Let(t)-uc(e) Not Make Comparisons

Hongjun Yang at Xingeng Eco Farm

Hongjun Yang at Xingeng Eco Farm

Our time in Shanghai is enriched by farm visits, conversations with farmers, scholars, street vendors and many more enlightening experiences with educated informants. However, I find myself wanting to constantly make comparisons from what I witness in Shanghai and what I know about my home in the United States. It is easy to make comparisons and one way people can discover nuances between different cultures. It’s is clear many of the topics that have peaked our interests in Shanghai share similarities with food issues and movements in the United States. Yet, it is important to only rely on comparisons as a basis for fieldwork and developing ideas for more in depth research. I’ve learned that knowing the Chinese context is important and what makes the food issues we explore here unique to the food issues some of the group have explored in the United States. 

In an article titled Hipster Finds Lifestyle Too Expensive, Reverts Back to Mainstream from the website Lettuce Fold, the author makes a parody of the “hipster” movement in the United States, while poking fun of high food prices people are willing to pay for foods labelled “local” and “organic”. The issue of labeling food products is another conversation in itself, but this article is one example that shows how food movements in the United States are propelled by the middle class, or those that have available resources to invest in new and often expensive food movements.

Sacha Cody during group Interview

Sacha Cody during group Interview

This article made me want to look into the motivations of food movements in Shanghai, to see if there were any similarities and to delve deeper than surface comparisons. My interests in motivation came to the forefront after interviewing a current PhD student, Sacha Cody, who is working with a group of Chinese that call themselves “New Farmers”. Mr. Cody explained in an interview the group conducted that food issues in China are middle class issues. However, the context and motivations for starting what could be debated as new food movements. is very different.

At first I tried to equate the New Farmers  Mr. Cody is working with to the hipsters that are returning to farming through urban agriculture and back-to-the-land movements in the United States. However, I soon realized if I stayed on this comparative path I would lose a lot of the color that comes from looking at healthy food from the perspective of the Chinese New Farmers. This is what I learned by moving away from simple comparisons:

Zhang Lv at Dreamland Farm

Zhang Lu at Dreamland Farm

  •  The food market in Shanghai is not trusted like it is in the United States
  • Motivations behind the start-up of farms for some of the New Farmers: interest in being moral leaders/teachers for Chinese communities, so people take more responsibility in where their food comes from; get away from the poisonous food and pollution in the city; have a source of healthy food where the entire production model is controlled for family and new children
  • The “New Farmers” are not interested in complete lifestyle changes that neglect technology, but actively use multimedia applications like “We-Chat” and “Weibo” to keep the world connected to what is happing on the farms

It is easy to wonder if a group of Chinese urbanites creating farms outside of Shanghai can be compared to Americans doing similar things. However, from my brief time in Shanghai I am learning that research becomes limited when you stop there. I plan to continue to look at motivations propelling the movement from urban to rural spaces through the lens of healthy food production. However I plan to research this topic while staying as close as I can to the CHinese perspective and keeping what I know from the United States in check, or better yet, even leaving the comparisons back home in the States.