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.

The Snoopy Sno Cone Machine

I recently read the new biography of Charles Schultz (aka ‘Sparky’) by David Michaelis called Schultz and Peanuts. It’s an interesting enough read, full of little details you didn’t know about this troubled man. It has also made me realize that I’m a complete hypochondriac. Or whatever the psychological equivalent is when you take on the characteristics and possible mental twinges of the person’s biography you are reading.

Let me explain further. Schultz felt completely alienated from all his peers at high school. That’s so me. He felt awkward and alone in normal social situations and covered it by acting dumb. Yep, that’s me, if dumb = goofy. He was completely unable to approach girls. That’s me, if you replace girls with boys. He didn’t get along with his family, preferring to draw by himself. Oh yeah, that’s me, if drawing is writing or anything else that requires my undivided attention. He got bad grades to prove his dumbness. That’s not really me, but it could be? He turned his funny little strip (actually, it really wasn’t funny – it was mostly sad and mean, but for some reason people still liked it.) into a commercial empire. I sold out to the big-business world of educational endowments, which is practically the same thing, right? He was distant and not affectionate towards his kids. I don’t even HAVE any. He cheated on both his wives A LOT and was a generally needy only-child brat. Ok, I may be needy, but I hope I’m not that bad.

I guess what the book did was really opened my eyes further to the commercialism and fantasy around me. I was never really a big fan of Peanuts (do you italicize a comic strip?). snoopymachine.jpgI didn’t watch the specials, I didn’t really enjoy that particular comic in the Sunday paper, and I didn’t even see A Charlie Brown Christmas until my high school soccer team got me the video. I always felt sorry for poor Charlie, and mad at Lucy, and though Snoopy was fun, it was generally an unfortunate strip. I do, however, remember the Snoopy Sno Cone Machine. It was coveted, though offhand I can’t really remember why, or even where I saw the first one. I just knew I wanted it without knowing why, or thinking about the reasons behind it.

I guess that’s what I got from this biography most of all. It wasn’t a bad book. It really sought to portray the truth behind an adored man who was secretive about his personal life. It showed his flaws honestly, and some of the rougher spots of his personality that abraded those closest to him. But it also showed the kindnesses he bestowed, the way he brought joys to other’s lives, the talent he strived to use, and the nature of his personal drive. He was a great man, if not a good one, who changed the world through something he was good at. And that’s nothing to scoff at, despite my tendency to scoff.

At the same time, a part of those changes went in directions I’m completely disrespectful of. For what good reason could I want a Sno Cone Machine? It would probably be a rare treat for my parents to let me use it. Was it the respect of my peers I was after? Or some commercial ideal of greatness? Or something more elusive, some unfulfilled wish that I think the Machine will fill? Is my longing just the same as Sparky’s quest for love, and am I just as foolishly confident I will never find it?

V-day: Eros Nemesis or Saviour?

It is again that day that most people in the US either love or hate — Valentine’s Day.  For those of you that love it, whether you’re with your life-mate or not, it’s a time of celebration for that most wonderful emotion, love.  It’s a celebration of the joys of friendship, the camaraderie of the workplace, and the affections of family.  For those of you who hate it the day is filled with  bitterness over a personal situation or frustration with yet another materialistic, hypocritical holiday.

For myself I do get a bit frustrated when the V-day candies come out right after New Year’s (only to be swamped by Easter chocolates a few weeks later), but I can’t help but love this little holiday.  I like the excuse to give people stuff, or make people stuff.  I like being able to share my joy, to have an excuse to celebrate with others.  Be that as it may, it’s not the case for many people, who find the whole idea offensive.  So, back to the root of the problem – how did this whole holiday get started anyway?  And how the heck did Cupid, a pagan god of love who typically made people fall for one another to thier detriment, come to be taken as its symbol?

So, a little about the saint first.  Saint Valentine, who at one time had a feast day on February 14 (though many Roman Catholics no longer celebrate this day), was a saint that nobody ever recorded anything about.  In fact, the feast day could’ve referred to more than one saint.  Various saints with the name ‘valentine’ also exist in the orthodox church.  So basically, I have no idea how this guy got sainted and neither does anyone else, which was probably part of the reason the Catholics stopped feasting him.   Also, there ended up being a number of stories made up about him later, but none involved romantic love.

Enter the mid/late Middle Ages and the popularity of courtly love.   Chaucer makes up a new story implying ancient traditions associating this popular topic with the saint.  Some also think that early Christians associated the saint’s feast day with Lupercalia (a Roman celebration of fertility, NOT love) and the season of Zeus and Hera’s marriage (lots of great love there.  really).  So basically Valentine’s day began to be associated with courtly love (I guess that’s romantic?) and the Greco-Roman tradition.  Actual cards and tokens were exchanged at this time to express affection and show devotion.  Still, kinda hard to see where Cupid comes in at all.  In the 1840s (after the Catholics had abandoned the saint), Valentine’s day was reintroduced as  a holiday.  Then people start the marketing.  Go capitalism!  One of the first ladies to start marketing was the daughter of a stationary store owner here in Massachusetts.  Pretty classy stuff.

Despite all that, and the continual reuse of the holiday for various manipulative purposes, I enjoy it.  It reminds me of the things I’ve forgotten, and helps me to take time for love, which could always use a little more time.   Considering the countless similar variations of the day that exist around the world, it’s probably something we need.