Organizing a Swap Event in Guangzhou, China

20 May

Today, my small little language company held it’s first ever swap event.  Actually, we called Earth Day Exchange Party, and it’s was a little dippy, but it ended up surprising me a little.

I got inspired to do this for purely selfish and stubborn cultural reasons.  I have said goodbye to well over a dozen close or good friends in my time living in China, and I’ve inherited a lot of things.  I’ve been itching to make my living space more simple, and that’s where the cultural stubbornness comes in.  I simply refuse to just throw away any kind of object that is functioning.  I’m a hoarder in that way.  Or, at least an unwilling hoarder.  I keep those things for what you might call moral reasons, not because I can’t let them go or want to wait until that random, distant day when I’ll need the various items I’ve collected, but because I can’t throw away something that is still useful, that still has function.  I guess you could say that’s the extent of my consistent environmentally-friendly living sense: my refusal to let energy – behind the use of non-renewable resources, the production of them into some shape, and the expenditure of whatever other energy that was used to operate the thing besides kinetic energy – go to waste.  I could easily avoid being a hoarder in the US because there are enough recycle centers, donation centers, and exchange/thrift stores to go around.  You didn’t need to keep things until they could see their usefulness again in your life because there were so many other ways to share things you don’t need with other people who actually need or at least want them.

That kind of thing doesn’t really exist in China.  For one, people are typically afraid of using things that other people owned before.  A few students have told me that it’s even shameful, but I don’t know how many people actually think that, especially considering the attitudes we had today.  I think it’s just not common practice, and I think that people just haven’t had enough time after the development of the middle class and the mass acquirement of useless, unnecessary wants due to increased disposable income to realize the need for second-hand businesses.  It’s nearly impossible to find a thrift shop, a donation center, a true vintage clothing shop or any kind of second-hand-sales business here.  Beats me where all the old stuff even goes but I still I needed any easy solution for my growing pile of stuff.  In the end, I decided to create one.

We advertised online on a popular foreign web site and on the Chinese Twitter, Weibo.  We called all our small community of students and asked them to come.  In the end, almost only students and teachers were there, a small group of a little less than 30 people.  We taught a short culture class about environmentally-friendly living, showed a National Geographic video in English about global warming, and then held a birthday party (although non of our May birthday students showed (but we ate the cake anyway, of course).  During the party, a beginner student read a short essay that his teacher basically wrote for him, some new students gave English speeches about the items they’d brought for the exchange, and then we had the exchange part.  We brought more items than necessary because we wanted students to know it was a regular event.  Some students brought things but didn’t take any home, and some students managed to get away without bringing anything major.  One student of my students (a stoic, adorable, quick-learning 10-year-old named Jim) exhibited his ability with Chinese calligraphy by making some Earth Day banners as a show.  He swapped his results with us for some items, and he took home two of mine, an artistic ceramic flute and a USB light (which I know passed through 3 sets of hands unopened before it found its home with Jim).

Considering all the drawbacks due to poor, hasty planning, mostly on part of a staff who didn’t really understand the concept to begin with, it was a success in a few ways, including the most important – it will happen again.  My boss witnessed it all, got inspired, and likes the concept.  She’s already considering how it can help us promote ourselves to the local and foreign community, while also spreading the kind of message that’s very dear to her personally it seems: environmentally-friendly living.

One surprise was the number of students who brought unique and interesting items.  And, the requirements of types of items was well-understood.  No one brought anything strange or odd or terribly useless.  I brought many things I’d never opened, silly travel nick-nacks that no one actually uses, and almost all of which I’d inherited.  People all had some sort of thing to swap, and no one stole anything when no one was looking, which was lucky considering where we had everything.  One walk-in client had even come while we were preparing for the party, gone home to shower and get more nicely dressed, and then come back to witness the end of the party and talk to our staff.  He liked what he saw and decided to come back tomorrow.  Of course, for sales, this is where I excel because our consultants and even occasionally our director are shy when talking to foreigners, but I’m more comfortable, and this guy happened to be an Armenian guy working for a Russian trading business in Guangzhou.

I organized the event terribly and misjudged or didn’t consider many different aspects of it, especially several cultural ones, but in the end it managed to work out.  That’s the best part of the place I work for – the director and staff are willing to try just about any sort of kooky, odd cultural concept, and the students themselves are a bit of an odd community anyway, with several individual and unique personalities.  I felt like such a hippie today, but in a setting where people don’t even know what a hippie is.  Ironic, and helpful, considering I don’t usually identify myself in that way.

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