As a white woman growing up in very white, suburban Dexter, Michigan, I am not used to standing out. I have an American accent, I dress like other American women, and I don’t really have any features that make me stand out as odd. I can blend easily into a crowd. Even in Germany, as long as I didn’t open my mouth, it was not immediately obvious that I was not a regular German going about her daily life.
In China, however, I will never blend in, not only because I do not speak the language, but because I am a white foreigner–a waiguoren (外国人）. Consequently, I am stared at absolutely everywhere I go. Sometimes the stares are subtle, like the young man on the bus today who kept surreptitiously glancing in my direction, and then quickly away whenever I turned my head toward him. More often than not, the stares are very open, like the van of Chinese men who slowed down to gawk at me as I was waiting for the bus, or the entire bus load of people following me with open-mouthed stares as a bus stopped in front of me at a red light. China is a very homogeneous population, and while there is diversity among the types of Chinese, they all still have black hair and black eyes. I, with my blue eyes, light hair, and fair skin, stand out–no matter how much I wish to blend in.
The attention has never been derogatory, but is, I think, innocent and genuine curiosity. People in Qingdao so rarely see foreigners, that it is a shock to see one, especially up where I live in the north of the city. When I exited the elevator of my building once, the jaw of the man waiting to enter the elevator hit the floor, and he twisted to stare at me as I walked out the door. Walking to school, in the super market, etc., most people I pass do a double take. It would make more sense to see foreigners in a group in the touristy part of the city, but not alone, riding the bus, or shopping at the market.
This curiosity often translates itself into kindness and a willingness to help a bumbling foreigner. On the potato field trip, many students and parents would give me potatoes they had dug up–which is also a sign of respect in Chinese culture. They would also give me parts of their lunches–so much that I barely had to eat the lunch the school provided for me. Today, when Michael, Nicole, and I were catching crabs in the tide pools on the beach, a Chinese man walked up and dumped three large crabs into my hands. Last weekend, Liz and I were in a Starbucks when two Chinese guys sat down and had a conversation with us because they wanted to practice their English. In general, Chinese people are very friendly to foreigners, and many people wave and say “hello” to me as I pass on the street.
What is really funny is when other foreigners stare at you just as openly as the Chinese. The thing is, I completely understand the impulse. Being surrounded by Chinese people everyday, I’ve found myself staring at white foreigners when I see them too. Wow, a white person! And then I have to remind myself that, oh, yeah, I’m a white person too. Foreigners stare at each other just as much as the Chinese do–because we are so uncommon.
One thing my friend Nicole mentioned that I am also starting to experience is that she sees Chinese people almost as Western. I was thinking about this phenomenon, and realized that when I think about my students, I cannot view them as Asian–because in Asia, where everyone is Asian, this is no longer a relevant categorization. However, when I think of my Asian or Chinese friends from the US, the fact that they are Asian is branded into my brain–not necessarily in a bad way, but I notice it more. In the US, “Asian” is a relevant categorization because not everyone is. With the eradication of such categorizations, I see the people around me as just people–people with diverse features and styles and personalities.
As my time in China has stretched into three weeks, I have been looking back and realizing how far I have come from the girl too terrified to leave the apartment by herself. I am taking taxis and buses alone and with ease. I have become more confident in my teaching ability, though I am always open to creative suggestions for activities to do with the kids. I already have such a strong community of foreigners around me, and I have made so many friends that it isn’t difficult to find something to do on the weekend. While some things have been hard, overall my transition has been generally positive and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me.
Now, to close with a few pictures I took at the beach this afternoon.