food choices?

I met with Jiyan Wang, head of market research for Johnson & Johnson in Beijing, just yesterday (Tuesday July 2nd).  She gave me a little bit of insight as to how a business adapts to a rapidly developing Chinese market.  I asked  if Western brand pharmaceuticals (we specifically talked about Motrin and Tylenol) were as popular in China than they are in the United States.  She explained that while they are far more popular in the United States now, Western brands are growing in popularity in China.  She said that around 50 percent of medical problems are treated with old fashioned herbal methods.  While it may be hard to capitalize on this market, she said that the Chinese people are slowly moving away from more “traditional” medical treatments.  I wish to further explore this in my research, this idea of “modern” and whether or not China is borrowing elements of other culture, or whether or not they are just becoming more “new”.  Can the words modern and western really be synonymous?

This was an interesting article that I found specifically pertaining to the coffee culture in China.  Cunningham explains how pleasantly surprised she was to find coffee in China- and how while coffee shops were definitely a place for foreigners to “feel at home” it is becoming an integral part of Chinese culture.  For my next post, I look forward to doing more research online about how businesses work to cater to foreigners (Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, “China’s Coffee Culture”).