WeChat in Yiwu:The Front Desk in the “International Hostel”?

By Sile Huang, Songjie Zhou, Yichi Zhang, Xinyan Wang

As the door cracks open with an electronic tune, Jason finally arrives at the hotel. Walking into the washroom, Jason sits down, reaches for toilet paper, before touching a metal pipe, a sprinkler attached on top. At the table in a Turkish restaurant, Jason excitedly flips through the menu as he has heard long before this trip how it is known for its savory Turkish cuisine, before encountering a panel of five different languages. Jason fishes through the list, finally finds the familiar English word that he could understand, only to realize how this five-line panel is all describing a single dish.

Between Roommates: Cultural Communication and Integration

Such exotic experiences are a norm in Yiwu, a county-level city located in Zhejiang, China, the largest small commodity wholesale market in the world. The sprinkler next to the toilet is a budget shower used for cleansing after defecation or urination. It is a major part of the Islamic toilet etiquette, Qaḍāʾ al-Ḥājah, to accommodate for the massive Islamic population living in Yiwu. The combination of Arabic, Mandarin, English, Russian, and Spanish on the menu, is also common for this multicultural city, as foreigners from all around the world would then easily acquire whatever information they need. As the “World’s Supermarket”, Yiwu attracts nearly 500,000 foreign “gold diggers” every year. Over 13,000 foreign populations from more than 100 countries and regions reside here. As a wholesale consumer goods and e-commerce hub, Yiwu has seen an influx of foreign businesspeople, which it hopes to integrate into local society and create a multicultural community.

“Welcome” in different languages

Although more than 100 foreign communities are living harmoniously in Yiwu with the locals, the inclusivity in Yiwu was not reflected in their cultural communications. Most of the interactions between foreign and local populations are centered around financial transactions in a merchant-consumer relationship or academic cooperation for international students studying in the area. A majority of foreigners still base their social life around people from their own cultures, seldomly communicating with their local peers.

“I have [local] friends in Guangzhou and Beijing, not in Yiwu,” claims Bashar, the owner of the light meal restaurant ZeroExcuses. He came to Yiwu from Syria in 2013, tried out multiple careers including driving taxis, modeling, photographing, fitness coaching, then in 2019 became the first foreigner to enter the live-streaming e-commerce industry in Yiwu. He quitted live-streaming in 2020 to become an entrepreneur in opening his own restaurant. He states how he was not used to the Yiwu local values, as “In Yiwu, most discussions were centered around money. What [assets] does my father own? What [luxuries] does my mother own?” A usual dialogue to be heard in Yiwu is “I bought this. How much? 1000 Yuan. Oh, then that’s copycat.” This mammonish, vain mindset unique to Yiwu’s merchant-based demographic does not align with Bashar’s and most of his friends’ in the Arabic community. Cultural distances resulting in different values are intuitive as to how it could lead to a lack of cultural communications between Yiwu foreigners and locals. However, cultural integration for foreigners does happen in them adjusting to Yiwu’s urban culture and switching to a modern Chinese lifestyle, evident in social media platforms they use when living in Yiwu, most predominantly, WeChat.

At your service: WeChat’s Multifunctional Platform

Opening Common Rooms: Boosting Communication

WeChat, the super entrance of the Chinese social media world, is the most used social networking software in China. Billions of texts, images, and audio messages are flooding through chat windows, accompanied by story feeds and advertisement promotion links flashing on an endless scrolling page. From Red Packet e-transfers to Mini Programs (小程序), Channels (看一看) and Live Streams, WeChat won the hearts of both locals and foreign populations with its rich features. Dr. Sun Zhina, a professor from the China-Africa International Business School, Zhejiang Normal University, states that almost all her African international students use WeChat as their major communication tool. They choose WeChat to communicate with their foreign peers instead of using popular apps in Africa like Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp. They also frequently post their daily life on WeChat Moments (朋友圈), a platform that enables users to post about their daily lives. Dr. Sun Zhina tells us that some of her students from Lesotho, a South African country, frequently post feeds about their lives after they settled down in Yiwu. They even posted congratulatory messages to celebrate the 100th Centennial of the Communist Party of China on WeChat Moments. WeChat not only opens a window for foreigners in Yiwu to communicate with Yiwu locals but also provides a platform to show their willingness to blend in with the Yiwu community.

