Familiar Strangers

I have been walking to and from work for the past two weeks. I need to be at my workplace at 8:30am. I get off work at 5:30pm. The walk is about 20 minutes. Routine.

On day one, as I waded into the flow of pedestrians, I started reflecting about all these people and all these routines. Shanghai has a huge population, but how many people are on West Nanjing Road every morning from 8:00 to 8:30? And for how many of those people is it a routine? If their routine overlaps mine, I’m liable to see the same people again and again, depending on the degree and consistency of overlap between our routines.

It wasn’t long before I had an answer to my question. On day two I saw a familiar face. Over two weeks, I have only been able to identify three definites:

Japanese-looking Girl. Japanese-looking Girl looks Japanese. That’s not to say she is; there are Chinese-looking Koreans, Thai-looking Japanese, etc. But she has a dye job and a perm, as well as a certain sense of style that strikes me as Japanese-looking. She was the one I recognized on day two, and I see her almost every single day because a long stretch of our routines, running in opposite directions along West Nanjing Road, overlap. I like Japanese-looking girl because she has a kind face, and she always wears a thoughtful expression.

F4 Reject. This guy bears a striking resemblance to a member of the Taiwanese boy band F4, which used to be all the rage in the PRC. He’s got the long hair, and seems to be going for the “casually stylish” look. He always wears jeans, frequently wears black shirts. Differences are his looks are not boy band caliber, he wears glasses, and he has the unattractive habit of walking around with his mouth agape. He seems to always be in a stupor, plodding determinedly ahead.

Aryan Duo. Only one of the two has blond hair, but I just liked that name. They appear to be a couple, they’re tall, they both wear black trenchcoats, and they walk fast. They look very unfriendly, as if Shanghai is holding them captive. They may be just as shackled to their routines, because I only see them if I can get out the door around 8:00am (which isn’t often). I don’t miss them.

Why mention these people at all? Well, what strikes me as interesting is that as quick as I was to identify them as fixtures in my routine, I imagine they should have begun to recognize me by now. At around 6’5″, I’m not a foreigner that is often overlooked in China. And yet day after day, their eyes show absolutely no recognition. So that’s my challenge. These people are going to recognize me.

I tried to smile at Japanese-looking Girl, but that’s kinda tricky, because I don’t want her to think I’m coming onto her. I’m sure she’ll crack eventually if I just make a small friendly smile as we pass (every single fricking day!). I wonder how she would react if I commented on a change in her hairstyle as I passed her.

There’s little hope for F4 Reject. The guy seems half-catatonic sometimes. (I bet he’d noticed me if I jacked him in the jaw!) His open mouth reminds me of myself as a kid, because I once had this bad habit myself. My grandma would say to me, “whatcha doin’ there, catchin’ flies?” I bet F4 Reject has caught a few.

I don’t plan on seeing the Aryan Duo again. Why leave the house in the morning before 8:05 if I don’t have to?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I did the same routine for just about two years and thought a lot about it and how people noticed me. Sometimes changeless faces are much better than expression as I was often reminded whenever I got off my path and started hearing or seeing the comments. Enjoy!

  2. Maybe you could say “Good Morning” in Japanese as you pass her. That would verify her Japanese-ness —- & prob’ly surprise her.

  3. i am f4 reject. i am gonna get your ass!!! i am not catatonic, i am as alive as the electric chair wires, ready to fry and fry.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: February 14, 2004 at 10:42 am

    Pretty amusing. Since I drive now, I miss seeing goofy pedestrians. However, on my way to work every morning, I see the same godawful SUV. It’s a black SUV of a domestic make, and the wiseass has giant Superman logos on his front grille and back window. It’s the tackiest shit, and I wonder what woman could possibly go out with a guy who does that!

  5. Sounds like Shaquille O’Neal…

  6. John,

    Fuck the strange characters and describe the HOT WOMEN.

    Because some boonie-living folks don’t get to see fashionable birds anymore …

    (Notice you’re posting more these days. I’m enjoying it.)

  7. […] nearby). I discovered the joys of Shanghai morning walks to work there, and the whole “familiar strangers” thing was interesting. Later, though, I moved to the Zhongshan Park area, where I’ve […]

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