Josiah Ramsay Johnston

Ethnography: Non-Participation Observation

I performed an ethnography at Starbucks to observe the cultural hybridization overhauling Chinese society while concordantly getting my daily fix, believing I would be able to blend into the blatantly western shtick at a Starbucks a bit easier than I would have been able to in a place where it was less common to find isolated western men rapidly losing interest in hasty half-thought nonsense such as myself, thus making it easier to ‘fit in’ while I observed as unobtrusively as possible – meaning I was only kind of falling out of my chair fueled by far too many espressos, my leg only slightly thumper-esque.

Essentially, I thought that at Starbucks, a place which epitomizes guiltless self-indulgence and the necessary denial that results from deliberately taking part in the exploitation of countless droves, I would find Chinese individuals who would fit into a demographic with which I had little experience thus far while in China: the affluent; I also enjoyed the paradox of a symbolic representation of capitalism in a nation which for so long denied the value of said system, situated on its own concrete peninsula, thrust out  like a masthead into the cultural relic of West Lake in an incredible yet apparent contradiction of semiotic terms.

I observed the lower level of the Starbucks on Nanshan rd. for two hours, from 12:30 P.M. until 2:30 P.M., on January 22nd, 2006.

Data – A few of the inferences included the following:

1)Westerners who showed up at the cafe stayed much shorter spans of time than the Chinese who frequented the spot, implying a culturally-inherited lebensangst necessitating frequent and excessive movement in reaction to large, anxiety-inducing amounts of caffeine, as well as things to meet and people to do;

2)Westerners were the only ones who came by themselves, relating both a lack of the stereotypical loner-intellectual for which European cafes are so unhealthy as well as a system which supports those types and the spare possibilities of aforementioned round-eyed hominids in swindling some hapless chick into an ‘English lesson’;

3)Of the Chinese observed, about 90 percent seemed to be couples, and the rest were single-gender groups, as well as two father and daughter pairs – though any of these groups could feasibly have been slotted into any of the other categories if one has an imagination like this guy I know who isn’t me;

4)The average Chinese couple stayed at Starbucks for roughly an hour and a half – far longer than the average time spent in Starbucks by Americans, even in America, where the music isn’t quite as Kenny G.

 5) The Chinese present wore American brand names rather than their Chinese counter-parts, and spent a great deal of money on a simple morning at the Café, implying both affluence and at least a certain level of acceptance of things western, basically mind-altering alkaloids – and who can blame them;

6)There was a level of jollity in the atmosphere of the room, due partly to the sun, partly to the affluence, but some small bit seemed unaccounted for, and while caffeine may be the obvious answer, I also believe in at least the possibility of Starbucks as a kind of haven from the reality of the state in which the individuals live, in some sense, that state being one of constant mental girl-running;

7)Another difference I noted, as opposed to cafes in other parts of the world, was the interaction of the couples present in the observation area, the seemingly business-like relationships, the lack of P.D.A. (with the exception of one, rebellious-looking couple who managed to get kicked out of the place), and the reactions they made to each other in conversation, reactions that made every couple seem as if they were insecure about their status with their significant other as well as with the social group of which they were a part – occasionally, ten minutes would pass in awkward silence while the man tried to think of something to say and the woman looked at the hairy ghost in the corner scribbling;

8)Cold drinks were often the choice of the Chinese at Starbucks that day, defying the freezing temperature outdoors with a kind of merry masochistic stoicism derived from some inane sophism concerning irrational behavior when in the presence of aliens, which I have observed elsewhere;

9)Strangely, or perhaps not, the one mixed couple I observed stayed about one hour – exactly the median between the Westerners and the Chinese – making my theory law and my foot thump faster;

10)Despite all the couples present, and relevant to my previous note on public intimacy, only the rebellious looking couple kissed during the course of my two-hour observation, and then they promptly were asked to leave – due in part to the fact that they didn’t order anything;

11)The children some of the older couples had with them were allowed to consume massive amounts of sugar straight from the packets, as well as coffee, which expedited and magnified their screams until I saw ripples in my fifth espresso and felt a sudden urge to throw my chair at unspecified organism;

The limitation I encountered with this method of observation was basically the fact that it was limited to the range of possible explanations of the phenomena I observed which were derived from my own necessarily limited frame of reference, which in turn was based on facets of experience gained in vastly different settings. The implication of this limitation is, basically, that any of my aforementioned conjectures can only be seen as what I experienced, rather than what actually occurred, and thus must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Or double-espresso.