Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wednesday in Shanghai

Here is what has happened today so far. (It’s only 2 pm.)

I got a list of questions from the Museum on things they’d like me to talk about at an upcoming conference with all the volunteer tour guides. These include discussing Jewish celebrities, the difference between Christianity and Judaism, why Jews are sometimes connected with Communism (I wonder if they know about Marx’s complicated relationship with Judaism, and if not, if I should be the one to break the news), and my personal favorite, how come Jews decided to help their fellow Jews (referring to the work JDC did here in the 40s with Holocaust refugees), “despite the fact that they were also under the great pressure of being Jewish themselves?” And I’m pretty sure these have been edited down quite a bit already.

Then I had jelly fish at a fancy press conference lunch. I must say, it’s probably down there with raw tomatoes on my list of least-favorite foods. I had a revelation about Chinese food, though: so much of it is about the diversity of texture, and not of actual flavor. Jelly fish was somewhere on the crunchy-slimy spectrum.

Then I met a North Korean. What’s ironic is that I was walking into a very fancy department store, looking quite fancy myself from the press conference, to go buy chickpeas at the very fancy (and expensive) imported-goods supermarket, to make hummus for the four dinners I have this week (two of which are Thanksgiving). This guy cut me off entering the revolving door, so I stopped to let him through.  He glanced back, made the “Gasp! A foreigner!” face, and gestured for me to go in with him. I refused and then went into the next slot (what are those compartments called?).

He turned back and said “Hi! I’m from North Korea. Where are you from?”

“Mexico,” I replied, thinking it’s probably the most exotic-while-accessible place I’m from, and realized we were already shaking hands.

Then I think he said his name, but I completely forgot because of what happened next.

“You look like Snow White – “ he said.

“I really don’t.” I said, smiling and wondering what I looked like to him. The only Disney princess I (very) vaguely resemble is Jasmine.

“ – and I am Mickey Mouse!” He raised his arms to the ceiling.

Wait, what?

But before I even started thinking about a response, he said “I’m from North Korea! It’s very nice to meet you!” and opened his arms, wide. Too wide for any normal interaction with someone you just met. I literally gaped at him, this short, scrawny, not at all Chinese-looking, guy.

He took a step towards me and muttered something. I swear it was “Now we hug!”

“No…no.” I said, nudging him away slightly (he was very close at that point).

“Ok, goodbye!” He said abruptly, turning away from me. I was left with the distinct impression that they taught him that if the foreigner doesn’t hug you at the end of an interaction, you failed.

I walked away giggling, and stood in front of the escalator for a few seconds. I had never encountered someone performing such a strict script, without even realizing that that’s what they are doing. There are rituals, traditions, ways of greeting people, but they usually evolve naturally and are based on innocent assumptions – guests should be treated with respect, this is how you pray, or eat, or celebrate. Not on fabricated analyses of the Western psyche. And certainly not without reading cues and letting things happen naturally. It’s a terrifying degree of brainwashing that I’d never encountered in such a spontaneous way before.

I feel sad now.  

1 comment:

  1. Being in your position knowing the world, and melting into different cultures, it sounds like a very rich and amazing experience.
    Take care and keep up the excellent work.
    I love your incredible writing.