This past weekend was festival time in China, which means a Monday holiday for a lot of the country. To say the least, I took advantage of the extra day and flew over to Shanghai to visit my old brother-in-arms Bartosz Slowik.
It was a time of excess, a time of optimism, a time of late nights and late mornings. I got to see a glimpse of China’s most cosmopolitan city with its huge population of ex-pats, ex-pat couples, and ex-pat babies. At first, I couldn’t help but feel the Chinese country bumpkin in me. I’d point and say, “Lao wai! Lao wai!” every time I’d see a foreigner, just as so many Chinese have done to me in the past. The foreigners were just everywhere.
But what was their mood? What was their vibe? Mostly indifferent. Distant. Hidden by their own invisible bubble. Bartosz and I talked about the ex-pat culture in Shanghai and we concluded that the competition that comes with a city of 24 million people (many of which are business people) leaves little room for passing friendliness.
Another way to put it: imagine being in a room with someone from your hometown. You don’t know them that well but you know where they’re from, you know what kind of person they are, their old neighborhood, and the places they vacationed. They know the same about you, but here, in this room, they’re in a senior position. You have to be on guard.
It’s kind of like that amongst Shanghai ex-pats. You see another foreigner and you judge them on the spot. Are they English teachers? Is their Chinese better than mine? What neighborhood do they live in? Are they HongQiao workaholics or PuDong breeders? They probably make more money than I do. They’ve probably been here longer than me…
I started to greet everyone with a smile. “Oh hello there!” to the German-looking lady. “What’s up?” to the skate boarder dude with a Chinese friend. “Cute kid” to the young foreign family with a baby in the stroller (so many foreigners with kids in Shanghai).
Then I see this guy, this tall, skinny, pale, blond-haired dude towering above a paparazzi of Chinese girls. They’re taking photos of him. They’re swooning. They’re holding up home-made signs with love letters and pictures of him. A Chinese agent keeps the crowd at a controlled distance. A girl is allowed to pose with him and she adds another smooch mark to his cheek.
I ask an older Chinese guy who this white boy is and he gives me a duh-huh expression. “That’s Blue Steel [or something]! He’s from California!”
I look over the crowd and see this dude. California boy with some kind of international pop star rep in Shanghai. Our eyes meet. I shake my head. Who is this guy? What’s his game? Is his Chinese is better than mine? Has he’s lived here longer than me? Does he make more money than me?