The Sky-High Dreams of Yiwu’s Grassroots Cosmopolitans
Last winter, I spent an afternoon drinking tea and catching up with a contact of mine, surnamed Li, and a group of locally based interpreters at his small commodity trading firm’s new office in the eastern city of Yiwu. Unsurprisingly, given the setting, our conversation ranged widely, from local affairs to the Middle East. Suddenly the topic shifted to Canada, the country in which I’m studying for my Ph.D. and a place they knew little about.
“How do people shop in Canada?” Li asked. “How popular is online shopping there?” After I gave a brief and not particularly professional introduction to the country, someone responded cheerfully: “It seems like a promising market! Would you be interested in a partnership with us?” He then spontaneously outlined a plan for the pair of us to export Chinese products to Canada.
It’s the kind of thing you get used to in Yiwu, an international commercial hub that’s been nicknamed “the world’s supermarket.” Business owners and interpreters in the city are capable of switching smoothly between languages as varied as Arabic, English, and Chinese — a necessity, given their frequent interactions with international merchants — and they’re constantly on the lookout for new opportunities around the world. Over the past five years, Li alone has travelled to Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon to meet customers and explore new market opportunities.
Indeed, although it may not be the first term anyone would associate with this group of migrants from poor family and educational backgrounds, Yiwu traders live extremely cosmopolitan lives. Cosmopolitanism is most often exclusively associated with elites: people with the good degrees and wealth needed to enjoy mobile lifestyles and sophisticated cultural taste. In the Chinese context, it is often connected with Chinese international students in Western universities or with corporate professionals in major urban areas.
In Yiwu, however, cosmopolitanism is defined by a very different kind of existence. The city’s interpreters have none of the cultural and economic resources of their jet-setting elite counterparts. Instead, they’re what the influential cultural theorist Stuart Hall would have termed “cosmopolitans from below,” people who lead transnational lives primarily due to economic pressure, which pushes them to work collaboratively with people from around the globe to survive and thrive.
Take Li, for example. Although he now owns an international trading firm, he came to the city in 2013 as a dropout. Like many other new arrivals, he got into the industry by taking a low-paying job as an interpreter, a title that can be a bit misleading. In Yiwu, an interpreters’ job isn’t limited to linguistic translation: They’re also cultural translators and business brokers.
Indeed, given their complex knowledge of trade and global affairs, I was surprised to learn that many Yiwu interpreters had limited formal education. Li, for example, is from a rural family, and he left school when he was just 16. Many interpreters in the city have similar stories. Their parents are farmers or migrant factory workers, and prior to arriving in Yiwu, they generally expected to spend their lives in the same way.
Given their backgrounds, few can afford the high tuition and expensive living costs of studying in a Western country. Some attend language training programs in Yiwu; others just pick things up through daily interactions with their customers. A few, especially the Arabic interpreters, choose to attend language programs in countries with low living costs and free public education, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. Li, for instance, studied in Syria for two years.
Returning to the city at age 19, Li started working full time immediately. Many interpreters in Yiwu begin even earlier, due to financial pressure and the responsibility to provide for their families.
One interpreter, surnamed Wang, told me that when he was first starting out in 2012, his monthly salary was around 2,000 yuan (approximately $300). That first month, he kept just 500 yuan for himself, sending the rest to his parents so they could buy an air-conditioner. “Five hundred yuan was enough for me,” he recalled. “I normally only ate two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, and I shared a small apartment with two friends.”
Informal networks dominate in Yiwu, and interpreters like Wang don’t just help their international clients with research, business transactions, and customs declarations. Many are also deeply engaged in clients’ personal and family lives. In a sense, they’re a combination of guide and personal assistant: They help clients navigate their daily lives in China, and accompany them to the hospital, on shopping trips for souvenirs, or even on visits to tourist sites. One interpreter told me she would always come up in conversation when her clients called their families back home: They saw her as part of the family. In my interviews, some interpreters even mentioned being present for intimate family events such as childbirth.
These tight bonds mean interpreters in Yiwu need not just language skills or a rich knowledge of different products and industries, but also an in-depth knowledge of their clients’ cultures and societies. They need to be able to constantly switch codes between different cultures, all while navigating significant cultural differences. Given this deep engagement in a cosmopolitan community, they naturally develop a globalized lifestyle and cultural palate, making frequent visits to shisha cafés, listening to foreign music, and consuming media in a wide variety of languages.
They also need to stay alert to any changes in the world and in the international market that could affect their industry and businesses. For example, since COVID-19 threw international trade networks into disarray, Li has sought to pivot to international e-commerce, using Facebook to promote products to wholesalers in the Middle East. Even in less extreme circumstances, this group is characterized by a strong entrepreneurial spirit and go-anywhere attitude. One woman I interviewed got a lead on a trade deal in Nigeria from a friend. Despite knowing nothing about the country, she booked a flight and spent the entire next year in the country, eventually developing important contacts that set her up in her current business dealing goods to African customers.
The cosmopolitan business and living environment of Yiwu provides migrants from poor and rural backgrounds a unique chance to acquire abilities, knowledge, and resources they would otherwise never have access to, allowing them to lift their social status from migrant workers to business owners. Yet even successful cosmopolitans from below like Li still carry a sense of precarity with them. The main difference is that now, their precarity isn’t tied to the vagaries of farming or the crop market, but to the global economy and politics. And that precarity has only been exacerbated by the current crisis and attendant restrictions on cross-border travel and trade.
The interpreter Wang, for example, is currently thinking about returning to his hometown in central province Henan to look for another job. His business is down significantly, and his child is about to start primary school. But despite his rich practical experience, his lack of formal education means he may find himself locked out of the job market in other cities. “Farming? I don’t know (what I’ll do),” he told me. “I’m a high school graduate, what else is there?”
It’s well known by now that globalization is characterized by heterogeneous flows of goods and ideas that shape the lives of its participants in distinctive ways. But it’s good to remember there is more than one way to experience globalization, just as there is more than one way to become cosmopolitan. Yiwu tells one such story about how globalization is transforming the lives of the underprivileged, as grassroots agents find themselves embracing different cultures and living lives every bit as global as the societal elite.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell, portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A shopkeeper waits for customers at the Yiwu International Trade City mall, Zhejiang province, 2015. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/People Visual)