Why hello there! Yes it has been some time since my last post. China is still kicking my ass daily, but for now I’d like to talk about something else.
Welcome to my new blog series. “Weird things in China”. Here I’ll discuss all the weird and wonderful things I experience as I live in China. I was going to call this series “Weird Chinese things”, but that has slightly racist undertones.
Obviously what I find weird is completely subjective. A Chinese person could come to New Zealand and find it weird that we stand in line, or allow pedestrians to cross the road, or insist on personal space. These are just some of my thoughts as an expat living in China.
Chinese people love to stare. As a child I was taught that staring is rude, but staring is truly an art form here. It’s always blatant as well since the Chinese don’t believe in doing that thing where you stare at someone and quickly glance away, pretending like your eyes were just wandering around the room.
All of the Chinese people in Beijing like to play a little game I call “Stare at the weird Foreigner”. I’m guessing that the way it works is the Chinese give themselves points for how long they can stare before being noticed, how long they can continue to stare after I’ve given them my best “what the fuck?” look, and how long they can stare after being caught multiple times.
Some popular ways to play the game include:
- “Watch the foreigner eat” (bonus points if the foreigner is struggling to use chopsticks
- “Watch the foreigner read” (always an interesting way to pass the time on the subway-why read when you can watch someone else do it?)
- “Watch the foreigner walk” (great entertainment if you can get in her way while she’s running late).
- Watch the foreigner talk on the phone
- Watch the foreigner look out the window
- Watch the foreigner shop (this often includes checking my basket to see what I’m planning to buy and then discussing it loudly in Chinese)
A few weeks ago I was in a more touristy area and two younger girls (to be fair they were probably my age, even if they looked 17) came up to me and asked me for a photo. I reached for their camera but soon realized that they wanted me to be in the photo. While it was weird, I didn’t mind them taking a photo with me, as they had actually asked.
A few minutes later a man was blatantly and obviously taking photos of me without asking, and when I turned my face and walked away he followed me, walking backwards in front of me while I frowned at him. Usually I would say something, but I think I was so shocked that I kind of froze and then shuffled off feeling slightly violated.
So why do the Chinese stare at foreigners?
The majority of the people who like to stare are recent migrants from villages and farmers who are uneducated. While there are an estimated 50,000 foreigners in Beijing (a drop in a bucket considering the population is more than 20 million), many of these migrants haven’t seen any foreigners before, and my blonde hair definitely makes me stick out.
I consider myself a pretty open person. I make friends easily and will talk to just about anyone. If the Chinese would smile while they’re staring I’d probably start a conversation, but instead they choose to stare at me like I’m a giant freak, and all before I’ve had a coffee.
So how do I deal with the staring and picture-taking in China? Occasionally I’ll pull my phone out and pretend to take a photo of whoever is taking a photo of me-hoping to shame them into leaving me alone. Sometimes I stare back, although I do feel like I’m too old for staring competitions, and I usually lose since the Chinese have had much more practice.
I’ve tried smiling, which occasionally works if it’s a woman staring since they’ll often smile and look away, but males usually just take it as an invitation to keep staring.
After two months I’ve decided the best way to deal with all the staring is to pretend it’s not happening. I can go days without noticing the gawking, but it takes a concentrated effort to ignore almost everything going on around me. Headphones and a good book are must-haves.
For once my tendency to be oblivious to my surroundings is being put to good use. I always knew my daydreaming ability would come in handy one day!
While these weird things can be annoying, I find myself appreciating how lucky I was to grow up in diverse, multicultural New Zealand. The Chinese stare because they’re not used to seeing anyone who looks different to them, and seeing a blonde white woman walking around Beijing is probably the equivalent of watching someone dance naked in the street at home.