Day 5: Tradition: What’s Good For?

Absolutely nothing.

Before I get to why I said so (and yes, I deliberately borrow it from Edwin Starr’s song called War), let me talk about me and my bike.

I was on my bike today again after taking a long afternoon nap between 3 – 5pm. I was tired. There’s a “Thai Cultural Day” at Fudan University in the morning, about which I was very excited even though I didn’t know anything about it until yesterday — when I was on my bike, and my colleague called me to invite me to the event. I came home around 1pm, and tried to write. As it was hot outside, I also didn’t want to go out. While I was walking back home, about half way through and at the point my back was all sweaty already, I saw a number of people in coffee shops. “It must be nice to be sitting in a nice and cold room when the outdoor temperature is this brutal,” I said to myself. Suddenly, I began to speculate (for fun) about how and why coffee shops have become so ubiquitous here in China — where most people actually, still, drink tea.

What caught my mind was the fact that, in the past two years, I have been meeting countless of my Chinese friends, soon-to-be-friends, and soon-NOT-to-be-friends (-because-I-don’t-want-to-see-them-ever-again) in, mainly, coffee shops. I even got a Starbucks Rewards card for that reason!

Back in the US and in the UK where I used to live, I often invited friends and people with whom I would like to get to know over to the living room of my apartment (or of my college in Oxford) where I’d make coffee or tea for them. When I say “make” I really mean it. For instance, I’d show them the coffee beans and explain the history of the beans (which I always got from “exotic places” where I often traveled to), and then I’d use a manual coffee grinder to grind the coffee — often twice to make sure that the ground coffee would be absolutely, well, ground — and then I’d show how I pour hot water through the special pot that would delay the speed of the hot water coming out from its tip so that the water wouldn’t run through the ground coffee too quick and that every bits and pieces of the ground coffee get soaked up, releasing both the aroma and the majestic taste of coffee for me, and for my guests.

Yet, many of the my Chinese friends who would like to meet at a coffee shop don’t even like coffee. They would order a cup of sweetened drink (e.g., mocha, latte, cappuccino, frappe, you name it) and most of the time they’d only consume half of the “large size” cup that they order, and then deliberately leave the other half to be thrown into the sink after the staff come to clean the table once we’re done drinking there. My question is, what underpin this custom? Let me break it down, of 1) having to meet in the very public space despite the fact that our matter is rather private ; 2) having to order what they don’t even like to drink just to show that they have the cultural capital to “apprehend modernity”; and 3) having to do it in such a way that is conducive to the irresponsible rise of egregiously immoral form of capitalism?

There are today, of courses, places where a group of people drinking non-alcoholic beverages together to socialize, such as in Sichuan where there’s a park there’re always a lot of people drinking tea together in the open. Yet, there’s also a lot of places that drinking tea is a domestic activity, and I have always had the feeling that which is the case for large urban places similar to Shanghai. True: tea houses have always been everywhere, maybe with an exception of the period of high communist mentality from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s. But, as I have heard during my two years in Shanghai, when friends meet, it’s more cozy to meet in a domestic space, which might have something to do with the cost associated with going out to a tea house, or the fact that a tea house is a public place “where strangers who don’t trust each other yet meet” and hence there’re often some senses of unnecessary formality there. Some tea houses were also associated with prostitution and brothels. Growing up in an overseas Chinese family, that’s how I see it. To me, serving tea is largely something that you would do to express your respect and generosity to your counterparts and friends (as Confucius once said, “isn’t it extremely nice to have friends from a far place visiting? [and therefore we must take care of them well]”). During the first century of the foreign-controlled Shanghai (1842 – 1945), for instance, most alleyway houses had the so-called living room on the south side to entertain these friends from a far place. As we all know, this luxury lifestyle was removed from the social life of the people once the Chinese Communist Party took over in 1949. The luxury of having extra spaces to receive guests for a private tea ceremony, also, had to be eliminated from the social life. From this perspective, it could have been the case that it’s the lack of space in the private domain has been what gives rise to the public domain.

