PhD student Man Xu’s new article: ‘The Sky-High Dreams of Yiwu’s Grassroots Cosmopolitans’ on Sixth Tone

PhD student Man Xu’s new article The Sky-High Dreams of Yiwu’s Grassroots Cosmopolitans is featured in Sixth Tone, an online publication that provides content on contemporary China.  Man’s blog examines how Yiwu is redefining cosmopolitanism, moving away from an exclusive lifestyle meant only for the societal elite to a culture created in a thriving global city accessible to those with the entrepreneurial drive to improve their socio-economic standing.

Those that migrate to Yiwu in search of better employment opportunities provided by its strong international commercial sector are required to be fluent in several languages and often travel abroad to learn the languages and seek out business opportunities.  Furthermore, strong informal relationships with international clients require an in-depth understanding of various cultures and societies. Their transnational lives coupled with the informal and formal relationships with the global community has naturally developed a cosmopolitan lifestyle for the working class within Yiwu.  Man highlights the experiences of individuals in Yiwu that have come from modest socio-economic backgrounds.  Despite the cosmopolitan lifestyle now afforded to those of modest backgrounds, the author notes how Covid-19 exposes the precariousness of employment in Yiwu that still remains.

Man Xu is a PhD student in her sixth year in the PhD program at the University of Toronto focusing on migration, transnationalism and Chinese Muslim traders.  She is currently working on her dissertation, examining practices of small-commodity trade businesses between China and the Middle East with the guidance of supervisors Prof. Patricia Landolt and Prof. Ping-Chun Hsiung.

We’ve included an excerpt of the article below. Read the full article on the Sixth Tone website here.

The Sky-High Dreams of Yiwu’s Grassroots Cosmopolitans

Cosmopolitanism is usually associated with the elite. In Yiwu, migrants are forging their own kind of globalized society.

Last winter, I spent an afternoon drinking tea and catching up with a contact of mine, surnamed Li, and a group of locally based interpreters at his small commodity trading firm’s new office in the eastern city of Yiwu. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, our conversation ranged widely, from local affairs to the Middle East. Suddenly the topic shifted to Canada, the country in which I’m studying for my Ph.D. and a place they knew little about.

“How do people shop in Canada?” Li asked. “How popular is online shopping there?” After I gave a brief and not particularly professional introduction to the country, someone responded cheerfully: “It seems like a promising market! Would you be interested in a partnership with us?” He then spontaneously outlined a plan for the pair of us to export Chinese products to Canada.

It’s the kind of thing you get used to in Yiwu, an international commercial hub that’s been nicknamed “the world’s supermarket.” Business owners and interpreters in the city are capable of switching smoothly between languages as varied as Arabic, English, and Chinese — a necessity, given their frequent interactions with international merchants — and they’re constantly on the lookout for new opportunities around the world. Over the past five years, Li alone has travelled to Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon to meet customers and explore new market opportunities.

Indeed, although it may not be the first term anyone would associate with this group of migrants from poor family and educational backgrounds, Yiwu traders live extremely cosmopolitan lives. Cosmopolitanism is most often exclusively associated with elites: people with the good degrees and wealth needed to enjoy mobile lifestyles and sophisticated cultural taste. In the Chinese context, it is often connected with Chinese international students in Western universities or with corporate professionals in major urban areas.

In Yiwu, however, cosmopolitanism is defined by a very different kind of existence. The city’s interpreters have none of the cultural and economic resources of their jet-setting elite counterparts. Instead, they’re what the influential cultural theorist Stuart Hall would have termed “cosmopolitans from below,” people who lead transnational lives primarily due to economic pressure, which pushes them to work collaboratively with people from around the globe to survive and thrive.

 

 

 

 

Sociology students build grassroots volunteer-run initiative to help those in need during COVID-19 pandemic

image of groceriesIn the earliest days of the COVID outbreak, a small collective of people working to support QT/BIPOC (queer and trans, Black and Indigenous People of Colour) communities put out a call through the Caremongering – Toronto Facebook page for other groups to come together and replicate the mutual aid model. Sociology PhD students Andrea Román Alfaro and Paul Pritchard answered the call. They cooked and delivered meals for four straight days and raised funds through their personal networks before joining forces with two other small collectives to become the People’s Pantry. What started out as cooking meals across a few kitchens, the People’s Pantry has expanded considerably over the last few weeks into a much larger community food program.

The People’s Pantry is a grassroots volunteer-run initiative dedicated to safely providing and delivering cooked meals and grocery packages to folks who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Remaining true to its origins as a grassroots political project working within a mutual aid framework, the students worked to expand their community network. There are now over 150 volunteers working across the GTA in various capacities as cooks, bakers, supply shoppers, deliverers, logistic coordinators, outreach and fundraising. They have also collaborated with numerous volunteer organizations across the city and partnered with the Bike Brigade, Maggie’s Toronto, the East Toronto Food Coalition, and Toronto Cares.

The People’s Pantry has raised over 20,000 dollars, and have successfully supported over 600 households with cooked meals and/or grocery packages from various communities across the GTA, including low-income and working-class families, QT/BIPOC, folks with precarious immigration statuses, precariously-housed folks, those living with illness or disabilities, and the elderly.

In addition to Alfaro and Pritchard, over 40 sociology graduate students and alumni have made financial contributions to the People’s Pantry, alongside 10 faculty members. Current graduate students Angela Xu, Jenn Peruniak, and Yuki Tanaka have put their cooking and baking skills to work and produced a steady stream of delicious food. A number of undergraduate students from the Introduction to Sociology course at UTSC have also offered their money and volunteer services.

Other students have used the mutual aid model to give back to specific communities with which they conduct their research. Bahar Hashemi and Paul Pritchard have partnered with an Afghan women’s organization to buy and deliver groceries to individuals in the Persian community who are not able to leave their house or access support because of reasons related to age, health and immigration status.

Recognizing the severe impact that the COVID-19 crisis has had in their communities, these students have reached out to undergraduate and graduate students at UofT, international students and migrant workers, and other communities to provide support. They have done so out of a firm belief that mutual aid is crucial in these times in which neither the government nor UofT has stepped up to provide help to those who most need it.

People wishing to contribute time or money, should visit the People’s Pantry’s Facebook Page or GoFundMe campaign.

Photo credit: Paul Pritchard