Shopping in China.
Before I came to China, I had heard a lot about the wave of consumerism that has been sweeping the country. Since the opening up and reform of the 80’s, China has been absorbing global brands and producing its own consumer culture. All of this is set in sharp contrast against the concrete-and-propaganda images that one might see from the Maoist era. So, I was curious to find out for myself what shopping was like here.
What I’ve found is a thick mix of wealth and poverty, of global brands and local produce. It is incredible—a huge bowl of noodles at a local restaurant cost 6元, yet the smallest cup of latte at Starbucks cost 25元. These prices seem ridiculously out of proportion, until one realizes that the cup of coffee only translates to about $3.50 (in line with international prices). It is expensive when compared to most Chinese prices, but it is no more wildly unreasonable than any other Starbucks—if you have an income in line with Western consumerism. Fruit markets are side by side hunched between boutique fashion shops that sit next to drug stores that sell both Chinese brands of “milk-tea” and 可口可乐 (Coca-Cola). My first impression of Nanjing was that is was a city with nearly endless shops with very cheap prices occasionally peppered with more expensive western goods.
Most of the streets near our hostel are densely packed with shops and storefronts, above which are people’s homes. Everywhere there is laundry hanging out of windows. These streets are not very clean, and the shops range from rather Spartan and inexpensive, with no paint or peeling painted walls stacked with shirts or food, to sleek, polished ventures with more expensive prices.
All of this has been exciting and new to experience. It has been thrilling to enjoy my purchasing power balloon with the exchange rate. As an example, we have each been living on less than our budgeted 50元 a day for food (~$7). With this money we have been able to eat out for every meal. I bought a cool T-shirt at the night market for 30元, under $5. Prices have been so far under my expectations that I initially had difficulty weighing and comparing what was a reasonable amount to pay.
Since the first few days, we have wandered into parts of the city that cost more. My early wonder at the inexpensiveness of it all was put into perspective when, as we were exploring the other day, we found an enormous mall. Still in the middle of the downtown area, set apart from the buildings around it (but still close to an apartment complex), the mall contained extremely high-end international brands. Whereas in most of this trip I have easily been able to afford most of what we have come across, here I was deeply priced out of my range. I also felt (in my T-shirt and shorts) extremely under-dressed. The mall shows the second side of China’s recent economic growth. While it has on the one hand allowed a broad rise in incomes across the city and an explosion of style, it has also endowed a small elite with incomes to afford Dior, Bulgari, and Louis Vitton. Here I saw a degree of wealth that I virtually never see, even in the US.
On the whole, these observations have given me great insights into Nanjing, and a glimpse of the transformations China is going through right now. It amounts to an experiential translation of the meaning of abstract numbers like GDP growth or foreign trade. Always bustling and busy: cheap or expensive, casual or elite–it’s all here.
Until next time,