Tag Archives: photos

A step toward civilization (and have more children), Shanghai edition

Over the course of two weeks in China, I saw several versions of signs like this:

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“A small step forward, a big step for civilization” (向前一小步, 文明一大步).

This one is posted in the old-town section of Nanxun (now a tourist attraction), naturally, above a urinal.* Invoking civilization may be overblown for the problem of men standing too far away (which didn’t seem to be especially extreme, compared to U.S. urinals), but China has a long tradition of using dramatic slogans to call citizens to higher common purpose. Here was one that struck me, in downtown Shanghai:

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Every family striving to become a civilized family; everyone involved in its creation (家家争做文明家庭; 人人叁与创建活动).

This is from the Shanghai public health authorities. (No, I don’t know Chinese, but I love trying to use a dictionary, and I ask people.) The fascinating thing about that is the composition of the civilized family pictured: father, mother, two grandparents, and two children. 

Fertility rates in China are well below replacement level, as they are in other East Asian countries, meaning the average woman will have fewer than two children in her lifetime and the population will eventually shrink (barring immigration). China’s total fertility rate nationally is probably at about 1.5. In Shanghai, a metro area with some 20 million people, the norm was already one child per family before the one-child policy was implemented in 1980, and fertility has continued to fall; it most recently clocked in at a shockingly low .88 per woman as of 2008.

Reasons for ultra-low fertility are varied and contested, but likely culprits include expensive housing and education costs for children. It was reported to me informally that about half of children can go to college-track high schools instead of vocational schools, and that is determined by a standardized test administered at the end of middle school. That puts tremendous pressure on parents with middle-class aspirations. Which helps explain the extensive system of expensive supplemental private education, as promoted by this ad I saw in an upscale mall:

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School advertisement, Shanghai

The website for this company promises, “Super IQ, Wealth of Creativity, Instant Memory Capacity.” How many kids are you going to send to this private program?

One of the five perfect, super-involved parents at the parent-child class is a man, which may or may not seem like a lot. Of the many people taking their kids to school on scooters, I didn’t see a lot with more than one child, and the only picture I got was of one piloted by the apparent dad (note also something you don’t see here much: schoolboy in pink shirt):

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Man taking children to school, Shanghai

This recalls another probable cause of low-low fertility, the gender-stuck family and employment practices that keep women responsible for children and other care work (scooter dads notwithstanding). In conjunction with women outperforming men in college graduation rates these days (as in the U.S.), this indirectly reduces fertility by leading to delayed marriage, and directly reduces fertility by causing parents to decide against a second child.

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Grandparent, parent, child, in Hangzhou

The weak system of care hurts on both ends, with people having fewer children because raising them is expensive, and people needing children to take care of old people because public support is lacking. This may be one reason why grandparents can have a positive effect on parents’ motivation to have children, as reported by Yingchun Ji and colleagues (including Feinian Chen, who hosted my visit). The fact that it is common for grandparents to provide extensive care for their grandchildren, as Feinian Chen has described (paywall), presumably helps strengthen their pronatal case.

Lots of pictures of grandparents taking care of a single grandchild to choose from. Here’s one, from the (awesome) Shanghai Museum:

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Grandparent and child, Shanghai

The one-child policy ended in 2016, and couples no longer have to get permission to have a first or second child (but they do for a third or more). This change alone, although a better-late-than-never thing, may not do much to increase birth rates. That is the conclusion from studies of families for whom the policy was relaxed earlier. Sadly, although birth rates were already falling dramatically in the 1970s and the one-child policy was not responsible for the trend, the policy still (in addition to large scale human rights abuses) created many millions of one-child families that will struggle to meet intergenerational care obligations in the absence of adequate public support. (Here’s a good brief summary from Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai.)

This is a challenge for civilization.

The pictures here, and a few hundred more, are on my Flickr site under creative commons license.


