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Home  /  Inside China  /  A White Sheep in a Yellow Herd
A White Sheep in a Yellow Herd print version

The big crowds wash the streets of Chinese cities, but a typical 'urban solitude' is seldom experienced by a Western, getting used to the special attention he or she receives from curious locals.

This is not a phenomenon unique to China, after all, if a western person walks in Vietnam, Bolivia, Senegal or Burundi (assuming that he or she is pale-white) the same experience is realized, but in China the shock is of different flavor.

When walking around Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and even less densely populated cities (though popular tourist spots) such as Kunming and Guilin (not to mention backpackers hangouts like Dali and Yangshuo), most locals come across Caucasians daily and aren't particularly excited to see your face. In other destinations, you might be approaching a celebrity status, being one of the only laowai present in the city.

I won't get into a discussion about what Chinese feel towards foreigners, what associations are assembled and why might local feel excited, or even embarrassed when he or she meets you (we'll assume there is no such things as resentment feeling for now). One thing is certain, though: Many people will find it impossible to stay indifferent to your presence.

Some westerners like it, some feel annoyed by it, but it is indeed something one needs to get used to. The long lasting stares, the shy giggles of teenagers, usually enhanced after one of the group members shows courage and says something like "hello", "nice to meet you". For some reason there is an equivalency between Caucasian and English-speaker in Chinese eyes, even if sometimes (though rarely, I admit) the locals' English level may exceed that of the laowai (for example an Italian or French visitor, not very fluent in English).

Should we laowai take this focus we receive as a compliment? Well, I guess there's something nice in never being transparent, not needing to put a big effort in to get attention. On the other hand, in some days the exact opposite is desired. Above all, in my opinion, we should ask whether this 'standing-out' position induces or suppresses creating more meaningful interactions with locals. Being easily noticed is in fact a good foundation to start a conversation, however, if the Chinese side will stays unease under the impression of the interesting creature who stands in front of him, then the laowai could never become his or her meaningful friend.

After making very general arguments here, it can be said that though it would be naïve to think that one's western identity wouldn't be one of his or her most prominent features when communicating with a local, there is still a wide variety of interactions which can be experienced and an infinite number of different attitudes one can be exposed to.

I must clarify, that when I write here "Western" I mean every non-Asiatic looking foreigner, including East European, Arabs, Black Africans, Latinos and African Americans. The halo a foreigner has in the eyes of some Chinese is beyond the grasp of some of us, while at the same time many urban Chinese are already 'saturated' by the foreign presence around them. Our user Stacy told us that even in touristic sites like Changcheng (Great Wall), some Chinese found her long braided hair as the main attraction (think about it; Chinese who dream to see the Wall come back home with an album full of pictures of...hair). I know in fact that girls like Stacy and other female friends also get Chinese girls asking them to touch their skin and hair, something that adds another sweet or embarrassing (depending on the situation) dimension to the encounter...

Middle class Chinese who feel more acquainted with western culture are less likely to be 'star-struck' when they see you. Furthermore, even among people who seldom communicate with a foreigner some interactions could obviously lead themselves through spontaneously to a deep and exciting place (a low language barrier would promote this). You will always remain a laowai, never could you wear a camouflage, but there's no need to compare such interactions to what you get back home. I would be wiser to work with your new game tools.

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