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The Chicken and the Road

21 Oct

We were walking along the sidewalk when a lone chicken bobbed across the street in front of us.

It was late morning and the road shone slick with freshly fellen rain. The late September fog breathed down on us, scented with lavenders and rosehips and tinted by the candy-colored houses that emerged as we passed.

We were conversing – Amy, peppering the air with empty commentary and I, mustering a lazed reply when it seemed appropriate. Beyond us, the world was still, suspended in a gravity that pulled in every direction.

That’s when we saw her – the chicken, that is.

We watched dumbfounded as the creature blew out of a bush on the opposite side of the street and fluttered across the road in a streak of madness, only nearly escaping the screeching tires of a startled lady motorist. The driver’s eyes met my own and in that moment of shared astonishment and disbelief, I felt a strange bond to her – an acknowledgement of the crossing of our lives and a relief that our union didn’t come at a graver expense.

 

This chicken’s time had not come, not just yet.

 

I watched as the driver slowed the car for a second or two, as if contemplating the significance of our curious bond, and then just as suddenly stepped on the gas and zoomed off into the swallows of grey.

The hen shook out her lovely feathers and hopped gracefully up on the red curb, cocking her head to the side and pecking at the light spots in the cement. She was playing coy and I caught her beady eyes dart to where our feet stood a few paces away.

I took a step closer and squatted down (I always like to approach children and animals on the same eye level, it just seems more fair – for them).

It caught her off guard and her eyes darted quickly as her orange peel legs high-stepped backwards along the red curb like a miniature balance beam act. Amy commented how beautiful her feathers looked. I had to admit they were – the angora white feathers dipped in black were striking against the blood red of the curb and the sunflower petals strewn along the sidewalk in the aftermath of the morning garbage pickup.

‘I don’t think I can eat chicken ever again,’ she boldly claimed. It was the first live chicken she had ever laid eyes on.

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview: Marketing in China

21 Oct

So I just recently caught up with an old classmate of mine, Chris Ruffell – we went to elementary school together!

Chris runs his own video marketing agency Reel Marketer in Victoria, B.C., Canada, helping local companies tell their stories through the use of video. Chris asked me a few questions about my own experience with Advertising in China.

Here is a snippet of the interview:

I figure it’s common knowledge, hopefully even in China, that those in advertising have a screw a bit lose, zoo… compared to Western forms of advertising, how does advertising in China look?

DEBI BLIZARD: Great question. Advertising in China is quite different than in the West. In China, it is an industry that is still relatively young and one which comes from very different beginnings than the West. In China, ads first began as political propaganda to rally the nation during the Maoist era. It was only after China adopted a market-based economy and opened their doors to the rest of the world that brands moved in and staked their claim. Today it is a different China, a China that is constantly evolving – new conglomerate brands are entering the market daily, local brands are getting bigger and stronger, middle class wealth is accumulating and people are itching to find new ways to spend their money. But while the opportunity is undeniable, so is the competition. China is becoming so saturated with brands that it can almost feel like sensory overload at times – flashing lights, blaring screens, loudspeakers, pushy salespeople. People are becoming increasingly distrusting of marketing claims and it is becoming harder for brands to stand out in a way that feels authentic and genuine.

I wasn’t aware yet of most of those points in regards to East Asian marketing.. go on!

DEBI BLIZARD: The key is in realizing that advertising in China must be targeted, quite specifically – to make sure the brand message cuts through all the other crap out there and resounds with the right audience at the right time and place. We worked with global brands, trying to help them see what makes China so different from the West – understanding that certain things just won’t resonate in the same way, and sometimes in completely the wrong way than you might intend.

Check out the full interview at Reel Marketer here.

51 Things I Learned and Mused On in Japan

13 Aug

1. Even the most refined things can be dirty underneath.

2. Japanese girls can have surprisingly big nipples [referencing a bathhouse experience].

3. Not a lot of trash cans. Anywhere.

4. The proper way to eat sashimi is to put wasabi on the fish, not into the soya sauce.

5. Always the slippers.

6. June is the monsoon season [we visited in June].

7. Monsoon season is really rainy.

8. Japanese guys are tall. And kind of feminine. In a beautiful way.

9. There is a difference between temples and shrines. I don’t know what it is.

10. I can read some Japanese characters. In fact, all Japanese characters come from Chinese hanzi [汉子] but some have just been simplifed even further over time.

