Southern Exposure – Part 2: Dress Code
I talked a little bit in my last post about how the Shanghai Expo is definitely not about cultural sensitivity. But if I left any doubt, on day two of my expo adventure, my cousin told me the following story:
I was walking through the entrance line like we did yesterday and approached the security check. After passing through the metal detector, an Expo volunteer gave me the usual pat-down. But after I turned around the volunteer noticed several lines of script on my shirt. I was wearing a black t-shirt with something like, “The world is one; life is one,” written in multiple languages on the back. The volunteer wasn’t sure what to do and called over a policeman who was standing nearby. The policeman studied my shirt and asked me what the script in other languages meant. I told him I didn’t know but that it was probably the same as the Chinese. The policeman didn’t recognize any of the languages and the volunteers who had gathered around could only identify certain languages like French, German, and Arabic, but couldn’t confirm what was written. At this point the first policeman called another policeman and some more volunteers over.
The second policeman studied my shirt for a while and then said that I would have to change my clothes. I asked if I could turn my shirt inside-out. He said no. My father, who had passed through security unmolested, came over and said that our clothes were in the hotel and we didn’t have time to go back. The policeman said that I would have to change my shirt before he let me in. I asked him why. He said that the writing on my shirt was “too sensitive.” ”Sensitive in what way?” I asked. He chose not to answer my question and told me not to wear that shirt outside again. I said that I wore this shirt every summer, even to the Olympics in Beijing. ”Beijing and Shanghai are different,” came the reply. The policeman then asked for my identification number and other personal information. He jotted it down in his notebook. The volunteers snapped a picture of my identification card and told me to continue on. As he policeman walked away I heard him say to the volunteers, “Next time something like that happens, don’t tell me.”
What do you think about this story?
Beside the fact that the policeman made a deal out of something he didn’t even want to be informed of, for me the greatest irony is that a gathering of hundreds of cultures ostensibly aimed at understanding and tolerance fails before one can even enter the grounds. My cousin did not wear his shirt on purpose, nor is he an ideologue of universalism—he’s just a college student who is actually excited about the Expo. I can’t fault the policeman for being vigilant; to him and others in the Chinese security apparatus, anything foreign could potentially pose a threat and they can’t take any chances. (Never mind that a dissident trying to display incendiary rhetoric probably wouldn’t wear it on his person to the security check.) Usually this is understandable, but at the Shanghai Expo, it is self-defeating.
It’s regrettable that none of the policemen or volunteers could recognize any words of the other languages but is it right to punish someone for your own ignorance? I imagine that other people from other countries will wear clothes emblazoned with their own languages. Would they be turned away as my cousin almost was? My guess is that will be let through because they look foreign.
And that’s the way it goes sometimes. Even though “foreign” things are looked on with suspicion, Chinese people live under stricter rules and regulations than people from other countries. It gets me angry just thinking about it. The next time something like this happens, I hope my cousin just doesn’t tell me.