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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