On the Banks of the Mainstream
One of the many benefits of having a Chinese roommate is learning about the trends happening among people my own age in China. My roommate and I have spent quite a few nights flipping through Chinese fashion magazines, comparing clothing styles, and talking about the 火 (literally “fire,” the equivalent of “hot” in English) fashion trends. Through these late night fashion sessions I’ve gained some insights into Chinese youth that I otherwise would never have noticed.
This is the teenage underbelly that is not covered by BBC or CNN. These are the latest trends and categories that the young people are following and adhering to. This is China’s “bro,” “prep,” and “hipster.” And although it may be considered trivial in the grand scheme of China’s influence on global economics, or China’s thousands of years of history, or the most recent change in leadership, these small details are the nuances of culture that you can’t read about in Businessweek or a history textbook. In fact I consider these late night girl talks with my roommate to be a significant part of what makes studying abroad so interesting.
After these very informal research sessions on Chinese trends, I’ve learned about beauty standards and essentially how to “read” aesthetic choices that Chinese girls are making. Although there is still a lot to learn on the fashion front, there are a few things that I’ve picked up along the way.
My personal favorite, and the group that I probably know the most about, is
the 小清新 （xiao qingxin, literally “small fresh”) crowd. This particular group goes beyond a shared fashion sense and can be considered more of a shared way of life. Before I continue I should clarify that I will explain this particular group from the blatantly one-sided (and perhaps anti-xiao qingxin) perspective I received my roommate.
According to my roommate, you can find this “fresh” crowd all over China. Near our dorm you can find them lingering in their natural habitat: outside of the arts building of Nanjing University. They are characterized by wearing long cotton dresses or skirts, Converse shoes, giant cameras, and a possibly-fake pensive look on their face. They often have enormous outdated cameras around their necks and might even be wearing some type of thick black-framed glasses. Yes, friends. These are the hipsters of China.
Just like your stereotypical American hipster, these xiao qingxin spend their youth avoiding the waters of the 主流（zhuliu, literally: mainstream). They enjoy obscure music, independent films, and lengthy novels with esoteric content. They are known to go (preferably by way of vintage bike) alone to meadows to reflect on life lived on the fringes of Chinese youth culture. They of course will also take pictures to share on their social networking site of choice.
Their overall aesthetic is reflected in the pictures they take (photography is a signature pastime for this gang). Their pictures have three possible subjects: telephone wires, grasslands, and their shoes. After these pictures are taken they must then be overexposed to create their much sought-after faded feel. Think Polaroids.
There are also overlaps between xiao qingxin and American hipsters in their public perceptions. To put it simply, each country’s general public (read: the mainstream) find them delightfully irritating. My roommate included.
Although this blatant stereotyping and generalizing a group of Chinese youth could easily and understandably offend all of those xiao qingxin out there, I couldn’t help but find humor in the conversation my roommate and I had about them. She spoke in Chinese with a tone that could directly be translated into Americans complaining about their own hipsters. Different from the issues surrounding the one child policy or the hukou (house-hold registration system), discussing this micro-population among young people is one of the few times I was able to relate on an extremely basic level.
One of the best parts about studying abroad in China is that I am constantly running into unfamiliar situations and studying new concepts. Being here, I’ve had to relearn some of the most basic ways of living life in order to begin to better understand Chinese culture as a whole. However, on the rare occasion that I do find similarities, especially ones that are otherwise insignificant, it’s an interesting reminder of how unpredictable parallels can bring together two people from opposite sides of the planet. Even if it does revolve around hipsters.