Teatime in Wangfujing

February 2018

We asked our exchange students to send us a “postcard” with a quick word on their experience for our “Postcards from Exchanges” series. Here, student Ghaith Hannibal El-Mohtar, who went to study on exchange at Shantou University, ponders the pros and cons of China’s culture of sharing.

By Ghaith Hannibal El-Mohtar

“In China” she says, with the waiter standing motionless besides our table, “we share, it is our culture.”

This is a scam. A common one in Beijing, especially at tourist traps like Wangfujing market.

What she said about sharing was close to truth, though. Chinese tea, especially morning tea (早茶, zǎochá, a delightful cross between brunch and high-tea) is a social ritual as much as a drink, meant for sharing.

A selection of dumplings and sweets to share

Zǎochá. Attribution: Shenghuo

I am not sharing anything with the woman in front of me though. I had heard of the Beijing Tea scam before, but was curious to see how it played out. She said she was a London MBA student home for China’s Golden Week, and insisted (in flawless English) that I share an afternoon drink with her in an authentic Chinese café besides Wangfujing (we were the only patrons).

I opted for a small coffee. She had ordered wine herself, along with tea and other snacks neither of us touched. By this point I had lost interest in our conversation, and asked for the bill. More or less expectedly, the tea, peanuts, wine and coffee come close to 500CN (~100 CDN). She stares at me, expectantly.

“We share, it is our culture.”

I leave enough for my coffee and walk out.

Sharing is something we aren’t as good at in the West; especially North America. Your own car and driveway, your own lawn, your own backyard. Definitely your own coffee, which by now I’m done sipping.

I continue strolling through Wangfujing area’s expansive streets. Decidedly, sharing is something China’s more proactive about.

One example that comes to mind is public space. Wangfujing itself — like an enormous shopping center — is pedestrianized and feels more like a public square. The proliferation of “square dancing” (fitness through group-dancing in China’s vast public squares) all along Wangfujing’s shops attests to this.

Women in bright costumes dancing in a public square

Square Dancing. Attribution: Rex Features

Transit is another example. While privately owned cars congest even smaller cities like Ottawa, Ontario, in China a city with a similar population is considered eligible for a public subway system (the actual threshold is an urban population of 1.5 million).

I pass by a McDonald’s, and remember that of course, use of China’s common spaces comes at the Communist Party’s pleasure. Just a few years ago, pro-democracy activists gathered outside this same fast-food outlet and were silenced, and journalists were beaten and arrested during China’s 2011 stillborn Jasmine Revolution (中国茉莉花革命, Zhōngguó mòlìhuā gémìng). What happened a few streets away in Tiananmen square in 1989 was even worse.

I decide to get out of Wangfujing, so I take my phone out to scan the QR code on an Ofo bike, a yellow, dockless rental-app bike (like Bixi but without the hassle of returning it to a docking station). Renting consumer goods is another example of the proliferation of sharing in China. Fewer and fewer people own their own bikes, basketballs, even umbrellas, due to the widespread use of rental apps which have given the tech revolution on Chinese phones a path different from that in the West.

Ofo bike sharing system

Ofo bicycles. Attribution: Xinhua

This Ofo bike doesn’t work; its right pedal has fallen off, and it’s been tossed atop of a pile of other discarded Ofos, a reminder of China’s accumulating tragedies of the commons. A passerby coughs. Beijing’s air today has a fine particulate concentration of 200 parts per million (ppm), polluted air being the cost of China’s rapid development. The maximum threshold for human safety is 50ppm, and people wear air filters to battle the smog. Similarly, people bathe in Beijing’s waterways, though the water is unfit for human contact. As for the bikes piled in heaps blocking the sidewalks, they were too successful for their own good: overuse, under-repair, and disregard for the public lanes that enabled them. The government began rounding up broken ones into landfills not long ago.

I find a serviceable Ofo nonetheless, and begin the last bike ride of my semester abroad in China. Tea, space, air, water. A common future? Who knows. But right now, and for better or worse, that con artist is right: in China, people share.


 

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