Okay, I promise not to do any more Charles Dickens quotations.
In case you have not guessed, the two cities I am talking about are Shenzhen, just around the corner from Hong Kong in southern China, and Doha, the capital of Qatar. Why do I want to write about these two in particular? Because Irena and I were living in Doha for five years, just before we came here to the Middle Kingdom. So what are our memories of Qatar and Doha in particular?
In many ways, Doha is not so different from Shenzhen because it is a modern city. Like Shenzhen, most of Doha did not exist thirty or forty years ago. Yes, it has loads of skyscrapers and impressive modern buildings, just like SZ, and there are even some parks. Both cities are near the sea. But that is where the similarities end.
Doha was built by Nepalis, Indians, Filipinos, anyone that the Qataris could get to do the work. Shenzhen, on the other hand, was built by the Chinese. Okay, they had hired some foreign architects perhaps, but all of the real work was done by Chinese workers.
As for the parks, the ones in Doha are totally artificial. Aspire Park has loudspeakers playing fake birdsong.
The green areas in only exist because they are constantly watered by sprinkler systems, while Shenzhen’s parks are working with nature, not against it. Then there is the trash. Qataris love going to the Aspire Park in the evening and to the green areas along the Corniche using them as garbage dumps.
Qataris think that it does not matter how much trash they throw onto the grass because hey, it will all be cleaned up in the morning by an army of Filipinos.
And please do not get me started on the subject of racism in Qatar. I will never forget going to one of my favorite buildings in Doha, the beehive-shaped post office near to the Corniche. There were two long lines of us, all expats from different countries, queuing at the counter to be served by the black abayya-wearing Qatari ladies on the other side of the glass.
In the next queue to mine, there was a young black chap, probably from Africa, and he had just got to the front of his queue when a young Qatari man suddenly appeared, pushed in front of him and declared, “Qataris have priority.”
All along the lines of expats, you could feel a wave of helpless indignation at that Qatari’s arrogant behavior and sympathy for that black man, but we unable to do anything about such dreadful racism. Hospitality, an important tradition in Arabia, should mean being rude to a guest should never happen, but maybe these old-fashioned rules do not apply in modern-day Doha.
And what about Shenzhen? Yes, it is true that skin color is an issue. Black people do get stared at, but really it is more because they are a novelty. To be honest, Chinese people do have the idea that having white skin means that you are superior, more upper class.
That is why so many skin-whitening products are sold in Chinese pharmacies and of course, that is why the ladies in Shenzhen will use their parasols as soon as the sun starts shining. So maybe prejudice in SZ is more hidden, less blatant. On the other hand, American films featuring colored actors probably give Chinese people the idea that meeting black people is unusual, exciting, exotic and very non-Chinese. If this is the case, then hooray for Hollywood. But if your skin is the wrong color in Qatar, then it will definitely be the worst of times for you and for your family.