Life in China: Me and a Muslim Named Seth Jacobs
I get off of the elevator at the Holiday Inn Express in Shenzhen, China and run into a half-South Carolinian white, half-Indian Muslim dude from Marietta, Georgia, who looks like Michael J. Fox circa Family Ties. His name is Seth Jacobs. We embrace like old college friends, exchange numbers, and make plans to hang out. I don’t know this guy from Adam.
A blonde haired, blue eyed guy from South Africa stops me in the street and introduces himself later that night. He takes my number and forces me to commit to having a beer. China makes strange bedfellows. (Figuratively, of course.)
In China there are two distinct groups of people: Chinese and foreigners. Being American does carry a little weight, but not much. And being black does make you feel like O.J. Simpson at Gloria Steinem’s birthday party — the fucking staring wherever you go gets old fast. But, for the most part, it feels more like shock from Chinese people who have never seen a black person before than any specific racial animosity. I ask a Chinese girl out and she declines because she can’t bed a fooooreeeigneeer. I’m almost flattered. At least it wasn’t because I’m black. But who knows.
I’d been in China fourteen days. I could still count the number of white people I’d seen outside of my job on one hand, and I hadn’t seen another black person in six days. That type of isolation makes people bond on strange levels. If you’re not Chinese, you become instant friends. If you’re American, you might as well be old war buddies.
Our shared Georgian heritage made me and Seth Jacobs damn near brothers.
Seth takes me out that night. After he gives me a China 101 lesson, he shares with me that he changed his name after 9/11. His original name had sounded stereotypically “terroristy” because of his Muslim father. The post-attack vehement hatred toward all things considered Muslim (regardless of the accuracy of such perceptions) brought to light a type of insidious prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. that his white-passing skin had previously protected him from. By the time Bush won his second term, he had changed his name and moved to China.
I couldn’t make that shit up.
We eat a massive, five-dish meal of rice, noodles, chicken, pork, and vegetables, and drink four huge beers between us. It shakes out to a tab around 50 RMB, less than ten American dollars. In China, everything comes down to how much it would cost in America, and it’s always amazing how cheap it would be. A Snickers costs 3 RMB —forty-nine American cents. I rent a furnished apartment on the twenty-first floor of a high-rise building, cityscape view that damn near goes to Hong Kong, and end up paying 4000 RMB a month. That’s less than seven hundred dollars USD. The couch that the place came with would’ve cost me more if I had rented the same spot in Los Angeles, and I’d have to be Derek Jeter to afford the same apartment in New York. And yet, when I tell some of my co-workers how much I’m paying for rent, they tell me I got screwed.
“You could have gotten that place for much cheaper.”
Seth and I go to a club called Jokers after we eat, and we buy a bottle of Malibu Rum for around one hundred dollars. It’s way too much money to pay anywhere, but we feel like ballin’ after saving so much on the cheap meal. We sit at the bar, mixing our drinks with Coke as Chinese hipster-yuppies swipe their fingers across the screens of iPhone 6s that put them back seven hundred U.S. dollars.
There’s a huge economic disparity in Shenzhen, and China in general. The average monthly salary is 4000 RMB. That’s my rent. Many of the nouveau-riche grew up dirt poor and came here from nearby areas such as the Hunan Province, either by themselves or with their parents, and made a fortune. I’ve seen more Ferraris here in the last two weeks than I saw all last year in Los Angeles. BMWs that cost twice as much as they would in America due to import taxes constantly whiz by at breakneck speeds.
There’s construction everywhere you go, as the history of what was once a small fishing village is demolished and replaced by thirty-story glass buildings. (Like the one I live in.) I reminisce about the neighborhood that I lived in my senior year at Howard University back in Washington, D.C. — Shaw-Howard.
Shaw-Howard had been the home of some of the most affluent and respected black doctors, lawyers, and business-owners in America’s capital prior to desegregation. Once the Civil Rights movement lifted the gates that had restricted them to certain areas, however, many of them raced to Maryland suburbs such as Prince George’s County — now the richest black suburb in the country.
By the time I moved into the heart of Shaw-Howard in the mid-‘90s, trash, addicts, and drug dealers littered the streets. Gunshots rang out through the night, and scenes out of The Wire played near my bedroom window. My landlord begged me and my roommates to convince our parents to buy the place after we graduated. We laughed at him. I remember reading a book while I was living there titled Inside The FBI, in which the author, Robert Kessler, shares that many agents assigned to espionage were reassigned to drug enforcement in the District of Columbia after the end of the Cold War. The biggest drug gangs in the capital were the P Street Crew, the R Street Crew, and the Fifth-and-R Crew. I lived at 448 R Street.
Now, a cute coffee shop sits on the corner where a liquor store once stood. The place has been completely and totally gentrified. Freshly cut green grass fills yards that were once littered with needles and crack vials. Houses go for a little less than a million dollars, and most of the grandsons and granddaughters of the former owners and builders of the homes can’t afford to live there anymore.
It makes me think of the father who totes his son across town to the rich part of town and tells him that if you work hard, you can live here one day. Somewhere, that guy knows that by the time his son reaches his age, he’ll be taking his son to the very house that he grew up in and telling him the same thing. It’s the real estate circle of life and death. No matter where you go, success becomes leaving people behind to chase people who left you behind. As Seth and I reach the bottom of our rum bottle, I wonder how long it will be before the natives of the Hunan Province return home to find their childhood neighborhoods transformed into a sea of overpriced vacation villas. Only time will tell.
My head starts to spin. I have work in the morning, so I leave around eleven, even though the party is just getting started. I stumble though a crowd of hot young Chinese women in short skirts and red-bottom shoes as I approach a cab. The blurry lights of the city flash before my eyes as I ride through the night.
I gaze out at my view when I get home and smile. I came to China to grow, but also to enjoy life a little more than I could in America. I never could have afforded this view or this apartment in Los Angeles. I fall onto my bed with the smell of rum still on my breath. I’m drunk, but still aware enough to turn off the ringer on my phone before I fall asleep. I don’t want to be awakened.
I want to keep dreaming, just like everybody else.
All photos courtesy of John Lee Fisher
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