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Ethnographic Postcards: The Queen of Online Shopping

The piece was first written on a rainy afternoon in Helsinki on the 14th of October, 2022. I was sitting in front of my IKEA tea table while drinking herbal tea. The material came from my fieldwork in Shanghai during 2020 and 2021 when I was researching people’s daily use of digital applications, and the story had been on my mind for a long time. It describes the first time I got to take a closer look into older adults’ digital lives. No matter how much I wanted to share this impressive conversation in detail, I could only make some silhouettes.

Location: Shanghai, China

“Maybe you would like to meet my aunt. She is super active and skilled in using Pinduoduo, and kind of influential among her friends”, my friend Yi told me, knowing I was seeking people to talk to for my fieldwork on the Chinese shopping platform Pinduoduo. 

According to Yi, her aunt Ms Lu is an influencer among older adults (people older than 60) in the neighbourhood. After decades of working in the community centre providing life services, Auntie Lu has accumulated a favourable reputation among the nearby residents. More recently, with the growing popularity of online shopping among seniors, her influence has extended to the digital field, and she has gained many followers who trust her personality and taste.

“You may not believe it, but my aunt once wore a dress to a relative’s funeral, and several older ladies at that funeral asked for the purchase link”, said Yi.

I realised that I knew almost nothing about the digital life of older adults, as all my previous interlocutors had been under 45 years old. It was the missing piece of my Pinduoduo puzzle.

Older adults have long been portrayed as vulnerable, passive, and helpless when facing new technologies. Pinduoduo, to some extent, represents the dazzling and messy new digital world. It is one of the largest e-commerce platforms in China, serving close to 900 million users and providing a wide range of products, from home appliances to daily groceries, at highly competitive prices. On Pinduoduo, users can also find official flagship stores of well-known brands, such as Apple and Samsung, giving it a similar appearance to Amazon.

However, this platform is also known for being the ‘kingdom of counterfeit products’, where users need to be careful to avoid fake goods pretending to be from well-known brands. For example, New Balance shoes frequently appear as New Bolune or New Bunren. Some vendors even claim to be authorised, genuine stores when selling counterfeit goods, operating as knockoff shops.

Several listings of New Bolune (fake New Balance) shoes on the Pinduoduo website.
Fake New Balance shoes branded as New Bolune on Pinduoduo.

According to my previous interviews, it took effort even for the digitally savvy younger adults to identify the genuine products from the countless fakes. How could older adults like Auntie Lu, often considered living on the margins of the digitalised society, become experts in using such complex applications and accumulate a social reputation? I was intrigued.

It was a late autumn evening when I first saw Auntie Lu and her followers. While I was looking forward to this meeting, I was at the same time a bit worried. Rarely had I been involved in the world of older adults, let alone of the ‘Shanghai aunties’, famous in China for being picky and hard to deal with.

Nervously waiting in the square, I saw someone approaching and waving their hands at me. Auntie Lu looked pretty energetic and clever in a purple sports suit. She quickly walked to me, greeting me in a friendly and joyful voice. Such a relief!

She gave me a tour around the square, after which we stopped to greet her friends. 

“We, a group of old people, work out here every day. They also buy things from Pinduoduo, so ask them if there is anything you want to know”, she said, introducing me to two aunties and uncles aged 60 and above.

Surprisingly, these elderly Shanghainese appeared willing to talk with me about Pinduoduo.

“We are old people, and we are slow to learn”, said Auntie Li with a big smile.

“I bought half a kilo of ginger, and half of it was mud”, Auntie Li told me regarding the failures she had experienced on Pinduoduo. She had also bought chestnuts, and “they (the shop) put a lot of red dates in the express box instead of the chestnuts, just fooling us!”

As one of the first older adults in the community to use Pinduoduo, Auntie Lu has a lot of experience and has become a teacher of some sort for others. “She is our teacher”, said Auntie Li. 

“We didn’t know anything about Pinduoduo a while ago. She (Auntie Lu) recommended it to us and taught us how to use it. She often shared Pinduoduo shopping experiences with us, and we would buy what she thinks is good, especially food and fruit.”