11. Tatami mats are comfortable. They smell nutty and sweet.

12. Warm toilet seats really are great!

13. Politeness goes along way in making people like you.

14. Trees are nice to have around [this is after living in China].

15. Contrary to popular belief, not all Asians are odourless or hairless.

16. You can get sick of sushi. But luckily, it doesn’t last long.

17. The unexpected things are the best. Especially the ones that make you blush.

18. White seat covers are probably not the best choice for restaurant owners [make note of this].

19. Tofu ice cream works. Penguin ice cream not.

20. Uzu is a delightful small yet potently refreshing Japanese citrus.

21. I will almost always eat nuts which are placed infront of me [not intended to sound pervy].

22. Wear or bring a universally non-offensive nail polish colour when travelling [there is a fine line between cute Easter yellow and putrid custard pus].

23. You can eat raw chicken, raw beef, raw fish, caviar sacks, gizzards and fungus all in one enjoyable sitting.

24. Floral prints + denim + garden straw hats = too much!

25. Always go left and you’ll get there eventually.

26. An 8:30 am sushi wakeup call is an acquired taste.

27. Turtles can be trained to jump for udon.

28. It’s OK to get sad sometimes.

29. It can be hard to tell the difference between a real geisha and a regular lady in kimono.

30. Geisha are hard to catch.

31. Foreign money is real.

32. Sales clerks in hi-end department stores are required to be unfriendly, it makes the experience all the more luxurious.

33. The older you get, the more you appreciate dollar shops and second-hand stores.

34. Focus on the positive, because that’s usually what will be remembered.

35. Anyone could be a cult leader. Anyone.

36. We’re all a little too hard on ourselves.

37. It’s a good thing to be open about sex. And poo.

38. Good art inspires us to remember what we know about the world and to see what we haven’t learnt yet.

39. A bond can be built in a fleeting glance, a late night drink, a hard earned team effort, a heart-to-heart, a shopping spree, relationship advice, an unexpected reunion, a good sweat, a common love, a caring pep talk, an innocent flirt, a cry for help, a silent treatment, a shared queue, a salt shaker, the same book, a 1 hour layover, stairs over elevators, an open mind.

40. Too much efficiency is inefficient.

41. The best sleep of your life could be in a tube.

42. Ask questions. And listen to the answers. Even if you disagree or don’t care. You will learn something.

43. The best geishas come when you aren’t even looking.

44. Kids are universally cute in all cultures. Especially Asian ones.

45. Life is better when you lose track of time.

46. Even putrid pus yellow can grow on you.

47. It’s far better to be imperfect and embrace those imperfections as unique than to be near perfect yet punish yourself for your shortcomings.

48. All people have weaknesses. Most of all, those who appear strongest.

49. There is too much waste in packaging. I really don’t mind if my snack foods crumble or stick together.

50. To just be near trees or walk over grass or nap quietly on a bench outdoors is a great thing.

51. You can make ice cream into any flavour really. And someone will buy it and eat it.

Planner Safari 2: Retail Espionage

18 Nov

It was a cold and crappy day last Friday and Ju and I decided to do something different. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It was a sunny and beautiful day and we went for a little ethno-therapy. It was nice to get out of the office and do what we do best: watch stuff happen around us.

Our main aim for the day was to browse through the major retail stores in Shanghai and observe what kind of people were there shopping, who they were with, how they shopped and how they interacted and engaged with the store and the staff. Keep in mind this was a Friday afternoon when most normal people are working. It would be interesting to do the same route on a weekend or weekday evening and compare the differences.

Here are some of the things I noticed from behind my dark sunglasses and inconspicuously raised collar:

1. Safety in Numbers – the needies. Cuz you have less of a chance of buying something that looks ridiculous if you get someone else’s opinion first. Women that have dragged along their uninterested boyfriend, housewives and rich husbands, guys or girls with their mothers, girlfriends – but always in pairs! This is interesting – women are seeking validation for their fashion choices and are choosing ONE expert from their immediate peer circle to fill this role. And what are these roles? Perhaps the ‘mother’ is there to offer controlled guidance over the jeans her daughter buys, perhaps the ‘husband’ is merely there to pay the tab, the ‘boyfriend’ is there to approve a certain level of sex appeal, the ‘girlfriend’ is there for esteem and support…These ladies tend to browse more aimlessly around the store spotting trend queues, scanning shelves, looking at mannequins, watching staff and other shoppers.

