Visit to and Presentation in Shanghai, China

Earlier this year I received an invitation to attend a symposium organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stifting in Shanghai and the Shanghai Administration Institute. To be honest, receiving many invitations and reading this email only superficially, I first thought it was spam email. Luckily I did not yet delete it and a few days later I reread the email and  determining was a very interesting symposium in a very interesting setting. So I decided to accept the invitation, organized the visa for China, I took the plane to Shanghai, spent a few days sensing the city’s spirit and doing some site seeing and enjoying the food and people. Then on Monday I met my fellow presenters from Europe for dinner. For a complete list of presenters in the symposium click here. We had a very nice dinner Chinese style. I must say that after having worked some time in South Korea, I really got hooked on Asian food, whether it’s Korean, Japanese, or Chinese or Thai, when prepared well, it’s all delicious, even though some of it is an acquired taste.

Then on Tuesday morning, after having taken the group photo, the symposium titled “Transforming societies – transforming political parties” started. The program was a mix of Western scholars as well as scholars from China talking about  online political communication, political science and politics. The entire program will be available shortly from the website of the Friedrich Ebert Stifting.

There was a mix of political communication presentations and political science presentations. Those on political communication were provided by Rachel Gibson from Machester University in the UK and myself. Rachel Gibson talked about her project at Manchester University, and was titled “Social and Technological Trends and their Effects on Parties in the Western World”. One of here main studies was published in the New Media and Society special issue on “The state of online campaigning in politics”, titled “Party organizational change and ICTs: The growth of a virtual grassroots?” . I was the second international speaker, talking about “New Media – New Engaging Politcs? Personalization and Mediatization in Politics” It was based on published and and onging research . First I talked about changing ways of conducting elections campaigns which is based on Norris’  and Gibson and Römmele’s work . I then presented some results of prior published on the personalization in European Parliaments Elections that took place in 2009 (Hermans & Vergeer, 2013). I finished my presentation with some preliminary findings of a comparison of Twitter political Twitter networks in five countries (Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands, the UK and Canada). I am not going to write about that too much right now, because – as said – this project is still in progress.

Having worked and stayed somewhat longer periods in Asia but never in China, I decided to book a couple of days extra. Staying at a hotel in the French Concession, it was very easy to walk the streets leading either to Nanjing Road West or to Huaihai Road. From there it’s easy to take the very efficient and cheap subway system to travel across this vast city. In part I behaved like a true tourist sightseeing the main attractions. However I also like the parks where regular people like to go. I particularly liked Lu Xun Park and the Duolun neighborhood where Chinese writers lived.
After acting the tourist and relaxing in the hotel room watching some TV I noticed that on Chinese TV, the audition programs are very popular: every evening there is a “Chinese Idol” broadcast or a “So You Think You Can Dance” program. These programs strictly follow the formats as imposed by the producers. They also have HBO Asia, at least in the hotel, which I didn’t know existed. There are of course also many Chinese movie channels with historical movies and martial arts. Of course these are the channels available at my hotel. The regular channel package for people is sure to differ from this.

Of course, another thing I noticed, although I was already aware of Google’s disputes with China’s government, is that Google services did not work in Shanghai. Gmail and Google Maps on my Android phone did not work out of the box. A small workaround, using a VPN, solved this issue. Interestingly, Google Maps information on restaurants and traffic information was up-to-date and realtime, suggesting that many more people use Google. Otherwise, Google information should be outdated quite quickly, particularly the information on traffic congestion.

On that topic, it’s a bit of a shame to find yourself in Shanghai and encounter similar TV programs, the same coffee shops (e.g. Starbucks) and the same clothing shops (e.g. H&M and UNIQLO). That’s not why I travel the world. I want to be surprised and learn and taste new things. At the same time anime, manga and cosplay are enjoying increased popularity in the west as well. Whether this will balance out, meaning that specific cultural elements wil remain is unclear.

