They may have seen me before but they haven’t heard me. And it’s in hearing me that they smile. Cab drivers, here in Shenzhen, smile when I talk to them. Despite how I love the sound of my own voice and how they may like it as well, I believe their smiles have less to do with the sound of my voice and more to do with the sounds my voice makes…when I say their name.
I’ve heard from friends visiting the Great Wall, whites are a total novelty there. Imagine living all your life in a country that wasn’t a migrant nation the way the US is and traveling all over that nation and seeing nothing but white folk. Now imagine visiting your cultural capital and its primary landmark (like New York and the Statue of Liberty) and seeing one, single, solitary Asian woman. On your way up Ellis Island, she’s standing there, in all her magnificent and previously unseen Asianess. I would imagine she’d get your attention. She’d certainly get mine. I’d also imagine you might want to take a picture with her. And, if she were a good sport, I’d imagine she might let you.
Now imagine instead of New York and Lady Liberty, you’re home (not near your cultural capital and not near your landmark), but still surrounded by a bunch of boring whites and there in your midst were a handful (that’s about the same percentage of whites here) of Asian men or women. Imagine one of them approached you and spoke to you in a language you didn’t understand. Could there be anything you might like to hear this semi-celebrity say besides “yes” (if you’re a guy and she were a girl you’ll know what she’s saying “yes” to) because she doesn’t know you well enough to say that (yet) and she doesn’t know you well enough to say anything else, but she says it anyway? Now imagine that the “it” she says is the sweetest sound you’ve always heard, day in and day out for years but not from an Asian and never from her; she says your name, your full name. Not an abbreviation or a first name that you share with so many other “Marys”, “Janes”, “Mikes” or “Johns” but the name that belongs to you and only you and no one else, your full middle-included name. Imagine she meets you, greets you, treats you with the sound of your full name.
What do you imagine you might do? You see that smile on your face? It’s the one I imagined you to have and it’s the same smile I see every day I step into a cab, read the driver’s ID placard and meet them, greet them, treat them with the sound of their own name. Imagine that!
For as long as I’ve been in Shenzhen and have been calling cab drivers by name, I’ve wondered why they’ve responded with such a genuine smile. After reading what I just wrote and imagining (right along with you), I think I may have come up with something. After all, what do you imagine you would do if some celebrity-like-stranger greeted you? I’d imagine you might smile just the way they do.