Chapter Six – Passage Two
“Real talk a sec. Stop being dim a moment,” says Coleman. “I’m talking about wherever I go and whatever I do in this country, people seem to treat me like some kinda zoo exhibit. A sort of endangered species on display for all to see.”
I sigh and fold my laptop lid. It’s clear I’ll be getting no work done this morning. Earlier on our car ride from JFL to the Jinshui High Speed Rail station that was 30-some kilometers away, we’d stopped by a Seven-Eleven convenience shop that’d literally been in the middle of nowhere, some small village off the bypass. It’d been early and everyone needed orange juice and whatever in China passed for convivence-store breakfast (in this case, boiled eggs marinated in soy sauce and tasteless rice cakes). As chance would have it, there was some local school bus that’d also similarly stopped over while we were there while apparently on some sort of field trip. The Chinese school children had filtered out of the bus in abject wonder and crowded around Coleman like he was some kinda celebrity. Smartphones out, snapping selfies, the whole nine yards.
“Coleman, dude,” I say, “put yourself in their shoes. You know China’s a closed country. No open borders. Heavily controlled and restricted movement everywhere. For those kids, seeing an actual black person was like meeting Tom Cruise or something. Look around you– does this particular part of China strike you as remarkably multicultural and racially diverse?”
“But I’m not a museum display!”
“Good God, man, stop whining. You should be happy! You’re gonna grace their Instagram and Facebook feeds today. Or whatever Chinese copycats of those are here in rip-off country. You’ll be famous for all of fifteen minutes, or maybe more like two, and then everyone’ll forget and move onto the next TikTok video or whatever. Who cares?”
“And you’re the only one,” I say. “Stop being ornery about it. To these people you’re OJ Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama all rolled into one. These kids have only seen black people in movies, in TV shows, and on their Saturday morning anime cartoon shows. To them, you are the entirety of black people.”
“Jesus! We’re well into the twenty-first century! This isn’t the 1700s!”
“So what?” I shake my head. To be fair, I was over a decade older than Coleman, a total newb so painfully fresh right outta school. But it still struck me as absurd just how bubbled college-grads were these days. Were they seriously learning anything on those fancy college campuses?
“It’s not like western progressivism is evenly distributed the world over,” I patiently explain. “And with an authoritarian, autocratic country like China, the cultural value systems are even more stark because they’ve top-down resisted western liberal ideology. If it feels in certain facets like the 1700s around here, it’s because the Communist party wants it to, at least culturally.”
I look at Coleman for a moment.
“Also, didn’t you study political science? Jesus, why do I even need to be telling you this?”
Coleman huffs up, clearly agitated. I obviously struck a nerve.
“I specialize in American elections,” he says. The amount of pompousness in his tone is palpable. “Specifically, American political and electoral history and innerworkings. How the proverbial sausage is made.”
I raise an eyebrow. “If you consider yourself a high-end charcutier,” I say, “it’d still behoove you to know about bacon and prosciutto. Your precious American sausages aren’t the alpha-and-omega of it all, you know.”
“Oh please.” Coleman scoffs. “My massive intellect can’t be bothered with these obscure meanderings of these plebians. Who knows what going through their empty heads? These Neanderthals are the very definition of the collective herd. There’s not a single original thought in the whole lot of them.”
“The Chinese people may be unoriginal but they’re united.”
Coleman and I both sit up in seats a little straighter and look behind us. It turns out Alan’s been there the entire time, apparently eavesdropping. Coleman doesn’t turn red exactly but I can tell he’s at least a tad embarrassed. Good to know the kid’s still capable of at least a little shame.
“Oh. Alan. Sorry, I didn’t mean–“
Alan holds up his hand. “No worries. No offense taken. Well, maybe a little taken. But your ignorance speaks more about you than us. Don’t worry, I’ll sleep fine tonight.”
“Even if your descriptions are incomplete,” Alan continues, “there is a seed of truth in them. You’re correct that the Chinese people are wholly more collective in their identities than westerners. Whereas you emphasize the individual, here in the east –especially the rural east– the family name is still everything. Your family’s reputation in a village is your destiny. Remember that most of these rural Uyghurs and Chinese in the region have never set foot outside their province. For them, it’s truly a small world.”
“But you’ve got the internet! Smartphones and YouTube!” Coleman protests. “Geographical parochiality is no excuse for ignorance.”
Alan merely shrugs. “Yes and no. It’s accurate that with the CCP’s Broadband Initiative a decade ago, all of China is indeed connected and online. But seeing black people on YouTube and in movies is a far cry, you’d surely agree, from meeting them in the flesh and blood.” Alan pauses and his furrows his brow. And then adds: “Though I do feel it’s ironic that parts of rural China have internet connectivity but not clean running water or food security.”
It’s my time to shrug. “Internet’s actually trivial, if you really think about it,” I say. “You can easily generate electricity with a hand-crank. And internet is simply beamed to you from satellites up in outer space. But clean running water requires infrastructure. And modern crop yield, if you’re not already surrounded by developed agriculture, requires supply chains. It’s not as ironic as you might at first suppose, to have internet before you have food and water.”
Alan can only shake his head. “I guess? Still, something insane about it all, if you ask me.” He turns to Coleman. “Dexter’s right though. We’ve brought in you Americans to consult and advise on this project in Xinjiang. But to get anywhere with it, you need to understand China and Xinjiang. We obviously value your western perspectives, else you wouldn’t be here at all. But you’re going to need to learn a lot about us too.”
“I actually don’t get why you didn’t bring in people more specialized and familiar with China,” I say, voicing a thought that’s been percolating in my head for a while now. “Why bring in a bunch of people who know nothing about this entire geographic region and history?”
Alan looks at me. “Who says we didn’t try that first?”