Throughout Chinese Rocks a number of theories about ex-pat life (both in China and in general) are put forth. One such theory is “The Great Equalizer” theory. This theory states that ex-pats tend to make friendships faster than most people, and often with people pretty far removed from the social circles they would normally move in back home.
Here are some book excepts which elaborate on that theory…
“After Liz told us that she’d been a public health official in the US and came from a very proper WASP background, it occurred to me that if we’d met in another time or place, we never would’ve been friends simply because of our different backgrounds.
Yet here we were, dumping slices of lamb, bean sprouts and leafy bundles of kai lan (Chinese broccoli) into a bubbling vat, brought together by the bond of sharing a common experience, one that I thought wasn’t unlike being in combat or playing on a championship sports team.
China, I thought, was the Great Equalizer.
And so it was that my circle of friends now included several female Chinese English teachers, a 12-year-old girl, a Christian from Wisconsin, an unemployed single father with some dependency issues, a police captain and a math professor.”
“And furthermore, based on the way she’d latched onto me, I was beginning to think that my initial assessment of her had been wrong and her interest in me wasn’t as pure as I’d expected.
If this was the case, it’d be a complicated development indeed.
She surprised me even more accompanying Rob, Orson, Wolf, Christos and myself to La Bamba after the show where we had a late-night feast of nachos, pizza and burritos over several beers while ribbing each other with friendly jokes in the time-honoured tradition of drunken male bonding.
Sunshine sat, watched with amusement and often tried to join in the conversation. My gut instinct told me she was a nice, typical “good girl” Chinese university student, but typical Chinese good girls didn’t stay out until three o’ clock in the morning with a guy they’d just met; they didn’t go to places like La Bamba at four o’ clock in the morning with five drunk foreign guys and they sure as hell didn’t hang out at rock and roll bars.”
“One of my unintended tablemates became an unlikely friend. I was dining alone one night when a fortyish man with short blonde hair politely asked if he could join me.
We sat in awkward silence for several minutes before mutually deciding that we’d be more comfortable making small talk than just ignoring one other.
Hermann, an architect who worked for a Wudaokou-based company, was an avid punk fan who recognized me from the Place. Despite our vastly-different backgrounds, the Munich native and I had a lot in common and became good friends over the course of many an evening chat at the Garden.
I found it fascinating that he encountered many of the same difficulties in his job that I did in mine: the disorganization, inefficiency, last-minute changes and lack of communication with which I often dealt weren’t unique to education in China, but rather a primary characteristic of working here regardless of your field.
“Given a choice between two ways of doing something,” he said, “the Chinese will always choose the middle one. I don’t have much problems with culture difference in my personal life. But in my work? It gives me headaches.”
His current assignment was to design an apartment complex with retractable swimming pools for balconies. “What they don’t understand is that swimming pools need a certain depth—at least one meter,” he told me. “So if one floor has a pool, the one below will have the same pool obstructing their window. I tell this to my boss and he just says, ‘Now is not the time to complicate things. Just design it. It will probably never get built, anyway.’”
“At least you’re building a very interesting portfolio,” I observed.
“Ah, ja. But in Munich, I was an artist! I could walk down the streets, point to a building and say, ‘I built that.’ Now I live off commissions. Nothing I design actually gets built because most of it isn’t even possible!”
One thing that we didn’t share was a love for Chinese girls. The topic of Propaganda came up one evening and we agreed that the music was terrible and it wasn’t really a suitable place for old guys like ourselves.
“I mean, it’s an okay place if you like some Chinese girls,” Hermann said, “but I don’t.”
“Well, I just like girls, period. I have to admit that over last year, I’ve developed a particular fondness for Chinese girls, but all girls are okay by me,” I said.
“Yeah, but I don’t like girls,” he smiled.
Got it. This was yet another example of my Great Equalizer Theory at work: it was highly unlikely that I’d have become friends with a gay German architect in Canada—I just didn’t move in those types of social circles.”
“Fifteen minutes later, a tall, well-dressed and beautiful woman with long flowing hair and a bright smile entered and headed directly for me. While I was just hoping that she’d be reasonably good-looking, this woman was gorgeous.
I obviously didn’t make the same stunning first impression. Before she even sat down, she scanned me up and down:
“Are you a musician?”
She furrowed her brow: “You look like a musician.”
I was such a putz: she’d shown up wearing clothes that probably cost more than I made in a month and I was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a snarling boar’s head.
I felt more than a little out of my league.
Under the circumstances, things went well. Amy had studied in Vancouver and had actually lived in Victoria for three years, which gave us some instant common ground. She’d previously been married to a native Victorian: her son had been born there and she still kept a condo in Vancouver.
The picture was starting to come together: the car, the business trip to France, the condo in Vancouver—she was rich.
“I own an advertising agency, but I also make a lot of money in real estate,” she said as she sipped her Long Island. “Tomorrow, I have to sell my spare house because I’ve only used it twice. But I’m getting 600,000 for it and that’s more than I paid for it, so it was worth buying.”
We had a nice time and there were no awkward pauses during our two-hour chat. I figured that on a dating scale of 1 to 10—ten meaning that you get laid and one being that she’s not only ugly, boring and stupid, but you fight with her, too—this was a 6.5.
She definitely warranted a second date. The only real problem was that she triggered something of an inferiority complex: I felt like I was on a date with Julia Roberts or something. She was beautiful, rich, worldly and sophisticated and I was just some schmuck in a rock and roll T-shirt who had 3000RMB to my name until I got paid by the CMA.
Still, I couldn’t say that I’d ever dated a millionaire before and could now add that to the list of novel experiences that I’d had in China.”
” I spent my final night at the Garden: I had to say goodbye to Sunshine.
Once upon a time, I’d nearly fallen in love with her. While I’d gotten past those feelings a long time ago, I never forgot why I’d had them in the first place: she was one of the most remarkable people that I’d met during my time in China and all conventional wisdom said that nice girls like her didn’t hang out with bad guys like me.
But she didn’t judge a soul and we became friends despite my obvious and glaring flaws.
She’d recently gotten drunk for the first time ever at her graduation ceremony—I’d have loved to have seen that—and had already managed to find a job in Shanghai with the Shanghai Bureau of Civic Affairs, which basically made her a low-level civic bureaucrat.
Shanghai was in the process of hosting the 2010 World Expo and her main job was to mail free Expo tickets to local families. While I kidded her a great deal about spending four years in university to get a job licking envelopes, I couldn’t help but think how remarkable it would be to know her in 10 years time.
We weren’t alone, either. Hermann was there because, well, Hermann was always there and tonight he was in the company of a gentleman friend.
He used a gay networking site to meet his companions, and while they were invariably out-of-towners, it didn’t bother him because he traveled everywhere for his job.
His friend was visiting from Shanghai and he and Sunshine talked a great deal about the Expo. We were joined by Kerry Hammett who’d read Rob’s article and had sent me a message asking if we could meet to say goodbye.
And so it was that I spent my last night in China in the company of a recently-graduated university student, a gay couple and a 44-year-old metalhead from Chicago.”
The Great Equalizer.