Life in a Fishbowl

It’s not easy being a celebrity… also my diamond shoes are too tight and my back hurts because my wallet is so full of twenties.

Seriously though, I’m starting to have more sympathy for Brad and Angelina and all of those other celebrities constantly hounded by paparazzi because now I kind of understand what it means to have people watching you constantly. Only nobody is looking at me because I’m rich or famous, I’m a mini -celebrity in Xi’an merely for being white.

According to Wikipedia, Xi’an, China is 99.5% Han Chinese. That percentage is even higher up on the college campus where I’ve been living the past few months. There are about 20,000 students up here, and 6 foreign English teachers which means that Caucasians make up about .03% of the population. Needless to say I stick out like a sore thumb. A tall, blonde, big chested thumb.

Sometimes, it’s awesome. People want to take pictures with me. They get excited when I saw hello and tell me how pretty I am, how great I am. When I come to visit Mike in class I get a standing ovation and a slew of questions. It’s a hell of an ego boost until I remember it doesn’t really have anything to with me, just my “exotic” background.

Other times being in the spotlight is not so great. It’s kind of well, annoying.

It feels WEIRD to have people staring at you all the time. I start to become very self-conscious: Is my hair OK? Do they think I’m showing too much cleavage (it’s the law of Chinese fashion that impossibly short skirts are right for any occasion, but showing your shoulders is kind of slutty)? I probably should have changed out of these sweatpants, I look like crap. Ahh too many eyes on me!

Let’s just say I’m starting to empathize with Kate Middleton.

In the end though it doesn’t matter what I wear, I still stand out. That’s the problem: while the attention might be nice once in awhile, you can’t turn it off. I can’t walk down the street without people shouting “Hello!” behind my back, then giggling. When I went to Hong Kong it was the nicest sensation just to be able to walk down the street and not be noticed- to blend in.

This seems like a good time to mention that China is not America’s biggest fan. The government disseminates a lot of anti-American, anti-Western, anti-capitalist propaganda which people seem to take as solid truth. Think everyone was happy about Bin Laden being taken out of commission? Not here in China, where it’s simply proof of America’s entitlement and pushy foreign policy. First Bin Laden, then what, maybe CHINA? Screamed the newspaper headlines. Mike and I read the comments- full of anti-Americanism and vitriol with a kind of morbid fascination.

On a personal level that view is more complicated: Most of the people we meet are not only friendly, they are absolutely fascinated with us. They want to know if we like China, if we like Chinese food, what the US is like, why we can own guns etc etc etc. They want to put our number in their phones, they want to hang out with us to raise their social status, and they want to know our opinions on absolutely everything. Basically, they want to know if we are really like the Americans they’ve heard about.

As a traveler, I’m used to being an ambassador for the United States, but when everyone is watching you, that’s a lot of pressure. Anytime we eat in the school cafeteria there are a dozen eyes on us, watching our every move. Many (most) of the students speak no English at all so they just stare. I get the feeling that if I drop my chopstick all of a sudden it will be big news around the campus that FOREIGNERS DON’T KNOW HOW TO USE CHOPSTICKS.

So yeah, it’s a little stressful sometimes. But more than that it’s an interesting insight into a situation I would probably never find myself in at home where multiculturalism is the norm. All I can do is try to enjoy the attention, and look forward to that magical day when nobody notices I’m there.

39 Responses to Life in a Fishbowl

  1. Jan Ross May 15, 2011 at 10:38 AM #

    Oh, you are handling that much better than I would. I would absolutely HATE having everyone looking at me all the time. I’m naturally a little shy and this would make it 1000 times worse!!!

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:43 AM #

      I’m not really that shy anymore but it does make me feel pretty self conscious!

  2. Steve May 15, 2011 at 11:15 AM #

    One positive – at least they’re friendly and excited to see you in Xi’an.

    Here in Beijing it’s just the constant staring without the fun conversation. I went to Yinchaun a couple of weeks ago and was blown away by the difference in attitude.

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:46 AM #

      This is true- at least we’re far enough in the country that people seem impressed and not scornful.

  3. Adriana May 15, 2011 at 3:00 PM #

    Thank you very much for your post.
    Being Spanish, I went through the same situation. It really surprised me that in the FORBIDDEN CITY, one of the most touristic places in the world, Chinese people were asking me to take pictures with them. And that after the Olympics.
    Anyway, my first time in China it was kind of fun. They give you these babys without pants and ask you to take a picture with them, but when i had to live there, and work there, i have to say that annoyed me a little. I know they do not have any bad intention, but what really annoyed me was feeling all the time an “outsider” you know? loving China, I wanted to merge in, people treating me like one of them, and made me sad that I was that laowai that they had to observe cuz is so “strange” . Don’t you have that feeling? I am planing on going back soon, as I said, I LOVE China, but I would like next time, to get myself more into it, do not want to hang out with expats, and I dont want to be the strange. Any tip? Have to say that I had always been interested in learning their culture and social customs so that I do not “act weird” when eating out, etc.


