When you live in a foreign country, you are bound to get some extra attention. Sometimes this attention is positive, fun and interesting, sometimes this attention is disturbing, hurtful and without any kind of merit. I am from Denmark originally, and while I’d be able to travel around most of Europe without getting much attention at all, here in China, I look very different from most people and that means they sometimes look and interact with you in certain different ways.
One of a kind, A rare Panda
China is famous for their Pandas and people travel from all over the world to China to see them. They are an endangered species and most only ever get to see them in captivity. They are a Chinese national treasure and a lot of work is being done to try and save them. Imagine, if you will, walking down the street and seeing a Panda walking toward you. You’d most likely stop and stare in amazement, maybe be a little scared, and then perhaps gather your courage to go and pet it. In many ways, that’s exactly how some Chinese people act when they see me on the street.
First comes the shock. “Oh my God. This person right here in front me, he looks so different. He is so tall, so white, so bald and yet so handsome (I’d like to think I am)” They sometimes literally stop to look at me and more often than not they will pull the sleeve of their friend to get their attention or or kids will be yelling at their parents “妈妈我看到了一个外国人”, or Mom, I just saw a foreigner.
The shock is sometimes followed by a photo. This photo is sometimes taken in secret with a phone, other times they will be brave enough to ask if they can take a photo with you. The first one bothers me a little but I am always happy to pose if there is a pretty girl around who wants to take a picture. Actually, I’ll pose for anything and anyone who is brave and respectful enough to just ask.
A few weeks ago, I got on the subway to go home from being out to dinner. I sat down on the subway, and two ladies in front of me immediately started commenting on my looks and snapping pictures on their phones. I stood up and I told them off, speaking to them in Chinese. They nearly peed their pants when they realised I had understood all of their comments and now I was speaking to them, making them as embarrassed as they had just made me. It felt good but I dislike doing things like this. It is just disrespectful in my opinion. If they had just asked, I would have sat between them for a picture and then gone back to my seat.
The taxi Driver
Taxis are cheap in China and since the subway stops running at around 10.30 at night, I often need a taxi home if I go out to dinner or decide to have a drink with my friends. Some taxi drivers are a little nervous when you come up to them at first. “Oh no, a foreigner who doesn’t speak Chinese and can’t tell me where he is going…” But once they realise that you do speak Chinese they’re usually very interested in talking. It is good practice because the questions are usually the same. Where are you from? What do you do? How much money do you make? Do you like China? Do you like Chinese girls? How about the spicy food? 9 out of 10 taxi drivers I have driven with here in Chongqing have always been very friendly and very polite. I live far away from the main city and when I take a taxi home at night they usually have to drive back empty handed, with no customers. If I like the taxi driver, I will usually give him a tip for his trouble and his Chinese lesson.
I work in a training school, teaching English to primary school students. They have their usual classes in the morning and early afternoon and come to language training schools like mine to improve their English. There are good students and naughty students and you get to meet a lot of these. Because I am a foreign teacher, again I get a lot of attention, as do the other foreign teachers. Our classes are more expensive and the parents expect more from us.
Students vary in politeness, and some of them will run directly to you, hug you and love you like family, others will hit you, kick you and call you names. I have a lot of body hair and my students frequently ask me, why I look like a monkey. Ironically, my hair is almost gone so they also call me shiny head. They mean nothing bad though, kids will be kids and I used to have similar names about some of my teachers at school. It bothered me at first when a new student would enter the class room and start calling me names, but it happens so frequently now, that I have gotten more or less immune.
The girls who want to “hang out“.
Being a handsome foreign man (Yeah, I love myself), I get a fair share of attention from local girls in various locations. Not anything sexual, but I live in the University District of Chongqing, there are something like 18 universities here which means a lot of young student girls who are all very interested in improving their English. Now, I am not saying they are all bad, there are plenty of girls, probably the majority in fact, who will talk to foreigners just because they really want to make friends, or because they are just surprised that you are there, but I am sure there are also those who really seize the opportunity to just get to practice their English. There is nothing wrong with that, though and I am sure that many of these girls have made great friends that way, some may even have entered serious relationships and in all fairness, it is a good way for us foreigners to learn Chinese as well. The thing is, Chinese girls can sometimes send mixed signals. They can treat you nicely, take you out for dinner and hang out with you, without having any romantic interest in you. Sometimes, I have made the mistake of thinking that a girl really liked me, only to figure out that she just wanted some English practice. I guess I should deflate my ego a little bit, stop thinking so much and just enjoy my time-
When I first came to China, all this attention was exciting at first, but it quickly started to bother me a little bit. It was actually quite difficult not being able to go outside, without being approached by numerous people on the street or in stores. In some cities you get less attention than others, though. Beijing and Shanghai are both full of foreign professionals, so you only get attention at the very touristy places, and the people who notice you are often tourists themselves. When I lived in Changsha, in Hunan Province, I got approached on the streets quite often. Not in a bad way though, just people who were interested. Even more so, when I was in Changsha I had a colleague, a tall pretty Swedish girl with long blonde hair (very unusual in China) and if I walked with her, no one would leave us alone.
In the smaller city, Luoyang, that I lived in for 2½ years, there were slightly fewer foreigners and there, in some places you’d also get a lot of attention. However, this was not really a touristy place, so people weren’t trying to overcharge or cheat you, they just genuinely wanted to talk. And some of the most helpful strangers I have ever met, I met in Luoyang.
Chongqing where I live now, is a bit of a mixed bag. In the University District where I live, foreigners are quite common as they often work at the universities. Mostly they are slightly older gentlemen, but there are a few younger ones like myself, too. The popular places like JieFangBei, GuanYinQiao and CiQiKou often see foreigners, so you don’t quite stand out so much. Shapingba is like the English Language School Central of Chongqing, so there are also many foreigners in that area and Chongqing is a big city, so here you get attention mostly from Taxi drivers and the people who just want to talk and practice their English.