Here’s a fancy term for describing what happens in the minds some of foreigners who come to China: Acquired Situational Narcissism (ASN). The condition, according to some in the medical profession, is a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on by wealth, fame and the other apparel of celebrity; these ingredients all contribute to the idea that the person affected is more important than other people, awakening inside that person a narcissistic problem that might have only been a tendency, a sleeping predisposition, a latent inclination, and allowing it become a full-blown personality disorder. A person with ASN may suffer from unstable relationships, substance abuse and/or erratic behaviour.
Take a case study; let’s call the guy Richard:
On his first night in China, Richard is taken by his colleagues at the local English Training School to a bar. The bar is crowded with boys and girls, most of whom are curious about the foreigners. Laowai! Laowai! On his way to the WC, Richard is called by a local girl to another table to drink – shuai ge, he yi bei! He sits and talks with her. She tells him in Chinese and broken English that he’s very handsome, which compliment sinks into Richard’s brain deeper than is probably healthy. He smiles.
Later that night, walking home and flanked by flashing neon, Richard has an epiphany: Foreigners in this city are treated differently not for doing, but merely for being. This, he thinks, is something I could take advantage of, this is something I could have fun with.
The city’s bars and nightclubs become his base of operations.
Walking into a nightclub, three or four nights a week, is an intoxicating and addicitive experience; the sensation one of power and excitement, a mixture of maybe eight parts’ celebrity and two parts’ Moses walking through the parted and obedient Red Sea. That he has a noticeable effect on other people excites him. His heart beats faster. He is significant now. A pattern based on an inverse ratio establishes itself in his engagement with the world: the more he’s noticed by other people, the less he notices others, except when they can do him some service. Girls flock to his table, wanting to drink, wanting to play, wanting to…
Through eyes that with nightly exposure to female attention have become more reptilian Richard scans the nightclub’s female patrons, waiting to be approached. He doesn’t have to wait very long.
Epiphany#2 (which epiphany’s source is some bundle of irritating, rain-on-my-parade neurons Richard would rather ignore): The attention nightly received is based on little more than my foreigness and is therefore more-than-likely superficial.
Which realisation, however, is shouted down by the hunting dogs of his mind, which dogs crave the adulation.
Richard thinks: But I’m having fun. All I’m doing is having fun. What’s wrong with that? I’ve never misled any of these girls, never said I could be their boyfriend, never…
What Richard has not yet realised is that he doesn’t particularly love anybody and that he has instead fallen in love with the impression he makes upon others, and the people he mostly wants to see these days are those who are most in awe of this impression.
In a restaurant on a balmy Saturday night, Richard is looking into his latest conquest’s eye-shadowed eyes. To the girl the look, which is deep and steady, appears to be one of longing and passion. She thinks with fluttering heart, Oh, wow, this guy must really like me.
Richard is looking for the tiny reflection of his face in the black of the girl’s pupils.
He finds the twin reflections. The sensation is druglike.
Someday, Richard will stand outside a restaurant, looking in the window. The people inside will be eating and talking normally. Richard will know, however, that if he walks inside, the atmosphere will change. Heads will turn. The people will look at him. Their faces will register his uniqueness as a foreigner in a city in southern China. Their conversations will no longer be organic and will instead be about him. The people will no longer be behaving naturally, exactly.
Richard will be hungry. But he won’t enter the restaurant. He will walk back to his apartment, where he will eat, alone.