    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:51 AM #

      Well for us, we live in a college campus where we are relatively isolated from many other foreigners. Most of the students here are really happy to hang out, go out to eat and practice their English. I would think anything you an do to hang around English students would help.

      I have a feeling that in China there’s only a certain level of integration you can achieve. People are so homogeneous and westerners are always going to be different and strange.

  4. Gray May 15, 2011 at 6:37 PM #

    Loved your chopstick comment. It’s funny, but on the other hand, I bet there were people who were thinking that. Suddenly, you represent your entire country. No pressure there, eh? I’m with Jan, I wouldn’t handle it very well. There are times when I just want to be anonymous.

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:51 AM #

      They will literally ask things like “Do ALL foreigners like soda?”

      Yes. Every last one of us loves Fanta. More please.

  5. Nicole May 15, 2011 at 7:13 PM #

    That happened to me when visiting the Taj in India. Obviously there are foreigners there, but mostly its Indian tourists. Here we are in front of one of the world wonders and many of the Indian tourists are trying to photograph the white girl, not the giant structure. It gets out of hand, and few people ask permission. Some even sneak up and stand an inch a way from you while their friends take a photo that looks like your purposefully standing together.

    Sort along the same lines, in Indian culture, men dont touch women outside of their family. Knowing that American woman are a bit “looser”, a lot of Indian men try to shake your hand – which means nothing to me, but is bit more provocative and meaningful to them. Not sure how that plays out in China, but i felt a bit shitty when I realized what I thought was a polite handshake was one variation of “copping a feel” to the reciprocate.

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:56 AM #

      That’s really interesting about the handshake thing.

      I sometimes feel like I’m dress provocatively by Chinese standards. Not on purpose- I’m just a lot curvier than the girls here, and my shirts somehow end up looking busty. I don’t know if the Chinese guys care much though- think I might be too foreign to be sexy…

  6. Seattle Dredge May 15, 2011 at 7:27 PM #

    hehe I get that feeling aboard quite often.. minus people asking for photos though! Sounds like an interesting time 😀

  7. Jonathan (@retrotraveller) May 16, 2011 at 4:06 AM #

    I spent a few months travelling around China and had similar experiences with people wanting their picture taken with me. I’m still not sure I get it… it was bizarre, but I confess I enjoyed the attention most of the time!

    I remember eating in a restaurant in Suzhou though and having all the staff stand and watch me eat whilst they took photos on their mobile phone.

    There was also one occasion up the Yellow Mountains where a whole group surrounded me and were plonking their kids on my lap for photos – whether the kids liked it or not…

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:57 AM #

      I too have held a lot of babies. I really want to know what happens to those pictures…

  8. Claire May 16, 2011 at 11:16 AM #

    I experienced the same thing in Bangladesh, a country that is typically not on the receiving end of foreign tourism. My friend and I went to a local carnival type event……..guess who was the main attraction?!! Yup, me.

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:57 AM #

      haha, I wonder what other countries we could be celebrities in.

  9. Andrea May 16, 2011 at 3:19 PM #

    I can’t imagine a better ambassador though, I can see you being so sweet and patient with everyone wanting to take your photo. I would prob drop the baby or something…anyway, i cant wait to find a random photo of you on the internet in the distant future.

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 9:58 AM #

      Thanks- I try to be nice about it! I’m always afraid I’m gonna drop a baby though. Those things are squirmy!

  10. Cailin May 16, 2011 at 5:46 PM #

    I would probably get so use to people treating me like I was a celebrity or someone special that I would miss it when it didn’t happen hahaha

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 10:00 AM #

      I think Mike is going to go through withdrawal when he gets home and all thes girls aren’t falling all over him!

  11. Scott May 17, 2011 at 3:49 AM #

    As stressful as it seems, I bet it is kind of cool to get to play celebrity … we all secretly dream of being famous, right? So funny that you relished the chance to “blend in” in Hong Kong. So, do you and Mike have a cool nickname around town like “Brangelina” or “Bennifer”?

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 10:01 AM #

      Smike? Mephanie? Doesn’t quite have a ring to it. None of the students can pronounce my name anyways, comes out sounding like Daphne.

  12. hedgehog.hideaway May 17, 2011 at 7:55 AM #

    I had a similar experience when I was in Cook Islands. I am not caucasian though. Am a yellow-skinned asian living in NZ.

    Was in Cook Islands for the holiday and was attracting quite some stares especially kids. LOL!

    I remember this cute little girl that was swimming around me trying to figure out what am I? Since I was with my sunglasses, she wasnt aware I was looking at her. And, she swam slowly around me as if preying on fish food. LOL!….She finally gather her guts and asked me what color was my eyes.

    I told her it was sometimes red and sometimes green. And, she was so excited about it. Gosh! I felt bad after some time and asked her if she wants to see my eyes.

