NPR logo Memories of Shanghai 1985

Andrea Hsu

Memories of Shanghai 1985

In 1985, I spent five months in Shanghai with my mother, who was doing research for a book at the time. I was twelve years old.

Here are some memories I have of that fall:

I had a red bike, which was really unusual. (Most all other bikes were black.)

We had just one Chinese friend who owned a refrigerator. (She served me chocolate ice cream every time we visited.)

And customer service was practically non-existent. (So bad even a 12 year old would notice.)

Andrea Hsu 1985

Producer Andrea Hsu (on cart) during an even earlier trip to China in 1982, being pushed down Shanghai's Nanjing Road with a set of dishes. photo courtesy Vivian Ling hide caption

toggle caption photo courtesy Vivian Ling

I remember very clearly an outing my mom and I took to buy an electric hot plate, which we'd later use to make oatmeal in our dorm. We walked into a shop and asked, "Do you sell electric hot plates"?

Shanghai 1985

In 1985, rural life in Shanghai was already giving way to urban construction. This was the scene right outside the campus of Fudan University. photo by Vivian Ling hide caption

toggle caption photo by Vivian Ling

"Nope," the clerk snapped in response, without even looking up.

Undeterred by the brush-off, my mom poked around the store and quickly found what we wanted. "What's this?" she asked.

The clerk sighed and glanced over her shoulder to where we were pointing. Then wordlessly, she scribbled something onto a tissue paper receipt and tossed it in our general direction. We grabbed it off the counter, took it to the cashier, paid for the hot plate, and walked out.

That "couldn't care less" attitude was pretty typical of China up through the early-mid 1990s. Shops were predominantly state-owned, and employees had nothing to gain by being nice. Customers tolerated the surly behavior because there was no other choice.


But that's all changed.

The other week, I went looking for a computer printer. I browsed three or four stores and in each one, found cheerful salespeople eager to show me the various models. I went home with a handful of business cards. And the next day, once I'd made my choice, all it took was a phone call. Within an hour, my HP LaserJet was delivered to my apartment and installed. (The delivery man had a little bit of a problem with my English-language Windows operating system but figured it out pretty quickly.)

...Customer service any Best Buy regular would die for.



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Now the customer is God.

I wasn't born yet in 1985. I learned from my parents that you owing a refrigerator was the symbol of wealth. A recorder was a luxury gift for marriage. And rich people could afford pork once every week, while poor people could only eat pork once every year at spring festival.
But now the change is huge. The rich own at least one car and three 3-bedroom apartments. They wear luxury clothes. And they travel abroad periodically.

Sent by Song Qiuying | 11:59 PM | 4-21-2008

Well, the downside is that life for the China's poor hasn't changed that dramatically so the gap between the rich and poor is becoming bigger and bigger.

Sent by Peter | 4:40 PM | 4-22-2008

I've been thinking about your attempt in 1985 to buy a hot plate.

I've been living in China for the past five years and have found good customer service, as well as the kind of service you explained you had in 1985. While I think there is truth to what you say about there having been zero incentive to be nice, I also think it's an over simplification.

I've found in China that it's a social custom to push for things. One test of whether you are really serious about wanting something, or need something done, is how far you will go to get it, or get it done.

Things that might sound rude to Western ears are perfectly acceptable here. It's a test for the long term, non-Chinese resident to balance that line between being assertive without becoming frustrated or rude.

Sent by Devin Allen | 12:36 AM | 4-23-2008

Here's how we came home from China this winter:

We got on the a Chinese carrier's airplane at Chengdu's modern airport. The gate agents were friendly, helpful and professional. We flew with a hard working, helpful, accommodating cabin crew to Hong Kong.

The airport in Hong Kong was bright, shiny and pleasant. We had baggage problems and an itinerary error, but the wonderful folks at the transfer desk fixed everything, smiling all the while.

Then we flew across the ocean in an Hong Kong carrier's economy class that surpassed some US carrier's business class. We always choose this carrier because of its customer service, which is famous worldwide.

Then we landed at LAX, the only bus station in the world where one can land a 747. The airlines's representative was surly, unhelpful and looked like she had slept in her clothes. Then we took a domestic carrier's bus with wings, staffed by grouchy trolls and equipped with the sort of bathrooms we thought we'd left behind in China, to our domestic destination.

Best Buy isn't the only US company that should worry about its customer service.

Sent by Tom Hill, Chengdu | 1:55 AM | 4-23-2008

There's good and bad customer service everywhere.

It's been improved a lot in China, but more needs to be done. And I agree with the other comment posted here: the social gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening. I hope we can have an effective social welfare system working in the near future.

Sent by Xin | 11:53 AM | 4-25-2008

I'm from sourthern China (whose economy is comparatively "developed") and I think it safe to say that what Song Qiuying said was totally not true for most Chinese.

Notice that the Chinese who foreign visitors meet are those best cultivated, and those with the most remunerative jobs.

As to a three-bedroom apartments, they are owned only by people living in major cities, and largely by those in power. As to the car; it's still a fantasy for many workers.

Finally, Chinese do of courseperiodically have been travelling abroad for at least the last 100 to even 1,000 years. But for those people dealing with inflating food prices, who can worry about travelling?

Sent by Wecan Wong | 4:38 AM | 4-27-2008

There is no need to argue whose comments are true or not. Everyone can find out the economic data if you care to do the research.

I was born in Chengdu in the 70s. Mine is an ordinary Chengdu family. I remember we got our first TV in 1980, which was not the earliest among my friends. From that time on, things changed so fast around me for the better.

I can't claim that my family represents all people in Chengdu or in China, but it's pretty safe to assume that my family, along with my many relatives and friends back in Chengdu, represent the majority of ordinary Chinese people, and their living standards have been improved tremendously in a short period of twenty years.

Sent by yang | 10:04 AM | 4-28-2008