Being Seen in China

I am currently sitting in a restaurant at a mall in China doing some planning for school while having lunch, and am suddenly inspired to open up Word and make a note. There are currently about 3 billion people staring at me, my computer and my giant bowl of noodles. Okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration but as I sit here typing this, the curious glances from each new passerby feel increasingly invasive. I mean, this kind of thing doesn’t make me mad or upset… usually. It leaves me to question whether a young foreign woman can order noodles and sit in a booth by herself and work without being the object of scrutiny?

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Maybe not, but I’ll do it anyways. I’ve gotten used to the curious glances from people wherever I go, sometimes it’s even funny for me to see the different reactions. One thing I do struggle with is when people tell me how beautiful I am, my eyes, my skin, my nose (yeah a perfect mountain shape) and in fact one of the first phrases I learned in Chinese was how to say, “My eyelashes are real”. I suppose I struggle so much with this because they do not really know me, it’s very superficial. Also, they don’t really think I’m beautiful, they are simply curious about me. I am different, and they want to know why I am here, and what I am doing. I think it doesn’t help that I am currently sitting in front of a plate of noodles, drinking tea with one hand and typing with the other…

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I have some foreign friends and we like to share stories about our encounters with people and the times when staring turns into conversations and interactions. Once my very kind, and very blonde roommate and I were walking in a mall, ahead of us was a parent pleading with his child to behave as the child yelled and screamed in an incredible tantrum. As we walked by, the little boy froze as he saw my roommate and stared at her. Later, we laughed about the power she seems to have over children and her ability to halt temper tantrums.

I really believe that people are just curious, and may want to practice their English with a native speaker. Recently a friend of mine asked me, “but we don’t stare at Chinese people in the west, we aren’t shocked by them.” And I think I have some answers from my short experience in China over the past year. I think it’s the notion that the west in China is still fairly new and many cities are still westernizing, while others are not. My city has seen a little over 10 years of slow westernization that has sped up only in the last couple of years, bringing more expats and jobs for foreigners in companies and schools. There is only small expat community in my city of 4 million, so many Chinese people have genuinely never seen anyone other than a Chinese person for their entire life. The diversity in many places in China is minimal, even in cities of 4 million like mine. It’s difficult to comprehend sometimes, but when I think about cities like Toronto, I think multicultural (little Italy, little Portugal, China town). Jiangmen is not like that, there are a couple of bars that expats go to, but international communities are certainly on a different scale.

Generally people just glance and that’s all. But once in a while a brave individual will start a conversation, and most of the time I am willing to speak with them and practice English, and sometimes I can even work on my Chinese which is fun. But if I’m honest, there are times that I wish I could be invisible and that no one would watch me eat my noodles, and wonder about where I’m from, why I’m here… or like right now, why I am in a booth to myself typing on my laptop…

 

 

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