The Colonel and Me
The Chinese Art of Creating Familiarity
As I was still grasping the implications, and probably stroking my beard, trying to find comfort in the nervous gesture but suddenly conscious of how white it had become, she cocked her head, pointing with raised finger in the air for effect, and said, “You know you really look like that Kentucky Fried Chicken guy!”
The way other people perceive us is always interesting, often amusing, but sometimes baffling or better not discovered in the first place. Being of the mongrel descent that produced the plain old, white American, I was always surprised when Chinese friends and acquaintances would say, “Ni zhenshi Meiguoren ma?” (Are you really an American?). Like many compatriots lately, I’ve craved more ethnic identity, enshrining my Celtic and Viking DNA and jumping out of the great American “melting pot.” But it always comes as a shock to find someone who doubts that I’m American at all, and all the more so when they think I’m Russian or German. Of course, I bring these mildly startling revelations upon myself by being so gregarious and willing to play the guessing game. Walking down the street, I’ve always enjoyed people I overhear saying things like, “Here comes a Russian!” giving me the opportunity to pipe in, “Nope…American.” Nothing nationalistic about it; just for everyone’s fun. I was even honored once to be pronounced a Kazakh minority member by a curious group at an outdoor market one glorious morning. *** Other times, these perceptions of those around us seem to sneak up first and then burst upon you, suddenly challenging what you pompously thought you knew about yourself. One day in Hangzhou, while waiting along the street in the sun (for a bus or a friend to come out of the
nd bookstore), I started to engage in idle chatter with an older lady also waiting there. I’ve always been pretty compulsive that way – talking to strangers in elevators, making friends with taxi drivers. Why be quiet when the chance to know someone new is right there in front of you? There is a custom in China to compel much younger relatives to call a recent acquaintance “shushu” (uncle) or “a yi” (auntie), thereby instantly creating a bond of familiarity. It produces a very pleasant effect, but I always wondered how the kids felt about having to make a total stranger their “relative” on demand. (I actually tried to employ the custom with my Chinese-speaking son once or twice when he was small, but quite unsuccessfully.) At an appropriate pause in the conversation, the woman looked around and motioned for her grandson to come over and, indicating in my direction, said, “Kuai, shuo yeye.” (Quick, say grandpa.). I clearly understood what she said, and the young boy parroted, but turned to see if perhaps someone else, much older, had come into view…. Grandpa? As I was still grasping the implications, and probably stroking my beard, trying to find comfort in the nervous gesture but suddenly conscious of how white it had become, she cocked her head, pointing with raised finger in the air for effect, and said, “You know you really look like that Kentucky Fried Chicken guy!” I was in Beijing when they opened the very first KFC in China, right by Qianmen. I believe it was the biggest in the world. I was sure it would fail, considering how meticulous Chinese people usually seem to be about food. Ah well, I was wrong. And I guess I do look a little like the Colonel after all.
Opening celebration of the first KFC restaurant in Beijing