As I waited, I noticed an Englishman sitting with an attractive Chinese woman at a nearby table.
'Would you like a drink?' he asked her. 'Rum and Coke? Do you know where rum comes from? The West Indies. Scotch? Scotland. Vodka comes from Russia...'
And on and on he went,
'... in France, people drink wine. Wine also comes from Italy. Slivovice comes from Serbia....'
What a dork. Here he was in a restaurant in China with an actual Chinese person who could speak English- though this might have been a fanciful presumption; she hadn't uttered a word- but still, presumably, a person who could unlock the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, and he'd decided to educate her about Europe[.]
Troost describes himself inwardly seething with extreme annoyance towards this Western man, this monolingual moron still trying to prove his superiority- or even relevancy- while navigating China. The annoyance Troost describes was very familier to me. It was the sort of annoyance that one foreignor often feels towards another while traveling in Asia. "Oh for God's sake, is that how I'm coming off?" we tend to think when running into a compatriate. We suddenly feel shame by association. Automatically, we find ourselves directing a great deal of mental wrath towards the other foreignor. "Wear something better than ragged cargo shorts," We think, "Stop talking so loudly and would it kill you to hit the gym? I know our star is waning but do you have to be so obvious about it?"
There was also an exhibition detailing Buddhist influence in China, and as I peered at the display, I listened to an American man explain its contents to the Chinese woman beside him.
'And what is this? This is the bodhisattva. He received enlightenment under a tree. I have a leaf from the actual tree. It's in Sri Lanka. Remember? I showed it to you. And now,' he said, pointing to a statue. 'You know what this is? Yes? We've discussed this before.'
Troost's description of The Mating Dance of the North American Buffoon rang particularly true to me. Though I do not personally lurk from cafe to cafe with my ears flapping (or at least I forgive myself on the occasions that I do) my attention is sometimes irresistably drawn to whatever conversation is occuring whenever I hear a flat American twang rise up among the murmer of conversation. Based on these sporadic observations I have to say that the flirtation game of your average American male in Asia always seems to involve a lot of fact-recitation. I can understand how dating can be daunting for American men while they are in China or Korea. Socialization in a foreign country is basically a string of exhausting exercises in culture clash. Going out into Beijing, Shanghai or Seoul at night involves massive sensory overload as you try to navigate passageways between utterly enormous, flashing neon sky-scrapers that (I do not exaggerate) make Times Square look quaint and Las Vegas merely tired. Most importantly, the women are intimidatingly beautiful with clothes, poise and bodies that make them look like they could get modeling jobs in any fashion magazine.... and they are often multi-lingual. Most American men (though not all, I grant you) find it basically impossible to build a relationship with a foreign woman unless she speaks English well.. and yet if your girlfriend is able to speak English as well as her own first language then you cannot help but be uncomfortably aware that her intellectual gifts are far higher than yours.
What is it about Shanghai that elicits this need in the Western male to inform, to enlighten, the locals?
So imagine now that you are an American man sitting at a coffeeshop with a woman who is more beautiful than even the bitchiest queen bee in the US. Moreover this woman is now tapping out texts on a smart phone that has more memory and a better internet connection than your college computer. She is talking to you in very serviceable English while you yourself are wincingly aware that you could barely order your cappucino earlier without her help. You are aware that by any scale or measure she is waaaay out of your league... and is probably only deigning to have a coffee with you because being an American man still has some (rapidly dwindling) cachet in China. Nevertheless coffee is the only thing that you're going to have with her unless you find some way to prove your worth so she can forget that you are basically an unskilled ESL teacher in cargo shorts who hasn't hit the gym in a while.
And in panic, you start to spew out facts. "Look! I'm smart too!" you deperately plead as your mouth flaps idiotically with such pearls of knowledge as "Armani is Italian and so are Ferrari cars. Bratwurst comes from Germany..." etc. etc.
'... Italy is known for art. Germany for music. England for literature...'
Truly, a nitwit. I paid the bill, and as I walked past them, I noticed that he'd become a little more expansive in his sharing of knowledge.
'... Suits are single-breasted or double-breasted....'
And this was interesting how?
'... there are two countries famous for silk, Thailand and China....'