Americans who love the funny translations of signs in China may be in for some disappointment, as the Standardization Administration has announced plans to implement thousands of stock translations in the service sector nationwide.

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Civility in the swelter (Hershey Park edition)

This post combines my love of vacations (context), my habit of taking pictures of people in public places (data)*, and my sociological tendency to invent big conclusions from minor events (theory). As with last year’s selfie post , I hope you don’t take from this that I don’t really love vacations.

With 3.2 million annual visitors, Hershey Park is barely in the top 20 amusement/theme parks in the country. And unlike the top draws, all Disney properties, I reckon Hershey mostly draws a local and regional crowd, which means they’re not as rich as the average Disney visitor.

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What interests me is the way this lower-middle amusement park creates the context for civility in a very diverse environment, even as racial and ethnic conflagration seems to be breaking out all over.

It’s very racially and ethnically diverse, and most of the Whites either aren’t rich or they’re hiding their wealth well.

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Why didn’t Charles Murray, in his obnoxious “do you live in a bubble” quiz, which is supposed to test your exposure to and familiarity with working-class White culture (yes, just White culture, though the PBS promoters of the quiz only mentioned that after people complained), ask about amusement parks, where White working class people spend their vacations mingling with — or at least in close proximity with — racial minorities?

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Including in the historically-fraught pool.

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Some may be merely standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people from different races. But I saw more interracial couples and families than I usually see in my diverse suburb.

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Are they just tolerating each other, or are they really getting along? Of course, I’m White and rich and blind to all sorts of things, but I’m not stupid. I have no doubt there were slights and insults and aggressions going on outside of my perception (though I was looking for them). But there were also the kind of casual moments of “us just getting along” that usually go unremarked, like when parents enjoy watching their kids having fun together.

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I’m not making an argument about the relative racism apparent across classes. I know your feed today is probably awash in racist stuff coming from all over the social spectrum. I’m more interested in what the social context does to interpersonal interaction. The park is very leveling, economically. The poorest people are obviously excluded, and the richest aren’t interested. And then most people buy tickets before they arrive, and it’s in a remote place, so there is no one visible who can’t get in, no obvious fast lane for rich people (even at the rides, unlike Disney). We all ride the same tram from the parking lot to the gate, so the car interaction is minimized. We go through the same giant line to enter, and then wait in the same lines to ride the same rides and eat the same food once inside.

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There are ways to spend more money conspicuously, buying extra crap, but there is less of that than I’ve seen at Disney or Universal Studios (have you priced a genuine Princess dress lately?). In short, it brings out what a lot of different Americans have in common: overpaying for entertainment, overeating greasy food, and alternately yelling at and loving on their children.

I’m reminded of two things. One is that there is less racial conflict and violence in the U.S. than there was in the past (dating the data trends here is obviously debatable). The level of racism — structurally and interpersonally — is still way too high, of course. But it partly stands out now because we have more casual, positive interaction, than we did in the past. Social movement scholars will tell you that periods of improving relations are ripe for upheaval and unrest, because expectations are raised and subordinate groups are empowered. Don’t draw from the level of conscious resistance we see now the conclusion that conditions are worse than ever, because that’s not how it works.

Two is that civility can be engineered. In 2002 my friend Jennifer Lee wrote of the “important untold story [of] the mostly quotidian nature of commercial life in neighborhoods like New York’s Harlem and West Philadelphia,” areas at the time experiencing racial tension erupting in occasional violence around the issue of ethnic turf and racism in retail spaces. This Civility in the City was partly the product of deliberate, conscious effort by store owners and employees to preserve it. The level of interpersonal conflict and expression of animosity is not determined by structural inequalities alone. That deep inequality remains the defining American problem of our time. I don’t know how the level of interpersonal conflict plays into our ability to confront and address that inequality — and I’m not saying we should settle for civility over equality — but I’m sure it’s somehow relevant.

