“I actually think the way that Chinese post-90s grew up is very similar to me. They are very independent-minded, constantly wanting to go exploring, travelling and to do different things.What is different is not necessarily the mindset but the environment.”
- David Wang, FACES ‘08
The Interviewee: David Wang is a FACES 2008 alumnus. He focuses on cultural research in China. He studied anthropology in his undergraduate years and carried out a research on nationalism and physical education in China on a Fulbright scholarship. He was an ethnographer at China Youthology. Recently he founded Bamboo Bicycles Beijing (BBB) to research Chinese youth culture and urban mobility (www.bamboobicyclesbeijing.com).
The Interviewer: Yue (Sophy) Wang is an officer of FACES Beida, a Peking University student majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).
Prologue: What David Wang did at China Youthology—using visual data to crack the code of youth culture is mind blowing. Just as the title of David’s sharing at FACES Alumni Reunion in 2013, an ethnographer can really make money. Beyond making a living, the way of how this ethnographer explores a metropolis and all its local myths indicates an intimate mode of interaction between an urbanite and the city; to all the youth, it’s also an inspiring experience of self-growth.
Sophy: Hi David, would you like to start with a brief self introduction?
David: I am David Wang. I participated in FACES in 2007 and 2008, it was seven years ago. Since FACES I have done a lot of different things but I basically focused on cultural research in China and have been looking a lot into Chinese youth culture. I was writing my thesis on street basketball in China originally when I first participatedin FACES. I studied physical education in China on a Fulbright scholarship. After that I went to UMassBoston and then I did a research on Chinese youth culture. Recently, I founded Bamboo Bicycles Beijing (BBB) and started workshops where people are making their own bamboo-bicycles.
S: Interesting.What were some good memories of your FACES experience? Were there particular delegates or anything memorable?
D: There were many different kinds of memories. I participated in FACES in 2008, right after the Sichuan earthquake, and it was also the sametime when there were a lot of riots in Tibet. So I remember one of the deepest things: we were talking about Tibet at Stanford.That was really my first time as an American talking to Chinese people, about how they feel about the riots in Tibet and what they think of Tibet being a part of China. Besides, the discussion wasn’t even during a lecture; it wasn’t even a talk that was organized. It was at night after all the activities, we just began talking about the history of Tibet and how did it make different people feel. The reason it made such a deep impression on me is that how much respect there was: it was really clear with each other that we were just there to understand different points of view. This talk actually made me realize that sometimes the sensitive topics, if they were in the right environment and with people open to them; are actually ok to be talked about. It was an impressive conference. I am still in touch with a lot of people from FACES and that helps me with a lot of different things: my job right now in Chinese Youthology, mygirlfriend, and my roommate Kai was introduced by FACES alumni.
S: At 2013 FACES Alumni Reunion, you talked about your experience as an ethnographer here at China Youthology. Why did you choose to be an ethnographer?
D: I never specifically chose to be an ethnographer. That found me. Even before I came to China Youthhology, I like researching culture, learning new languages, becoming part of the culture and exploring it. I have been doing that since college. FACES alumnus, Henry Shi, introduced me to China Youthology. He said that was actually very rare, that it was not academic but used ethnography to do market research. It just never occurred to me that you could be an ethnographer without being academic.
Another part is that I want to be a visual photographer. Sometimes it is easier to show a commercial client, a business person or a non-academic person, because it is visual and easier to understand. But in academia right now it is very hard to use documentary and photography in your thesis or paper even though personally I think the values are similar. They are both data, they can both speak to somebody; the difference is that in universities there are not a lot of standards for visual data so it’s difficult to do visual ethnography in academia. That’s another reason.
S: So what are some interesting documentaries that you have made?
D: Recently I am very interested in urban mobility and we worked for a car company. One of the ways we did the research was to travel with the subjects. We got in the car with them to work and pick up their kids. We observe all their mobility occasions and at the same time took photos, photos of tiny details: those photos are my data. For example, when a man turned on a car, the moment of ignition, I took a photo. You can see there are scratches all around the key holder: the man is not putting the key directly in, neither is he looking at the hole, and he is just inserting it like “ka-ka-ka-ka”.
So just from that photo, there are two things you can learn, number one: you can design the key holder better, so it is easier to put the key in and you don’t have to scratch anything. Number two, which I think is also more interesting, is that this guy is stressed and urgent. So for the car company, there may be another insight that Chinese drivers are really stressed when they get into the car. Perhaps they can alleviate their stress with a product innovation. Basically what I ended up doing is choosing different photos, putting them up together and making stories that can be used for inspiration. Photos help us just sit and watch people in their natural behavior.
