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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stranger in a Less Strange Land

He stares at me, blatantly, even walking sidewise with his head turned. His gaze fixed on me, the oddity in the hotel breakfast room. I hold his gaze for a moment to try to unlock his fixation, to no avail. He comes closer, still staring at the laowai, the foreigner.

I’m used to standing out. When I catch my reflection in the metro window, even I’m shocked at how different I look. Being surrounded by Chinese people all day changes my residual self image and to see evidence that conflicts with my self image jars my psyche. No wonder little kids on the metro sometimes stare, or wave or say ‘helllloooo’. Light skin, tall frame, blue eyes, different style clothes …. I could not stand out more if I was wearing a clown suit.

If my appearance jars my own psyche, my look must be very intriguing to even the more urbanite dwellers in this megalopolis. The less urbanite communities…small towns within a hour or two drive from here, and I would evoke reactions not much different than a UFO. I must admit my ego finds that a little thrilling. How cool is it to be special just by showing up?

But not now. Now it’s not cool. Now being different bothers me, makes me uncomfortable beneath the weight of the rude stare of this stranger. He must be recently arrived into the big city from a surrounding town. He stops in front of me and says “Paul”?

I recognize him as soon as he speaks. A former co-worker from the other side of the planet! Amazing. Later in the day, I meet another former co-worker in the local Starbucks. The world is getting smaller, and this place is globalizing quickly. Lilly, GSK, Novartis, BI all have large sites within a block of each other here. Several ‘small’ Chinese companies are here (each hiring about up to 1000 scientists).

Now, I expect the unusual event of happening upon an old co-worker from the other side of the planet on the streets of Shanghai to continue with increased frequency.

And it makes me smile.

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