This Mortal Coil

“For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk . . . . And because you cannot know persons of a nation foreign to you except from observation, it is difficult to give them credibility in the pages of a book.”  The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.

Shanghai is much like other big cities, New York or Paris: busy people, bustling streets, rare or fleeting eye contact. That last characteristic bothers me. I’m a naturally smiley person, annoying to be sure, but Shanghai is an unnaturally unsmiley city. There are substantially more people in Shanghai than in New York or Paris—it’s the most populous city in the world—and people here are just more physically, corporeally, occupying space.

Perhaps because I’m used to the open skies of the western U.S., I find it strange to be so close to other human beings, yet no one smiles or makes eye contact. It’s inhuman actually. Look at these Shanghai crowd photos I took on the Bund. Look at peoples’ eyes. It’s like an episode from The Walking Dead.


On some morning walks, I’ve made it a goal to smile at people and see what happens. Chinese pedestrians completely ignore me or give me a look that says: stupid laowai. And no one steps aside when the sidewalk narrows.

A week ago, a Chinese woman passed by me in People’s Square with her skirt hitched up into the top of her underwear exposing her entire backside. I hurried over to her, (SMILING!) and reached out to help fix her skirt. She leaped away from me like I was wielding a machete—and I am not a threatening-looking person! When she realized the intent, she thanked me, but she also looked stunned.

My daughter Sophie, a real authority on issues of personal and open space, says that Americans encounter a completely different sense of personal space in China. On the one hand, there is very little personal space, which people accept, on the other, intruding in unfamiliar ways in those small spaces (especially foreign strangers) sends out shock waves. And China expats are just as bad. There aren’t many westerners in China, so you’d expect a knowing nod every now and then. Nope. I think expats who live in Shanghai show they belong in Shanghai by avoiding eye contact with strangers.

This explains why I’ve taken almost no photos of individual human beings in Shanghai. It’s awkward. Yet I love photos of people, especially of human faces, and when I searched my photo bank, I noticed that in rural China I took a lot of photos of people. And they are often smiling. And they were always friendly. Always warm.

The people photos here are from rural areas in Sichuan and Guizhou Provinces (Guizhou is the poorest province in China) where people have a completely different sense of space—for one thing, there is more of it. You can see the difference in their faces. People invited us into their homes, fed us homemade rice wine, cooked for us, posed for us, asked us questions, and . . . smiled.

Blog People4

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“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause.” –Hamlet

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jim says:

    Any day at Giant Eagle where I live and you have, too, people are in their small, pushing a shopping cart world, completely focused on choosing groceries and not smiling or making eye contact. I like grocery shopping except what I just described. When humans were hunting and gathering they, too, were probably singularly focused, just for different reasons.


    1. sharolg says:

      Jim, Read David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech called “This is Water”. He writes brilliantly on this very topic.


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