USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Which came first?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Urban and life system are generating and shaping different mentalities. We shop based on our needs, and these needs totally depend on our lifestyles. What I have experienced in Asia so far is that the American mentality is not even close to that of these Asian countries. One of the most common activities in day to day life around the world is shopping. When shopping in China, the differences in size, quality, and quantity between these two nations becomes very easy to see. Seeing these differences, I have begun to question whether our mentalities and needs create the system, or whether the system shapes the citizen’s mentality and needs.
Shopping in general doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. In Los Angeles, when we talk about shopping, we are obviously mentioning a destination. Wherever we go, a car is a necessity. We must get in the car, choose a destination, drive, deal with traffic, find a parking spot, and after this long process finally shop. The way the city is organized on the urban level works for us; we don’t have any other way. Even for a simple trip to the grocery store, we have to consider the time we will have to spend on it. In order to reduce it as much as possible, we avoid traffic by choosing not to make the grocery trip during rush hours. Additionally, a second strategy we use to save travel time overall is to buy bigger quantities and store them at home. (Costco is definitely a good example of this.) Therefore, the fact is that both are true; the urban system shapes the American mentality while this type of mentality encourages businesses like Costco to open, thus generating the system.
Our experiences in Hong Kong and Shenzhen are totally different than what we have experienced before. We were walking through central Hong Kong for hours. The entire time, I was amazed by how people shop by walking on the street. Most of them use public transportation and even carry their groceries by hand. I explored the Sam’s Club in Guangzhou. Even though it is an American brand, the products were totally different, especially in size. Even the quantities weren’t anything close to those in the US because it has to be possible to carry the items.
At one point, we were walking outside in Shenzhen when it began raining really hard. My classmate Julia’s shoes were slippery so she wanted to buy another pair, but we were all walking on a very busy street and didn’t really have time to stop somewhere. Nevertheless, she kept looking for new, cheap shoes in every store we passed. I was amazed when Julia appeared with new shoes less than two minutes. This would definitely not have been possible in the US, where shopping for shoes is a much more involved process. But the way Shenzhen is organized gives us the opportunity to shop like that. The mentality and system both play big roles in our lives. They are working together and shaping one another as they go.

Shahab Rahimi

Filed under: AAU, Shopping, ,

Us and Them.

The days of European imperialism in Shanghai are technically long over, technically.  Thousands of expats reside throughout Shanghai today.  They tend to group together, creating foreign specializing communities.  As a foreigner myself, I tend to gravitate toward these foreigner oriented areas.  However specialized these areas are, one cannot but recognize how this specialization exists throughout the city and within the mindset of the locals as well.

I have seen a definitive difference between what is meant for locals and what is meant for expats.  There seem to be two sets of everything.  I first noticed this some time ago while eating out.  Looking for affordable places for lunch there are two types, ones that are local oriented and one that is expat oriented.  The local oriented food consists of really excellent street food and small vendors which cost less than 10rmb per person.  The other class of restaurants is generally upwards of 60rmb for lunch.  Decent, sit down restaurants for dinner are also polarized.  The Chinese version can be as little as 30rmb, while its western counterpart can be about 120rmb for dinner.  Although you will find a really high end Chinese restaurant for 120rmb dinner, or more even, you will not find western food the prices of Chinese food.  Furthermore, upon going into any of these Western restaurants there are not Chinese families here.  There are very westernized Chinese people, mixed couples, Asian business professionals- not families, not people who wouldn’t already be capable of travelling out of country.

Conversely, while in the Electronic district with my Chinese speaking friend I became subject to different kind of separation.  While haggling, my friend was told she could get a better price because they are of the same, both ‘native’ Chinese, not some foreigner.  Until the seller realized I was with her, and she was probably also a foreigner, then the deal was off.

When reading a local equivalent of LA Weekly expat edition, I realized how extensive this divide truly is.  I found an article about where to buy jeans, it specifies if you are proportioned like locals then you can go to this place, but if you want more western sizes then go to this place.  Or if you don’t mind being inundated in street culture and haggling then go here, but if you want to be waited on by an English speaker go here.  I continued reading to find an article about some European women who couldn’t find quality leather purses they wanted here, so they just started their own purse manufacturing company here.  This is more than just entrepreneurial.  This is identifying a level of quality that can only be identified with those who are NOT local.   This is about class divide, not a racial divide.  However unlike most immigrant situations, it is the immigrants who are the well-to-do and elite.