S: After working at China Youthology for a long time, I’m sure you are quite familiar with Chinese youth. So in your opinion, what are the major differences between them and the American youth, especially their mindset?
D: I actually think the way that Chinese post-90s grew up is very similar to me. They are very independent-minded, constantly wanting to go exploring, travelling and to do different things.What is different is not necessarily the mindset but the environment.
Number one, the education is very different, so when I was in the class of about twenty people in high school, I was encouraged to speak out my mind and be creative. But in China it is very hard to do that, there are sixty people in a class. Besides, there was also the aspect of parents. My parents, though they are older than me, have gone through very similar things in some aspects. We are all very used to consumerism and choosing, for example, Nike, Adidas, and all these brands, are also what my parents grew up with. But for Chinese youth, they are the first generation to be experiencing all these brands. They are actually leading consumerism in China.That is a big difference. For a lot of decisions such as what to buy and where to buy it, Chinese youth can’t turn to their parents. For example, if I want to buy a car, I’ll go and ask my Dadabout it, but Chinese youth won’t go to their parents. Or if I want to travel to France, I would ask my parents “What are the best ways to travel to France?”, but Chinese kids do the opposite: they take their parents to travel. So I think where they grow up, what their schools are like, what their parents are like make big differences.
Also, a lot of Chinese youngsters are asking questions “When can I go start-up my own business?” or “When can I start to live my own life?” But for me, the question is not so much about when I can start exploring and doing all the things that would interest me; I have been doing that for a long time. My question is “When do I stop exploring myself?”When will I become more serious about my life, and finally realize that I would like to stick to the career and to do all those classic things, like to buy a house and a car? So I think this would be the difference.
S: True, and what about your Bamboo Bikes project? It sounds very interesting. Could you fill us in more?
D: Basically I began finding a lot of bikes that are old and rusted and cannot be used anymore in Beijing hutongs. I wanted to figure out what are the materials I can use to make a bike. So I Googled bamboo bikes. They are not uncommon: a lot of people are making them and in fact they have been making it for a hundred years from now. So I bought some bamboo on Taobao (淘宝), one step by one step, slowly figuring out how I can make one myself. It eventually took me 4 to 5 months, and I used almost everything from Taobao. Then I made another one and went to Taiwan, researching on bamboo and talking to people there about how to make a better bamboo bike.
But personally I feel the reason why I enjoy bamboo bikes is not about the final product. The process of making my own bike is interesting and actually anybody can do it. So I open this bamboo bike workshop, largely because I want to give this opportunity to other people. The other part is that, experience of making a bike makes you really think about transportation, mobility in general and questions like “Do I have to have a car” or “Should I take the subway? Should I ride a bike? ” I began thinking about what kind of transportation I really need and want my city to support.
I think that’s why I wanted to start this project. I think that urban mobility, the idea of how you travel around your city only begins when people feel they have ownership of it, when they can actually control and correct it. By making your own bike, you begin to have the sense that you have the control of your transportation and mobility. Additionally, I hope it turns out into a bigger discussion and after making a bamboo bike, some people may say “Let’s see if we can have more bike lanes!” or “Let’s see if we can make the subway less crowded!”
S: Good luck! Personally I’m always attracted to interesting projects like this, and I think it is also a feature of FACES. We enjoy a great diversity and have delegates from all walks of life. But I guess the cultural study track still seems to be a less picked one. Do you feel pressured when you make your career decisions?
D: Yes, I feel a little bit pressured. For sure, even at FACES I am the one focuses more on culture and social studies; most of our FACES delegates would either be more into politics, finance or technology. So I think I maybe need to do something bigger and more important, but I do enjoy what I do, and I am lucky and privileged to be part of FACES to have the support from everybody and be able to do these things. Whenever I talked to someone from FACES, they would think this is really interesting, and say “How can I support?” or “How can I help out?” I think this is great.
In terms of my career, I think for people going to i-banking and consulting, they have a plan in head. They invest a certain amount of time and get a certain amount of reward back. But for me, I don’t have a long term plan; I would rather have short term plans and try many things. You can constantly try to do many things and all of those experiences are altogether valuable to all employers. I think I am getting more and more confident about finding my own path and my own interest. And that’s a valuable thing to do.
S: Definitely, don’t lose your passion. Thanks for your time.
D: Thank you.
Alumni Interview Program: In February 2014, we started the Alumni Interview Program. Our Alumni Affairs staff have since conducted ten interviews with alumni in Beijing and the Bay Area. We hope that these interviews will inspire younger generations of FACES alumni to pursue their dreams and make their unique impact on U.S.-China relations.