Friday, September 07, 2007

Déjà who?

It's pretty standard that Beijing cabbies look nothing like the picture on the driver registration card on the dash. But the other day I found myself looking at a cabbie picture that didn't even look Chinese. No, he looked like a swarthier version of the British character actor Pete Postlethwaite.

A discombobulating moment!

I wonder if this is a variation of the odd little cognitive phenomenon I experienced after my first visit here. When I visited Wuhan and the central provinces in the Spring and early Summer of '94, I travelled around for nearly 3 months. And at that time, there were very few foreigners here. Most of the places I was visiting were Teacher Training Colleges way out in the sticks, purposefully sited away from the potentially corrupting influence of the big cities. In most of these places, I was the only foreigner the place had ever seen, apart from their foreign teachers - who were rarely more than two, and sometimes only one. (It was perhaps some measure of how used the Faculties were to having a lone token foreign teacher that the typical nickname for the lucky holder of such a position was simply laowai - "old outside-person" [the 'old' is meant to be honorific; the 'outside' is not]. When my friend Richard's mini-university was assigned two foreign English teachers by the British Council, he became lao laowai [i.e. "old old", as the more senior, and thus more deserving of respect - if only by a few years] and his colleague Toby was lumbered with the novel - and much less impressive - title of xiao laowai [little old etc.].) While travelling between these places and round about, I'd often go for a few days at a time without seeing a non-Chinese face. In all the time I was in China, I didn't meet more than about 15 foreigners. As compared to about 500,000,000 Chinese faces I'd seen.

After that, I had brief spells in Hong Kong and Singapore to ease me back into a slightly more familiar life, a slightly more diverse mix of ethnicity - but still, of course, skewed very heavily towards the Chinese. Then I hit Sydney - solidly WASP. Quite a culture shock. And for a week or so, almost everyone I met reminded me of someone. Usually some minor celebrity from film or TV. The girl who drove the airport pick-up for the hostel I stayed at, for example, looked like a younger sister of the English comedienne Josie Lawrence. And my first room-mate was the effeminately good-looking actor Rupert Everett.

It's easy enough to see how that kind of thing happens. And it soon wore off.

But if I have been here so long that I now start fancying that Chinese people are lookalikes of slightly-famous white film stars, well..... I worry about what's happening to my brain.

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