Ginger wRong Chen – Groupthink – America
2011/09/14 § 1 Comment
An American in Shanghai
Saturday night, when Benjamin Martin set foot in the JZ Club near the corner of Fuxing Xi Lu and Yongfu Lu, he found himself in a packed music box, the music venue in town, and it was already full, like every weekend.
Benjamin was in a high-spirited hunting mood.
A handsome man in his mid-thirties, tall and well-built, he believed in taking good care of himself by eating well and strictly sticking to his exercise schedule, even reading, both Internet articles and books, so he could be as physically and intellectually fit as possible. He had been trying his best to train himself into a Renaissance man, equally conversant about wine as well as baseball, the Chinese Tang dynasty’s history as well as the American Civil War‘s, and Shanghai women as well as Paris Fashion Week, all with the goal of easily passing as a perfect lover and a brilliant mind.
A young Chinese girl was looking at his direction. She was a pretty girl about 20 years old, with silky black hair, full lips, and of average height, but with lines of pleasing proportions, with a small, tight,waist that created an illusion that it could be easily held in one hand.
When her eyes saw Benjamin, an almost unnoticeable smile of desire crawled up to her eyebrows.
Benjamin deftly returned her interest.
She turned her head aside at once, pretending to be not interested, but couldn’t help laying her eyes back on him again. He took the hint and went over to her.
“Hi,” he extended his hand, “I’m Benjamin.”
“Spring,” she replied, taking his hand with much delight.
“What a beautiful name!”, for Benjamin never forgot to pay any girl a compliment, “And, may I say, you look stunning!”
She cast her eyes down slightly, however, the pleased flushing shown on her cheeks didn’t escape his observant eyes.
“Are you Shanghainese?” he asked her in the casual way that people have when
they say, “how are you?”.
“No. I’m from Tianjin, the city very close to Beijing.”
Her answer relieved him somewhat. Shanghainese girls had gained some notoriety for being too practical, calculating, and tough to deal with. For Benjamin, it was always a good sign to know that the girl he was hitting on was not a local.
Yes, he admitted to himself that he was holding a prejudice against Shanghainese women based on stereotypes. But, he also justified his prejudice by reasoning, “I’m a very busy man. I don’t have time to waste on proving a stereotype is right or wrong.”
However when it came to himself, Benjamin was more open-minded and impartial, which was also quite human, since we all tend to love ourselves a little more, and was generally quite satisfied with himself. He loved what he saw in the mirror every morning, enjoyed what his mind had to say every day, and took great pleasure in how his body performed every night.
If there was one itsy-bitsy regret, it probably would be that he was an American. Oh, please don’t get him wrong, Benjamin loved his country. Most of the time, he was proud to be a great Yankee. Sometimes, when he crossed borders, he would hold his passport in hand and confidently grin, thinking, “With a U.S. passport, the world is yours.”
But, whenever with other cosmopolitans in this oriental melting pot, he couldn’t help thinking that,were he born French or British, how much easier it would be for him to make others believe he was an interesting and intelligent person, because he would have had better stereotypes to work with in dealing with them, since Europeans are supposed to be cultured and sophisticated, unlike Americans.
As an American, Benjamin was supposed to be rude and stupid. He admitted that there certainly were rude and stupid Americans, whom even he looked down on. But Benjamin certainly wanted to make the point that not all Americans are rude and stupid, and there were also plenty of polite and smart ones, like him, to say the least. So, for him, the phrase, “You are so American” became the worst insult he could get, and he hated every syllable of it. It felt unfair, because it was such an easy comment to make, it also wiped out all of his efforts at being a true gentleman, and, worst of all, Benjamin couldn’t even argue about it, because he was an American.
“What about you,” he heard Spring asking, “where are you from?”
He flashed a charming wink, “Everywhere.”
She giggled at his answer, “Interesting!” In fact, she couldn’t care less.
He knew very well his “everywhere” would work on a girl: it was cute, indicated an atmosphere of adventure and mystery, and girls liked that.
“Can I get you anything to drink?”
She nodded her head, “Dirty Martini,” eagerly accepting his offer.
When Benjamin came back from the bar with two dirty Martinis in hands, he found Spring had another companion by her side, a stout man in his 40s, with red skin and dirty brown hair. When he came up to her, she introduced them to each other, “ Benjamin, this is David.”