It’s almost as if it’s not the governments anymore that run the countries, but it’s the multinational companies like Ikea, H&M, UNIQLO, Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King etc. Besides their increasing economic power, it leads to an increasing homogenization of culture. It really takes away the fun of traveling, of being surprised by the culture and the local customs. Still, this mainly applies to the city centers of large cities. When you venture in to neighborhoods some five or more subway stations away from the tourist center, you’ll be surprised how little English they understand, and see that the chance of encountering a Starbucks rapidly decrease.

But let’s be clear, do not be bothered by this when considering going to Shanghai. Go, you´ll enjoy it. There’s enough new things to experience. The only thing is you have to put somewhat more effort into it. That’s easy enough if you’re willing to take a 11 hour flight from Europe to get there in the first place. For me it was definitely worthwhile. Then, on Saturday evening Shanghai time – after a hellish taxi ride due to a very sleepy taxi driver – I flew back to the Netherlands and arrived at my home doorstep at 7:30AM local time.

A great thank you goes to Catherina Schläger, Judith Christ, Florian Sladky and Yan Yu representing the Friedrich Ebert Stifting in Shanghai for organizing this symposium in collaboration with the Shanghai Administration Institute.

Cross-cultural differences

Foreign languages always pose a problem. Even when the cultural differences are not that large, already misunderstandings may arise because of improper use. You can feel that on your wooden shoes. The use of language by people in culturally distant countries even more likely will result in funny, awkward cases. Being in South Korea a few caught my eye. In my apartment I have a washing machine. The model name (the brand in most likely LG, since most thinks are by LG) is Chaos. That would not be my first option, not even my 100th. I’m doing my first laundry washing so I am keeping an eye on the machine, especially the program controls are all in South Korean characters.

Yesterday I searched for an ATM accepting global bank cards. It being Saturday late afternoon, all banks were closed and the street ATMs only accepted Korean cards. Luckily I spotted a small convenience store with a global ATM. I went outside to mark the name: Buy the way. Whether this is really a mistake is debatable, since the alternative “By the way” seems strange as well. Maybe it is a creative twist. Further up the road, there was a small restaurant advertising Rear Meat. It’s uncommon to say the least. I would have thought ‘Rare Meat’ .  On the other hand, I am Dutch myself and maybe my English isn’t up to date to judge adequately. And yes, South Korea also has the sports clothing chain store called Athlete’s Foot.

Of course, this is a westerner’s view on Asian use of English. However, there is also the Asian view on westerners use of Asian languages. For instance, Asian characters are popular in tattooing. I hope for those people they are not the laughing stock of Asia, because of some misuse of characters. Lasering these off of the skin seems difficult and painful. Preparing for the blog entry I discoverd that you can earn a living by protecting ignorant westerners for meaningless tattoos!.

To see some more use of English, Asian style, visit If anyone has a similar examples of westerners’ misuse of Asian language characters, please post these in the comments.

Also in academics the use of English undergoes changes. Especially at conferences, talking to colleagues from different countries shows that academic English has many dialects. English is a dominant language in science and understandably not everyone or write can speak the language as fluently as native speakers do.  But sometimes I notice that I use incorrect English to increase mutual understanding. This is obviously a dangerous course of action,or isn’t it? Maybe this is how language evolves. For those that understand the Dutch language, watch the video of two Dutch comedians Koot and De Bie, impersonating a shop owner and a Turkish immigrant. Guess who speaks the Dutch language best…

On a more serious note, these intercultural differences are problematic from a cross-national comparative research project. Validity here is at stake, although progress has been made. See for example Harkness et al.’s Cross-Cultural Survey Methods published by Wiley. Mmm, succeeded to slip something scientific into this blog entry after all…

Note: the expression “You can feel that on your wooden shoes” is a literal translation of “Dat voel je op je klompen aan”. It means that something is very obvious.

Note 2 (11/11/2009): on English language skills, our first lady in Dutch rock, Anouk, has a new ‘video’ with only the lyrics. The song is good, but the lyrics are dreadful. This shows many people think English is easy, but it snot (pun intended).