On the Hong Kong subway today, I was the only one in the car (or for that matter the platforms we passed) with blonde hair. My travel companion, Nancy, has let her hair go gray but she was at one time a blue-eyed blonde with skin much fairer than mine. “I’m the mutant here,” I thought to myself, but when I shared that thought with Nancy, she pointed out that really, Asians are mutants too. So are we all, unless we are pure-blooded indigenous Southern Africans.
We know now beyond a doubt that Europe and Scandinavia were the last areas to be populated by human beings, and that the light skin of people in those regions is due to a need to lose melanin so as to improve skin absorption of Vitamin D in the short season when people could go around lightly clothed. So yes, the Chinese are mutants too, but I am quite a bit more so.
It has been quite a learning experience for me to be the odd one out in Asia. I am the one people don’t understand, I am the purportedly odd-looking one. I am the one making all the subtle cultural faux pas that would brand someone an outsider even if appearance didn’t scream it.
Throw that up against the other major realization I have had China so far. All my life I have been fed the story of American superiority, and I find now that while we’re were enjoying a long, complacent nap, China not only caught up but has surpassed us in many ways. Quite honestly, except for Broadway, there isn’t anything I can think of about New York that compares favorably to Hong Kong. The subway is clean and spacious, with sliding doors at the platforms, like airport trams, to keep people safe. Public transportation is multifaceted and it all seems to work. The buildings are modern and everything seems so much better maintained.
Yes, you may say, but go out into the countryside, or into more impoverished areas, and you will see another reality. To which I reply, are you talking about the United States or China? There are many American towns, neighborhoods, and cities that are on the same level as what we so dismissively call “third world.”
Shanghai is the largest container port in the world. Think about what that means. Astonishing amounts of goods are coming out of China, growing their economy daily.
I used to think it might be true that China was gradually winning a battle for supremacy with the US. I don’t think that any more. I think they have already won. That’s why it has been such a strange experience to be the blonde one. I used to be from the group that was on top, the global winners, from the coolest country on earth. Now, that feeling is gone. I guess Americans are just going to have to learn to do a better job of sharing, starting with a healthy dose of humility.
I don’t think we have much practice at either sharing or humility. I think we’d rather just keep hearing about American Exceptionalism until every one of our corroded bridges has fallen and we all know someone who has died from medical neglect. Exceptionally myopic about America and Americans, that’s what we are, and we have only begun to pay the price.