Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Starings

Every morning i have a pleasant 8 minute walk to work. This is far better than many of my coworkers. The shortest commute is about 30 minutes, and most come from 60-90 minutes away by bus or subway. It's not that they live abnormally far, this is just how long it takes to get from one end of the city to the other during rush hour.

Everyday, during my walk, i pass many people, restaurant owners, shop keepers, etc. I don't notice all of them, but they all notice me. I get a variety of different stares which i can break down into 4 main categories: men, old women, young women, and children. Let's go into more detail, shall we? Yes. Yes we shall.
  1. Men- The men will stare. They are why staring gets a bad reputation. They will watch, turn their heads as i pass, and if i make eye contact, they will continue to stare. It doesn't matter how close i get to them. Mostly, I break eye contact first because i'm not used to it. If i smile and say "ni hao", they will reply happily, albeit amazed i can speak at all. Young Men are a subcategory but do pretty much the same thing, although are maybe a little more conscious about staring too long. They have not yet gained the confidence of the Old Men.

  2. Old Women- The old women are stealthy starers. They catch me when i don't see them. If i do meet their eyes, they will normally look away very quickly, as though they were just surveying the scene, and didn't particularly notice i was the only non-black haired, non-brown-eyed, big-nosed person for kilometers.

  3. Young Women- The women from about 18-30 want to stare. Oh, do they ever. But they are so bashful. When i catch them, they look away, giggle with their friends, and look back to check on me. It's cute, and probably flattering. I'm not sure, as i'm also too embarrassed to stare too long.

  4. Children- Children are great. They will walk right up to me, tug on my pants, and say "Mommy! A foreigner! Look! Ni hao foreigner!"... all in Chinese, mind you. They will stand at the end of my table during dinner, and watch. They break the ice and give me a chance to show off my Chinese. I like them because they generally speak slowly and use words that are in my vocabulary. I will talk with them a little and, yes, my Chinese is just about at a kindergarten level. Actually, probably Preschool. To be fair, preschoolers probably know the names of all the zoo animals and parts of the body. But i know swear words! So let's call it even.

So yeah, those are the common ways i get attention as a foreigner. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. And since it's all about me anyway, it usually depends on my mood. When i'm in a good mood and i'm all smiley and "ni hao"-ey, they are all happy to see me, their friendly neighborhood foreigner! But if i'm in a bad mood or not feeling well, i'm frowny, and then i'm their strange, unpleasant foreigner.

There's an honorable mention slash 5th category, but it shouldn't qualify because it's the opposite of a stare. It happens when i go out with someone who looks more Chinese than me. When i speak to another Chinese person, even if it's a very simple question spoken in my reasonably competent Mandarin, they look at my friend as if to say, "Can you translate that?". They can't help it, they just don't expect Chinese to come out of my mouth.


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