Life in a Fishbowl

It’s not easy being a celebrity… also my diamond shoes are too tight and my back hurts because my wallet is so full of twenties.

Seriously though, I’m starting to have more sympathy for Brad and Angelina and all of those other celebrities constantly hounded by paparazzi because now I kind of understand what it means to have people watching you constantly. Only nobody is looking at me because I’m rich or famous, I’m a mini -celebrity in Xi’an merely for being white.

According to Wikipedia, Xi’an, China is 99.5% Han Chinese. That percentage is even higher up on the college campus where I’ve been living the past few months. There are about 20,000 students up here, and 6 foreign English teachers which means that Caucasians make up about .03% of the population. Needless to say I stick out like a sore thumb. A tall, blonde, big chested thumb.

Sometimes, it’s awesome. People want to take pictures with me. They get excited when I saw hello and tell me how pretty I am, how great I am. When I come to visit Mike in class I get a standing ovation and a slew of questions. It’s a hell of an ego boost until I remember it doesn’t really have anything to with me, just my “exotic” background.

Other times being in the spotlight is not so great. It’s kind of well, annoying.

It feels WEIRD to have people staring at you all the time. I start to become very self-conscious: Is my hair OK? Do they think I’m showing too much cleavage (it’s the law of Chinese fashion that impossibly short skirts are right for any occasion, but showing your shoulders is kind of slutty)? I probably should have changed out of these sweatpants, I look like crap. Ahh too many eyes on me!

Let’s just say I’m starting to empathize with Kate Middleton.

In the end though it doesn’t matter what I wear, I still stand out. That’s the problem: while the attention might be nice once in awhile, you can’t turn it off. I can’t walk down the street without people shouting “Hello!” behind my back, then giggling. When I went to Hong Kong it was the nicest sensation just to be able to walk down the street and not be noticed- to blend in.

This seems like a good time to mention that China is not America’s biggest fan. The government disseminates a lot of anti-American, anti-Western, anti-capitalist propaganda which people seem to take as solid truth. Think everyone was happy about Bin Laden being taken out of commission? Not here in China, where it’s simply proof of America’s entitlement and pushy foreign policy. First Bin Laden, then what, maybe CHINA? Screamed the newspaper headlines. Mike and I read the comments- full of anti-Americanism and vitriol with a kind of morbid fascination.

On a personal level that view is more complicated: Most of the people we meet are not only friendly, they are absolutely fascinated with us. They want to know if we like China, if we like Chinese food, what the US is like, why we can own guns etc etc etc. They want to put our number in their phones, they want to hang out with us to raise their social status, and they want to know our opinions on absolutely everything. Basically, they want to know if we are really like the Americans they’ve heard about.

As a traveler, I’m used to being an ambassador for the United States, but when everyone is watching you, that’s a lot of pressure. Anytime we eat in the school cafeteria there are a dozen eyes on us, watching our every move. Many (most) of the students speak no English at all so they just stare. I get the feeling that if I drop my chopstick all of a sudden it will be big news around the campus that FOREIGNERS DON’T KNOW HOW TO USE CHOPSTICKS.

So yeah, it’s a little stressful sometimes. But more than that it’s an interesting insight into a situation I would probably never find myself in at home where multiculturalism is the norm. All I can do is try to enjoy the attention, and look forward to that magical day when nobody notices I’m there.

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40 thoughts on “Life in a Fishbowl”

  1. I would probably get so use to people treating me like I was a celebrity or someone special that I would miss it when it didn’t happen hahaha

    1. I think Mike is going to go through withdrawal when he gets home and all thes girls aren’t falling all over him!

  2. I can’t imagine a better ambassador though, I can see you being so sweet and patient with everyone wanting to take your photo. I would prob drop the baby or something…anyway, i cant wait to find a random photo of you on the internet in the distant future.

    1. Thanks- I try to be nice about it! I’m always afraid I’m gonna drop a baby though. Those things are squirmy!

  3. I experienced the same thing in Bangladesh, a country that is typically not on the receiving end of foreign tourism. My friend and I went to a local carnival type event……..guess who was the main attraction?!! Yup, me.

  4. I spent a few months travelling around China and had similar experiences with people wanting their picture taken with me. I’m still not sure I get it… it was bizarre, but I confess I enjoyed the attention most of the time!

    I remember eating in a restaurant in Suzhou though and having all the staff stand and watch me eat whilst they took photos on their mobile phone.

    There was also one occasion up the Yellow Mountains where a whole group surrounded me and were plonking their kids on my lap for photos – whether the kids liked it or not…

  5. That happened to me when visiting the Taj in India. Obviously there are foreigners there, but mostly its Indian tourists. Here we are in front of one of the world wonders and many of the Indian tourists are trying to photograph the white girl, not the giant structure. It gets out of hand, and few people ask permission. Some even sneak up and stand an inch a way from you while their friends take a photo that looks like your purposefully standing together.

    Sort along the same lines, in Indian culture, men dont touch women outside of their family. Knowing that American woman are a bit “looser”, a lot of Indian men try to shake your hand – which means nothing to me, but is bit more provocative and meaningful to them. Not sure how that plays out in China, but i felt a bit shitty when I realized what I thought was a polite handshake was one variation of “copping a feel” to the reciprocate.

    1. That’s really interesting about the handshake thing.

      I sometimes feel like I’m dress provocatively by Chinese standards. Not on purpose- I’m just a lot curvier than the girls here, and my shirts somehow end up looking busty. I don’t know if the Chinese guys care much though- think I might be too foreign to be sexy…

  6. Loved your chopstick comment. It’s funny, but on the other hand, I bet there were people who were thinking that. Suddenly, you represent your entire country. No pressure there, eh? I’m with Jan, I wouldn’t handle it very well. There are times when I just want to be anonymous.

    1. They will literally ask things like “Do ALL foreigners like soda?”

      Yes. Every last one of us loves Fanta. More please.

  7. Hi!
    Thank you very much for your post.
    Being Spanish, I went through the same situation. It really surprised me that in the FORBIDDEN CITY, one of the most touristic places in the world, Chinese people were asking me to take pictures with them. And that after the Olympics.
    Anyway, my first time in China it was kind of fun. They give you these babys without pants and ask you to take a picture with them, but when i had to live there, and work there, i have to say that annoyed me a little. I know they do not have any bad intention, but what really annoyed me was feeling all the time an “outsider” you know? loving China, I wanted to merge in, people treating me like one of them, and made me sad that I was that laowai that they had to observe cuz is so “strange” . Don’t you have that feeling? I am planing on going back soon, as I said, I LOVE China, but I would like next time, to get myself more into it, do not want to hang out with expats, and I dont want to be the strange. Any tip? Have to say that I had always been interested in learning their culture and social customs so that I do not “act weird” when eating out, etc.


    1. Well for us, we live in a college campus where we are relatively isolated from many other foreigners. Most of the students here are really happy to hang out, go out to eat and practice their English. I would think anything you an do to hang around English students would help.

      I have a feeling that in China there’s only a certain level of integration you can achieve. People are so homogeneous and westerners are always going to be different and strange.

  8. One positive – at least they’re friendly and excited to see you in Xi’an.

    Here in Beijing it’s just the constant staring without the fun conversation. I went to Yinchaun a couple of weeks ago and was blown away by the difference in attitude.

  9. Oh, you are handling that much better than I would. I would absolutely HATE having everyone looking at me all the time. I’m naturally a little shy and this would make it 1000 times worse!!!

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