And you don't think she knows that, Romeo?
I thought about Troost's encounter with the conversationally clumsy Englishman while in a coffee shop- "French Cafe"- in Ulaanbaatar a few months ago. This coffee shop is a beautiful place founded by a French expatriate where you could get the best chocolatines in Mongolia. Even better, as is the case with most expatriate cafes in Ulaanbaatar, you get the pleasure of reading back issues of the New Yorker. The pleasure is not entirely unalloyed since the New Yorker often sandwiches bits of unneccessary pretension between essays of genuine interest. Should you really lament the decline of "alternative opera" in New York in the same issue that has a ten-page examination of South African poverty?
Still, in my opinion, The New Yorker continues to provide some of the best writing to be found in the US today. As I sank into a literary and chocolate-mocha haze I noticed an American man sitting across from me. He was deep in conversation with a polite and attractive Mongolian woman. To be fair, this fellow was not as bad as the Romeos Troost describes in his book- the American man appeared to know at least a fair amount of Mongolian and was conversational in the language- but there were definitely some parallels. The man spoke with a sort of arrogance that was probably unconscious on his part but nevertheless noticeable by others. Also, perhaps worst, was the fact that his fact-recitation-based flirtation involved "facts" that were patently not true. Unlike "Thailand and China are famous for silk," which is true enough in a generalized sort of way, this young man spoke about how maps in China "show Mongolia to be another part of China."
"Really?" His date asked.
No, not really. Any image search for "world map" on Baidu.com (the currently most popular search engine in China) shows Outer Mongolia to be clearly outlined and labeled as its own independent nation. Possibly the young man was confusing Outer Mongolia (of which Ulaanbaatar is the capital) and Inner Mongolia (which is indeed a province of Northern China... as any map in any part of the world will show ) .. but nevertheless the speaking of this dubious fact was rewarded with a wide-eyed "Really?" from the girl sitting across from him (though I rather got the impression that she didn't really believe her male companion... as a university-educated woman living Ulaanbaatar she had probably been to Beijing several times already, knew a fair bit of Mandarin Chinese and most likely knew more about Chinese culture than he did) and a sense of gratification from reciting a fact that - while not true- was still undeniably juicy.
Of course any person who has ever observed some form of heterosexual flirtation with a shade of accuracy knows that sex and all its various attending behaviors have their basis in power relations. In fact the well-known sex advice columnist Dan Savage goes further, saying that ALL sexual relations have power play at their roots.With only some very specific exceptions heterosexual men overwhelmingly prefer relationships with women where they hold the upper hand in the most important capacities. Because the current cultural measure of success around the globe necessitates that men have large brains instead of large muscles, dating a girl who is intellectually superior can be daunting. If the girl holds the upper hand in brain power then there is an emasculating reversal of roles.
But then again I am perhaps over-simplifying gender relations. After all, humankind has been trying to de-mystify the flirtation game for millenia. Also, concentrating on the neuroticisms of the men here is ignoring the other side of the conversation: what the women want. Often women want the same thing men want and thus play along. We respond to such clunky assertions like "China thinks Mongolia is still a part of China" with wide-eyed "Really?"s instead of more honest "That's bullshit"s. We vigorously agree that Terry Goodkind is the best author ever and that watching basketball has its charms. We nod with attentive interest during conversations where we learn that vodka comes from Russia, that Sarah Palin is hot even if she is kinda dumb and that people in Asia can be totally, totally racist sometimes, y'know? "Oh, yeah, totally," we reply, knowing that a more well-informed answer can kill our chances of getting this guy into bed (or, more precisely, cultivating the guy's desire to get us into bed.)
Troost in Lost on Planet China does not mention seeing the Chinese women with the Englishman again. We do not know if she decided to stick with this nervously-nattering man or instead go to dinner with a guy she was more impressed with.. or at least could speak more comfortably with. What was her threshold for flustered idiocy? Perhaps the Western man had not even touched it let alone breached it. Or perhaps he had breached it to the point that she resolved to never allow a foreignor to buy her a glass of wine again. After all, according to the conversation that Troost observed, the woman never had a chance to answer the only question her date had asked her: "Would you like a drink?"
She wanted that drink man, she really, really did.