Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Hello in There
It happened yet again the other day.
I was walking back from the grocery near my Shenzhen flat when I spotted a fellow foreign barbarian single-mindedly striding along the same stretch of sidewalk toward me.
He was lanky, probably in his mid-50s with a pinched, pasty demeanor that suggested ``neurotic European fleeing several ex-wives and 12-year-old tax issues'' though I'll never know because, despite my attempt at eye contact and a friendly nod, he passed quickly as if I was slightly noxious vapor.
I've been in the same 22-floor dwelling complex for about 20 months and - except for another geweilo who nests irregularly five floors below depending on his girlfriend's mood and where the little men who live in his socks tell him to sleep - I think I'm the closest thing the block has to a foreign fixture. My Chinese neighbors, local merchants and I regularly exchange nei-hou's, hellos, smiles, goods and services and, yes, once in a great while a few words that aren't fit for print.
Unlike Hong Kong where black, brown and white skin is no novelty, a lot of Shenzhen, save Shekou district, is still a cheerful mostly foreigner-free zone. Hard figures are hard to come by, but most estimates put us at about 10,000 among a total population that veers between 7 and 10 million depending on who's talking and how much they've had to drink.
To our occasional irritation we're still a curiousity to many of the natives, especially the children and the elderly women in the grocery who often express stunned amazement and glee when discerning that foreigners also utilize apples, botttled water, chicken and soap.
And frankly, another alien face is usually also a welcome Shenzhen novelty to me, which is why I make an effort at at least politely acknowledging another individual of non-Asiatic origin when we happen to cross paths or share an elevator.
It's a usually fruitless effort at curing what I call, ``Marco Polo Syndrome,'' or MPS.
MPS: the silent social killer.
Symptoms: exaggerated manifestations of superiority and exclusivity fostered by the delusion that the individual was the first and only foreigner to ``discover'' China. While it's difficult to fathom how one can still engage in this egrecious self-deception while standing under a glowing neon 20-foot visage of Colonel Sanders, it's apparently not an uncommmon affliction.
Cure? Apparently none, though foreign friends in Shenzhen also confirmed my findings through their own research.
``I don't understand it either,'' a Texan named Sam confessed over some beers a group ranging from Americans, Brits, a Canadian and a Bolivian were killing in a small bar outside the Shenzhen Jusco mall. Sam was our hub, his Shenzhen-centered website and some e-mails had created a wobbly temporary wheel of expats all bemoaning the aloofness of our peers.
``Let me try something,'' I said. I had spotted a duo of other white ghosts sitting at another table outside. Wandering casually up, I smiled, gestured to Sam's club at the bar and said, ``Hey, would you guys like to join us?''
``Piss off,'' one said without looking up. His companion made brief eye contact and snickered.
``I think they're of UK, possibly Aussie-origin,'' I reported upon my return. ``Definitely Western carbon-based life forms exhibiting rudimentary, hostile social skills.''
``Another case of MPS I'm guessing,'' replied one of our gathering.
``Sad,'' said another.
The youngest member of our group, a putonghua(Mandarin)-fluent, 20something US English teacher named Patrick broke in with a confession.
``I do that sometimes,'' he blurted out. ``I might have MPS. I'll be wandering around some little lane in a remote neighborhood thinking I'm the only foreigner there and all of a sudden there's some foreign dude walking up out of nowhere and I'm irritated. `This is my turf!' I'm thinking. `Get out!'''
``Yeah, but they...'' I pointed to the Chinese waitress and Sam's Chinese wife, ``They were there first.''
``I know, man. But sometimes I can't help myself!'' Patrick said, mock-sobbing.
The next evening I was at the Lucky Number elevator area where I found a middle-aged foreigner I'd never before seen waiting with his Chinese wife or girlfriend.
We both smiled. It was suddenly promising.
``Hi,'' I said. ``Where you from?''
``Bonjour,'' he replied. ``No Anglais. Francais.''
``Nei-hou'' I said. ``Americano. Yankee. But Bush no gusto. Muy mal. Muy merde. Viva Chirac! No parlevouz Francais. No parlevouz putonghua. Hablo Espanol?''
``No,'' he said. ``Italiano?''
No, but through a bastardized scramble of pidgin Spanish, French, English, Italian and crude sign language we managed to establish our names, ages, occupations, apartment numbers and pledged to an unspecified date for a longer meet and greet involving Tsingtao ``biere.''
Just one case of MPS nipped in the bud, I thought. But sometimes that's enough.
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