While traveling in Northern China we got a small taste of what it might be like to be famous. We found ourselves drawing a lot of undue attention. It felt like we were constantly on display—on the subway, in the train station, walking down the street, in restaurants, nearly everywhere we seemed to draw attention.
From an early age, I was taught not to attract undue attention. Unfortunately blending in for us was impossible in China. I was also taught that it isn’t polite to stare. Apparently, that’s not something they teach in Chinese culture. We stood out and we knew when people would stop, stare and even take pictures of us!
On the Subway
We used the Beijing subway system frequently. Since we typically were the only Western passengers on the subway, we would draw lots stares. The most uncomfortable situations were when people would continue to intently stare at you even after you made eye contact with them. The Chinese would win a staring contest in any international competition.
On the Train
We spent a very long Sunday afternoon on the train traveling between Beijing and Datong. Many of the other passengers were surprised to see two Caucasians seated in their car. The teenage kid seated next to Kevin could hardly take his eyes off us during the six hour trip. He was interested in every move we made. We also had women stop and stare and then wave their baby’s hand at us to say hello.
At the Train Station
On our arrival in Datong, there were multiple groups of people congregated outside the train station. Datong doesn’t get as many tourists as Beijing so we definitely stood out here. We noticed many groups shift their attention towards us as we approached. This time, in addition to stares, we saw several people snap our picture with their cell phone as we passed by. I hope we looked good…maybe we ended up as a post on Renren (China’s Facebook clone).
On the Street
Even on the street, people would approach us and boldly strike up conversations in English. The conversation would commonly start with, “hello? hello?” or “where you from?” While walking through a park in Beijing, we had a gentleman approach us, say “hello” twice and then immediately proceed to ask us questions, including what we “studied in university”. He was super friendly but it caught us a bit off guard. His daughter attended school in Utah and he mostly wanted to practice his English.
What we soon learned is that while tourism is on the rise in China, the majority of the tourists are from China and neighboring countries. Western tourists are in the minority and can easily be identified—especially if they have blonde hair and blue eyes. Our hair and eyes are brown, but we still drew a lot of attention from locals—especially in the more rural areas of China. But they don’t stare to make you feel uncomfortable, they’re simply curious. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve seen white people in person.
Although the attention was exhausting, we did notice small benefits to standing out as a foreigner. One advantage was that street vendors would intentionally leave us alone. For example, people handing out fliers on the street corner would not even try to deliver their pamphlet to us. Additionally, vendors selling incense and flowers outside of temples would not even approach us—they knew we weren’t Buddhists and had no need for their incense or flowers. To them, we were invisible…just like we like it!
We are glad that this fame was only temporary. The experience makes us appreciate the diversity that we have in the United States where we do not even think twice about seeing people of different races and cultures. Diversity is the norm.
It also makes us appreciate the stress that staring and gawking can cause for celebrities and/or someone that deals with being physically different on a daily basis. All the attention is exhausting. At the end of the day, I looked forward to the solitude of our hotel room where we weren’t on display for all to see.