Thursday, October 12, 2006
Tea Sets and Tupperware Parties

No, the story I'm about to tell is not part of a 50s television family sitcom, but is rather the offspring of an American business idea that time forgot for a while. That is, until the Chinese pulled it off the shelf, dusted it off, and implemented it anew. The purpose of tupperware parties was to bring a neighborhood of women together to sell items that each household needed. This concept was revised in later decades with Avon cosmetics and the sale of phone services - after the initial sale of the item to a friend, that friend was then encouraged to sell to their friends. The initial seller took a little off the top - classic pyramid magic. We've all heard of the illegal pyramid scheme. This is the legal, profit-friendly version. And it used to be quite popular in the States until Wal-mart conquered the earth.

*I feel I should point out at this juncture that I do not begrudge successful chain superstores such as the aforementioned - I only regret that I didn't think of it first (which would have been some endeavour seeing as I wasn't even born yet).

Anyhow, China has only ONE Wal-mart and while French supergiant Carrefour is quite popular, and has managed to carve a deep niche in the Chinese retail market, only large cities are privy to their massive selection and (somewhat) cheap pricing. The closest one to Laiwu is in Qingdao - 4 hours away by car. And it is a result of this incongruity in China between large cities and, well, everywhere else that paves the road for the prosperity of a pyramid-style company like Amway.

And this is where our story begins. I had heard the name before but never really knew what Amway did - I knew only that they sold a large variety of products. A phone call with my parents enlightened me on the nature and structure of the Amway business plan. My encounter with Amway began with my friend Juan's birthday party last Friday. Much of her family and friends from Qingdao and Xintai had come to celebrate. Among them was Ma Jie (for those of you unfamiliar with Chinese names, it goes last name first - her surname being Ma - and the Jie actually just means the equivalent of "older sister"), who worked for Amway's corporate headquarters in China. She invited me that Sunday evening to a gathering for 安利 Anli (the Chinese branch of Amway) and having nothing else to do, I figured I'd go check it out.

Sunday evening Juan and I walked together across the town to the meeting place. I figured we'd be meeting in an office or someone's apartment, but when we arrived, I found myself in cramped quarters with about 25 Chinese people in what was set up to look like a classroom. When I first entered, they were playing some kind of word and number game, probably to get the crowd of people engaged before the pitch. Upon my entrance, there were sounds of surprise and whispers of flattery. I was given a seat on the couch (I'm American, so I'm always an honored guest) against the side wall. First Zheng Qiang - a girl I had met at Juan's party - gave a demonstration using Amway's laundry detergent line. She would ask a rhetorical question, to which every person in the room would loudly exclaim "dui!" (= "right" or "yeah"). It reminded me of those infomercials on TV where the near-hyperactive crowd responds to every stained shirt with "Shout it out!".

Then another woman I had not met before came on and began talking about the principles and ethics that Amway upholds as a company and tries to implement through their product line, things like health, safety, happiness, etc. Finally Ma Jie stood up and told a couple of funny anecdotes. She told a story about new drivers in China and the moral of the story was that all parents want only success for their children, even if this hope is not apparent to the child in his youth. It was very sweet and a nice cap to the two hours of presentation for the evening. It turned out to be a fairly entertaining night and the discussion groups afterward really put my Chinese skills to the test. We drank tea, talked about what we liked in the presentation, what values we held that related to the anecdotes, and how we thought these types of presentations could be improved.

It was a sweet gathering - a small neighborhood coming together, making friends, and earning a little money on the side. It was nice being welcomed so warmly into their circle. I may be living in a small steel city in China, and very obviously not the 1950s in suburban America, but this manifestation of the nature of the Laiwu community proves the ability of tea and tupperware parties to unite is truly universal.
posted by Rachel @ 4:28 PM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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