In the city of Macau, somewhere in the labyrinth of one of the largest casinos in the world, I was sitting at a high-limit table with my colleague Glen. The game was baccarat. We were playing in the V.I.P. section, after buying entry with nearly thirty-thousand dollars. The money was not ours. We were on assignment for a niche consulting company, there to evaluate the resort’s luxury services. The work is akin to that of secret shoppers; we’d been hired to pose as high-roller customers, to test the quality of the services that we received in the suites, restaurants, and bars, and at the gaming tables.
We found ourselves on the kind of streak that lives in fantasies, the kind that obliterates from memory a hundred old losses of equal magnitude. Glen (whose name I’ve changed) was giddy, but we would have stood out even without his euphoric exclamations. He is white, and I am a woman. The table was otherwise occupied by silent Chinese men, who continued playing, it seemed, almost against their will. With each round that we won, the rest of the table took a hit, and we’d been winning for a half hour straight. Some dealers would feign happiness for you when you won, or commiserate as you lost. Ours, a Chinese man in a shiny vest, was—perhaps intentionally, given that a foreigner was having a wild run at the expense of other Chinese men—unreadable. One of the players kept sucking in his cheeks, giving his face a hollow expression. I struggled to manage my feelings of dread. How can I explain it to someone who has never weathered the moods of a Chinese father? Imagine driving into a tunnel during a hard rainstorm—the sudden absence of sound, louder than the onslaught that came before.
A sum greater than our yearly salaries could now be scooped up in our hands and sifted through our fingers. But it was nothing—Macau’s revenue from gambling is six times that of Las Vegas. Glen pounded the table. He was grinning, practically panting. Partly, he was putting on a show. But I knew that he was also caught up in the moment. He was delighted by his rise to prominence at our table, and by his apparent skills in a game that he had previously called unskilled. He sported a blue—almost turquoise—blazer, purchased especially for this trip. It accentuated the exact things that made him out of place here: his paleness, his youth, his unbridled joy.
I’d found the job on Craigslist. For the first year, I worked as an editor, tucked behind a white desk in the company’s minimalist office. Consultants travelled to hotels and resorts around the world and generated lengthy evaluations, which I marked up with a red pen. I was allowed a single photo on my desk and two fifteen-minute breaks. Nothing much was expected of me, which was exactly what I wanted. But, in the second year, my boss asked me to make a few phone calls in Mandarin. My language skills proved useful and, eventually, so did my ethnicity. I began, very occasionally, to fly with the company’s consultants to parts of China that I’d never visited: a metropolis for the nouveau riche, an ancient capital, a city famous for its beer, a resort island studded with high rises. Each time, I was assigned a different persona. I packed accordingly: suits and heels when I was a businesswoman, what I thought would pass as leisurewear for the affluent when I was vacationing. I carried fake business cards.
At the baccarat table, my persona was a woman who was entertaining a man—that is, a woman who owned a company, showing one of her male investors a good time at the gaming tables. But I cannot imagine that that’s how anyone saw us. My mind flitted to the prostitutes we’d seen outside. In any event, Glen and I often appeared at the tables together, and those around us made sense of it in whatever way they wanted.
I look Chinese and speak Mandarin well enough to pass, on the mainland, as someone who lives in Hong Kong or Taiwan. When you look like ninety-eight per cent of a hotel’s clientele, people don’t go out of their way to imagine that you might be an imposter. I possessed a kind of invisibility that I didn’t in the U.S; people had fewer preconceptions of me based on my appearance, and therefore there was little for me to disprove. In a sense, this was a relief, an unburdening, a sweet break from the constant struggle to be seen more accurately. Instead of being seen as someone I was not, I simply was hardly seen.
But, as much as my job was to blend in, and to help my co-workers blend in, it was also, simultaneously, to puncture this anonymity. I was playing the role of a guest who demanded to be seen—the kind of person who sent dishes back, or sniffed the cork of a bottle of wine, or delighted in being singled out as a V.I.P. Being seen, of course, requires that someone else do the seeing. If I rubbed my bare arms as if I were cold, someone might rush over with a shawl. If I tapped my watch because it had stopped working, someone might offer to take it for repairs; that night, my watch might appear on my nightstand, ticking away in a velvet-lined box.
For a different kind of person, I’m well aware, these stints could have been fun or even liberating. I visited the Chinese hotels, casinos, and resorts with one or two other colleagues at a time, almost always white American or European men. They had an easier time of it, I couldn’t help thinking. Was this role less of a leap for them? The root of the word “pretend” is the Latin tendere: to stretch. Maybe I had farther to reach, or was simply less stretchy. Or maybe I was held back by real life—in which people had assigned me a type, a role to play, and I had worked for decades not to play it. I had spent my whole childhood and young adulthood trying to be seen and accepted as American, and now here I was, swimming in the opposite direction, pretending not to be.
