I wrote most of this a couple of months ago, but never quite finished polishing it up ’til now. Enjoy!
When I tell people back in the U.S. how much we get stared at, photographed, and shouted at here in China, they have trouble believing us. Really? Would people really pay that much attention to you simply because you’re not Chinese?
(Incidentally, our Asian or Asian-looking friends are also surprised by this since they can walk around relatively unnoticed. One Korean friend was genuinely confused while she walked down the street with me one fine day. “What is going on?” she asked. “ Everyone is shouting and pointing at us. What is wrong with people today?” “Easy,” I answered. “You’re with me.”)
I suppose the very best way to explain it would be to have you here, tagging along with us, so you could observe for yourself. But, many of you will never set foot in China (especially after some of the stories I tell you), so I will have to just ask you to go along with me in a blog post.
So, let’s go!
We’ll drive through a short snippet of our daily life. Let me recall for you our afternoon excursion today, during which we drove to a milk tea shop to get drinks.
We begin in the middle of the main drag as we head south. Eric is leading our little pack, riding his bicycle. Evan is doing his best to stay directly behind Eric, while fighting a bike that is too small for him. Elsa and I bring up the rear, riding the electric scooter and trying to guard Evan from other vehicles that are darting into traffic.
Being in the back of the line gives me a good chance to see the ripple of stares the boys generate. People in a variety of vehicles going both ways twist their heads to get a good look at the foreigners. Many end up doing a triple take, first reacting to Eric, then a few milliseconds later reacting to Evan, and then finally seeing see me and Elsa. FOUR foreigners!
As we pass a sanlunche full of high school girls, there are giggles and squeals as if they are watching One Direction pedal past. There’s a flurry of motion as the girls pull out their phones to try to snatch photos, but, sadly for them, their sanlunche is turning right into an alley, ruining their chance to have proof of their real, genuine, authentic, foreigner sighting.
We pull into the shopping center and park in the shade. Evan and I stay with the bikes while Eric and Elsa walk across the way to order the milk teas.
An older gentleman strolls past, hands locked behind him in the standard way, staring at us, also in the standard way. He slows as he nears us, pausing to try to comprehend the incomprehensible thing before him: foreigners.
A group of three middle school girls spot us from the right and start giggling and whispering, not daring to come farther down the sidewalk. A few minutes later, they magically appear on our left. They got creative, and went through the shopping center to come out the exit nearest us for a closer look. They stand in the doorway, gaping, until I look directly at them. My eye contact throws them into a fit of giggles. One shouts, “Go! Go!” and they retreat back into the shopping center.
Meanwhile, Eric and Elsa are getting their fair shares of comments and looks over by the milk tea shop, as curious folks walk by. They get the drinks, walk back to us, and we stand there with our bikes, drinking our beverages in the shade. Every so often, someone passes us and mutters, “laowai” or “waiguoren” to their companions. Sometimes a child shouts it. The adults either laugh or shush the child. Sometimes it’s the adults pointing us out to the child: “look, sweetie, foreigners!”
We finish our drinks and Eric walks the empty cups to the trash can (because he is such a foreign weirdo and prefers to not leave trash on the ground). On his short journey, several people turn to watch him, or nudge their companions to point out the foreigner in their midst. They are too busy watching him to notice that there’s three more of us just a few meters away.
Eric returns, we mount our bikes, and start off to our next destination. As we cross the parking lot, there are shouts of “laowai!” and “waiguoren!” and “hah-low!” as people try to get us to react.
Turning onto the street, a small scooter packed with three young guys pulls alongside of us. They are staring at us and smiling, driving along very close to me. Very close. One finally shouts, “laowai!” and I respond, “Be careful! Keep your eyes on the road!” in Mandarin because I am honestly scared they’re in danger of crashing into me or Evan. They laugh and swerve away, and the guy in the middle grabs the driver’s head playfully to force him to look ahead instead of at us.
We continue on to our next destination, but this is where we let you off, friend.
You’ve just spent about 20-30 minutes with us in our town. I’ve probably forgotten some of the comments or looks we got, but that gives you an idea of a fairly typical outing for us. Some days we get more looks, some days less, but that’s basically what it’s like for white people to be out in public in small town China.
So, you might wonder, why do they stare and point and shout and laugh? And how does it feel, you also wonder, to be stared at and pointed at and shouted at and laughed at?
Well, dear friend, those are posts for another day.