The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks

Like street-side Parisian cafes, the Starbucks pictured above at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, with its long counter and individual stools, is designed for people watching (courtesy of Yoshikazu Takada)

Apart from obvious differences in the size and layout of individual shops, all Starbucks are basically the same. On the surface this appears to be the case in China and Japan as well: the signature coffee-toned decor, the blond-wood furniture, the usual line of mugs, thermoses and other souvenirs, though Japanese Starbucks offers a wider array of coffee-making devices. Some shops come with national or ethnic flavors. The Beijing Starbucks that opened across from People’s University in 1998 (one of the earliest Starbucks in China) featured Ming Dynasty-style hardwood furniture, until the busy branch was shuttered without explanation ten years later, as often happens in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of Chinese businesses. Local architects are designing some stunning new Starbucks in both China and Japan. These differences are mostly top-down, dictated from the corporate leadership.

All Starbucks baristas are trained of course in the same professional routines. They are cut from the same cookie-cutter mold and delightfully anger-proof against the most obnoxious customers (of which the US probably exhibits the largest share). Like American baristas, Chinese baristas are polite in a down-to-earth way; one is hardly aware of being in a different country. As they are required to speak some English, they are typically college-educated, unlike the usual young migrants from the countryside employed in the service industry. Still, the Starbucks worker I had a fling with back in 2004 told me they only paid her eight Yuan per hour ($1 at the then exchange rate), before she got fired for accidentally damaging the espresso machine. They are paid more now, though only proportionately so. (How do you come on to an attractive Chinese barista? She sashayed right up to my table and brushed her hip against me. I got lucky; it hasn’t happened again.)

The high priests of medicine: U.S. and Chinese hospitals

Chicago, 1999

One day the previous December I was out jogging and my calf muscles cramped up so badly I had to limp home. The next day they were swollen and I continued to limp. The day after that my lower back became inflamed, making it even more difficult to walk. My back would bother me one day, my calves the next, some days both, and everyday I walked laboriously with a limp. I blamed it on a back sprain probably caused by lifting my wife out of bed. She loved to sleep and it was one of the more effective ways to get her up. My nurse practitioner thought it was a muscle spasm, pinching my motor nerves. A muscle relaxant was prescribed and I was told to follow up when it got better. It did get better in the sense that the pain went away, but the limping remained. Finally some six weeks later, she sent me for a spine x-ray and an appointment with a neurologist on the assumption it might be a nerve problem. I was suspecting the same thing.

Black forest cake blues: The customer service problem

I have loads of Chinese restaurant stories. They are definitely worth a book, as the Chinese restaurant is the surest window into Chinese culture you will ever find, with different social classes thrown together in a confined space and forced to deal with one another and get along. My latest only-in-China saga took place at the Library, a spacious establishment in the fashionable Jianwai Soho neighborhood in Beijing’s CBD. A trendy place, all three floors stocked with bookshelves and traditional hardwood tables and chairs and upholstered sofas as well for those who don’t like hard furniture. I have to say for a Chinese-run café the coffee is pretty good, along with the generous servings; even the medium-size mug is too large and heavy for comfort.

From struggle sessions to public dressing-downs: China’s continuity of psychological control

Typical admonitory dressing-down speech or “xunhua” in front of a restaurant in Beijing, 2011

There is an unforgettable scene in the harrowing autobiography of a man living through the worst of modern Chinese history. In an Anti-Rightist Campaign struggle session in 1957, the crowd grows hysterical in its denunciations of Peter Liu and forbids him from smoking. Fearing they are about to become violent and might beat him to death, Liu asks the commander if he may go relieve himself in the WC outside the hall. Permitted to do so, he exits the building, gets on his bicycle, and rides home. The stunned interrogators are none too pleased by his brazen exit, but that’s not why he is soon sent off to over ten years of hard labor in the Chinese gulag, followed by another ten years of confined “employment.” In fact, his fate was already sealed long before when a PLA soldier discovered a firearm in the back of his family’s property that had been discarded in a junk pile by the retreating Japanese army.

The old Chinese bathhouse, circa 2000

浴, the Chinese character for bathing, formerly displayed on signs indicating a bathhouse

“Wow, your skin is so white.”

“Only my butt is. My arms are darker than yours.”

“Your Chinese is really good.”

“Nothing special.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“How long have you been in China?”

“Years.”

“You here alone or with your family?”

“Alone. My wife is back home.”

“Why did you come to China?”

“I like the contrast of cultures.”

“You don’t miss your family?”

“Not too much. I like living abroad.”

“What does she do?”

“Business.”

“Why didn’t you bring her with?”

“She’s Chinese.”

“Is that so. Does she know you frequent these places?”

“Yes.”

Lust & Philosophy (ch. 1): “I first saw her one spring day on my way to afternoon coffee near People’s University”

China, Beijing, Haidian District. Beijing Foreign Studies University lay along the northern bend of the West Third Ring Road before the expressway veered eastward to become the North Third Ring Road. You could not find a more nondescript neighborhood in an already blank metropolis. You were not even in Asia; you were in something called a city. No lush greens in this austere university district, with tenement housing for campuses behind walled compounds manned by teenage guards in ill-fitting uniforms.

BFSU was split into two facing campuses across the elevated expressway. I lived on the west campus. A pedestrian underpass crossed over to the east campus where I taught my classes. Except for intersections and u-turn bays, the space under the expressway was requisitioned for public parking, turning the structure into an endless monolith. A university bisected by an expressway, where one would expect a commons: I had once sought some dour symbolism in this, until attributing it to the haphazard urban inventiveness that the Chinese excel in.

Flanking both sides of the expressway was the lower Third Ring Road for local traffic, a generous sidewalk on each side. I frequently walked north along the west sidewalk on the way to the Suzhou Street subway station, the Haidian bookstore district, and the computer district of Zhongguancun, with its megastores and restaurants. We need only be concerned with the first ten minutes of this walk, the roughly 700-meter stretch from the west campus to the busy intersection at Suzhou Bridge (an expressway overpass, not a water bridge).

The route offered a cross-section of urban society coming and going from a hodgepodge of shops and businesses. Let’s start at the campus gate and work our way along the length of the austere stretch.