Other people's celebrities

A few weeks ago I was on a China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Changsha, in Hunan province. I was in a window seat. The two people next to me, and the three on the other side of the aisle in the same row, were a standard group of hip-looking Chinese in their 20s.

When we trudged off the plane and through the baggage area, I was amazed to see a full press gaggle, complete with TV cameras and civilian onlookers, whose members began asking questions, shooting off flash pictures, and screaming in delight when the people in my row came into view. Apparently they were famous, and not by a little!

Half of Changsha -- well, in a city with a multi-million population, I'll just say a lot of people from Changsha -- had turned out in hopes of getting a little glimpse of the same people I'd spent the previous two hours jammed-up next to.

In its own weird way it is unsettling to encounter another culture's celebrities. If you haven't spent the preceding years hearing how cute, how sexy, how talented, how brilliant, how famous a given person is, you're likely not to give the person a second glance. Something similar happened recently at a prestigious university in Shanghai. There was a big queue of (mainly female) students, atwitter at an upcoming promotional appearance, pushing some beauty potion, by an androgynous teen-idol sort (male) who, if you didn't know he was a phenom, you would consider just another kid.

Why is this unsettling? Well, what does it make you think about achievement, renown, "success," failure, popularity, and so forth in your own home culture? About The Meaning of It All? I will stop thinking this way, since the next stop is existentialism -- perhaps joining President Bush in rediscovering the works of Camus -- or, more appealingly, Zen.