Auntie Lu has a set of tactics and a detective-like attitude in identifying genuine goods, reminding me of Jane Marple in Agatha Christie’s crime novels. Once, she wanted to buy a pair of sneakers from a particular brand on Pinduoduo and investigated the subject carefully before the purchase.

“Firstly, you have to see if the online store is authentic. I checked the store’s shipping address and the brand’s factory address. If both are in the same place, it should be okay. Then, I saw this shop has a wide variety of shoes, all of which are from this certain brand, exactly the same style as the official, exclusive store. Finally, I browsed through consumer reviews and saw their confirmation that the products were genuine. After all these steps, I bought a pair of shoes, which turned out to be genuine and of good quality.”

Auntie Lu enjoyed being praised and followed: “As long as I think the product is good, others will too.” Sometimes neighbours trusted her to buy things for them even if they had children of their own to help.

The excellent reputation of Auntie Lu’s previous work and life made other older adults willing to trust and follow her in the exploration of Pinduoduo. Furthermore, her expertise in Pinduoduo enhanced Auntie Lu’s good reputation and influence even further. Sometimes we forget that older people can also be active and innovative players in the game of new technologies.

What are Ethnographic Postcards?

Ethnographic Postcards” began on the small island of Vallisaari as part of a writing workshop during a University of Helsinki anthropology discipline outing held in May 2022. 

The workshop was inspired by anthropologist Alisse Waterston, who prior to the outing on Vallisaari had just visited Helsinki to present at the Anthropology Visiting Seminar.

Her paper, ”Making Knowledge Accessible”, explores how anthropologists can take on more experimental formats and efforts to communicate the work we do. To apply what she taught us, we walked along Vallisaari’s coastal trails and shared our experiences and emotions associated with writing. 

Ethnographic writing can be very personal and ignite unexpected feelings when diving into stories and experiences that have been gathered from the field.

Writing makes visible what we do know, but it also sheds light on the possible wrongdoings of the ethnographer – making the writing process a daunting task to start with. 

Writing groups are a space where one can share feelings of joy and success, but also of fear and procrastination – all things related to the process of (ethnographic) writing. 

We met once a month with the aim of writing a standalone piece of no more than 1000 words within forty-five minutes. Also inspired by Professor Waterston, we used Carole McGranahan’s online series of Flash Ethnography in American Ethnologist as a prompt. 

Everyone who participated usually came to the collective writing sessions with an idea about what they were going to write about – a person, scene, conversation, place or subject based on each person’s fieldwork. 

As works in progress, the purpose of these writing sessions was to turn these ideas into life; to see how they catch the light. 

This series of anthropological stories is the outcome of our writing sessions. We take postcards as a metaphor to share personalised events. 

Similar to the postcards mailed as souvenirs from another place that showcase an iconic city landscape or monumental site, our postcards evoke memories from the anthropologists’ field sites.

AntroBlogi in English

AntroBlogi has always been adamant about promoting the use of the Finnish language in sharing academic viewpoints and knowledge produced within Finnish anthropology. With this series, AntroBlogi has opened the door to experimenting with other languages too. 

Finnish anthropology hosts researchers from all over the world – and AntroBlogi should be a virtual space for everybody making a difference in the local community. 

This does not mean that there will be less Finnish language content on the site nor that we will try to pivot to a global audience. Similar to the ”Ethnographic Postcards” series, we want to keep our publishing work open-ended so that it keeps evolving together with the discipline and the local academic community.

Editorial team

  • Writers (What are Ethnographic Postcards): Suvi Rautio & Emmi Holm
  • Editor: Emmi Holm
  • Proofreading: Maija Sequeira
  • Podcaster: Eemi Nordström
  • Layout: Niina Ahola
  • Featured image: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash (Unsplash license)
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Jingwen Gan

Jingwen Gan is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki. She combines her academic background in Anthropology with a deep passion for digital technologies and emerging digital practices. Her ongoing research is centered around Chinese older adults and their everyday digital practices, exploring how they intersect with broader socio-political contexts and the intricate rhythms of people's daily lives.Katso kirjoittajan artikkelit

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