Elizabeth Arnold

How Online Shopping Became One International Student’s Unexpected Remedy for Culture-Shock

September 25, 2017
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Regardless of how much research you undertake prior to moving to a new place, you never know what mundane cultural practices lie ahead until you settle into your neighbourhood. After all, daily-life cultural norms are so ordinary, they usually go unnoticed. As a foreigner, people sometimes ask me what I will miss most about Beijing once I return home to Vancouver. I will miss the little things that I take for granted in my daily life here. I will miss the cheap and delicious food and the warm-hearted, down-to-earth people. But what I couldn’t anticipate prior to moving to Beijing, was that an ordinary activity like online shopping—something I don’t do in Canada—would become part of my daily-life; and that it would be something that I will surely miss. In fact, throughout my eight months in Beijing, I have devoted my MA research to studying Taobao.com. Throughout my research, I learned that not only do foreigners manage to shop on Taobao (despite linguistic barriers, among other challenges), but that Taobao seems to be essential to life in Beijing. So, while I had expected to miss Chinese food and Chinese people, I had no idea that Taobao shopping would make the list.

The Rise of E-commerce
Online shopping is gaining worldwide popularity. In the past decade or two, most big retailers have opened up online stores in addition to their brick-and-mortar stores, and some retailers even operate online exclusively. To date, online shopping has seen the most success in Asian countries, which make up about half of the total global e-commerce sales of 2015. This success is only expected to increase, with China at the forefront of the burgeoning industry. Of course, e-commerce is not only available to established retailers. Consumer-to-consumer (C2C) platforms like Craigslist.com or Ebay.com in the West have seen unprecedented success, allowing consumers to become retailers. Alibaba Group’s Taobao.com—which was established in 2003—is the world’s largest C2C website, hosting 7.1 million sellers and 435 million buyers (2016). Alexa internet traffic analytics found that Taobao ranks within the top 3 most-visited websites in China as well as the 12th most-visited worldwide (2016). Clearly, Taobao is a go-to website for Chinese consumers. It offers a lifestyle, showcasing promotions of family trips, and the famous Single’s Day shopping festival which is even broadcast on television.

What I found particularly strange is that while Taobao has virtually no English-user interface, my foreign friends and I still rely on it for most of our consumption needs. In fact, most international students at CUC rely on Taobao, despite not speaking Mandarin. This is even more noteworthy given that like me, many students don’t shop online in their home countries. So, throughout my research, I interviewed twelve university students in hopes to learn more about the cross-cultural appeal of Taobao.com.