Life was pretty miserable between Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning, as I had the Jiayuan Czuo ganmao, better known as my dormitory’s common cold. Coughing and sweating (and the composition of an occasional blog post) comprised most of my daily activity; a friend or two stopped by in the interim.
On Friday morning, I woke up in a pool of my own sweat and decided that I really didn’t want to be sick anymore. Moreover, when I took my temperature and realized that it was 37.9 for the billionth time, I decided to throw it away, as only a broken thermometer would show the same exact temperature that many times. Without knowing whether or not I had a fever (or whether I ever had a fever, or whether the fever I had was higher or lower than 37.9), I gave Isabel a call and asked if we could do something. Luckily, she had read about an ongoing series at 798 (Beijing’s trendy art district located in renovated warehouses on the east side of of the city) entitled “China Stories,” which features weekly interviews with successful foreigners living in Beijing. Friday’s interview gave the spotlight to Johannes Neubacher, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese edition of Madame Figaro, a French fashion magazine.
What we expected to gain from going to this interview we couldn’t quite decipher, but we nevertheless headed to the art district to see Mr. Neubacher and two art exhibits by Ai Wei Wei and Zhang Xiaogang, two of China’s most prominent contemporary artists. Between bouts of sporadic coughs and nose-blows, I managed to tip-toe appropriately through the exhibits, but didn’t hold back from gingerly touching Ai Wei Wei’s three-dimensional world – made out of hundreds of layers of thin cotton strips, which are meant to represent how China is inextricably linked to the rest of the world (and vice versa) through the cotton trade, among other things – and Zhang Xiaogang’s cement figures of the relics of his youth.
In an unfortunate turn of events, the interview with Heubacher ended up being weak in comparison to the exhibits. Though we arrived on time, Isabel and I were dismayed to find only a handful of attendees at the free event; the translator arrived late – hence, the interview started late – and she only translated questions she deemed “important”; and Heubacher only skimmed the surface of the cultural issues inherent in such a transitory and generally insidious atmosphere as the fashion magazine industry. (My nose blowing and general coughing didn’t exactly make the event more enjoyable.)
On leaving the event, our information regarding fashion magazine culture in Beijing had increased to the extent that we knew that the three tenets of personal fashion are: 1. people want to show off wealth by wearing name brands 2. people want to distinguish themselves from other people, and 3. people want to make sure that the way in which people distinguish themselves corresponds with their personalities. We also found out that magazines in Beijing make much more money on advertising than on distribution, so that’s why all of the fashion magazines look like magazine-length Jimmy Choo ads.
What we felt like we were missing was a discussion that pursued larger questions such as why foreigners become editor-in-chiefs of magazines that serve to represent Beijing fashion, or how this EIC perceives his role as a contributor to the rampant consumerism taking place in Beijing’s 26-35 year old women – the age group that Madame Figaro represents. Interestingly, we ended up using these lingering questions as prompts for what became a two-hour discussion at a nearby Japanese restaurant on topics ranging from the possiblity of fluency in Chinese to examinations of our own reactions to our Chinese friends’ perspectives on government structures and current policies.
For me, the conversation was long overdue, as I have been trying to grapple with many feelings of alienation and frustration in a culture that can sometimes seem inaccessible. Moreover, our talk set the stage for my outing today with a Chinese student I met during Cultural Day, whose outlook on China and its future was a stark comparison to what I have previously observed and/or assumed. I’ll get into this more in my next entry, which will also feature pictures of the top sellers in the foreign book market at Beijing’s largest book store.
Look forward to details of Obama-praising, Twilight hype, and the wide-eyed hopes of a young college student in Beijing.
A short note: From now on, I plan on responding to comments in the comments section of each entry. So, if you leave a comment, you can now expect a response.