Day 15: On authenticity - The China Chronicles

By Deena Dajani · 19 June 2013
To walk through China today, as on any day, turns the most common experiences into extraordinary events.  The everyday acts of urban living are rare in the lessons they offer.  
Within the daily trials of Guangzhou shopping, one of us is given a 'fake' 50 Yuan note (about £5). A taxi driver and a shop assistant immediately spot the fake and refuse to take it.  We are amazed by people's ability to recognise what is fake. We are surrounded by so called 'fake' goods in this city: fake luxury watches, handbags, copies of branded goods from clothing to high-tech electrical products (well, probably tea too). While walking any major commercial street, we are always approached by men carrying photos of 'fake' goods. Perhaps they cannot sell them in public anymore, so they have developed a more complicated system. At the same time, in swish commercial areas, the world's top brands are selling their 'real' stuff at ridiculously inflated prices.  The 'genuine' and 'fake' are very close to each other in China. The first genuine fake bank note is a precious treasure.  
On the search for a pair of comfortable, water resistant shoes for walking the city, one of our group came across a wide selection of imitated 'crocs' models. Ranging from 25 - 50 Yuan they are being sold at a fraction of the 'originals' price of over 500 Yuan. The shops around Beijing Road in Guangzhou stock a wider variety of designs of 'croccos', 'croos', 'fortunes ducks', etc. One wonders what the original 'made in China' would be? Crocs as well as croccos are produced here, the latter is clearly the more popular judging from the amount of people wearing them in the streets.  So which one is the original Chinese shoe we were looking for?  We keep walking through Guangzhou, through China, in search of treasures of experience and memory that make the most routine activities memorable.  
We begin to feel that the distinction between the authentic and fake is blurred. There are other precious treasures, in the images that the day brings, lessons regarding the blurred boundaries between "citizen" and exile.  At the traffic lights, the man, born and raised here, is gaunt and shirtless, without shoes.  His ribs can be counted at a distance.  Middle class schoolgirls whisper to each other and scatter to avoid coming too close to one who is truly marked as other, not the petrified and entitled `world traveller', but the citizen, the one who is of this place and yet can never leave this place; the one who will not wander the world, who barely has shoes and strength to cross the street.  

There is an irony to travel.  Thrown out of ones comfort zone, you become acutely aware in certain moments of your place in the world.  Routes in Chinese streets are marked by old roots of wisdom that guide us.  Walking into a Buddhist temple in the middle of the capitalist centre of the city, there is a moment of peace amidst streets of fake goods and authentic consumer gluttony.  Fortune tellers and incense sellers gather before its threshold, as indicating the access to a different time-space. We look at the three statues of Buddha in the temple, which represent past, present and future, and cannot help thinking about Guangzhou in relation to its coexisting multiple temporal dimensions. In the middle of the courtyard, and looking to my right we see a pagoda standing before a decaying and forgotten building, which stands just before a hyper-modern high-rise. The buildings do not merge into one another; they are juxtaposed and do not care about the time to which we belong.   Impure ideas of time and authenticity define many of our experiences here.   Gathering humility from the amazing opportunities that each day brings, we keep walking. 

- The Oecumene Team, 16 June 2013

About the author

  • Deena Dajani

    Research Associate
    Deena Dajani
    The Open University
    My research project experiments with Arabic oral and dramatic traditions as forms of subjugated knowledges and sites of political disputation. This experimentation navigates beyond interest in Arabic... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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