Shanghai: Individuality in the city / the trials of completing the Edinburgh Global Citizen Award


Spurred on my the requirements of the Edinburgh Global Citizen award, I began to strategize about my entrance into the enterprise and entrepreneurship market, and the seemingly unreachable ethical and socially responsible aspects of organizations such as startups, entertainment companies, and social enterprises. I should first give the reward its due credit: without the structure and demands for its completion, I can’t say for certain that I would have stepped so far out of my typical Edinburgh routine, into a slice of the city I hadn’t accessed before. From the outset, I was aware of a few potential barriers to my progress. First, was the language barrier. Of course, most business owners in China speak Mandarin, and even though China as continued its policy of “Open Up and Reform” effectively and for a while now, many business owners, especially ones that I would have access to as a foreign student on an exchange, have an insufficient English competency. It goes without saying that my Chinese is nowhere near as good as it needs to be to conduct research in any of these topics. Luckily, Shanghai is quite special, in that it is home to a large, and very active, expat population, where I found some English speaking organization owners and founders amenable to my prying questions about their ethical commitments and financial viability. 

Secondly, in a city so large, it can be tough to find a place to start. Fortunately, I was put into contact with the owner and founder, Clara, of an organization called UnravelShanghai through my cousin, who used to live in Shanghai. (The benefits of nepotism are inescapable, and I will admit that I would have been quite lost without them.) UnravelShanghai is premised on a live monthly storytelling show, where people submit personal narratives loosely based on a theme, which are then reviewed and either accepted or denied. Past themes have included translation and diaspora, charity, pride, humans and the environment, womanhood, creativity, and chance.

After pestering Clara for most of the first semester, and finally introducing myself and confronting her at one of Unravel’s shows, we set up an appointment for an interview, with the aim of eliciting her conception of the social and ethical commitments between UnravelShanghai, the people of the city, and the most pressing social issues in China today and how these relate to the rest of the world. At its base, Unravel is committed to being a venue for unfettered (but appropriate) self-expression through storytelling. Their aim is to reach a wide audience, and to provide, for them, a place for personal connection and understanding; for the storytellers, they hope that the act of sharing their personal narratives is cathartic, causing relief, joy, or other positive emotions through this process. While Unravel is not directly pointed towards some pertinent issues concerning marginalized communities or demographics affected by discrimination, the part they play in resolving social issues is certainly worthy and commendable. 

Fortunately, before interviewing Clara, I had conducted one interview prior, with the co-founder of a social enterprise called B人BEL, named Rose. I saw a post from her on a WeChat group I am a member of, so I went out on a line and asked to interview her, also mentioning the award and my own intentions to learn more about ethical commitments and social responsibility within China. B人BEL itself is an incredible organization. Through two main branches, education and media, they are almost singlehandedly, and certainly in their own way, tackled major issues of dehumanization and marginalization within China, while always maintaining a global outlook on such issues. They work not only with migrant workers, the physically handicapped, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized communities, but, through their education programs, unite them with communities such as the affluent private international schools in Shanghai. Through their media production, they give a voice and forum to these communities to share their stories and bring them to a large audience. 

Thus, I had the chance, whilst transcribing the first interview, to listen to the excruciating playback of my own voice, stammering and stumbling through the questions scribbled down on the small notebook I had brought with me. When it came time to interview Clara, I was determined to speak more clearly and straightforwardly.

Thirdly, as you might be aware, most (all) media in China is sent through a government filter, and organizations such as Unravel and B人BEL often undergo government scrutiny as a consequence of the topics they address. So, when drafting and conducting the interviews, I resolved to be delicate, but attempt to elicit the effects governmental influence on their affairs. To my surprise, Clara (of Unravel) reported no such issues, and although there is not much available legal information about the status of organizations like hers, she has had no trouble registering and growing her organization for the past few years. On the other hand, Rose (of B人BEL) had more to say about the ostensive grey-area and the pressure of government influence on her organization. For one, she informed me that it is illegal, or impossible, to own a media company as a foreigner in China. However, she and her co-founder have been able to register B人BEL as an education company without much bureaucratic issue. The grey-area refers to the lack of available information on the acceptability of certain undertakings by an organization. What this means is that at any time, the government might accuse B人BEL of overstepping their incorporation, and shut them down. At this point, the organization will have no legal recourse and will lose its incorporation. When addressing, revealing, and working against the pressing and sometimes shocking social issues in China, they must tread very carefully. 

When I first arrived in Shanghai, the cultural differences along with the scale of the city were overwhelming. But while fighting through this, I’ve learned a lot. I have learned to step forward to talk to people and be clear about your intentions. The people whom I have connected with by sheer chance of opportunity and a willingness to step forward to chat has amazed me. Their willingness to share so much about their lives, their vision, hopes, and doubts has amazed me just as much. Its easy to be dumbstruck by the immenseness of the city while walking around under the lights of the skyscrapers at night, or through winding, labyrinthine alleyways during the day, and with this immensity of stuff comes an immensity of people, each with their own lives, successes and issues. In the midst of it all, I have met a few people who seem to shoulder these burdens as their own, working tirelessly to fix as much as they can. 

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