China isn’t the only country in the world where you’ll get stared at as a foreigner, but it has to be one of the most extreme. Whether you’ve just arrived and are experiencing your role as an eyeball magnet for the first time, or if you’ve lived here for years and been followed by the stares all along, there are things foreigners in China can do to maximize their enjoyment and minimize their annoyance during any staring situation.
Whether you like to think of it as the “rockstar factor,” the “zoo factor” or the “sore-thumb factor,” you should expect to be stared at as a foreigner in China. It’s not only because there are so few foreigners in most Chinese cities (outside of the likes of Shanghai and Beijing), but also because Chinese people look relatively similar, regardless of where they’re from in the country. There’s also a hell of a lot of them.
Even in cities where there’s a relatively heavy foreigner population, there’s more than enough Chinese people to ensure you remain a distinct minority. To put things into perspective, there are over 100 cities in China that boast populations of over one million. There are only 10 such cities in the US. If you find yourself in one of these mega cities and your ethnicity is less than 10 percent, you can’t exactly blend in, no matter how well adjusted to the local culture you are.
Whether it’s skin, hair, shape, or height, the differences in appearance between most foreigners and Chinese people are pretty striking. Like any anomaly in an otherwise homogenous setting, you’re going to receive a variety of attention. The go-to response for anyone faced with something unusual is to stare. If you live in or visit anything close to rural China, you’re likely to receive several dozen stares a day that run the gauntlet from celebrity gawking (“Oh my, Lady Gaga!”), to a rare animal sighting (“Quiet or it will run”) to a medical examination (“Fascinating nose curve on this specimen.”)
The stare could be preceded by a double-take or the tapping of a shoulder, tugging of an arm, or nudging of an elbow to notify a friend or loved one about the nearby “show" on hand. Well, if it’s a show they want, I for one, quite enjoy giving them one. Not only because it just seems like the polite thing to do, but also because, with a little practice, I’ve found a way to squeeze some enjoyment out of these otherwise awkward moments. Here are four ways to respond when you find yourself being stared at as a foreigner in China.
In an effort to strike momentary fear into your over-eager audience, you may choose to aim your gaze their way while lifelessly rotating your noggin into a near-horizontal position, horror movie style. If you can keep a straight face, this one can earn you some confused and/or terrified onlookers. If you’re feeling warm hearted, you can, of course, always give a little smile and wave at the end of your performance to ease the tension. If not, just leave them satisfyingly unsettled. Either way, you probably had a good inner-chuckle.
Though it is a little un-subtle, the mimicry involved in this stare-back provides a great opportunity to disarm your audience and get them moving along quickly. Particularly useful when you’re feeling irritable or just trying to get things done, try acting more surprised to see them than they are to see you by returning their stare with a wide-eye gasp and optional step backwards. As most Chinese people don’t like sticking out any more than we do, this will generally persuade them to putter away and leave you alone.
One of the best ways to make people recognize the error of their ways is to show them exactly where they’re going wrong. Next time someone unashamedly stops and stares, seemingly perplexed by your very existence, see if you have the nerve to stare right back at them. Most offenders will realize their rudeness pretty swiftly and move along. For those that don’t, a well timed eye-bulge, wink or lip pucker will usually cause them to snap out of their trance. Similarly, if a child points at you and shouts “Wàiguó rén” (外国人 - foreigner), point right back and shout “Zhōngguó rén” (中国人 - Chinese person). They’ll either get a kick out of it or be mortally embarrassed. Either way, you win!
If you’re looking to spread a little joy with your weirdness, this is a great stare-back option. Unadulterated happiness when you notice you’re being stared at will usually be reciprocated almost immediately by the offender (unless it’s a young child, in which case the blank staring will just continue). Everybody likes being smiled at, and this is an almost foolproof way to ensure something good comes out of what can otherwise be a very annoying occurrence. Throw in a “Nǐ hǎo” and a wave, and you’ve probably just made someone’s day.
In a culture of subtleties, even the most unassuming of stare-backs can evoke a big reaction. Use these methods liberally but with caution. Responses can be mixed, but I’ve yet to receive a black eye for any of the above. On the contrary, they usually bring at least a little joy into my day while providing a bit of extra excitement (and perhaps a little education) for my stare-ers. After all, it beats letting the resentment that builds up from constantly being in the spotlight fester in your heart.
All of China is a stage, everyone is an actor but only foreigners can assume the lead so easily. Make what you will of it and be cheerful.
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Keywords: China expat
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