Weird things in China: Staring at Foreigners

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.

Weird things in China

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.

weird chinese things
Luckily Beijing has some nice places to visit to escape the staring.

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.

10 comments on “Weird things in China: Staring at Foreigners

  1. Karisa April 14, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    Yep! I’ve been stared at in every Asian country I’ve been to. It was so strange when people asked me for my pictures at, for instance, Halong Bay. Why would you want MY picture when there’s a world wonder beside us! LOL Anyway, being stared at from a distance is awkward but I never minded when people came up to ask me for my picture or to say hi. At least it was a change to talk to someone new!
    Karisa recently posted..A Springtime Visit to Washington D.C.

    • Stacey April 15, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

      Haha I had the same thing at the White Temple in Chiang Rai I was like “hey check out that awesome temple behind us”. I agree that it’s nice to talk to people when they ask for a picture, but I get very resentful when people take them without asking!

      • Jim January 18, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

        Stacey, it is a cultural difference. In China, People are basically taking pictures of each other because they respect each other’s motive to have people as an inseparable element in their pictures and that is just an acquiesce. It is important to drop your Western mindset for a while and appreciate how a different culture is unique in its own way.

  2. Tim May 2, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    I work in an international school, in a pretty small city in Jiangxi. I think the staring is much more intense here than in Beijing, but my managers’ desire to maximise it, and to ensure that the school can milk every drop of publicity it possibly can irks me slightly. Seems they are incapable of understanding *why* it might irk me, I think they all think they would like to be famous, and have no concept of the downsides to “fame”. But I think you hit the nail on the head – we really *are* novel, and we really *are* the equivalent of a naked dancer! When all is said and done, ’tis a natural, albeit sometimes irritating, thing.

    Tim, UK

    • Stacey May 19, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

      Hi Tim!
      I can imagine that the staring would be even worse in a small city. I definitely hate playing the “dancing monkey” and our school likes to dress us up and parade us round it’s awful.
      You’re right that there’s definitely a lack of understanding about why we get annoyed-the Chinese can’t get why we don’t like it, and sometimes it can be hard to explain exactly why we think it’s inappropriate.
      Stacey recently posted..Stolen Wallet in Beijing

    • Jim January 18, 2018 @ 8:11 pm

      Have you understood why they will stare?? I lived in China for a quite long time. On the street people were basically staring at each other, and they respect each other’s motive to appreciate the images of people walking on the streets. If you think they are incapable of understanding your frustration, then ask yourself if you have ever understood them? To respect each other is not to make yourself special for everyone else to respect and ignore that you were in China trying to experience the culture! Your might be guessing what they were thinking but the fact is you did it without even communicating with them. Classic ethnocentrism.
      Jim recently posted..The Best Winter Destinations In Europe

  3. Eddie May 22, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    I use to stare back in anger and they’d look away however about a year ago I stopped it as I felt bad for letting myself get angry over such a stupid thing however though the anger is gone the annoying bite staring gives has yet to go away. It really does sting you right in the ass to be stared at so often. I often go out of my way to avoid walking out in front of groups of retarded teenage boys or young guys because assholes don’t know how to stfu when talking about me right as I walk by. In my nearly 3 years here so far I’ve blown up about 3 times on young Chinese kids BORN in the big city who talked so much smack and thought I didn’t understand. Even that one student of mine who attempted to spit on me never got me as angry as being stared at and talked about right in my face. You gotta understand one thing that despite being uneducated formally it is common knowledge amongst chinese that staring is impolite in their culture even if we catch them doing it to us or each other. If one thing chinese have is tunnel vision. I see Chinese stare at each other and you’d think the other guy’s peripheral vision would pick it up but they usually don’t. Really amazing. I give them 5 seconds, especially another dude, to stop staring at me before I sharply turn my eyes in their direction and give an icy stare. I also have a shaved head because premature hair loss is a bitch but nevertheless I notice most Chinese look at me suspiciously (As most white people would back in the states anyways) and clutch their hand bags and purses and watch me very very carefully even though I am dressed in dress pants or fitted jeans and tucked in button down shirt with a nerdy back pack on. Never mind that most chinese steal from other chinese I just happen to apparently “look” like someone bad or dangerous. Being looked on as a threat by others compounds the staring problem these guys seem to have perfected. Only my students really know and understand me and if it weren’t for them I would have blown up on Chinese people years ago. It takes time to understand that not all of them are the same and even the person who thinks your something your not probably doesn’t know who you really are until they really get to know you. It’s tough not losing your top here in China and this explains why so many foreigners go out to get piss drunk like I used to. Im glad to say Im sober and don’t drink nor smoke anymore. In China either you man up and learn to cope in the environment your in and eliminate negative things like drinking and smoking and staying up late and fooling around with women or you’ll see that if you don’t the staring problem is just one of many compounding problems that will eat at all foreigners over time. Being a person of color I can say that white people back in the States got their own damn problems that other people may find annoying as well and they can or cannot be educated. My wife is a white eastern european woman and she always tells me “Wow I didn’t know the U.S is so racist and how segregated your city still is (Los Angeles)” The fact of the matter is despite the staring in China, despite the assumptions they make based on my rather innocuous appearance and even despite the fact that Chinese talk about me in public in front of me I still feel safer myself and with my wife then I ever did back in the states regardless of where in the states. All our countries are messed up in someway there ladies and gents. Don’t forget that.

  4. J May 10, 2016 @ 3:54 am

    I’m just traveling here for a few days but noticed it immediately. First a group of three men walking together stared and followed me down a street while I tried to find my hostel. It was dark and there weren’t many people up ahead so when they continued, I did a 180 and grabbed a taxi. Next day, after parking my bike near a park entrance I went to retrieve it but a man was staring at me, I gave my best fuck-off look but he looked at another man, then they both stared and stood on either side of me. I was so afraid they were going to take my bag (passport!!) I left the bike and walked away, making a shooing motion with my hand. I walked in a circle and he followed me the whole way around like it was some strange bird mating dance. At this point about 10 others gathered to stare and I called out for someone who could speak English. A young man helped me but said it was a misunderstanding. I’m still skeptical. It had EVERY sign of a mugging about to happen (or worse). I’m 30 and have traveled alone in many countries but never felt so threatened anywhere else. Any safety suggestions? How common are muggings, etc?

  5. Maureen November 16, 2016 @ 9:29 am

    I’m in Beijing now for a one week trip. I have long blonde hair & blue eyes. I had men come up , grab me & put their arm round me while their friend took a photo (nobody asked me, I felt like a zoo animal). Some other people did ask me by pointing to the camera so then I don’t mind as much. My tour guide said the Beijing people are so used to foreigners now that they don’t bother. The ones staring & taking pictures tend to be from the countryside & they take photos back to their villages to show everyone that they met a foreigner in Beijing.

    • Stacey December 7, 2016 @ 5:38 am

      Yeah it’s definitely a weird experience, I also didn’t mind as much when people asked, but it’s violating when people just taking pictures and videos out of the blue.

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