Marco Polo Syndrome

In a recent blog entry, Sam of ShenzhenRen discusses what Justin of Shenzhen Zen has coined “Marco Polo Syndrome.” Justin’s definition:

MPS: the silent social killer.

Symptoms: exaggerated manifestations of superiority and exclusivity fostered by the delusion that the individual was the first and only foreigner to “discover” China. While it’s difficult to fathom how one can still engage in this egregious self-deception while standing under a glowing neon 20-foot visage of Colonel Sanders, it’s apparently not an uncommmon affliction.

Cure? Apparently none, though foreign friends in Shenzhen also confirmed my findings through their own research.

My comment on ShenzhenRen:

“Marco Polo Syndrome” — haha, I love it! Whatever it is, I can confirm that the phenomenon is alive and well in Shanghai as well.

All of the explanations you offered sound plausible. I quickly came to a conclusion after about two years in China: There are two kinds of foreigners in China: freaks and cool people. I think there are more of the former.

The scary thing is that I have caught myself exhibiting some of the behavior you describe! I’ve never told anyone to “piss off” or anything that extreme, but I’ve certainly ignored other foreigners I pass by. I’m not sure why I do it — I think it’s out of some kind of assumption that all foreigners in Shanghai are dicks. But there’s really no need for me to follow suit and act that way.

So now I make an effort to at least smile at other foreigners. Usually they ignore me or frown back, but at least I’m not one of them.

A visitor named Ryan (the same one that comments here sometimes?) replied:

I think part of the problem in Shenzhen is the fact that most people don’t come here to “see” China (and if they do they’ve come to the WRONG place). We have other motives for living here. I think this leads to (at least) two types of people who exhibit MPS.

1) The asshole foreigner is here on business. Perhaps unwillingly. You will often see him at Starbucks and overpriced bars. He may take a fork with him to restaurants. Perhaps he is focused on his job and not interested in meeting new people. Perhaps he realizes that most foreigners in China are backpackers or teachers and feels a natural sense of superiority, preferring to associate only with other people who wear suits.

2) The asshole foreigner has been in China a while and has gravitated to Shenzhen in order to make money, support a family, have easy access to HK, etc. I’ve noticed length of time spent in China used as a status symbol. Perhaps they look down on other foreigners, assuming they are new arrivals (as they often are). Perhaps, having been here a while, they have their circle of friends and aren’t interested in having more. Maybe they think they are so native that they aren’t interested in foreigners (this doesn’t describe me, but I do find myself staring at foreigners as much, sometimes more, than the Chinese).

I used to be a friendly foreigner, but after being snubbed so often I now wait to be acknowledged before I will do the same.

Whatever the explanation, there’s certainly something going on. (Notice that it’s an anagram for another ominous acronym?) Check out Sam’s analysis as well as Justin’s original entry.

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