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“I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”

XinyuanWang17 April 2013

the woman was watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds, and the man has been staring at his screen for a while.

On a train, the Chinese woman watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds. The man next to her has also been staring at his mobile phone screen for a while.

Now I am in China. Thanks to the taxi detour which sent me to a wrong train station I had to take a slow train rather than a high speed one to go to the fieldsite – which turned out to be coincidentally rewarding since the majority of the passengers on this slow train was Chinese rural migrant workers who exactly fit my research target population.

Let me first contextualize the trip. It was not in a peak period, the capacity of a train carriage is 112 persons, however there were 143 persons in the no.5 carriage when I left. Train staff closed all the windows to prevent people from buying cheaper food from local vendors at each station through an open window which would undercut the food sales on train. As a result the whole carriage smelt like a smoking area since people were allowed to smoke in the vestibules between two carriage’s theoretically with open windows. Although it is difficult to categorize neatly what people were doing; I still managed to do a bit of counting when walking around in my carriage.

Nobody was engaged with any paper-based media, neither with books or reading a newspaper.

About 5-7 people were walking around as well, looking for a seat or just without any clear purpose.

Three groups of people (around 15 people) were playing cards; at least 30 people were staring at the screens of their mobile phones (four – fifths of them used smartphones, and among the smartphones which I managed to see clearly, Lenovo seemed to dominate the market, very few Apple phones were found).

3 – 5 people were chatting on the phone for a long time (more than 15 mins) with ordinary volume, or a even louder volume to make themselves be heard.

15–18 people were cracking 瓜子 guazi (sunflower seeds which were sold with shell and people need to crack the shell with their teeth)

Roughly one quarter of the passengers were engaged in conversation with their neighbors, or just looking around; and another quarter managed to sleep in various positions. When I closed my eyes, all kinds of noises – from the train, the cracking sound of sunflower seeds, people talking, and the shouts of vendors, were mingled together, and became even more overwhelming.

Among all these passengers I was particularly interested a group of  ‘打工仔’ da gong zai (male young migrant workers) who crowed at the entrance to the carriage. There were seven of them, coming from Suzhou to Guangzhou. None of them got a seat ticket, so they needed to stand for almost 10 hours during the trip. When I met them, three of them were playing cards, sitting on the floor in the area between two carriages, and others were smoking. In my last 1-hour trip I gave up my seat in the carriage and moved to the smoking area, standing there, talking with them, passively smoking away. All of them came from the same village in Guangzhou (south China province), and worked in a low-market photography workshop in Suzhou. The oldest one was 24 years old, and the youngest one was only 15 years old. None of them had a high school certificate. All of them had smartphones but they couldn’t use them because they didn’t have enough money left in their phone and couldn’t top them up being outside the city where they bought the SIM card.  In China the majority of mobile services is “pay as you go”, which means no contract is needed and is very convenient for people who only stay in a place for a relatively short period.

It was shocking to find that all of them, even the 15 year old, consumed a lot of cigarettes – on average a package (12 cigarettes) per day, which accounted for one third of their daily expenses (700 RMB per month). When talking about the reason for smoking, one told me “see, we have nothing to do, smoking kills time!” Another added, “What we are smoking are not cigarettes,” and the rest continued “but  寂寞 jimo (loneliness)!” and everybody laughed. The joke about loneliness actually is an online meme – the most frequently quoted line is  我不寂寞,因为寂寞陪者我 wo bu ji mo, ji mo pei zhe wo. “I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”. A joke was definitely not evident enough to reflect how they felt bored or lonely in life, which however expressed itself through the way of the whole carriage of migrant workers doing all kinds of repeated and time-killing activities, such as cracking sunflower seeds, card playing and smoking. After 1 hour of chatting, all of them were more than happy to exchange QQ (the dominant social media in China) numbers with me, and urged me to accept their friend request. It also seemed that QQ in a way functions similar to smoking as one put it this way “it’s so easy to spend a whole night on QQ, gaming or just chatting!”

I am reluctant to jump to any conclusion of the relationship between boredom / loneliness and smoking or QQ usage among rural migrant workers, however after my first encounter with my migrant worker friends I think it would be very interesting to look at this issue in my research afterwards.

Cigarettes and alcohol: towards healthier relationships through social networking?

TomMcDonald24 November 2012

Social drinking in a chinese karaoke (Photo: Tom McDonald)

It is 11:42 on a Tuesday night, in the height of Red Mountain Town summer, and I find myself standing in a darkened, noisy and stifling, private room four by ten feet in size. Running along one side of the room is a fitted sofa covered in vinyl padding that is supposed to imitate leather, and opposite it a flat screen television. In the space in between is a table, holding a semi-decimated feast of beer bottles, fruit platters, sesame seeds, and cigarette packets. In the corners of the room, above the television, hang two oversized speakers, blaring out distorted music. The room is walled with a smooth glittery surface, constructed from opaque, black-silvery backed tempered glass, set into which are metal purple and red fluorescent lights, and plain strips of metal detailing.

