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Getting stared at in China

Popularity 6Viewed 1316 times 2017-8-3 10:42 |System category:Life

Getting stared at in China:

 Thoughts on Chinese cultural curiosity, globalization, and racism

            Have you ever walked into a room and caught everyone’s attention at once? Have you ever been gazed at, from top to bottom, as if you were an ancient, foreign relic on display? Have you ever stared back, challenging, only to have your surveyors continue to watch you, unperturbed?

            These are daily occurrences for foreigners in China. I am stared at every single day as I go about my daily life. Be it on the street, in a store, or on the subway, I am stared at like a walking spectacle. While I cannot speak for all foreigners, I can, however, seek to critique and expand upon my own experiences in a global context.

            Chinese people are curious about the outsider, this I understand. However, staring is the least of it. Bolder strangers have asked to take a picture with me, or even of me. On a class trip, my two close friends and I, all women of color, noticed that people were sneaking pictures of us. Even worse, there was one older gentleman who approached us and asked to take photographs of us. Awkward and stunned into silence, he took our lack of response as an affirmative, and began positioning us the way he wanted us. Standing or kneeling, we did it all. I feel stupid now for having gone along with it, but as our professor stood behind the man and took pictures of us as well, laughing delightedly, it was difficult to see the insidious nature behind the hilarity of the situation.

            On my street in Nanjing, where I lived for four months, my neighbors continued to fall into a hush at the sight of me, their heads swiveling around quickly to watch as I near. I have become friendly with some of them, gone so far as to chat with them, but the staring never ends. I continue to be the visiting roadside attraction, promising the audience new and exotic sights. There are hushed whispers in my wake, and every time, I wonder: when will they grow tired of me?

            The stares are not in anyway malicious. I am entirely aware of this, but they are still able to catch my attention every time, to correct me whenever I dare to think that I have grown accustomed to life here.

            As a multi-racial woman, it is difficult not to see the differences in the way varying foreigners are treated. From what I have experienced in the past, most Caucasian men seem to be approached with a sense of awe. These Caucasian men are asked if they are celebrities, perhaps even compared to Brad Pitt, before a request to take a selfie is posed. This could be the epitome of western idolization in the East and the effect of years of western media on Chinese culture. But perhaps, this is also tied into the colorism that is often entrenched in Chinese culture and media.

            From every angle, Chinese people are bombarded with skin whitening products, with advertisements that feature Caucasian rather than Asian models, and whiteness continues to be idealized. The bud of racism in that very notion aside, foreigners have come to be equated with whiteness. While the intent is not that of discrimination, the result is shockingly close. Where this notion leaves the rest of us, people of color, I do not know. In a culture transfixed on whiteness, where do the rest of us stand?

            From my experience alone, the lack of representation, and perhaps the lack of understanding about other cultures, fuel the curiosity that many people I come across tend to possess. Curiosity is welcomed, and even encouraged. Curiosity will even ultimately be the key to fixing this problem. With education and exposure to different peoples and cultures, China can and would continue to flourish as a global hub. However, when curiosity begins to breed a lack of respect and consideration for others, that is where it has the ability to morph into racism and even xenophobia.

            While on my commute home the other day, I was once again confronted by the type of insensitivity that I detailed above. As mother and daughter boarded the subway cart, the older woman whispered to her teenager, in a barely hushed voice, to look at the “黑人” or “the black person”. The words shook me. In that moment, the other foreigner and I became mere objects, tools with which the mother could teach her child, and subjects to be observed under glass.

            She pointed the other foreigner out with a single finger, the way one might at a bird or a beast. The mother pointed, and her daughter craned to look for the foreigner as she would an elusive and exotic creature. Throughout the ride, the young girl and her friend continued to sneak glances at the other woman, darting looks at her as if she were on display. I wonder how often I have been pointed out in the exact same way.

            As China continues to globalize in an effort to make its mark on the economic marketplace and the cultural zeitgeist, I fear that it will be the lack of empathy and insensitivity that will stand in its way. Beijing is already a global epicenter, with foreigners on almost every street, and yet this type of insensitivity continues to occur. Foreigners are here to enrich their lives, to learn more about China’s long history, and hopefully to make a positive impact on it as well. They are not here to be part of a human zoo for the Chinese people. 