    Well…u get the idea…. I guess mine was not as taunting as your experience. But, I wish you all the best and try to enjoy the attention. It’s not everyday, you are famous… =P

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 10:02 AM #

      I had a little girl just the other day stop dead in her tracks and point at me in disbelief. That sort of stuff does weird things to your head!

      • hedgehog.hideaway May 18, 2011 at 2:17 AM #


  13. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy May 17, 2011 at 9:13 AM #

    Interesting experience. I get the same thing from kids when they see my facial piercings or strange haircut. I’ve learned to embrace the staring.

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 10:03 AM #

      Yeah I bet- we are pretty vanilla looking, but i imagine a tattoo or piercing would get a lot of interest around here.

  14. Fidel May 17, 2011 at 10:46 AM #

    I’m pretty use to it now after traveling a lot throughout Asia and the Pacific. Before I came to this region I heard all the stories about how much people seem to love black Americans. I instantly saw it first hand after trips to Australia, Singapore, Korea and other places. People stare at me like I’m a celebrity. I sometimes feel like I should be dribbling a ball with one hand and rapping in a microphone with the other since most people over here get their image of black American culture from imported television shows, videos and sports.
    Even though it is a bad way to look at a person, I’m use to it and I admit that it can be ego boosting especially if you’re having a bad day.
    I really relate to what you’re saying about being an ambassador for your country. That fact can be the hardest to deal with sometimes as it seems like your every move is a person’s opinion about Americans as a whole.

    • Steph May 18, 2011 at 9:48 AM #

      That’s really interesting- It sounds like your experience hasn’t been too different from mine. Other is other I guess.

      We also get weird assumptions- like that we eat McDonalds ALL the time, or life is just like the tv show Friends.

  15. Fabrizio May 17, 2011 at 11:09 AM #

    I remember having that exact feeling of fame that you describe-despite not having done anything other than show up. I also remember watching other foreigners who had gotten a bit too wrapped up in all of the attention that they were getting, something that I have now come to call “Foreign Rockstar Syndrome”. Very nice post!

    • Steph May 18, 2011 at 9:53 AM #

      I have definitely met some sufferers of Foreign Rock Star syndrome. They get sucked in and I think find it very hard to leave.

  16. Amanda May 20, 2011 at 5:33 AM #

    It was weird experiencing this for the week I was in China… I can’t imagine experiencing it every day. You seem, to be handling it pretty well though, considering!

    The one thing you mentioned that stuck out to me was the comment about the Chinese asking why we’re allowed to own guns. They seem really fascinated by that, don’t they?

  17. Tom May 29, 2011 at 10:18 AM #

    Ahh Steph, I’m used to this in South Korea! Even some of the kids at my workplace – where I am for several hours a day, 5 days a week – will POINT AND STARE, when they see me so often. It’s bizarre – they must think I stumbled into the wrong building.

    If a kid says hi to me, I have a rule. Cute/smiley kid = a “hi” back. Kid with friend(s) whispering to said friend(s) and then saying “hi” = no hi back. Cockiness is not rewarded with a friendly greeting, just a death glare to scare them. Too mean? Haha!

    I get stared at when I eat, and god forbid I wear anything that shows a bit of chest hair peeking out, or shorts showing off my furry legs. Then again, sometimes I like to freak the locals out hahaha! 😉

    • Steph May 30, 2011 at 1:21 AM #

      The too cool for school chinese kids will wait until we pass them, then say “hello” and giggle. Mike thinks we should just ignore them but I can’t help myself– I turn around, look them straight in the eye and say HELLO very loudly. Usually embarrasses the crap out of them (and Mike, sadly).

  18. Lauren Quinn May 30, 2011 at 1:43 AM #

    I think you’ve got a pretty good attitude about it. Wait till you get back to the States–it’ll feel totally weird to be a dime-a-dozen again. 😉

    • Steph June 1, 2011 at 10:22 AM #

      Seriously, i told Mike he better get ready to not be a heart throbe anymore.

  19. Chris June 2, 2011 at 1:21 AM #

    The most telling example of this I ever encountered was while on an island off of the west coast of Korea in 2008. I had an old lady stop in the middle of the road, point, and scream ‘waygookin!’ at the top of her lungs.

    People, kids and adults alike, flooded out into the road to gawk and point, haha

    • Steph June 3, 2011 at 9:37 AM #

      wow! I did have a little girl scream in my face once and that was pretty jarring.

  20. brian June 19, 2011 at 4:37 PM #

    Same thing happened to me in Macau at the Venetian. Group of Asian tourists all wanted to take their pictures with me. This one woman was so nervous I could feel her shaking as I had my arm around her for a shot. Hilarious!

    • Steph June 21, 2011 at 10:57 PM #

      In a way it’s just so endearing isn’t it? Annoying yes, but sweet.

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