Similar to international students, a lot of foreign merchants also conduct their business interactions on WeChat through private and group chat functions. They use this platform to keep in touch with their customers and schedule formal meetings or cooperation. A lot of social networking communications, such as product promotions and friends’ recommendations also happen on WeChat, pushing WeChat to be an inseparable part of both foreigners’ social and business lives. Bashar, as a foreign live-streamer utilizes WeChat to communicate with his fans: notifications like “100 squats for small artifacts” often pop up on fans’ screens, as he sets fitness-related goals for them to achieve and offers rewards. WeChat helps Bashar draw him closer to his fans, boosting organic cross-cultural discussions between them. Later on, the live-streaming expert offers live-streaming classes to his friends and receives red packets on WeChat. By constantly using WeChat, a symbol of Chinese mainstream social media platforms, foreign populations are already imperceptibly blending into Yiwu’s culture.

Post-its on the Chalkboard: Circulating Information

Aside from communication features, WeChat also acts as a primary information circulation and acquisition platform for foreign populations. Communities use WeChat Official Accounts (公众号) to post community activities announcements and sign-up information. Such information is displayed on WeChat Group Notice (群公告) as well, where specific community programs information is presented to smaller, targeted groups.

Tongyue Social Workers Service Center

Tongyue Social Workers Service Center, a non-profit organization sponsored by social work teachers of Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College, is dedicated to providing civil services for foreigners residing in Jimingshan. Jimingshan is a multicultural and multi-ethnic community hosting a foreign population of 1,388 people from 73 different countries. Social workers have been offering Chinese language and culture training to more than 70,000 expatriates since 2014. Recently, programs that promote local policy awareness, rural culture, and festival customs are also included. One crucial part of Tongyue’s services is community service programs for foreign participants. They adopt the mechanism of the “Voluntary Credit Mutual Service”, where volunteering credits are stored in “credit banks” for foreign students to receive Tongyue’s free-of-charge language classes. All sign-up information and specific procedures are posted in WeChat groups and on WeChat Official Accounts. The acquisition of such information provides foreigners with more opportunities to participate in group activities, interact with community members, and contribute to their communities. A lot of volunteering programs organized by the center are then passed on to the hands of foreigners, where they spontaneously plan out service programs. Community service is a concrete way of promoting cultural communications with both the locals and the society, as foreign populations actively assist to maintain traffic supervision, check on neighborhood hazards, and resolve daily-life disputes. Covid specific services are also provided during the pandemic, as volunteers help convince people to stay at home during lockdowns and conduct body temperature checks. Appearing in red volunteer caps and same-colored vests, foreign volunteers engage passionately with local populations and gain vivid understandings of the local civilian lives.

International Uncle “Laoniangjiu”

“Speaking of community service, if foreign volunteers are participating in them, then it is already a form of cross-cultural interaction,” claimed Eric, an international student at Zhejiang Institute of Science and Technology from Zimbabwe. He combines his love for Chinese culture and community service into organizing various cultural communication and community service events when he serves as the president of the International Student Union at ZUST. The Chinese-African “peace ambassador” also created “Abroad Path Leaders”, an organization devoted to creating community service opportunities for foreigners in Zhejiang. Information of such programs is propagated on his WeChat Official Account “Abroad Path Leaders” (留下带路APL). This has informed locals that there is a group of international students spreading friendly messages in China. It not only promotes the friendship between Yiwuers and foreigners, but also combines community service and cultural communications into collective meaningful experiences.

From Cheekbone to Heart

Yiwu’s rising globalization accelerates cross-cultural communication, but people must not forget that cultural integration is a gradual process. Social media platforms like WeChat are essential to achieving this goal, but ought not to be exploited. One must steer away from preformative and surface-level approaches to encouraging cultural communications. Until this point, it is hard not to mention “Daka China”, an international communication series that invited foreign social media influencers to present their experiences in Jinhua, China to the world through platforms like Facebook, organized by the Zhejiang provincial government last November. Presenting an authentic depiction of China (were Yiwu locates) to foreign users does sound appealing, but only when you ignore the fact that the so-called well-known “influencers” only have two-digits numbers of followers, and their posts often have one-digit likes and reposts. Just like its homophone, “Daka” refers not only to the alleged famous influencers (aka “大咖”, Daka), but also “打卡”: to take a quick snapshot of a place, not accomplishing much aside from enforcing a pre-existing stereotype. Cultural connections in such a complex city like Yiwu are not established as easily as drowning people with staged social media posts and checking off another mission.

In Yiwu, the current efficacy of social media platforms like WeChat helping with cross-cultural communications is upwards, continuous, and more importantly, sincere. As for the future, as a wise English band says, “Let it be”.

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