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report seneca 2017-8-3 21:35
It is revealing that this blog appears in the year 2017; similar comments were made about Chinese foreigner spotters back in the 1990s. At that time the staring was a hell of a lot more unnerving.

And yet, the staring as such annoys me less than do certain other behavioral specialities. One is to avoid eye contact with a laowai until the laowai passes the Chinese person. Then the Chinese person's head will swivel around to take a truly maximal look at the laowai.

Another is to ignore the laowai but to comment upon him or her to other Chinese. Some of the comments you can hear are hilarious or rude. One thing is certain: laowais don't leave Chinese indifferent.

However, I do not quite agree with you in saying that Whites are treated differently, "with awe". The skin-whitening craze has come to China not from the West but from domestic sources and from Japan.
Reply Report DMZappa 2017-8-3 23:38
My wife is from Kaili City, Guizhou. I have been there 5 times and have never seen another westerner there. I'm 6 foot with blonde hair, (and grey) I have gotten use to it so I just smile back and say "Aloha". Walking with my wife and holding hands in the streets really turns heads.
They are just curious.
Reply Report Jaaja 2017-8-3 23:51
My stare factor has trippled by pushing a baby stroller, and I can admit to be a danger to the pedestrians when they (after already passed me) turn their heads back to try to get a peek at the baby, and doing that momentarily lose sight of the traffic in front of them.
Reply Report parcher 2017-8-4 11:41
Only when I am eating at a restaurant does the staring bother me...
Reply Report vf84tcat 2017-8-10 08:52
Up until the last time I was in the PRC (2012) I was always stared at. People genuinely appeared to be fascinated with me, asking if their friend could take a picture of them standing next to me. I n line at McDonalds, people would just walk up and say: "Hallo".

I've always liked the Chinese people, it's their discriminatory culture I find disrespectful and offensive. I found it even more offensive that many  Western Expats agreed with China's discriminations. I guess it only makes sense as their values were rejected by their native countries. There's a reason they're expats.
Reply Report Swifty55 2017-8-17 16:18
I am a white citizen of the United States and now live retired in China. In a country as populated as China there are many Chinese who have never seen a foreigner in person. It is natural to stare at something you have not seen before. When I was a child and would walk near a black or Mexican area the kids would stare at me.Never bothered me in the USA. I think it is nice when they ask for a picture with you. It should not bother you if you appear different then a Chinese when they stare It is normal.
Reply Report ariqj 2017-8-18 14:34
Swifty55: I am a white citizen of the United States and now live retired in China. In a country as populated as China there are many Chinese who have never seen ...
Thank you to everyone who has commented, I enjoy reading all the different experiences.

Swifty55 - I too understand the curiosity that Chinese people have towards me and other foreigners. However, the world has become far more globalized since you or I were children. Like I mentioned in the article, it is not simply taking a picture 'with' me. Rather, they often take photographs 'of' me, as they would an animal in a zoo. I am aware this staring has become the norm in China, but I wanted to analyze and critique this phenomenon (that is often entrenched in ethnocentrism) in hopes that there could be some positive change or awareness.

Everyone reacts to these experiences differently. It can be hurtful and isolating to groups who have lived with micro-aggressions, while others do not mind/or are not sensitive to it. We should respect everyone's perspective and attempt to understand where they are coming from, rather than tell them how they should feel about a very personal experience.

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    • Body Policing in China; victim blaming, sexism, and more staring 2017-9-15 17:19

      Are you sure you talk about China?

    • Body Policing in China; victim blaming, sexism, and more staring 2017-9-13 20:10

      Interesting observations but a tad over the top. Feminists have a long history of b1tshing and moaning. It is time for them to return to Planet Earth and cohabit along with normal people.

      If someone does not respect society's dress code then it is wrong to complain about society's reactions. Why complain that people stare at individuals exposing body parts that society is used to not see? These women expose themselves. We call this "exhibitionism". Exhibitionism is a mental deformity for which you could go to jail in the recent past. Now long slender legs and women's cleavages are a normal sight although they are highly distracting. If everyone has to get used to seeing half-naked females then these exhibitionist females should get used to being stared at. Full stop.

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