History shows that emerging Asian powers have, on occasion, used established and dominant Western cultures as models in the course or cause of their development. For instance, Meiji Japan and its rapid adoption of mainly US western military traditions and fashions, and even India, which, with its elitist and exclusive clubs and schools, still seems more British than contemporary Britain.
Modern China is no exception, but this time around it is the ubiquitous ‘brand and lifestyle' consumerism of the West that is the spur. From DVDs, to Apple stores, ‘Mister Christmas' and entire Austrian villages, China's copy-cat culture is well documented. In the last few years so many goods, services and customs have been transposed from the West that cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen increasingly feel like dystopian homes from home for the expats who live there.
Here is a selection of some of the good, the bad and the ugly ways that China is becoming more recognisably Western.
Incredibly, tea and China can seem like an anachronistic pairing these days, as walking around any modern Chinese city you're far more likely to come across a cafe with hordes of fashionable young Chinese sipping lattes and cappuccinos. This rise in popularity of coffee culture can be accurately chartered by the astronomical influx of Starbucks, which has gone from a single store in 1999 to over 500 today.
China also boasts its own somewhat familiarly decked out cafe chain, SPR Coffee. Unless you're a tea fanatic whose lips will only let pass liquid from a thimble-sized porcelain cup with floating leaf matter in it (this does stil exist), you'll agree that the rise of a coffee culture is a good thing – not least because of all the new, clean Western toilets you now have access to for that dreaded rumble of the stomach after a strong brew.
Although we've all become used to blowing our rent money on gym memberships, it is arugably a joy that thousands of good quality urban gyms have sprung up all across China. Even if you're not a regular gym bunny at home, China is likely to change your mind as car fumes make most street-side runs wheeze inducing. Even jogging in the parks poses a health hazard in terms of eyeball-poking taiji practitioners and invisible garrote-like kite strings trailing across paths. In contrast, exercising in one of the new relatively calm, well ventilated gym venues is an attractive and much safer alternative.
3) Anti-smoking laws
China's anti-smoking laws are a welcome adoption (for all non-smokers) of the West's zero tolerance on indoor smoking. Okay, there's obviously a long way to go in China as it's still common to see patients and staff lighting up in hospitals, but one of the great things about China is that once it legislates to do something, it's not too long before it does it! The foot is in the metaphorical door.
4) Queuing culture
The lack of queuing in China has driven many an expat wild, especially if you have been brought up with this street etiquette as standard. But never fear, it seems this aspect of the Colonial cultural legacy in Hong Kong has been positively noted by the Chinese government. Big city metros are awash with government advertisements urging residents to queue for trains and let passengers off first. Hopefully in the not too distant future, a train door opening will not signify a battle for life and death where grannies are trampled to the ground and push chairs are used as battering rams.
1) Traffic jams
Even just a decade ago, in many Chinese cities the only noise pollution was the tinkling of thousands of bike bells, and all you had to worry about on your journey home from work was the occasional rain shower. Now, of course, two wheels have been replaced for four and horns cry out through the evening rush hour as commuters sit in some of the world's longest traffic jams. China's city ring roads and freeways, like the American roads they were built to resemble, now boast maddening congestion and choking pollution, the by-product of copying a Western urban development model.
Small, local food markets in China are becoming a dying species as they are crowded out by development and gargantuan new Western-style hypermarkets. Yes, they were often smelly and not always the most sanitary of places, but they offered cheap, fresh produce, not to mention an opportunity to hone your Chinese bargaining skills. Life in China would be a lot less colourful without them, just as it is in the West.
When visiting the West after protracted periods living in China, one of the first things that strikes many expats is the level of obesity in their own countries. The waist sizes of many Westerners were once double that of most Chinese. Nowadays, however, China is in the midst of its own obesity epidemic and the difference between Western and Eastern BMIs are becoming less notable.
A primary cause of the Chinese obesity crisis must surely lie with the increasing prevalence of Western style fast food chains and their Chinese knock-offs (has anyone visited a CBC: China Best Chicken?). Several fast food joints can now be found in every large shopping mall, airport and city centre in China, just like in most American and European cities.
2) Pet grooming studios
Pets have always been valued in Chinese culture, but it is only in the last few years we've seen an explosion of pet grooming studios and parlours. Animal cleanliness is not to be sniffed at, but the rainbow -coloured Poodles and pony-tailed Pekinese gracing China's streets look as absurd as they do miserable.
Of course this is not a one-way street, as the growing interest of the West in all things Chinese (not least the mega-money to bail out their failing economies) testifies. Indeed, it might not be too long before we find that China, with its economic might, re-exporting Chinese adapted versions of Western brands to our own home countries. In 50 years time walking down a street in London, complete with its SPRs and CBCs, might be just like a stroll through Beijing!
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Keywords: Western culture in China modernization of China how China is adopting western values changing Chinese culture
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