“Pretend” is a word we use with children, and there’s a playfulness associated with it. Make-believe. But there is a deception, too, a menace: I will make you believe. When I was six or seven, visiting family in Taipei, I twisted a candy wrapper around a piece of Styrofoam and gave it to my grandfather: a trick. Without a word, he unwrapped it and popped it into his mouth. Then he began to choke. I burst into tears. Would he die? But he was only pretending, as I had been.
In a way, everyone around us was pretending, all the time. The concierge pretended that an unreasonable request was perfectly reasonable. The waitress pretended that your joke was witty. The Italian restaurant in the Chinese hotel pretended to be authentic, even while it sprinkled your pasta with cubed instead of grated cheese. The massage therapist pretended that the spa treatment you had chosen was beneficial to your health, including the part where she lightly brushed your body with an ostrich feather.
Who are we when we are not pretending to be someone else? The question—who is the real you?—seems like a very Western notion. In Confucianism, one’s adherence to traditional roles eclipses any concerns with individuality. Buddhism prizes the effacement of the self. I had a fairly Western upbringing, but while performing my job I felt a rending dissonance. I didn’t know if I believed in a static, hidden, true self. I couldn’t feel a solid foundation upon which to build my rickety personas. I had a sense that we are—for any given moment in time—how we act.
Upon losing yet another hand of baccarat, one of the men betting against us hit the felt top of the table with the side of his fist. He screamed. Not a word—just a very loud and very human sound. There was no self-consciousness warping it. His voice echoed in the cavernous hall. For a second, I glimpsed uncertainty on Glen’s face. It may have been surprise or confusion, or just concentration as he processed a vocalization in a culture and country that were not his. Or perhaps it had dawned on him: our wins were not real, but others’ losses were. The man who had yelled was not here for entertainment. He had the look of those who returned, time and again, without the least expectation of fun. This man was not pretending. His interior and exterior were the same, and the main component of both was anguish.
Shortly afterward, Glen and I left the high-limit area to go about our other work. I returned to my sprawling suite—which included a karaoke room and a massage room—and inspected the work of the housekeeping staff. Had they cleaned my intentional spill or wiped down the bountiful mirrors? (Why so many mirrors? So that, when we were alone, we could still feel seen?) Our assessments had real stakes, too—people’s livelihoods depended on them. Alone in the empty palatial suite, seven thousand miles from home, I felt paralyzed. I was part of a sham, but any move I made could cause lasting harm.
On a different trip, at a gated paradise in Hainan, it rained throughout my stay. I departed for the small airport only to discover that all flights had been suspended, due to a tropical cyclone that was hovering above the island. Travellers, almost all of them Chinese, steadily poured into the airport, but no one left. Here, the most exclusive customer service could not get you a flight out. It couldn’t even procure a power outlet. By night, phones had run out of batteries, and our connection to the outside world was severed. There was nowhere to sit, nothing to eat. Sleeping bodies covered the floors and even the narrow countertops. The bathrooms were unusable, or nearly so; I saw more than one person choosing instead to urinate on the floor of the concourse, in full view of hundreds. A man pushed over a ticket machine.
Finally, airline agents ushered us onto buses for a late-night ride through a part of Hainan that I had not known existed. We were unloaded at a dimly lit motel, where I lugged my suitcase up concrete steps, through a damp hallway whose painted walls were badly flaking, and arrived at a room that smelled like smoke and mold. There were several cots inside; I was to spend the night packed in with strangers. In the tiny bathroom, there was a mirror the size of a dinner plate. It was deep in the stages of desilvering—a word I’d learned in this line of work. Over time, steam from hot showers causes the mirror’s silver coating to peel off, so that its face appears eaten away. I peered at my reflection. The mirror’s black edges crept in.
All week, I’d been controlling my image, shaping the way others saw me, with a growing sense of unease. Now all I wanted was the veneers, the gloss. I had an inkling—a sudden, fleeting recognition—of what luxury service offers. It’s not just material comfort, or entry into an exclusive realm where everything appears sleek and valuable, and therefore you must be, too. The need to be seen has a deeper, more primal, font. It has to do with loneliness. It has to do with why stereotypes wreck us. If we are not seen, we disappear. In the overrun airport, and in the decaying motel, I thought of death repeatedly. How insignificant my death would be, if it happened at that moment, when no one was glancing my way. “Look at me, look at me, look at me,” we clamor, while so few of us say, “I see you.”