*Perhaps this could be a good opportunity to encourage shopping in pairs: coupons, buy one get one free deals

2. I Work Hard for My Money – the lunchbreaks. A new class of independant hardworking career women who don’t wait for their man to buy them clothes on the weekend but would rather treat themselves. They care about looking good and apparently are willing to deny themselves food just to hit up the shops at noon. These women are 28-35 years and perfectly groomed, often with a matching handbag, lipstick and heels. They don’t shop with company, they are on a mission and know what they want, in and out. They are more demanding of staff. Steel determinism in their eyes. They will look chew you up and spit you out in a single look.

3. Runway Effect – the show-offs. You know the type, the people who can’t be bothered to line up for the dressing rooms but would rather strip down mid store and stake out their place in front of the mirror to try on that emu-fur bodysuit. It seems to have a two-way effect: 1) it makes the fashion-tryer feel gutsy and important and 2) observing people take note of their style choices and whether or not it makes sense for them.

*Imagine a store in China which had a mirrored area in the middle of the store to encourage people to try things on in front of shoppers. It would serve to both let show-offs model their style choices as well as influencing those around them. People in China like to watch.

4. Stuck on You – the staff shadow. Somehow somewhere someone long ago must have trained people that customer service means standing directly behind someone from the minute they enter the door and then creepily shadowing them until they get pissed off and leave. Who likes this? I’m pretty sure this is a universal dislike. I would think the majority of people enjoy browsing at their leisure, sans pressure from staff dude breathing down your neck, and then calling on someone’s help when you need it.

5. The Loudspeaker – another common sales tactic in stores where sales clerks basically just yell things at browsers in the hopes that something will get through. Mostly it’s in the form of promotions, ‘jeans and pants 30% off,’ or standard reminders ‘Huanying Guanglin’ [Welcome], ‘Anything you like you can try on’. This usually happens in mainstream, low-mid range retail environments. I can understand that with China’s mass population this is probably the easiest way to come across like you are making maximum contact with consumers, but as a shopper, the whole experience lacks personability and care.

*Brands should try to encourage store staff to switch it up a bit, I seriously can’t remember the last time I entered a store and was welcomed with any greeting other than ‘Huanying Guanglin.’ I bet it would make a serious difference if staff engaged people on a real, personal level, inquiring into their needs and really going out of their way to help.

5. The Staff Snob – on the other end of the spectrum, we have what happens when you start to move up the ladder and enter higher-end luxury brand stores: complete disinterest and indifference from staff. Maybe not all that different as what you might get if you walked into a Gucci store in Paris in dirty runners [which I have], but definitely a departure from how we might think luxury stores should treat customers. Also, I should add this isn’t always the case in China, I have definitely noticed certain hi-end brands like Cartier and LV were much more attentive.

*Educate staff better on the fine art of seeming genuine without being over the top or completely disengaged. It will help.

Planner Safari 1: Shanghai Sex Mall

18 Nov

Today we had our very first Planner’s Safari: a day for us Planners to get out of the office and into the real world.

Everyday I walk home, I pass by the tiny adult sex store on Wulumuqi Road. The sleepy face of the middle-aged owner sitting among the dildos and vibrators through the window. I wonder what she’s like, how she got there and what she thinks about her job.

Sex in China. We see it – the adult health stores, the DVD back rooms, the “barber shops”, the KTVs – but we don’t talk about it.

I decided to go to the source and made a trip to the Shanghai Sex Mall. That’s right, like me, you’ve probably read about it inSmart Shanghai.

It’s a 4 story unassuming grey building about a block away from Suzhou Creek. The building struck me as quite friendly – a swiveling door rotating under the main sign ‘Shanghai Health Center’. Two young giggling girls walk out with filled shopping bags. It wasn’t as dirty as I’d imagined nor as underground. Kids were running and playing on the escalators.

Shanghai Sex Mall Sex Herbs

The first two floors are filled with stalls selling Chinese medicinal products. Stall after stall sell everything healing from vitamins, herbs, echinacea, fish oil tablets to coiled snake skins, newts on sticks, moose antlers, and probably every variety of dried penis I’ve ever seen.

sex-toys

The third floor is where the magic is. Dildos, vibrators, blow-up dolls, dress-up costumes, you name it. It was a Wednesday afternoon and the place was pretty empty. There were a few men who seemed like they came knowing what they want, hit up one store and bought in bulk. They looked pretty shocked to see a foreign girl in there. Although I notice that all the packaging are of causcasian women.

