(Shibboleth: a word or emblem that distinguishes members of one social group from another.)
“Do you really think he’ll commit suicide here in Beijing?”
“No waaay. It’d be the last time a 22nd Century Entertainment artist is allowed in China.”
Morris James©, presiding world monarch of grind music, overhears a couple of teenage girls on line 13 of the Beijing subway system. The train is headed toward Wudaokuo, a sector of the capitol known for its universities and night life. James mounted a subway car that didn’t require many Shibboleth credits. Shibboleth is the social currency that buys a better paying job, a more comfortable home or apartment, access to better health care, or even prompt response time from police in China. The medium of exchange was introduced as a means to mitigate graft and bribery, but has nevertheless become a system of purchasing social fluency.
The girls, who are riding in a dingy subway car that is dimly lit, and sit on seats fashioned from unpliable plastic, are watching the latest Morris James video on We Chat, a Chinese social media platform with over a billion users.
“What would you do if we saw him in Wudaokuo? I’ve heard he uses his clout points to keep places open after hours, you know?” asks one of the young women, who wears her pink fingernails long and decorated with periwinkle polka dots.
“Just imagine if he invited us to a private party!” declares the other, who has a streak of green in her bob of jet-black hair.
The girls squeal in unison.
They are dressed in their work clothes, the tacky uniforms of a major government-subsidized fast-food chain. Although they spend much time on the most popular of Chinese social media apps, they haven’t garnered many clout points on the combined platforms they use, and accumulating the coveted points are the foremost way to acquire Shibboleth credit – the means of purchasing access to luxuries such as subway cars with plush seats, video screens and vending machines that dispense gourmet snacks.
“Where do you want to eat tonight?” says the girl with the creatively painted fingernails.
“It’s not like we have many options. We’re rats in the gutter. Our Shibboleth scores suck,”
“We have enough credits to get into Pyro for a serving of parmigiano focaccia and a soft drink.”
“If I eat focaccia again or drink another drop of knock-off brand Wahaha soda, I’ll never forgive myself. My mom told me if I gain any more weight, I can kiss my chances of dating Shu Chang goodbye.”
“Shu Chang regularly goes viral on We Chat. Those videos he posts of him photobombing foreigners taking pictures of each other at tourist sites around the city have made him a Shibboleth monster. He’s probably feasting at Lush tonight, eating cultured steak and drinking a California red. You’re dreaming if you ever think he’ll go for a fast-food peasant like you.”
As a college student, Morris James studied Mandarin. And although he only took two years’ worth of classes in the language, his custodians at 22nd Century Entertainment thought that it was a genius move by the clone prodigy. It made it more likely that he would not only be a god of grind music amongst English-speaking fans, but also be a contender in the largest demographic market in the world. The name of the teenage boy the girl dreams of dating means “easy going” or “happy.” As he hears the girl with the green steak in her hair discuss her prospects of dating him, James thinks that if the social media star dates girls based on their Shibboeth ratings, he is bound to disappoint the girl’s romantic musings. Electronic bank accounts lined with likes purchase creature comforts, but the lengths people go to secure Shibboleth ratings rarely provide creatures comfort of the psychological or emotional sort. In fact, since “dislikes” were retooled to subtract from clout point tallies, competition to keep Shibboleth scores high has become a source of stress for many Chinese.
“Busy as you are studying, working and taking care of your ailing father, only a miracle could help you get out of the Shibboleth toilet,” says the girl with the polka dotted nails.
James is still hallucinating from an equine dose of Moxy he took earlier in the evening. The girls wear outfits designed according to psychographic principles. The orange with yellow stripes is meant to arouse customers’ appetites for the greasy food served at the restaurant where the girls work half time jobs. In the eyes of James, the fast-food employees look like incarnations of Hindu deities. The one with the lock of green in her hair has the body of a winged antelope. She wears a crown and resembles images James has seen of the goddess Kamadhenu, mother of the earth and divinity of plenty.
James, who usually wears tailored Versace suits when performing either on stage or in videos is dressed casually with skinny jeans and a hoodie that conceals his short brown hair, parted on the side and neatly gelled. Although it is well past midnight, he wears sunglasses with mirror lenses. He also wears a gray face mask. Masks are worn by many denizens of Beijing for protection against the city’s smog. James wears it to protect himself against swarming fans as well as psychotic detractors.
He sits across from the Hindu goddesses, and Kamadhenu notices that this stranger on the subway seems to be observing her and her friend. She says to her divine companion, “Getta load of this weirdo. He’s getting kicks by scoping out chicks on the train.”
The girl with the painted nails gives the subway peeper a look that means to discourage any further incognito gawking. “Don’t you know you shouldn’t stalk schoolgirls on the subway?” she says.
The stranger, in Mandarin that isn’t entirely fluent says, “Shu Chang, mister happy, will give you much sadness.”
The goddess says, “Eavesdropping too, huh? Why don’t you mind your own business, mister?”
The stranger says, “Like Morris James, huh?”
The girls respond with silence but the subway cars’ wheels rhythmically beat as the train advances along the tracks.
“James is a loser, like Shu Chang. Big Shibboleth score. Little character.”
Before they can further protest the nerve of the masked and intrusive stranger, he pulls his mask down to his chin and his sunglasses up to reveal piercing hazel eyes. The stranger is the man whose suicide they were gossiping about when they boarded the subway.
While the girl with the polka dot nails exclaims “Oh my god! It’s, it’s…” the girl with the green streak momentarily goes into shock. Her eyes as well as her mouth have dilated into wide, perfect circles.
Knowing that if they don’t keep their wits, these two fans’ behavior will attract the attention of other passengers and possibly cause a stampede, James says, “Keep quiet and follow me.” He grabs hold of either of the stunned girls’ wrists, stands and guides them through the train to the door of the car reserved for passengers with high clout scores. James speaks into his Holophone, asking it to open the Shibboleth app. He passes the phone’s screen over a scanner on the door. It charges both his e-wallet and his Shibboleth account. An AI voice announces “Access granted,” and the door slides open.
When he sees a man concealing his identity and two Eat Smart employees enter the exclusive commuter car, a male passenger wearing a business suit exclaims, “No rabble in this part of the train!”
“We’re off next stop,” replies James, who then speaks into his phone, requesting a driverless vehicle from Didi, China’s most popular ride-hailing service.
“Want to take a private car with me?” James asks the girls. Looking at her friend, the girl with the green streak in her hair says, “Are we dreaming?”
At the subway stop, James leads the girls off the train and out of the station where he sees a black Mercedes sedan with Didi signage in the window. James makes the correct assumption that the vehicle is the one he hailed.
Access to the car consumes as much Shibboleth credit as the fast-food goddesses have accrued in their lifetimes, the ride to the residence in Wudaokuo where James is lodged costs the equivalent of what both girls have earned in the past six months.
The girls are eager to please the grind god. James could easily take advantage of the situation to earn clout points on Shibboleth. He decides to keep the intimacies he allows the girls take video of G-rated, restricted to actions such as feeding each other strawberries dripping with honey and, later that evening, giving them a peck on the cheek as they each climb back into a driverless car James instructs the Didi app to drive to the girls’ respective homes.
By afternoon of the following day, the girls’ Shibboleth ratings have rocketed. The videos they’ve posted of their innocent interactions with James have gone viral. They have each earned enough clout points to purchase entry to previously inaccessible locales and upgrade from work as servers at Eat Smart to hostesses at Lush, the most exclusive bistro, café, and nightclub in Wudaokuo.