-by Ernie Diaz
T’was a time when simply being the world’s great economic power was ambition enough for China. But no one, and by extension no nation, can ever be happy for more than a few, fleeting moments. The bond trader buys a Ferrari with his first bonus, and a week later is pining for a Gulfstream.
Thus do China’s power mongers take little satisfaction in the West’s economic precariousness. They see the clothes China wears, the luxury items it lusts after, the entertainment it prizes. All western, or western-influenced. How does China win this war, so much more subtle than economic war, the war for hearts and minds?
So far, China’s off to a sprained-ankle start in the quest for soft power. Its global chain of Confucius Institutes compete with Christian Science Reading Rooms and Scientology recruitment centers for who can keep the public furthest away. In Zhongnanhai’s halls of power, grim-faced cadres audition and summarily execute contenders for the Chinese McDonald’s, the Chinese Spielberg, the Chinese Beatles, the Chinese Mr. Bean.
Therein lies the crux of the dilemma. Can you kindly stop copying and “catching up” for one brief moment, custodians of China glory? Let’s look at what we have that they don’t have, besides calligraphy and Tang poetry, and then hire the biggest, baddest, most certified Kosher PR agency to promulgate it until even the Japanese are chanting, “Zhongguo, jia you! Zhongguo, jia you!”
Our suggestions for China soft power content:
Could white people but see the possibilities for their senior citizenship, were they to follow the principles of being old in China, they would understand that youth is truly wasted on the young. Of course, much of what makes being old in China rewarding is that the culture is based on respecting age and experience rather than smooth skin and small teeth – or was based.
Only those of China’s aged in their last extremities are kept house-bound and bed-ridden. Otherwise, they are usually the most prominent and vocal of China’s street-life, on the scene earliest, and leaving it last. At 5 am, they jointly occupy any public space more than 50sqm with a modicum of plant life to sword-dance, do taiqi, and perform bizarrely low-impact aerobics.
At night, they’re back with their tinny boom boxes for ballroom and/or drum and fan dancing. In between, they’re on the stoop with their kind, commenting loudly on the doings of passerby, or wandering about, slowly thumping their own acupressure points, sticking their noses into whatever interests them. Owning the streets, as much as their million-and-one folk medicine measures (cold water-snuffing to hot feet soaking), keep China’s seniors full of the proverbial pee and vinegar far longer than their western counterparts.
Who’s laughing now? The Chinese t shirt has evolved from the stuff of outright mockery, powering the revenue models of sites like engrish.com, to disconcerting screeds resembling the scribbled communiqués of asylum inmates [“Hello friend welcome you can be happy every time OK bye for later”], to ultra-dry, thought provoking maxims. Two t-shirt slogans witnessed in one lunch-time food court stroll:
1. Transcendence Is the Only Permanence
2. [In three-inch block lettering] NOBODY KNOWS I’M A LESBIAN
Sooner rather than later, western hipsters will be discovering the feigned-ignorance irony of such t-shirts, and paying thrice the price to get them second-hand.
You know what’s great about living in China? Getting the real orange chicken and shrimp puffs. Back West, there’s hardly a town of more than ten thousand without some MSG-dusted chop suey shack. It’s time for a new paradigm in Chinese fast food – malatang. If the proprietors have an ounce of compunction (not available at the curb-level in China) the skewers and oil will be fresh. Beginners can start with the chicken strips and broccoli. Intermediates can try the pigeon eggs and squid. We won’t even mention advanced options – we’re trying to build some soft power here, not soft gagging.
We’ve told you all about this still-raging fad, the new hot pot, before, but did we mention it’s low-no-carb, and paleo to boot? Leave the sweet and sour Lucky Panda crap for the rubes, dry pot, if promoted right, could be bigger than chips n’ salsa someday, in terms of crossover adaptation.
Hair Salon Massage
No one’s saying you can’t get a better massage in Thailand, but good luck getting one as cheaply and conveniently. Just scan a busy Chinese street, and you should be able to spot some teenage boys sporting neon Doris Day hairdos. They’ll guide you into their salon, wherein you’ll soon be treated to a scalp massage shampoo, ear diddling, arm-squeezing, and back rub. You’re in and out in under half and hour feeling brand new, and perhaps five bucks lighter.
Any savvy CEO knows that interns are the best thing for her bottom line since indentured servitude. The thing is, western interns, young though they are, have all sorts of cynical notions of tit for tat and quid pro quo, so that by week two said intern is a master at updating Facebook with one finger hovering to pop the spreadsheet back up should the manager stroll by. Plus, they tend to party like stew bums trying to get arrested for the winter so they can dry out somewhere warm, further lowering productivity.
The Chinese intern wouldn’t be studying abroad if she needed money for her upkeep, so you can give her Pinkberry coupons as fair and valuable consideration. She will work Foxconn hours, cheerfully punching up 3GB spreadsheets, all for the chance to practice her English in an authentically English-speaking environment. Make sure your intern is merely handsome, rather than comely, for the Chinese suffer few illusions about the value of beauty. Also make sure your intern’s family is well-off rather than fabulously rich, lest you become implicated in an international extortion scandal.