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Becoming a Celebrity Just by Being a Foreigner Abroad

Waitresses giggling and photographing us in Yunyang.

Waitresses giggling and photographing us in Yunyang.

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 population 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.

The whole restaurant staff photographs us as we leave!

The whole restaurant staff photographs us as we leave!

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!”

Upon request: a photo of the whole staff with us!

The waiter’s request: a photo of the whole staff with us!

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?

We are so famous! Because we look funny and different!

How do you feel about becoming famous just because you look different?

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.

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Moon

Monday 11th of February 2019

A woman came up to pose her small children with us! The little girl kept trying to run away before the picture was taken, and her mom kept dragging her back. We caught a ton of people slyly taking pictures of us throughout the day, too….and lots of people stopped to stare at me every time I took a picture of something! If that’s what it’s like in a huge city like Beijing, I can only imagine what it’ll be like when we hit the countryside in a few days!

Cat of Sunshine and Siestas

Friday 9th of October 2015

My sister participated in a university olympiad in China in 2009. I had read that people would ask to take our pictures (as has also happened to me in India and Morocco), but I received celebrity treatment in the Beijing airport on my return home to Spain. Two university students were assigned to escort me through check-in (they tried to get me bumped with no luck...and too bad, it was the worst jet lag of my life!) and to the gate. I took it as their being ambassadors for their country and trying to be hospitable to guests.

I definitely do not get that treatment in Spain!

Jasmin

Tuesday 27th of May 2014

I am a scandinavian model so I am blond,white,have blue eyes and quite tall so everytime in Thailand everyone wants to touch my hair and I hear a crazy amount of compliments and get a lot of looks and stares and people asking to take a picture of or with me.Many are really interested in where I am from and I'm constantly mistaken for brasilian or russian,it's strange but I do understand it because most of people there are really tiny and dark

Lillie

Tuesday 27th of May 2014

Interesting!

Amy

Thursday 1st of May 2014

Personally, I hate it. When I was in Gambia for a few months I was unable to go anywhere without people following me. In our village it took about 2 weeks for people to stop following me during the day. During the night my skin color was a problem. Because of my white skin I was "shinning" for miles and people would stroll along. For my evening strolls I startet to cover myself up completely just to be alone for a few minutes. Outside the village kids always ran after me and adults shouted. Some came up to chst me up. As much as I loved their friendliness, after awhile I just wished to have their skin color and the feeling of beeing a zoo animal away :(

April

Thursday 8th of October 2015

The fact that you find your whiteness stressful speaks to your white privilege and white fragility. You chose to put yourself in this situation. Have you thought about people with dark skin that are jailed, in their own country, just for being dark? They probably feel like more a zoo animal than you ever will.

Lillie

Thursday 1st of May 2014

Yes, it can be incredibly stressful!

Stephen

Wednesday 30th of January 2013

How funny is that? Pretty funny!

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