There are seven people in the room, mostly tubby men and women in their forties or fifties; respectable businessmen, engineers, nurses, and retired townsfolk. Their faces are entirely smeared in birthday cake, a bizarre combination of clotted cream, and light fluffy primrose-yellow sponge, as if they were characters straight out of a ‘Laurel and Hardy’ custard-pie fight gone awry. They are maladroitly dancing to the corrosive 2005 Euro-trance song ‘Axel F‘ by Crazy Frog, in an almost paraplegic conjunction of un-coordinated hand waving, and leg shuffling, whilst on the television, askew decade-old video footage shows young nubile bikini-clad Chinese women writhing, out of time with the music, on the stage of an anonymous crowd-filled nightclub in an unidentified Chinese city. In front of me, one portly woman, a divorcee, grabs her boyfriend, a scrawny forty year old moustachioed ferret-like man, and they break into a mini-waltz, which they manage to sustain for about thirty seconds before reverting to their discombobulated convulsive gyrations. One man breaks off from his bopping to stand by the light switch, eagerly turning it on and off repeatedly, plunging the room in and out of darkness in a disordered strobe effect.

A corpulent fellow, heavily exuding sweat, grabs me, throws his arm around my shoulder while thrusting a bottle of Kingway beer into my hand, “Bottoms up!” he bellows into my ear over the music, knocks back his head, and with concentrative purpose, glugs down the beer as if he were a baby suckling fervently on his mother’s teat. I do not want him to feel I am spurning his generosity, so I follow immediately, despite having long before lost track of how much I have had to drink tonight. The warm, additive-soaked beer gushes past my pharynx, and down my throat, as I put in a concerted deglutitive effort. I am out of practice, though, and find simultaneously breathing through my nose, while swallowing the drink and maintaining eye contact with the heavily perspiring man unexpectedly problematic. When I reach the point of asphyxiation I involuntarily gag, foamy carbonated beer erupts from my mouth and down my neck. No sooner than I have drawn the bottle away from my face, though, that another man, who I am unaware is standing behind me claws a handful of cake into his palm, and swings it towards my face, as if applying a chloroform-soaked towel to an unsuspecting kidnap victim, roughly smearing the syrupy mixture over my face, and ears, and most of my clothes.

I take a moment to remind myself where I am. ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ in Red Mountain Town. I wonder for a moment how on earth did it come to be, that out of all the places in the world, I should have ended up here? Then another, altogether more interesting question popped into my head: how on earth did it come to be, that ‘Heaven on Earth Karaoke parlour’ should have ended up to be like this?

The above fieldnotes were made as part of my PhD research into the structures of hospitality in a medium sized town in south-west China. The thesis examines the way in which everyday hosting activities, such those described in the karaoke parlour above, become significant by their adoption of certain material and behavioural structures of hospitality that are partly homologous to forms of hosting in popular religious life and traditional ways of receiving visitors into the home.

Central to many forms of hosting in Chinese society, especially between adult males, are alcohol (Chau, 2008:493) and cigarettes (Wank, 2000). My own friends in Red Mountain Town would often wax lyrical about what they perceived to be the country’s ‘alcohol culture’ (jiu wenhua 酒文化). This concern with using alcohol to comfort others extends to the afterlife: during the tomb sweeping festival my friends would leave a cup of liquor on their ancestors’ tombs for their deceased relatives to consume.

I, on the other hand, did not always see their hospitality in a wholly favourable light, doubtless because my own attitudes have been shaped by the far less positive national discourse surrounding alcohol and smoking that exist here in Britain. However, China too is starting to become aware of the problems that these specific forms of sociality bring. Commercial alcohol production in the country has increased from 0.4 kg beverage alcohol per person in 1952, to an estimated 42.5 kg per person by 2005 (Cochrane et al., 2003). Rates of diabetes and lung cancer in China are increasing at amongst the fastest speeds in the world, and I witnessed first hand the distress, heartbreak and loss that these diseases bought to families in the town.

Nevertheless, this problem seems to be a social one. Alcohol and cigarettes appear to be inseparable from the creation of friendships in China. Which is why social networking is of particular interest. On QQ, China’s most popular social networking service, it is possible to give one’s friends ‘virtual’  gifts of alcohol and cigarette lighters (amongst other things).

Gifting french red wine on QQ (Image © QQ)

This raises a question of whether China’s youth are increasingly tiring of some of the social behaviours of older generations. Are options to gift virtual versions of such objects ways in which they are seeking new forms of sociality, at once different from other generations, whilst still remaining identifiable with ‘traditional’ Chinese culture?

Of course, it is impossible to tell from this one piece of evidence, but given that our study of social networking will have an important welfare element, I hope that through the ethnographic encounter I will be able to find out in what ways social networking might be influencing these established means of relating to each other.

References
Chau, A. Y. (2008). The Sensorial Production of the Social. Ethnos, 73(4), 485-504.
Cochrane, J., Chen, H., Conigrave, K. M., & Hao, W. (2003). Alcohol use in China. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 38(6), 537-542.
Wank, D. L. (2000). Cigarettes and Domination in Chinese Business Networks: Institutional Change during the Market Transition. In D. S. Davis (Ed.), The consumer revolution in urban China (pp. 268-286). Berkeley; London: University of California Press.