They simultaneously said, “Hey”, and nodded greetings.
“Where are you from?” David spoke in a drawl, coming from through his nose than his mouth.
Benjamin understood his cute “everywhere” answer wouldn’t do here, as it would be too obvious that he was trying to avoid something. So, he replied, “The States. You?”
Benjamin gave a slight sigh of relief inside his head. Thank God, it was Australia, as Australians were regarded as equally rude, if not ruder, and crude as Americans.
Just then, a third man came up to this little group. He had dark hair and a slightly-snarled face, somewhat like a half-ironed walnut; but also looked stylish in his well-fitted suit, with a bright-yellow-colored dress shirt, and an aura of better-than-anyone-else.
He greeted Spring with a “Buona Sera, Bella!!!,” threw up his hands dramatically and hugged her like a bear crushing a frightened bird. Then, he turned to David and slapped him on the back, “Hey, buddy. It’s been a long time. How is everything?” Finally, he noticed Benjamin.
“Benjamin,” Benjamin reached forth his hand, “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you! Donato. Donato Barboni.” He spoke in the romantic, singing tones of the unmistakeable Italian accent, “Where are you from?”
A bit self-consciously, “The States,” Benjamin replied in a muffled voice.
“Oh…”, Donato smiled, “the U.S.”
“Was it a smirk?”, Benjamin thought to himself.
Evidently, Spring, David, and Donato already knew each other, so they naturally went into their catching-up ritual.
Donato came first, and started briefing what was new with him, with his plans to import Italian wine to Shanghai. He was very excited about this idea, and soon began counting the restaurants he planned to contact one by one, Da Marco, Issimo, Gennaro…
“Wine is so hot here right now, and it’s continually getting hotter. I’m also thinking about organizing a wine tour in Italy next year,” and his voice rose with excitement.
Armed with the spirit of self-advertising, Benjamin realized here was the place to jump in to make the point that he was more than an average American, and was, in fact, a man of culture, “That’s interesting. At least it will give Chinese more to taste and talk about than Chateau Lafite and Great Wall.”
He was happy with what he came up with, because it showed his knowledge of the current trends in food and drink, and what tickled Chinese consumers,too.
Benjamin further amplified his statement’s effect, by rambling on, with utmost enthusiasm, about how Chinese nouveau-riche are obsessed with big names in the wine world, without really caring about the taste of the actual product, the rising price of Bordeaux wines, French culture, New Orleans, Jazz, Hip-Hop, the Taiwanese rap singer Jay Chou, the differences between the Chinese and Latin writing systems, the differences between simplified Chinese characters and traditional ones, the lack of “R” and “Sh” sounds in Japanese, the difficulties of understanding Japanese-speakers’ accents when they speak English, how Koreans ended up with a bad reputation among their neighbors due to their claims to inventing all of the great Asian cultures, Korean barbecue, Turkish kebab, Egypt and Africa, the latter’s many wars and resources, and, finally, back to China.
All of those words and topics flew out of his mouth like a stream of lotuses, with a lovely, smooth and delicate rhythm. When he uttered the last period of his last statement on them, the other three persons around him all appeared mesmerized and stupefied.
“What were we talking about at the first place?”, they all wondered in their bewilderment.
“Was it one of my never-go-anywhere-but-good-for-a-little-talk business ideas?,” Donato recalled vaguely to himself.
“Jeez, this guy is a talker!”, the vanquished David thought, while guzzling down his beer, which was already getting warm during Benjamin’s world-tour speech.
Overwhelmed, Spring gazed at Benjamin admiringly, “Wow, there are so many things about China he knows that I don’t even know. What a great mind he has! And,” with a beam spreading over her pinkish face, “what a great body he has too!”
There was a prolonged vacant pause among the four-some following Benjamin’s speech, as if all of the available topics had been exploited that night, and now there was only awkward silence left for them to enjoy.
Benjamin again bravely stepped in, opening his mouth, “You know…”
Before Benjamin finished his first sentence, David jumped up, “Oh, excuse me, I have to go to say hello to an old friend,” and vaguely pointed at the bar area, before hurrying away like a kid escaping from his principal’s lecture.