The shop keepers were mostly women who were also the easiest to talk to. The men just chain smoked and stared and made me feel uncomfortable. But what surprised me was how open and blase the whole operation was. They could just have well been selling fake bags or watches. Could it be that sex in China isn’t as taboo as we think?

Me: “What kind of customers normally come in here?”

Lady: “Both men and women. Also foreigners.”

Me: “Don’t women feel embarrassed to buy sex toys?”

Lady: “What is there to be embarrassed about? All women need them.”

At the next stall, a 60 year old woman proceeds to try and sell me a foot long golden dildo with unappealing knobbly balls all over it. She tells me men that come in usually buy the blow up dolls because they are very ‘real’ and can be used at home.

There are counters filled with Viagra [Big Brother in Chinese] and the traditional Chinese herbal equivalents which, according to this woman, will last 3 days…

One of the most popular toys now for men is the EGG. The sleek Japanese design baffled me at first, but the lady assures me it’s handy enough for you guys to stick in your pocket and use on the plane! Wow.

tenga-eggs

Apparently there is now even a toy made for young girls to use in class which look just like earphones.

So, if you’re in need of a cultural sexcursion, check this place out.

Kaixuan Men Dasha is at 428 Tianmu Zhong Lu (Take Metro Line 1 to Xinzha Lu Station. Cross the bridge over the river)

 

Is there such a thing as universal humour?

25 Oct

Humour is a funny thing [excuse the bad pun].

Being funny is so much of a social context and moreso, a judgement awarded to you by others. After all, you’re only as funny as people think you are. It is the one emotion that can’t really be experienced on your own. It needs a character and an audience. We all know the painful silence when telling a joke that meets ungrateful ears. [Author’s afterthought: Perhaps this post is my personal validation of my own sense of humour…It’s not me, it’s them!]

People in different parts of the world find different things funny. What is funny in one place to some people could make people elsewhere deeply offended, embarrassed or just go right over their heads.

Do cultures have different senses of humor?

I would argue most definitely, yes. Just look at The Office and the differences between the UK version, with it’s trademark dry subtle humour, versus the American spinoff, which is much more slapstick and extreme.

So when do we learn what is funny? Or how to be funny? Is it a born talent or is it a learned skill? Is there an inherent ability in all of us to respond to humour? Or is it just one of the ways we’ve evolved to entertain ourselves?

Would an isolated tribe cut off from other human contact still develop their own way of telling jokes? Would they find things funny? Would laughter bond people together in the same way it does us? Are there universal things that would tickle the funny bones of humans anywhere, from any culture?

In 2001, the search for the world’s funniest joke was undertaken by a British scientist. The year-long experiment was intended to find out just this – to dig into the human psyche and figure out what makes us laugh and why. A huge online database will collect jokes from around the globe. Scientists will then ask people to rate the funniest jokes and then show them to a test group of people while observing their brain activity via MRI scans.

In the end, they had received 40,000 submitted jokes from around the globe and 1.5 million ratings. Here’s the winning joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

The joke was submitted by a 31 year old Brit who claims he likes the joke “because it reminds people that there is always someone out there who is doing something more stupid than themselves.”

There are a few fundamental problems with this experiment. One, participants of the experiment don’t appear to be that representative – of both cultures across the globe or even of a fair sample within the tested countries. They were most likely European / North Americans as the jokes were all in English. Jokes are still tailored towards a Western context and people appreciating these jokes would likewise have to at least have knowledge or understanding of Western culture. Not to mention, the test was administered to online users who are already more exposed to various online stimulus.

See the full experiment here: www.laughlab.co.uk

China Vs the West

25 Oct

So, I’m reading this book right now: The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett.

I’m always a bit skeptical reading books which attempt to theoreticize the cultural differences between China and the Western world, especially when written by a Western author…

…And while his argument surely has flaws, I have to admit he got my attention when he boiled down his cultural comparison to this one simple thought:

Western thought is like a line. Eastern thought is like a circle.

‘The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to a wide range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture; and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of the object.’

Which then got me thinking…

How subjective can we really be to other cultures?

How much do our roots play into the way we think?

Can we really learn to feel the world through someone else’s eyes?