A Burgeoning Middle Class

If you think of China as the world’s manufacturer with low-cost labor, think again. As its economy continues to grow, a burgeoning and increasingly affluent middle class of consumers is rapidly emerging. According to Chinese Academy of Social Science, the number of the households that has achieved middle class status reached 250 million in 2005, mostly in coastal urban areas.

These urban elites are attracted by the western lifestyle. As they become more sophisticated, they seek out the higher-end design aesthetic of western brands that has traditionally been unavailable from cost-conscious local designers and manufactures.

Walking on the streets of Shanghai, it’s not rare to see European luxury labels like Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and MaxMara all over the place. There are some brands I have never seen in the US, such as Bentley and Harry Winston. Chinese are very status-conscious people. The new rich know what prestigious brands they want and they want their status known, whether it’s Rolls Royce for car, Dunhill for shirt, or Cartier for jewelry.

When Chinese Vogue was launched last August, its print run of 300,000 copies sold out almost immediately. Recently, US giant homemaking lifestyle magazine Better Homes and Gardens has partnered with one of China’s biggest print media companies to launch a Chinese edition, with a mix of American and China-specific content to target consumer and advertising markets.

The urban elites are role models with a lifestyle sought by hundreds of millions of Chinese. It’s estimated that another 300 – 400 million consumers from second tier cities will be joining the middle class in the next two decades or so. China will soon become, if not already, the world’s largest market for new purchases of eveything from cosmetics to computers to automobiles. It would be interesting to see what impact it will have on the world economy.

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My Experience at Esalen

Before we went to Big Sur for the Memorial Day weekend, my massage therapist advised me to schedule a massage at Esalen Institute. “It’s right on the cliff overlooking the ocean,” she winked, “it’s an experience not to be missed.”

I did not know anything about Esalen Institute. From what I read on the website, it sounded very intriguing: “The word itself summons tantalizing visions of adventure, of unexplored frontiers, of human possibilities yet to be realized.” My innate sense of adventure and curiosity kicked in – that’s something I want to explore. Isn’t it a one-of-kind experience? I must go!

Only after I arrived on the Esalen property, I started to get a sense what I was getting myself into. On the way to the massage house located on the cliff, I saw people, men and women, lying around sunbathing – they were all naked.

At the entrance, a woman, noticed my confusion, kindly handed me a towel and led me to the hot spring lounge. Just as I turned around the corner, I was appalled to see an open shower room with both men and women in it taking showers. It has a huge glass wall facing the jet-blue Pacific Ocean.

Too shocked to enjoy the scene, I turned myself to the corner. For a moment, I thought perhaps I should just turn around and leave. I didn’t mean to act like a conservative “bumpkin,” but I was not mentally prepared for this! I reached out to open my bag. I could put on my bathing suit, no one would force me to be nude. As I was hesitating, I took a peek around me – there were both men and women, quickly undressing or dressing themselves. No one was paying attention to me. Of course, no one was looking at anyone else.

At this point, I realized putting on anything, even my very sexy two-piece bikini, seemed pointless. What the heck, I thought, if I have gotten this far, I might as well just do the rest. It’s not a big deal. I took a deep breath and slowly undressed myself. I took off everything like everyone else, except my sunglasses. Thank God, I just got a new pair of sunglasses with big dark lenses of this year’s fashion!

I rushed into the shower room to take a quick shower, and then rushed out to drop myself into the first hot spring tub I saw. After I settled in, I started to look around to get myself oriented. This is an open veranda with three hot spring tubs enjoying a spectacular ocean view. People were walking around care-freely like Adams and Eves. A picture of Medieval Greek gods amusingly came into my mind….

I sat stiffly in the water, trying to relax. Big drops of sweat started rolling down my forehead. The half hour seemed extra long to me. Finally, my massager came in to fetch me. I thankfully wrapped myself in towel and followed him to the massage room on the other side of the building.

It was a large open room with six massage tables facing a huge glass wall toward the ocean. The place was exceptional serene with the soothing sound of ocean waves. As I lay down on the massage table, pacing my breaths with the rhythm of the ocean, all the tension faded away. I felt my whole being dissipating into an infinite vastness.

The essence of Esalen massage is to align our body’s internal rhythm with the rhythm of the ocean, of the nature, and of the universe. It was transformative. It magically awakened my inner awareness and helped me to regain a sense of harmony, reverence and balance.

After the massage, I returned to the hot spring lounge feeling reborn. I was able to walk around like Eve. I discovered there were three outdoor hot springs on the cliff. I soaked into one of them like a mermaid, and crawled to rest my arms and chin on the edge, enjoying the bountiful ocean of dark blue waters in front of me. I no longer cared who was around me. The ocean, the sky, men and women became one…

I closed my eyes and let the natural healing hot springs penetrate deeply into every inch of my body. I felt the gentle sea breeze caressing my hair, and warm sunshine kissing my face, neck and back…. I sunk into a deep meditation. I prayed for the ocean, for the sun, for the land, for the tree, for the valley, for the mountain, and for the world, “where mention of God has been made, and His praise glorified.”

My experience at Esalen tested my “unexplored frontiers.” It expanded my horizon to a new level. No wonder it is such a renowned place for “revolutionary ideas, transformative practices, and innovative art forms.” I look forward to returning to Esalen Institute someday in the future.

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The Art of Tea Tasting

A small group of tea lovers gathered at NEOTTE – a newly opened tea bar in downtown Palo Alto to listen to Mathew Hui, the founder of NEOTTE, to describe the origin of different teas, methods of tea-making, and the art of Chinese tea tasting culture, which virtually non-exists in the United States.

According to Hui, the custom of drinking tea can be traced back to thousands of years ago in China. In (618-907 A.D.), a man named Lu Yu (??) first documented the knowledge on tea into a book – the Tea Classic (??). His work helped to popularize the art of tea drinking all across China, and even to spread to neighboring countries.

Many people in this country have never seen loose-leaf tea. In its effort to spread the Chinese tea culture, NEOTTE serves only highest quality loose-leaf tea made from the young and tender leaves of the tea tree. Depending on the origins and processing methods, Chinese teas are divided into six categories: White Tea, Green Tea, Oolong Tea, Red Tea, Black Tea, and Herbal Tea, with each of them having distinctive health merits.

Growing up in “tea country” – Hangzhou, my favorite tea is Green Tea. Studies have shown that Green Tea has many health benefits including rich anti-oxidants, cancer-prevention and anti-aging properties. The herbal tea “Eight Babes” is another favorite. It consists of rose petal, Chinese matrimony-vines, dried longans, lotus seeds, chrysanthemums, red jujubes, green raisins and rock sugar. It has a soothing taste and can help to improve the eyesight and prevent colds. For ladies, it has additional beauty effects.

In addition to all the health benefits of tea, another important aspect is the art of tea tasting, which is very similar to wine tasting in this country. It takes into consideration the shape of the tea, the color, the aroma and taste. The full aroma and sweetness of the tea can be brought out with correct water temperature, the amount of tea leaves used, and the type of teapot.

Chinese consider tea drinking a way of life. The tea culture is encompassed in the art, literature, philosophy and customs throughout the history of China. It’s an experience of a cultivated art with a rich history. From now on, drinking tea will never be quite the same to me: a sip of tea reflects a warm relationship between humankind and nature.

Acknowledgement: thanks to CAEA that graciously organized this tea tasting event. CAEA is an organization dedicated to explore the differences in manners and customs between Chinese and American cultures in today’s technological enviroment.

Photo source: http://www.chinesecultureonline.com/

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