.“Ah, I just remember I need to get up early tomorrow.”, Donato spoke as he made up his excuse.
“You do? It’s Sunday tomorrow,” asked Spring.
“Yeah, yeah, you know, the wine thing, the thing I was talking about,” he stammered, “I need to get up early to get to that, the wine thing.”
The three of them exchanged cordial farewells, and Donato left.
Now only Spring and Benjamin remained
“Do you need to get up early tomorrow, too?”, Benjamin asked Spring.
She shook her head.
“Do you want to watch a DVD with me?”, Benjamin asked her, throwing just a little sexual intonation into his voice to add to his triumph.
Spring nodded her head vigorously.
* * *
“Come on in.” Benjamin said, as he opened the door of his apartment. When it was shut, Spring turned her face towards him and looked into his eyes with much tenderness. He pressed her closer to him and gently pressed his lips on her eyelids, then on her little nose. But before his lips moved onto hers, she said in a flattering tone, “You are so American, rule them all.”
Ever on the alert, Benjamin froze still, “What do you mean?!”
“I mean you are the man of the men, the ruler of them all…”
“No, the one you said before that,”the smile had gone off his face.
“Before that?” she thought for a second. “The men I’ve dated?”
“No, the one after that.”
“You are an American?”
“Yes, right there! You said I am so American.”
“You are! You are American, aren’t you?”. Spring was innocently confused.
“I am. But when people say, ‘You are so American,’ they mean something else.”
“What something else?”, she asked, genuinely unsure, then added to clear things up, “I love Americans, they are macho and tough, I love that in a man,” and leaned in to him, tipsily and flirtatiously.
“Oh, no, no! Now, you are humoring me,” as Benjamin held Spring by the arms and pushed her away a little.
“You just told me you have dated men from other countries. If you mean what you just said, I want you to be more specific, I want you to write down the pros and cons of Americans point by point. I want you to prove to me I am the best, the most interesting, the most macho of them all.”
“Now?” she asked in the midst of intoxicated and dizzy air, “It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
“Yes. Now.” He was determined.
“I thought you wanted to…”, she rolled her eyes, “…watch a DVD.”
“Yes, that too. But this is important! Important to me!”. To explain himself better, Benjamin went on, “Just think about this, if I had a Japanese girlfriend before, don’t you want to know who I prefer, you or that Japanese girl?”
“You had a Japanese girlfriend?”, she became curious.
“It’s a hypothesis.”
Without understanding him, she followed her own thoughts, “Where did you meet the Japanese girl? Japanese, they seldom mingle with other expats here.”
“No. It’s a hypothesis. It’s not real. What I am trying to say is in a similar circumstance, you’d be just like me. Race envy and rivalry are deep inside us, every one of us.”
Spring studied his eyes for a long while, then finally said, “Did you just say girlfriend? You want a serious relationship between us? I thought this is a one-night thing,” she was almost moved.
“No, no, no. You’re not getting the point here. I am not talking about us. I am talking about me. I didn’t say anything about us being boyfriend-girlfriend. This is a one-night thing.”
She widened her eyes, looking hurt, as there is always something that is better left unsaid, even though everyone knows the truth.
Benjamin couldn’t believe he had been talked into a corner by this girl. Or, was it only by himself?
“You know, you are so not like the Americans I’ve ever known,” she tilted her head backwards.
Right then, he felt all of his night’s long work had paid off, and a deep relief and contentment welled up from the bottom of his heart.
Spring stood up straight and declared, “You are so sensitive and…”, searching hard for the right word from her limited vocabulary, until she finally found it, “weird.”
She then opened the door herself and stomped out of Benjamin’s apartment without looking back.
After Benjamin shut the door, he leaned against it, like waking from a dream, and, for the first time that night, asked himself, “Didn’t I go out to get a girl in the first place?”
“Well,” quickly brushing this fuzzy thought aside, “at least I am so not like the Americans she has ever known,” and the corners of his mouth began to curl up with self-assurance.
A charming smile hovering about his lips was reflected on the mirror hanging by the doorside. Benjamin was unspeakably satisfied with himself.
Ginger is a female writer; wRong is an incorrect writer; Chen is a Chinese writer.Ginger+wRong+Chen is a female incorrect Chinese writer, who manipulates the art of storytelling into short stories, film and TV scripts.