I was warned about the staring. I was warned about the requests for photos. But nothing prepared me for just how much I’d stick out like a sore thumb as foreigner in Beijing.
I really didn’t expect the third largest city in the world to be so culturally segregated. Although there are a fair few foreigners working in Beijing, you’ll find most of them concentrated in a few small areas of the city. Rarely will you see a non-business conversation taking part between a Chinese and a foreigner and, in most areas of Beijing, such as the area where I’m living, you will not see any foreigners at all.
Being a textbook attention-starved older sibling, I originally thought I might enjoy catching up on some of the attention stolen from me by an adorable younger brother. But it’s actually quite tiring being constantly scrutinised by strangers. I like to imagine that they’re thinking, ‘What an attractive blonde foreigner’ although it’s probably more likely they’re thinking, ‘What a massive nose’ (This is an understatement. I have actually listened to a mini-debate between two women on public transport about the size of my nose. I am the Barbara Streisand of China.).
She of A Thousand Names
I’m white, I’m blonde, and I’m only little (according to Chinese people), so when I’m drifting around Beijing by myself, I can very quickly identify conversations about me going on in the vicinity. My ears prick up at some of the following names:
- ‘Old Outsider’ 老外 LǎoWài
This is a more slangy version of ‘foreigner’ and usually used by adults, especially the many migrant workers in my area I live who’ll put down shovels and use my passing by as an excuse for a cigarette break and ponder on the meaning of a foreigner wandering around this part of town. Considering that Chinese advertisements and films frequently feature at least a token foreigner and that English language schools with foreign teachers are to be found in the most unlikely of places, it surprises me how many people appear astonished to see a real live foreigner walking past in the street.
2. ‘Foreigner’ 外国人 WàiGuóRén
Usually it’s children who use this neutral term, although I was once rushed at by a toddler armed with a piece of hosepipe shouting ‘foreigner!’ before they were yanked back by a parent with quick reactions.
3. ‘That Girl Child’ 那个女孩子 NàGèNv̌háizi (as in ‘look at that girl sitting on the bus by herself’)
After, ‘where are you from?’ the second most common question I get asked is ‘how old are you?’ Although I’m 21, numerous conversations with strangers have informed me that I look, on average, more like 15. 12 has also been a guess.
Would You Like An Autograph With That?
Like any good celebrity, I’ll get the occasional stalker. At the National Museum of Classic Books, I was followed very closely by someone dressed all in black who I presumed was a guard until he sidled up to me saying something through a thick Southern accent about cameras. It took me a while to realise he wasn’t telling me off for taking photos of the exhibits but asking to take one with me. Having been trailed for the last 15 minutes in a near empty museum, I was not feeling at my most generous and my automatic reaction was, ‘no thanks’, to which he responded, ‘how much?’ and reached for his wallet. I took this as my cue to go and check out what Confucius had to offer back on the ground floor.
Of course, most of the time I won’t get a comment, just a prolonged, very bored stare. Sometimes the stare can last a whole bus ride or the time it takes to consume a whole pack of sunflower seeds. When things get a little too uncomfortable, I often find myself whipping out my headphones to put myself in a noise-cancelling bubble.
But uneasy or no, I’ve yet to feel intimidated by staring in China. The most uncomfortable I’ve felt so far was getting accidentally swept up in a Chinese tour group visiting the ruins of the Old Summer Palace (圆明园 YuánMíngYuán) just as their guide began to elaborate on the thorough job of looting and burning conducted by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860.
Staring means something different here. Whereas in Europe it’s considered rude, aggressive and downright unsettling if not accompanied by any change in facial expression, in China it feels like people have more of a right to stare at you, the same way you have a right to ask someone personal questions like how old they are and how much they earn. Not only are the stares completely uninhibited but so is the accompanying dialogue. Here are some of my favourite party tricks to pull off in Beijing and the comments they’ve elicited from the general public:
Reading the news: browsing a news app on my phone on the subway one day, a man in his 50s standing next to me kept nudging his daughter exclaiming, in Chinese, ‘Look! A foreigner! Reading foreign news!’
Eating in a restaurant: ‘Who would have thought foreigners use chopsticks/drink rice porridge?’
Sitting on the bus: ‘Such massive eyes/nose…Why are they/is it so big?’
Comic timing: ‘Speak of the devil!’ announced a man telling a joke about foreigners as I overtook him and his friend.
Walking down the street: The most amusing reaction by far is barging through a loud Beijing street conversation (the kind almost indistinguishable from a violent argument), which will be punctuated by a sudden, ‘-EH??’ and a beat or two of silence as they process the sight of an oversized blond girl-child with a massive backpack striding past.
Ethnic Diversity: An Unmelted Pot
So why are inhabitants of the third largest city in the world so surprised to see a foreigner walking about their neighbourhood?
Consider this: 96% of Beijing’s population are Han Chinese, just one of the country’s 56 officially recognised ethnic minorities.
I’ve never thought so much about race or been so aware of my own race as I have since arriving in Beijing. I can’t help comparing the degree of ethnic homogeneity here to my hometown of London where, although a noticeable majority of the population is white (60%), you can’t tell by someone’s appearance what country (or countries) they’re from, or what language (or languages) they speak.
In China, on the other hand, it’s assumed that if you don’t look Chinese, you are not only a foreigner but won’t speak any Chinese either. Considering that, in the census of 2000, there were only 941 naturalised citizens not of the 56 ethnic groups in mainland China, the first assumption at least is a pretty safe bet. The second assumption leads to my overhearing some pretty juicy stuff.
Sometimes, though, I’ll resent not having the same big-city anonymity granted to most of Beijing’s 21.7 million inhabitants. What occasionally makes me feel isolated is not being an ethnic minority, it’s the lack of ethnic diversity. In other words, it’s not being the only white person around, it’s being one of the only people who looks very different to everyone else.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Living in a residential area in the north of Beijing where I have seen a foreigner twice in two months, I feel like a child at an Easter egg hunt every time I see someone who looks different. Ironically, after whining about the staring and occasionally overthinking it to the point where I start hearing hidden messages in Drake songs
‘It feels like the only time you see me
Is when you turn your head to the side and look at me differently.’
– Drake to Rihanna in Too Good
a change has come across me. I now find that on these rare and unexpected occasions, I can’t help having a good hard stare at the foreigners myself.