Americanizing Foreign Malls

January 5, 2011
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America is a society of consumers and customers, purchasing excessive amounts of items to satisfy our never-ending need for stuff. As voracious shoppers, we carelessly swipe credit cards, dispense cash, and sign checks to acquire the latest high-tech gadgets and contraptions. Commercials and billboards entice us with attractive images and offers, bombarding our senses and driving us to mindlessly buy more. And what industry most perfectly nourishes our shopping obsession, grouping all essential stores into one convenient location for the ultimate shopping experience? Shopping malls.

Shopping malls, with their spotless walkways and high stories, are the hub of American consumership. They epitomize the American way of life: row after row of endless stores, filled with infinite heaps of shoes, shirts, sweaters, key chains, belts, mugs, and virtually any item that satisfies your shopping whim. Shoppers scurry about like ants, swarming in every direction with oversized shopping bags dangling from their arms. It is where all walks of life converge: businessmen enjoy their lunch break at the food court, fathers take their children on gleeful merry-go-round rides, and elderly couples stroll down the walkways.

American malls have even evolved over the years, becoming increasingly more ridiculous. At Mall of America in Minnesota, you can ride a rollercoaster, enter a mirror maze, or get married. At Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, you can attend a lavish celebrity fashion night show outside of Versace, Gucci, and Cartier. And at West Edmonton Mall, you can pet animals at the zoo or skate on one of the multiple ice rinks. Malls are uniquely American institutions, extreme in their magnitude and outlandish in their characteristics.

But looking across the Pacific Ocean, we can see that China, too, has malls with similar features. One of China’s most popular malls, the SM City Plaza, is located in the Fujian Province in southern China, situated at the intersection of Xianyue Road and Jiahe Road, with six floors and 126,000 square meters of shopping. As part of China’s large modernization movement to catch-up with the Western world, it attracts, on average, a whopping 12 million Chinese shoppers daily. A polished glass building erected conspicuously in a neighborhood streaked with sewage and smog, the SM City Plaza tries to incorporate traditional culture with modern Westernization, resulting in a heavy American influence. In China, just like in America, there are big corporate brands such as Nike, Ralph Lauren, and Esprit. Grungy teenagers with spiked hairdos still lounge in the lobbies. The flow of conversations still echo against tiled floors, pierced by the occasional elevator ring. There is still that steady stream of crisp air-conditioning. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC still exist in both countries (except one serves squid-on-a-stick instead of a bucket of chicken).

However, despite these “Americanized” factors of Chinese malls, there are certain aspects that still remain uniquely Chinese.

When I entered my first clothing boutique at SM City Plaza, equipped with a few Chinese phrases and a wallet full of yuan, I was immediately hounded by a saleswoman. She persecuted me like a deadly vulture, flashing me a fake plastic smile and introducing herself with her “classy” English nickname, Pookie. Dressed in an outlandish green sales uniform, she bombarded me with questions in rapid Chinese with a nauseating, high-pitched nasal voice. Her pasty cream face was constantly pressed up against mine as she followed me to all four corners of the store, inspecting every trinket I happened to pick up to inform me of the latest discounts. Every Hello Kitty wristwatch or imitation Chanel bag prompted a surge of Pookie’s praise and endorsement. I soon became accustomed to this invasion of privacy; in every store, there were salespeople constantly breathing down my neck, pouncing on each opportunity to pitch a sale. Unlike American clerks who tend to keep a respectful distance, only occasionally offering assistance, Chinese storekeepers are extremely persistent.

Bargaining is also unique to the Chinese shopping experience. With every purchase, there is always a fight over the price. Arguments and shouts emit from every cash register as customer and salesman battle down to the very last yuan. Bargaining in China has become a highly specialized art form—experienced bargainers know to start off with a low offer, utilizing threats and displeased facial expressions to manipulate the salesman to agree on a reduced price. (Due to my lack of language proficiency, my first experience with bargaining comprised of exchanging a calculator back and forth.) In China, bargaining is an intrinsic practice in shopping malls, but it would be unseemly to even consider haggling in a customary American store.

Chinese malls have much more chaos and confusion as well. With a population of over one billion people, the idea of orderly lines does not exist in China. In Chinese malls, it is a free-for-all, a densely packed rush to the nearest store, with shoppers flocking around sale signs, digging through piles of shirts, tossing jeans into fitting rooms, sifting through boxes for the right shoe size, and shoving through bodies to reach the cash register. In the Wal-Mart located in SM City Plaza, there is a popular fish market area, where a throng of customers convulse and throb on the slippery ground as hoarse voices call out numbers and plastic bags of reeking fish fly through the air. Suffocating in the middle of all those sweaty bodies, I could not thing of anything better than the simple, deserted produce aisles of American Wal-Marts.

Unfortunately, we now see a revolution in Chinese super-malls, as American influences begin to eclipse standard Chinese practices. The traditional Chinese stores are being replaced by the corporate brand names of America, becoming more streamline and modern. As Chinese malls strive to be Western and thus more “cool and hip,” the culture of long-established practices is unfortunately eradicated. All the tiny quirks of a Chinese mall—the bargaining, the shoving, and yes, even Pookie—are endangered of conforming to American standards. As American influences continue to dominate, it is simply a matter of time before the differences between Chinese and American shopping malls cease to be.

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