Beyond a sense of elitism, there is more.  As comparing immigrant communities in the US to those here there is a large defining difference.  Most immigrants come to the US and assimilate into ‘American’ life.  Most try to hold onto their own culture while still meeting American expectations.  Here there doesn’t appear to be any effort to assimilate.  In Shanghai, the effort is shown by making whatever place they settle into more like their own culture.  Instead of integrating their own culture into that of the local one, their culture dominates and the local culture starts to absorb their changes.  This difference once again becomes the most prevalent to me in food, but not in the prices, in the authenticity.  Almost every cuisine in the US has dishes that are not native to the cuisine, but American takes.  They are dishes developed by immigrants with an understanding of their own cultural food and an understanding of American goods and tastes.  An example of this is cioppino. Cioppino is rich seafood stew associated with Italian cuisine; it was developed by Italian American fisherman in San Francisco based on their local catches.  The same is true numerous types on makizushi.  These ‘Japanese’ sushi rolls are made inside out (rice outside of the nori, instead of inside) with cooked food like tempura soft shell crab inside.  These are purely American interpretations that have become so widely popular they have moved beyond the US borders and right back into the cultures they started from.  This doesn’t happen for Chinese interpretations of food.  Food doesn’t really ‘fusion’ here, it’s either/or but never both.  I can actually live in Shanghai without ever eating Chinese food or any semblance thereof if I so choose.  Does this exist because of the earlier mentioned elitism?  One cuisine is too pure for fusion with another? Or is there no demand for fusion?

Shanghai is an atmosphere of separates- separate food, separate prices, and separate clothing sizes creating two overall vastly different experiences.  Are both foreigners and locals choosing to stay separate? Is it possible that it is not the foreigners at all but the locals who refuse this integration?  Could Chinese people be so accustomed to China’s previous cultural isolation that fusion is just not even a question yet?




Filed under: America, China, Fusion, Psyche, Shopping

All Wrapped Up

John Clammer brought up an interesting point in our most recently assigned reading entitled, Aesthetics of the Self:  Shopping and social being in contemporary urban Japan.  “A Japanese is as likely to give as much attention to the wrapping – the material, the way it is folded, the ribbons used to secure it – as to the contents of the package.”  This cultural attribute became crystal clear to me on our last night in Kyoto, after we stopped at a carryout burger joint for dinner.  This place did not have anywhere to sit, so you had to place your order through a window and wait on the sidewalk until it was ready.  We watched through the glass as the burgers were delicately prepared, all of us salivating with hunger.  As soon as the final bun was placed atop the last burger, we were all ready to bust through the window and devour them instantly.  But to our disappointment and confusion, we had to wait another ten minutes.  Each burger was then wrapped in tin foil, followed by a label-bearing paper wrap, then stickered shut, and finally placed neatly in a bag, before being presented to us.  During this entire process, we kept on asking, “Why can’t they just give us the food, I don’t care about the wrapper, I just want to eat.”

I thought more about this concept of the packaging being “intimately linked… and part of the same philosophy as the service”, and began to understand how it elicits a fundamental cultural difference between Americans and Japanese.  We as Americans are often only concerned with the product, and not the process or the wrapper.  We are a culture of instant gratification.  We are only focused on the burger, and could care less about how it is presented to us.  The Japanese are religious about their presentation.  Even the smallest and most trifling details of everyday life are thought about; the packaging of shaving kits and soaps in the bathrooms of our hotels, the wrapping of rice pockets from a convenience store.  They care as much about how you arrive at a product, as the product itself.

Thinking architecturally, I feel the same cultural attribute can be applied to Japanese design philosophies and histories.  While many architects, and especially students of architecture, are more concerned with the “aha” moment of their design, the Japanese take great care in the wrapping of their projects.  This is especially applicable to many of the gardens and shrines we have recently visited in Kyoto.  Walking through the winding garden of Heian for nearly an hour, the garden culminated at a bridge overlooking a small lake, arguably the group’s favorite moment of the Kyoto leg.  But it was the process by which we arrived at this point that made it so special.  The sequencing, the compression and expansion of spaces, the careful and deliberate procession to finally arrive at the “burger”.  Without this wrapping, the end wouldn’t have had the same affect.


Filed under: America, Clammer, Japan, kyoto, Shopping, Wrapping


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu