Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Some pseudo-anthropological musings about Chinese people, yoga and materialism

Before you read this post, I would like to issue a disclaimer here: This post contains my own observations and inferences about Chinese people, and what I see as the present state of the worldview of many Chinese. If you are reading this and happen to be Chinese, please try not to be offended by this (hey, I'm Chinese too!). If you disagree with what I say, or have a different perspective to share, please comment freely. I would love to learn from you.

So, on to the story. A couple of days ago, a friend who is working and living in China sent me an email. He told me that in a particular major Chinese city (in order to protect specific individuals, I can't provide any more details beyond this), the price of a drop-in yoga class is "an eye-popping 32 USD".

I think "eye-popping" is not too strong an adjective to describe this price: I could be wrong, but I don't think even the most expensive and fancy yoga studios in the U.S. charge this much. My friend also goes on to observe that such a price structure is "normal for Singapore and Hong Kong".

Being somebody who is from Asia (but who hasn't been back there in years; the reasons for this are quite involved, and would take another post to explain), I find this development quite unsettling and frankly, just plain sad. If even we in the west find such a price expensive, the average Chinese (or Hong Konger or Singaporean), who typically makes less in terms of gross dollars, can only find this price to be nothing short of exorbitant. For the locals, then, yoga would then be this "classy" thing that only expats with their high incomes can afford to do. In the eyes of these locals, yoga would be seen as yet another manifestation of an unofficial class structure: If one is an expat (or belongs to some social class that is the equivalent of these expats), one would typically live in such-and-such a neighborhood, have a car, eat in such-and-such restaurants, speak in such-and-such a way, and... do this funny stretching exercise they call yoga.

Well, if this isn't imperialism/colonialism all over again, I don't know what is. Given this state of affairs, what would an ambitious, up-and-coming young person in such a society who wants to live a "better" life do? Make enough money, so that he or she can live like an expat, of course. Even in my neck of the woods, I have observed first-hand some of the effects of this imperialism/colonialism/materialism. At the university that I teach at here in the upper midwest, there is a small but significant community of Chinese students. I know a few of them personally. A couple of encounters that I have had with them seems to me to suggest that such an imperialistic/colonialistic/materialistic mindset is very much a part of their worldview. I shall relate them here as best as I can. You can judge for yourself:

(1) This happened a few months ago. I usually take the bus to and from work, even though I have a car. My fiancee and I share a car, and since her workplace is further away from our home, we decided that it would be better for her to drive while I take the bus.

Anyway, on this particular evening, I got on the bus on campus. A few stops later, this Chinese student who was in one of my classes got on as well. When he saw me, he smiled, and then exclaimed, "You're taking the bus, sir? Don't you have a car?" And then I had to explain the whole story of my transportation circumstances to him (actually, now that I think about it, it probably would have been way easier for me if I had just lied and said I didn't have a car, but that would go against Satya, wouldn't it? :-))

Maybe it's just me, but I just can't shake off this uncomfortable feeling that he thinks that it is somehow below my status as a college professor to be riding the bus to and from work. I'm also quite sure that a typical American student would have a different reaction: For instance, during my grad school days, many of my fellow grad students and I had a lot of respect for this professor who would either take the bus or bike to work, even though he lived at least two miles from campus (and he had a car).

(2) This particular incident happened just yesterday. I ran into this Chinese student in the campus cafeteria. She asked me if I was teaching during the summer, and I said I was. This is how the conversation unfolded from this point:

Chinese student: "Isn't philosophy boring/uninteresting/nonsensical?" [For those of you Chinese speakers out there, the exact word she used was "Wu-Liao" 無聊]             

Nobel: "How so?"

Chinese student: "Uh... I don't know. I just feel that it is boring/uninteresting/nonsensical."

Nobel (in English): "Well, it depends on how one looks at it." 

I said the last, italicized words in English, because my Mandarin is actually a bit rusty: Very often, when a Chinese student asks me something in Mandarin, the response would actually appear in my mind in English first, and I would then have to take a micro-second to translate this to Mandarin (which probably makes me look a bit retarded to a Chinese speaker, since a micro-second is actually a significant length of time in a real conversation). But in this case, I must have been too exasperated to bother with this, and I just blurted out my thoughts in English (hey, we're in the U.S. of A, right?).

In any case, she responded by smiling and giving me this totally unruffled look (how did she pull that off?), and I made my exit. Well, while I'm at it, I may as well make a confession here: If this was an American student, I would have grilled him or her further on his or her views about philosophy being boring/nonsensical/uninteresting. Indeed, I have this feeling that if these same words had come out of the mouth of an American (in English, of course), it would have come across as being rude or even confrontational. But somehow, this young Chinese lady was able to make these words sound as natural as asking about the weather. No offense to any female Chinese readers out there, but how do Chinese women pull this off? And it doesn't help that I'm probably hardwired by generations of cultural conditioning to be unable to say a harsh word to any Chinese woman who speaks to me in this way. Well, I better stop here: I see that this is getting into the realm of the very-politically-incorrect...

But I have digressed majorly. I may be reading too much into this exchange, but it seems to me that it is at least possible that what prompted this Chinese student (who, by the way, is a business major) to think that philosophy is boring/uninteresting/nonsensical might be the perception that philosophy is "useless" as a tool to make money and get the sort of "better" life mentioned above. Of course, this might not be her reasons for having this opinion of philosophy, but it's at least possible, don't you think?


I should get back to what started this post. I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you put cases (1) and (2) and my earlier observations about the high price of yoga classes in China (and the imperialist/colonialist/materialist worldview that seems to underlie this phenomenon) together, it would seem reasonable to think that the behaviors of the students in (1) and (2) are informed to a significant degree by this worldview; a worldview which, among other things, sees yoga as a symbol of material affluence.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I don't know. You decide...


  1. This is like me getting mad at my parents for making overtly racist/sexist/other types of politically incorrect remarks, but they look at me quizzically, and then I realize they have never in their life been taught by school or Chinese society the notion of "political correctness", so I can't legitimately have an argument with them. I don't know about Singapore, but political correctness is currently still not part of Taiwanese culture.

  2. in the financial district of my city, the price for a drop-in class goes as high at 54USD. along with it goes service - spa-like facilities, mats, towels... but it's not affordable in the long term for most people.

  3. yoga classes are getting expensive here. As one of my yoga teachers said, if they don't up their prices, they cannot keep afloat. right now, prices average $21-more than $30.

    Most Chinese parents would want their kids to take something practical and hopefully, one day make big bucks.

  4. Interesting, Yyogini. Political correctness (or at least, tolerance and understanding of other races) is officially part of the educational syllabus in Singapore, but many Chinese Singaporeans (at least, my parents and their friends) still privately make all kinds of racist and other politically incorrect remarks anyway. When my parents visited here a couple of years, one of the things my mother kept saying was, "Why are there so many black people around?" I cringed every time she said something like that, until it got to the point where I couldn't take it any longer, and I told her off for making such remarks. She didn't speak to me for weeks after that (which was actually very easy, since she lives on the other side of the world :-)). Ah, well, isn't there that Chinese saying which translates roughly as, "It is easier to move mountains and rivers than it is to change somebody's nature"?

  5. Interesting, Arturo. When I first heard about this, I tried to justify the 54USD by telling myself that maybe all the extras that are thrown in (mats, towels, spa-like facilities, etc., etc.) justify the high price, but it really doesn't: Who needs all these fancy extras to do yoga anyway? You're right, it's not affordable for most people (and that includes most people in the west), and effectively keeps yoga out of the reach of the person on the street. A couple of years ago, this famous yoga teacher (whom I shall not name) actually had the gall to praise such a yoga studio in Singapore, saying that they provide top-rate shower facilities in the studio. But then again, this teacher probably never has to worry about not being able to afford the class fee...

  6. Cory, "Most Chinese parents would want their kids to take something practical and hopefully, one day make big bucks." You are definitely right about that. My parents still lament the fact that I didn't go to law school, and did not become some high-flying corporate lawyer... But then again, if I were a high-flying corporate lawyer, I probably wouldn't be writing this blog now, would I?

  7. interesting post...I had no idea what the cost was to practice outside the US!

    ...just noticed that your girlfriend has been upgraded to fiancee...congrats!! :)

  8. Yes, Christine, and to think that so many people in this country complain about the cost of yoga classes :-)

    "...just noticed that your girlfriend has been upgraded to fiancee...congrats!! :)"

    Thanks, I like the term "upgrade"... makes it sound like a cell-phone :-)