Saturday, October 29, 2005

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The other day John told me that I was the inspiration for one of his "Snobs in China", specifically this one:

There are the “I am so 老百姓 snobs”. These are the opposite of the traditional snobs. They arrive in China and move right into the slums to live with their Chinese “brethren.” They get 5 rmb haircuts and eat 5-10 rmb meals, exclusively Chinese. They usually don’t show a lot of contempt for those who want normal conveniences, but neither do they recognize the absurdity of their own actions. This kind of snob is specific to big cities, but is otherwise basically the same as the “Real China” snob.

I guess I should admit that I fall into that category; I think the reason I didn't see this right away is like the reason we think the phone always rings while we're in the shower: we remember the times we failed more than the times we succeed. So the times I cringe at taking a taxi because time is too tight to wait for the bus; or when I hesitate because a friend suggests meeting for dinner at ritzy Xintiandi; or when my face goes long realizing that there are more 老外 at a rock concert than there are locals; all those times stick out in my mind more than the times when I manage to live a more "commmon" lifestyle.

But let me say a few words in defense of the 老百姓 snob. I think the reason I put forward the effort to be this kind of snob is because I reject the status boost I might get from the stereotypes that Chinese hold about Western folk: they're educated, creative, high-flying, party hard, and come to take charge. Consequently, I have to actively try to frame myself back into the same "social status" that I would have had back at home: just your average college graduate working his way into the middle class, feeling out of place in places like Rodeo Drive in Hollywood, considering his pocketbook when he dines out, and still having a warm spot in his heart for the street food and home-cooking of his youth. It's not that the 老百姓 snob is absurd, it's that he's more sensitive to taking advantage of people thinking he's something he's not.

Not that I don't realize I'm different; I will take advantage of being a foreigner abroad by taking English-teaching or translating jobs, but taking a higher salary just because I have a white face is something that weighs on my conscience. Maybe a useful metric to live by would be, if I was an immigrant from Nigeria would I have this option (of taking this higher salary, being invited to this party, being asked to take part in the filming of this commercial)?

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