Want to feel like a famous celebrity with people racing up to take photos of and with you? With teenage girls giggling hysterically when they see you? With eyes becoming wide with awe as you walk by?
All you have to do is hop on a plane and arrive somewhere where the majority of people look, dress, and act nothing like you!
We forget about this, sometimes, in America.
We forget how racially and ethnically diverse our country is, and we take for granted that it’s rude in our culture to make anyone feel singled-out because they look different.
But a country like China is another story. According to 2010 statistics, China’s population is 91.5% Han Chinese. In contrast, the 2010 Census calculates Boston’s popoulation as 47% White. What this means is that when you walk down the street in Boston, you see all different colors of humans. When you mosey around in China, however, 91.5% of the people around you are ethnically Han Chinese.
Now, this figure includes the large, cosmopolitan cities of Shanghai and Beijing, so can you imagine how many foreign-looking people are in the other cities and towns? Yep: very, very few.
Case in point: Chongqing, China. Chongqing is one of the biggest urban areas in the world, boasting over 32,000,000 inhabitants. However, within Chongqing, and even more so in its suburb of Yunyang where my friend is working, foreigners are so rare that they instantly achieve celebrity status.
One evening in Yunyang, we all went out to Hot Pot to eat with some local teachers. We decided to take a group photo to document the evening and called a waiter over to take the photo. Between his excited giggles, the waiter’s hands began shaking so hard that he couldn’t press the camera button.
“I’m sorry!” he choked out, “I’m just so, so… NERVOUS!”
It took several long, fumbling minutes before the camera at last flashed and the waiter was able to make his trembling way out the door.
Dinner was delicious, and we got up to leave. Suddenly… Oh! Paparazzi! The entire staff of the restaurant had gathered in a giggling knot, clutching their cell phone cameras in our direction. As they snapped our pictures, I pulled out my camera and took these photos.
One bold employee sidled up to us and asked shyly: “Can we take a photo all together?”
Feeling very famous, we agreed. What had we done to deserve this honor? We’d been born with slightly different genetics, in a culture far across the ocean. What an accomplishment!
For us, this experience was fun and rather funny, but such moments elicit a wide range of reactions from other travelers and expats. How do YOU feel about being singled out for looking different abroad?
Want more about Race and Travel? To read about having really cute screaming children in Ghana run after you shouting “White woman!” click here. For an article on race in Japan, click here.