* This is ethical and legal as long as I’m not trying to harm anyone – millions of people do it every day. If you happen to be in one of these pictures and want me to take them down I will happily oblige. Before you get mad about me using these pictures, close your eyes and think of all the pictures you’ve seen just this week of strangers who did not consent to have their pictures taken.

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Selfie culture, tourism, and the challenge of the authentic self

Just kidding — who would give a blog post a title like that?

The author on vacation.

The author on vacation.

Our family vacation this summer, to London and Paris, was my first since the Year of the Selfie Stick (which is this year). This is also the year in which 59% of “millennials” (only 40% of whom understand that they are millennials) answered “yes” when asked whether the phrase “self-absorbed” describes “people in your generation overall”?

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At Admiralty Arch, London

I can’t add much nuance to the theory of selfie culture, which has already taught me a lot. For example, I learned on NPR that vanity isn’t vanity if it’s part of constructing your “personal brand” — so it’s OK to edit your selfies:

“I think that while a lot of people find it easy to say, ‘Well, you’re taking a photo of yourself, and you’re posting it online for people to sort of rate.’ I could see how that superficially looks like vanity,” she says. “At the same time, I think that it really gives a lot of the younger generation a platform to express themselves without being incredibly harshly judged — because the selfie is such a casual form of expression, no one is going to expect you to look absolutely perfect.”

What interested me is the intersection of artificiality and authenticity that the selfie brings to the experience of tourism. Taking 1,000 pictures of yourself in order to post just the right spontaneous look is the normal business of personal brand construction. It creates a presentation version of yourself. It’s an expected form of inauthenticity, just like most people expect you won’t post pictures of your kid crying at her birthday party.

But when you’re a tourist, selfies are about authenticity. They’re the picture that proves you were really there — and really in that mood at that moment that you were there. As the culture studies journal Forbes Leadership put it:

In the age of social media, authenticity for Postmoderns is characterized by a consistency and continuity between their online personas and their lives in the real world. The more congruence there is between the two, the more authentic the Postmodern appears to be.

You can’t have that unless the famous thing is clearly visible behind you. Which produces the endlessly entertaining spectacle of tourists taking and retaking selfies with every different expression and pose in front of popular monuments and attractions.

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At Buckingham Palace.

Social media is social. We share pictures and updates with real people. Even when you’re alone, you’re not alone on social media. Which I think is great. But like the person staring at his phone through dinner, it seems antisocial when you do it publicly. The selfie-takers are alone in their Instagram bubbles in the middle of a sea of other people.

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At Buckingham Palace.

And when you’re going in for the money shot — say, the Eiffel Tower at sunset — you can’t afford to mess around. It seemed like these people were oblivious to me setting up for a shot of them from 10 feet away. (Also, like driving, it seems that operating the selfie stick in different-sex couples is the man’s job.)

At the Eiffel Tower.

At the Eiffel Tower.

Or, in this case, the daughter totally not noticing that her parents are collapsing from boredom while she works up her umpteenth Buckingham Palace selfie.

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I have nothing against all this. (Our story is that every moment of the vacation was deliriously fun, and we have the pictures to prove it.) Having a good time seeing new people and things without hurting anyone is what I love about tourism.

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Still, it’s funny that people go to such trouble to get the perfect picture of themselves — creating at least a moment that is artificial — in their quest for an image of authenticity. What would this picture mean if I weren’t really in Paris, contemplating all there is to contemplate in exactly that spot?

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As affirmed by the behavior of thousands of people crowding around to take pictures of famous paintings, perfect reproductions of which are available online for free, it has to be real or it’s nothing. A lie.

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The fake-smile selfie is a lie, too. I guess it’s just not a very important one.

One disappointing thing, though, is that suddenly the ritual of strangers asking each other to take their pictures is disappearing. That was a nice part of tourism, because it involved strangers smiling at each other.

Note: Help yourself to these photos, which are in this Flickr folder.

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