Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, June 28, 2013

The "James Bond" syndrome - a politically incorrect tale of mistaken identity

One day many years ago as my undergraduate days wound down I stopped by the university bookstore for a reason that escapes my memory. One of my roommates who was also a close friend was in the store with his visiting mother. He introduced me and the three of us had a brief, pleasant but otherwise unmemorable interaction. Two days later I passed by mother and son in a nearby restaurant. Again, we chatted briefly about nothing in particular.

The next day my roommate, who happened to be a Native American from the Navajo nation, commented: “my mom really liked you”. “Do tell”, I responded. His reply: “well for one thing she recognized you in the restaurant, yesterday”. “What does that mean?” was my less than delicate reply. “Well”, he said with a characteristic smile, “normally she can’t tell one white person from another but she picked you out immediately, she even remembered your name”.

After a college career as close friends, I knew when make light of a comment and when not to. Although my mind said: “that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard”; my vocal cords uttered: “Well, I am honored”. My mind grappled with the idea that to a middle aged lady from the “Four Corners” area of the US, maybe all white people did look alike. Over the next two decades as I moved to various parts of America and finally to Asia, the comment of my roommate’s mom became a touchstone for me regarding the fact that to understand people of different backgrounds I needed to try to view things through the eyes I was looking into rather than my own. Despite my best intentions, given my small town America upbringing it was still hard for me to appreciate my status as a minority in the global scheme of things. And then came the “James Bond” syndrome.
the real deal
During my first few weeks living in Asia, I made a trip to Shenzhen, China. I was there to meet a new and important customer. The afternoon meeting was followed by the customary dinner. I was the only non-Asian at a table for ten. As one course was consumed and another came, I noticed that our host, the lady who owned the company, was looking at me and joking with her seatmates across the table. Not understanding the language, I wondered if I had somehow breached etiquette. Finally the mystery was translated: “we have been discussing how much you look like James Bond.” Being a long time Sean Connery fan, I wanted to confirm exactly which James Bond I allegedly looked like. “Which one?” I asked – generating an awkward “lost in translation” moment.  Of course, had I drawn upon the lesson from my roommate’s mother I would have realized that “all James Bonds must look alike”. All I got for an answer that night was: “yes, yes – you James Bond, really James Bond, ha ha ha”.

A couple weeks later my younger (seven year old) daughter came home after a visit to a new friend’s house. After a brief report on her day she told me that her friend’s mom “thinks you look just like James Bond”. Still hoping to be the Sean Connery version of 007 rather than Timothy Dalton version, I foolishly inquired “which one?” A quizzical look was all I got in return. My daughter was a “Star Wars” fan.
Not James, Bill or George circa 1994
The fun was just beginning. It seemed that if “all white people look alike”; I could be anyone and apparently I was.  Traveling with a colleague a few weeks later I was stopped in Taiwan and asked if I was Mel Gibson. Ironically I was traveling with the same person a few weeks later and was stopped in Buenos Aires and asked “the Mel Gibson” question. Quite certain, I bore no resemblance to Sean Connery or Mel Gibson; I became more and more convinced that depending on the city, I really could be anyone - assuming they were white and sufficiently famous. Travel was more exciting since I was never sure who I would be when I landed. Months passed, I was spotted as James Bond in China twice – in Chengdu and Shanghai. I was less successful in Tokyo – I was spotted there as Tony Curtis (I was pretty sure he was dead) and “that pro golfer”. Occasionally I was simply asked if I was somebody famous. In Japan, I would respond that: “I am nobody famous” which given the confusion a negative, positive response generates with Japanese seemed only to confirm, incorrectly, that I was indeed famous.

I realize many parents of my generation tell their kids “you can grow up to be President”. My mom never told me that but I was to find out as my hair grayed that I could look - to the Asian eye anyway, like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush and sometimes both in the same week. Occasionally it seemed I went from looking like them to being them. Over the years I stayed in the same hotels as both Presidents Clinton and Bush did in Tokyo and Singapore. One time as I finished a run in Singapore, a local excitedly spotted me as “43”. President Bush was in town during a stopover on the way to an APEC meeting so between that fact and perhaps being legally blind (he was wearing glasses), I could see how the person could make the mistake. I am not sure where he thought the secret service detail was.

Now that I am spending most of my time in North Carolina, I have gotten used to being my bland, non-famous self but on my regular trips to Asia, I know there is a chance I may morph into someone else, briefly. I wonder if my roommate’s mother would recognize me now.