Welcome to Thing Mart

I am writing this only because Corina challenged me.

As a part of the research interns are doing in my office, a number of up-and-coming international companies are being analyzed.  One of them, a Chinese department store dubbed ‘Wu Mart’ seems a little familiar.  Its slogan?  ‘Every day low price; every way high quality.’  Even its classic sans-serif lettering seems strangely familiar:

As far as I can tell, the characters (Wu Mei) mean ‘Beautiful Stuff’.  So it’s not exactly an exactly Walmart knockoff.  I don’t think the Chinese or anyone else considers the Walmart stuff beautiful.  But it is cheap.  So why is Walmart not as successful as the burgeoning Wumart?

Probably it has something to do with quality.  Probably also it has something to do with the flexibility of the smaller Wumart to adapt to the local market.  Department store giants like Walmart and Carrefour aren’t willing to do so.  But another part has to do with nation-building and pride.  Just as we like to buy American to support local business, the Chinese are proud of their growing industries.  They want to buy Chinese.  They want to support a local commercial venture that regards a part of its mission as ‘establishing an everlasting retail chain that Chinese people love patronizing, and that mingles with their daily lives’.  With that kind of personal and national appeal, there’s no reason Wumart wouldn’t grow, if they continue to provide a quality product.

At the end of the day however, I am torn.  China may be learning from the West too fast.  While I support the growth of the economy and the rise of the standard of living, I worry about the commercialization of China’s values.  I’m not sure nation-building should be accomplished in support of a department store.  I’m worried that reasonable pride and a national feeling are clouding the potential for needless spending.  Economic growth should not necessarily be reflected as an increase in commercialism.  I hope that the growth of Wumart continues to be a growth of pride, one of buying what you need from a company that supports your values.

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Salem, in Kenya.

One of the early black marks of colonists in the US are the Salem with trials.  A few adolescent girls accused powerful and upstanding members of the community of witchcraft.  Instead of reacting with sense, the community reacted with fear and envy, basically tearing the tightly-woven community apart.  Why did it happen?  Why, in some cases, can small communities deal with petty rivalries and power in the hands of a few, but in others demand retribution for every imagined crime?  Why do some situations allow for this dysfunction, and others root it out, tree and branch?  If such a small community can tear itself apart, what hope is there for any nation attempting to function as a united whole?

When people live together in close proximity, those people need certain outlets for the accumulated stress of living.  The criminal justice system, the civil courts, the right to assemble and speak and protest, unions, campaigns, boycotts, and lobbying are all modern outlets that we use to vent our grievances against our fellow man and living with him in a society.  Other societies have other means, including ritual, religion, tradition, exorcism, shamanic practices, and even witchcraft.  These different means are not necessarily better or worse than our own.  Sometimes, they fail – murderers we cannot catch, the criminally insane, an angry mob that kills suspected witches because of envy, greed, and malice rather than evidence.  But I do not think such failures render the system invalid.

For the most part, it seems that members of the community in Western Kenya recognize a crime has been committed.  They recognize that these accused and killed ‘witches’ were most likely nothing of the sort.  They realize that there are vendettas being carried out in the name of witch hunts.  But they are not willing to give up on the system as faulty quite yet.  One of the families of a victim continues to play by the rules in abandoning the home of the accused witch though they know she had done nothing wrong.  It remains a bad luck sort of place, and they are willing to let that go to maintain order in the community.  A nearby shaman also has encouraged others to speak to him of suspected witches, so that they can be dealt with appropriately.  Hopefully there will be a societal push to deal with some of the underlying vendetta, striking to the core of struggles over increasing poverty, a lack of land, and the general struggle to survive.  If not, this community may tear itself apart as well.