China is an enormous country. Xi’an alone is a city of 8.5 million people. You would think that with such a large population there would be a certain level of diversity. Nope. Those 8.5 million people in Xi’an are mostly Chinese people. In fact over 90% of the entire population of China is Chinese. That’s less than 10% of minority nationalities and a much lower percentage of westerners. This creates a bit of a fascination around westerners. It’s because we are a rarity.
The Fascination With Westerners
I’ve written a post about The Quirks of Chinese Culture and whilst this could definitely be considered one of those quirks I felt it was such a big one that it deserved it’s own post. People here are not exposed to a large array of nationalities and cultures in the same way you are in other countries. Therefore, some people do reach adulthood without seeing a white person. I think everyone can sympathise that you have an interest when you see something new. It’s just in this case, the new thing is a person.
Beauty is subjective. People have different standards of beauty and so do countries and nationalities. In China, women strive to be pale and, in complete contrast to westerners, will avoid the sun to avoid tanning. Blonde or light coloured hair is also deemed attractive. Unsurprisingly it’s also a rarity here and is always artificially achieved. I have a colleague who always complemented my hair colour. One day she arrived to work with her hair dyed. I didn’t think much of it at first. That is until she held up my hair next to hers to compare and made a comment about how it wasn’t quite the right colour…
Perhaps these beauty standards can, in part, be held accountable for the interest in westerners. The only westerners they see are in movies and are admittedly gorgeous. Many people look up to movie stars and wish to imitate hair styles and fashion choices. However in China, they don’t have the separation between western movie stars and regular westerners. In some ways we do embody their ideals. Light skin and pale hair. You will notice if you are pale and blonde you will find yourself subject of much more interest than your darkly tanned friend with black hair.
The one beauty standard that does seem to be consistent between both Chinese and Western cultures is the desire to be thin. Chinese women are built very differently to westerners and their body types are often naturally very petite. However that doesn’t stop them from striving to be thin. At 5’4″ I am not considered tall in England however in China I am taller than all my colleagues. I am also very large compared to them all. In fact if any westerner goes to the gym and is weighed they will be told they are obese. The other day I wanted to buy a new jumper and found one I liked in the men’s section. The jumper I brought was a men’s extra large. My work t-shirt is a 4XL.
So we stick out not just because of our skin colour but physically we are very different and larger. In fact this led to one interesting encounter not long after I first arrived. I was in the lift of my building when an old man stepped up to me, poked my belly and said a word in Chinese which I could only presume meant “fat”.
Here Come The Paparazzi
Seeing a westerner however isn’t enough for most people here. They need proof. First they will stare for an uncomfortable amount of time and then they will approach you to ask for a photo. I discussed this with my best friend trying to understand why they always wanted a photo and we can only conclude that no one will believe them without photographic evidence. Spotting a westerner is like spotting fairy. We envision them going home saying “Look! Look! I saw a magical white person!”
I have grown to accept the photos though. It’s simply part of living in China. What I don’t like though is when someone tries to take one of you without your permission. They try to be subtle about it but if I spot a photo being taken without my permission I will offer a scowl or simply turn away so they can’t get the photo they so desperately want.
Free English Practice
The other situation which happens frequently is WeChat friend requests. WeChat is used by everyone here and if you are visiting China it should definitely be on your virtual packing list. It is the ultimate social media/communication app. No-one texts each other, they will message one another via WeChat. They post photos and statuses on their WeChat moments and can like and comment on their friends. You can even pay for sevices through this app. What I am trying to stress is everyone has it and it is how 99% of communication is done either socially or professionally.
Chinese people who are interested in you often want to add you on WeChat. The main reason for this is usually to practice their English on you. However, I do believe there’s probably a certain trophy element to having a Westerner in your WeChat contacts. This is a request which I have always turned down. I simply don’t want to have strangers clogging up my WeChat. I also don’t want to be used for free English lessons or practice. My British nature does pull through though and I can’t bring myself to just say no. Therefore, I always use the excuse that I don’t have WeChat. It’s a pretty good excuse as I am assumed to be a tourist who’s around only for a short time and therefore don’t have or need WeChat.
There was an occasion however where this excuse wasn’t as effective. I frequent the same supermarket and always buy chicken breast from the meat counter. After a couple of months the guy at the counter knew what I wanted without me saying anything. Just as well as I couldn’t say much in a language he would understand. One day I finished my shopping, paid and was walking out only to find the guy from the meat counter waiting at the exit. He hands me his phone which says “Can I have your WeChat?”. I give my standard excuse however this time he knows I’ve been living nearby for two months. I have also just paid for my shopping via my WeChat pay account. He asks what app I use to communicate with people. I tell him I don’t have any and quickly speed walk away. Luckily he hasn’t asked again and to my knowledge he hasn’t spat on my chicken breast.
The Stare-e Becomes The Stare-r
I am the first foreigner teacher at my school. I also live very near my school and further out from the city centre where most expats live. As a result I don’t just bump into other westerners. I have western friends who I see regularly but it’s people I know and by arrangement. Occasionally I improve my chances of seeing westerns if I visit a tourist spot however on the whole I am just as unlikely to see another westerner as Chinese people are. As such I now find myself staring when I see a westerner unexpectedly. I don’t mean to do it however it will catch me off guard and I simply do a double take. I then become curious. What are they doing here? Are they studying? Are they teaching English as well? Maybe they’re just on holiday? It has made me a lot more sympathetic to the looks I get. Although I don’t think I’ll ever be wanting photos with these strangers.
Have you ever been subject to interest and curiosity for simply being you?