China is a dangerous place, but it has little crime. Murder, robbery, assault—these concerns do not keep my up at night. Rather, China is a dangerous place for my ego. Being a foreigner, I am often accorded a respect and popularity unrivaled in the United States, regardless of my true character.
At this Wednesday’s English Corner—which consists of David and me finding a shady patch on campus to have students surround us to practice their English—a sprite of a youngster, clearly too young to be in my classes, came up and introduced himself. He had a wide grin and a brave confidence that flew in the face of the modesty and shyness stereotypical of Chinese students. He grinned widely as he spoke English so fluent it belied his young appearance.
“I’ve heard about you,” he declared. “We’ve ALL heard about you,” he said, grinning with the satisfaction of drawing the center of attention of the small crowd of this week’s installment of English Corner.
“Oh, really?” I said. “What grade are you in?”
“You can’t imagine how popular you are,” he said. “I’m in second year middle school, and we’ve all heard about you. We talk about you every day. We don’t even know your name or where you’re from, but we all know who you are.”
As English Corner concluded, his words grew more unsettling in my mind. More popular than you can ever imagine. He hadn’t taken my class, interacted with me, or even known where I was from before meeting me that day, but he and others in the crowd had come to see me, the new celebrity.
How can this be healthy? But so it is, in China. I breathe polluted air, but I fear more the polluted ego that comes from adulation and popularity that is disconnected from any actual sense of accomplishment or character.
It’s not hard to spot foreigners who are drawn to China by the thick clouds of ego pollution. It’s all to easy to come to China to sport a new, more popular persona. I see it in the fat, balding men who are career English teachers earning next to nothing by US standards, but who revel in being termed “foreign experts.” I see it in bars and clubs, where guys who look like they’ve hopped out of their computer programming classes to shed their personas for a new one which receives praise and respect or coolness. I see these guys with bleached hair spiked way up, wearing sunglasses in dark bars, and I wonder whether the Chinese around me can see their put-on personas.
So it is my job this year to keep my ego grounded and my character based on reality in a school where I’m already famous and a country where everyone will compliment my Chinese or tell me I look like “that one movie star, although I can’t remember which one.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think you’re that great,” my friend Emily said on the phone from the US that night. So do me a favor if you’re in touch or if you happen to visit: bruise my ego a bit and save me from the choking ego pollution before it’s too late.