Zoo Coffee as a Symbol

In my previous post, I explained how I stumbled upon Zoo Coffee, and why I found it so appealing.  What was it that made me want to come back?  I described how I felt when I was shielded by Zoo Coffee’s “bubble”, and described Zoo Coffee as my oasis from the outside world that was so unfamiliar to me.  Curious to see if other foreigners held similar opinions, I decided to reach out to other foreigners at Zoo Coffee and ask questions.

Through conducting interviews, some less formal than others, I’ve been able to conclude that most foreigners go to Zoo Coffee because, in the words of Shakeed (an interviewee) “It’s like [their] little getaway.”  Talking to Shakeed, a student from Iowa, I confirmed that I was not the only one who viewed Zoo Coffee as this sort of safe haven.  After talking with Shakeed, and a few other students, I was inspired to take my final project in a slightly different direction.

Fang Jun, a professor from William and Mary, introduced me to Shakeed at Zoo Coffee and left me with the impression that the two of them were friends.  “Hello, this is Aly” was pretty much the extent to my introduction.  While the introduction was superficial, it enabled me to feel more comfortable talking to a complete stranger.  I soon learned, however, that Fang Jun and Shakeed were not friends, and rather Fang Jun had just talked to him moments earlier after commenting briefly on the writing on his shirt- “Berkely.”  In my field journal entry on this interview, I focused heavily on how easy I found it was to talk to such a stranger and how comfortable this encounter was.  This really surprised me at the time.  I learned from Shakeed that he did not know any Chinese whatsoever, and came to study at Tsinghua to do research on Nano Technology.  He came with a group of only 2 other students, and explained to me the isolation he felt while he was here in China.  After all, he was only able to converse with two other people for the most part.

Another conversation I had with foreigners was with a group of students from Georgia Tech.  They were part of a summer program with its focus on engineering.  The first half of their program was Singapore, and their second half was here in Beijing.  I found it really significant what they had to say about Singapore versus Beijing.  They liked Singapore far more, and explained it to be “way way more modern” and more developed.  When I asked why they were here studying at Zoo Coffee, they joked and said “we miss Singapore, why do you think we come here so much?”  I took this to mean that they viewed Zoo Coffee as a modern and familiar place to them; a place that was far different than many other areas in Beijing.   One also said she wished she was able to speak Chinese, and is considering learning it now after having felt so clueless these past few weeks in China.  She explained she wanted to come back to China next summer to do research, and could not bare to come back without knowing zero Chinese (again).  It seems as though more and more students are coming to China to study.  A graph I found online, proved my assumption to be true.  Click here, and scroll down to the first graph to see China’s increasing number of international students.  The Second Graph shows where these students are coming from.

Looking back on these interviews, and on other encounters I have had with foreigners at Zoo Coffee, I see an entirely new side that I had not previously thought about.  In my field journal, I engrossed myself in why these strangers and I could converse at such ease rather than the actual significance of the words that were coming out of their mouth.  I focused on why people felt comfortable here, and found that perhaps this was too simple of a question to ask.  Shakeed almost used the exact phrasing I had used to describe Zoo Coffee- where I said oasis, he said getaway.  Shakeed came to China to do research, and other students I spoke to from Georgia Tech came to china to study engineering at Tsinghua.  I also spoke to a girl from France, and even one from Spain.  At first, I found it striking that they were not all here to learn Chinese.  It then struck me that the reasons for why students are coming to China are very diverse.  Talking to students from all different parts of the world, has caused me to view Zoo Coffee as a small symbol of China’s rapid globalization and modernization efforts.

This delicious waffle, is the only waffle I have been able to find in Beijing.  Believe me when I say, I have looked.

This delicious waffle, is the only waffle I have been able to find in Beijing. Believe me when I say, I have looked.

For my final project, I want to use Zoo Coffee as a model that represents China’s expanding markets and willingness to accept foreign influence.  The decor in Zoo Coffee, the menus written in English, the actual food, and the service all loudly scream “Western” to me.  This video shows what a customer would see if they were to walk through the doors of Zoo Coffee.  The whole layout looks very westernized, and I want to ask why it is that the manager decided to decorate it the way they did.  Do they support “modernization” and opening it’s doors to people from all over the world?  Note the tables, the zoo theme, and the area in which you order your food in the video.  Additionally, see how many foreigners you can spot.  The time the video was taken, I counted 8 people that were noticeably not Chinese.  I believe it is equally significant that Zoo Coffee is a popular place for young Chinese people to frequent.  Chinese people are beginning to adopt this culture.

Why is the service here so similar to the United States’, or in the words of Fang Jun “So nice and so… humane.”  Why does the management at Zoo Coffee have their employees conduct themselves in way that is so different to other places in Beijing.  Will more places like Zoo Coffee continue to pop up in the future.  My language partner, Liu Jia, said that “In the future, more places will be like this I think.”  He explained that Chinese people my age, and people of my generation, really enjoy places like Zoo Coffee.  For this reason, he thinks it is likely that later down the road, there will be more and more places like it.  This article, among others that I have found, agree completely with my language partner.  According to this article posted in China Economic Review, the development of coffee shops is, in itself, “trying to steer China’s traditional coffee drinkers toward coffee consumption.”  What significance does this have?  This article asserts that more and more of these coffee shops will continue to pop up and go after “young targets.”  What implications will this have?

With my VPN, I have been able to browse YouTube videos on this topic.  I stumbled across a video that I believe has relevance to China’s increasingly open mind to give way to foreign influence.  This video  shows a Coffee Shop that mimics the Coffee Shop in the TV series, Friends.  I thought this was really cool, and something worth including in my post, as my language partner just recently mentioned a lot of Chinese people really enjoy watching the Friends season.  He explained watching Friends is not only a good aide to learn English, but also something many people find enjoyable to watch.

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