Friday, September 18, 2009

Blending (Ha!) In

            A couple weeks ago I walked into the restaurant here on campus to pick up a to-go order.  The woman running the place took one look at me and said, “You’re American, right?”

I frowned.  Most of the whites on campus are Aussies and Kiwis, with the occasional Canadian thrown in just to keep things boring.  “How could you tell?”

The woman, whose name is Esther, grinned:  “The way you walk.  The way you dress.  Even before you open your mouth, I know.”

“Wow,” I said.  “That bad, huh?”

“Besides,” she replied.  “I worked for Caterpillar for 22 years.  I know an American when I see one.”


I remember one night back in England in the 80s when I was leaning on the railing of a balcony at a club, waiting for the Psychedelic Furs to come on (no wonder I had no friends in the States).  I had hair down to my shoulders, a couple earrings in each ear, and I weighed maybe 320 pounds less than I do now. 

A teenage girl with thick eyeliner and a chain connecting her nose to her ear to her Doc Martins clomped over and asked me if it looked like the band was finally going to start. 

“No,” I said.  “They’re probably in back snorting coke through the broken neck of a Chivas bottle.” 

She gaped at me.  “What?  Are you American or something?”

Or something.  I loved the fact that she couldn’t distinguish me from an Englishman.  Why exactly I’d find my similarity to a pasty, scurvied race with poor oral hygiene appealing is a mystery to me now, but never mind:  I was blending in.  


Strangely, good teeth or not, I haven’t blended so well in Hong Kong.

The reasons for this are many as well as manifold, but generally come down to the fact that I’m a fat, bald, luminously pale white guy. 

Consider, for instance, this picture, which used to be the photo at the top of my blog. 

 In  the center you see a cute little boy in a tie-dyed t-shirt, holding a camera.  Just to the left is his sister, barely visible by her blonde hair.  And next to her is Mount Kilimanjaro just before liposuction—oh, no, wait:  that’s me.  Blending in.   I like the way I’m hunched over slightly.  Like that’ll help. 

Making it worse is the fact that, besides being huge and bald and fat, I sweat like friggin’ hippopotamus, or a giraffe, or a lemur, or some kind of animal that really really sweats.  I can wake up in our air-conditioned flat, eat breakfast shivering in my PJs, take a shower, put on clean clothes, walk down the hall to the elevator, take it down two floors, walk down another short hall to another elevator, take it down six floors, stroll across a parking lot into the open air but shaded hallway they built so you can stroll from one end of campus to the other protected from the sun and rain, get to my building, take the elevator up to my floor, get out, and stroll into my office exactly 3 minutes after I left my flat, looking like someone who’s just been flushed.  Seriously?  Sometimes my fingers are so sweaty I can’t even hold the key to open my door.  In old Tai Po, there’s a guy who sells newspapers who always gives me a packet of Kleenex when I buy the South China Morning Post. 

Making it even worse is the fact that I’ve got perfect skin.  All my pores work beautifully.  What this means is that, when I sweat, it forms perfect little beads on my big bald head, making me look like freshly waxed car after a thunderstorm. 

Then there’s my wife.  I know this will shock anyone who’s ever spent more than three minutes with her, but she’s totally tossed the blending in thing to the wind.  Oh, sure, she learned Cantonese and can ask for her egg noodles like a native.  But that doesn’t really make up for her blatant use of her camera.

“You think I can take a picture of them?” she said one night as we were passing a large group of monks in orange robes.

“It’s probably kind of rude,” I said, ever the sensitive one.

“Oh what the hell,” she replied.  She whipped out her camera.  “They expect it.  We’re Americans.”

I looked where she was focusing.  “But I think it’s some kind of funeral.”

She just grunted.

“I mean, doesn’t that one guy look really sad?”

“I’m getting closer,” she said, Cannon crammed to her face.  “I can’t get his tears in this light.”

All the more ironic is the fact that Ellen is the one who used to make fun of Americans.  When she was a kid living in Oxford England, she said you could always tell the Yankees from a hundred feet away.  “They were the ones chewing gum,” she said, exaggerating wide chewing with her mouth.  “And they wore those stupid shoes, Ducks.  You remember those?  You would see those weird footprints in the snow, and know you were following an American.”

Americans who, I might add, probably didn’t take pictures of the locals doing Tai Chi.


Keep in mind of course, that the minute we step off campus, chances are we're the only white for miles around.  (Or, more accurately, the minute we're a mile from campus, we're the only white for miles around.)  When I go down to central I find myself wanting to nod to all the white people, as if we've met before, which of course we have not.  According to some book I read somewhere, back when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, less than 2% of its then 6.5 million people were non-Chinese.  If you do the math, this comes to either 13,000 or 6.8 trillion people, I’m not sure which because I’m an English professor.  Either way, I feel very safe saying that none of these people live in Tai Po.

Which makes it all the more surprising that there are some days where you’re walking along and you suddenly go, “Dang.  This place has a lot of Asians.”

I know that sounds funny, but it’s true:  you’ll be working in your office all morning, corresponding with folks back home, or discussing service learning with Huixuan, who’s from the mainland, and you’ll just sort of forget.  Where you are.  Who you are.  I mean, you’re when you’re in the States, you don’t consciously walk around all day thinking, “Hey!  I’m in Virginia!”  So why should you walk around China saying, “Hey!  I’m in Hong Kong!”?  Where you are is where you are, nothing more or less. 

Similarly, you don’t spend all day looking at your face (okay, well, most days) and thinking, “Gosh, I’m white!”  You don’t look at your face, or at you’re body, you look out of them.  And when you’re looking out you see tall people and short people and people with bad teeth and people with funny hair and well-dressed folks and people who you wonder could that really be underwear on her head?  And you don’t think about being white or not or big or not or different or not.  You’re just you and you’re where you are, doing what you do.

Until, of course, you get on some elevator somewhere, and a guy with glasses and spiky hair takes a moment to look you up from toe to tip.  And then says, almost plaintively:  “Soooo tall.” 

And his girlfriend, who has a perm and a t-shirt that states “#1 Meaningful Gesture,” stares at your sweaty forehead and adds, “And so shiny, too.”

 Please note:  this is a personal blog full of dirty words and plots against the government and Ben and Jerry's and in no way reflects (most) of the views of the kind people who've given me money for various reasons over the various years.  


Anonymous said...

Lloyd Cole wrote a song about you, didn't he?

Paul Hanstedt said...

It's nice to know someone did. Is there one in particular you're thinking of?

Anonymous said...

"Perfect Skin", duh. Although the gender in that song is incorrect. And you don't have cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin.

Paul Hanstedt said...

Sadly, no cheekbones at all these days. And eyes more like a weasel's. And there's not a lot of songs about them.

Christopher Boudewyns said...

I can painfully relate to the sweaty characteristic... No wonder I loved the MN winters. Love reading your posts! Chris