The Colonel and Me

The Chi­nese Art of Cre­at­ing Fa­mil­iar­ity

That's China - - Contents - Text by / David P. Pur­nell

桑德斯大叔在前门

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

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