I wasn’t that tired when I was on my bike actually. That said, I wasn’t as active as I usually was. My guess is that I must have tired from the previous night, trying to crank out more than my brain could process. On the other hand, there’s also the fatigue from the day before, during which I also spent a lot of time on my bike trying to think. This time the route I took was different. I rode my bike all the way to the end of Line 1 on Shanghai Metro, and then looped back to Yangpu District. On the bike, I was thinking about one question: tradition, what’s good for? And this may have been because of my attempt to unravel the question of the rise of coffee shop culture, and why my colleagues who don’t like coffee go to coffee shop, which I discussed it with myself earlier. If we can agree that inviting someone to your home to serve him or her hot a cup of warm beverage at home  sounds like a “good” tradition, why do people today revert it by giving in to capitalism to do the task, reducing the meaning of the ritual of serving that warm cup of hot beverage to just a matter of paying at the cashier? One of my friends once shared with me, “it doesn’t look good to meet and talk in a private space, especially that in the home, anymore because ‘anything’ could happen in the private space.” Fair enough. You wouldn’t want to make yourself vulnerable to your own feeling, and let your own feeling take you down the path of no return, but then again, what’s the point of having a tradition then?

Again, I am no fan of tradition, which is why I like Kant (will tell you later why). Whenever someone tells me what I should, or should not do, without giving me a “reasonable reason” with which Icould agree, I always invite “Mr. Non the skeptic” to take over my consciousness and play the role of an asshole who wouldn’t let my guard down, and do things “just because someone said so” (this may explain why my life hasn’t been very successful lately!). Kant famously said something like (my ability to remember his exact quote is highly limited), “enlightenment is the process by which men emerge from their self-imposed immaturity.” This quote resonates with me in a deep and sublime way. Make no mistake: I want to emerge from my self-imposed immaturity. That said, the tradition of inviting your friend to have some tea or coffee at the comfort of the place you call home is one of the very few traditional things that I still believe in — and I won’t let anyone take it away from me, given that I have the tolerance to accept and won’t complain about the gazillions of their self-imposed maturities. Next time when someone asks me if I’d like to go to a coffee shop because it “looks better to meet in private,” I would just tell them to fuck off.

While balancing myself on my bike at 24 kilometers per hour today, I was trying to comprehend David Hume’s take on custom, and, needless to say, the meaning of it all (i.e., design, aesthetics, causality, and, alas, skepticism as a way of life) while I was on my bike for two hours today, and the question that stroke me most was this question for which I always wished I had an answer. I like Hume’s philosophy because it urges me to focus on myself, not the society, and not the people around me. It’s an “internal empiricism” if there’s such a term. Believing whether there’s someone behind the intelligent design is simply a matter of how you’d like to cope with your life, and may or may not affect others. There’s no “categorically right” or wrong way of believing, although his intention is to urge us to exercise our reason in order to fight against the fictional traditions with which we have lived for a long time. The reason for thinking this way comes from two sources: Hume being one of them (as he always urges us to re-evaluate our own inductive assumption — just because something happened before the way it had happen, does it absolutely mean that the result of the similar incident will always bare the same result?

The quick answer, perhaps, is, “well, yeah, why not?”

But for Hume, his answer is a long yet profound A Treatise of Human Nature. The other thinker who idea resonates with me when I was on the bike today was Immanuel Kant. You can probably imagine me getting on my bike for hours musing over these questions. I can tell you that with these questions in mind, hours seemed like minutes. Before I knew it, the sky was all dark and I was surrounded, on a large highway, by gigantic vehicles and articulated trucks, to the point that I got scared of being run over — especially after having read a horrifying news about an incident that took place in South China a few days earlier.

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One thought on “Day 5: Tradition: What’s Good For?

  1. Wow. You did speculate a lot about the rise of Starbucks in China. If I can offer some personal take on this….First of all, I guess people would consider it too intimate to invite someone over and serve tea at home. It happens with really close friends, and often with relatives, like uncles or aunts. Starbucks are popular precisely because it’s not private. Second, I don’t think many people went there for the coffee. Most Chinese people drink coffee merely for the caffeine and coffee junkies would go to decent artisan cafe instead. Starbucks are merely places where we meet, with business partners, clients, or just to sit down and relax with friends (who are not so close to us to be invited home). Third, I think the rise of capitalism in China repeatedly stressed the superiority of western models in denial of our own tradition. We tend to unconsciously abandon and then deliberately revive symbols of the past. And tea is just a good example of it. In this sense, the adulation for capitalism does more harm than cultural in destroying a sense of ownership for our own culture.

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