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The Great White Whale


Photo courtesy of Kristin Mark, check out her blog too
One of the most bizarre experiences I've had here so far is what I'd call 'foreign privilege'. Think of the old saying, "A big fish in a small pond". Although China is anything but a 'small pond', being a foreigner here makes me quite a 'big fish', a veritable white whale if you will. And they're doubly shocked when I can speak Chinese. This privilege manifests in many different ways, sometimes flatteringly, sometimes annoyingly, sometimes frustratingly, but always interestingly.

In small ways, it's an open stare in public. Sometimes I overhear people shouting "Look! A foreigner. A white guy!" and I want to turn around and use my broken Chinese to tell them, "Yes, I understand what you're saying. No I won't take a picture with you. No I won't teach you English". Often people will shout 'hello!' or 'Hollywood!' or (my favorite) 'I love you!' while they pass me on the street or in the subway. Then there are those people who unabashedly snap pictures of me right in my face, flash and all, no 'hello'. At first, it was pretty unsettling. Sure I like attention sometimes, but the constant paparazzi-like demand to interact with random people would exhaust anyone. Considering the fact that I can hardly stand being social more than two days in a row, for me it's down right overwhelming.

Much of it has faded into background noise now. I ignore the vast majority of people, because frankly, aint nobody got time for that. When they whisper, 'Look a foreigner..." I just reply in Chinese "Yeah, I'm American, been here about six months. Do you have a question?" And then they usually blush and run away. When they shout 'hello!' or 'I love you!' I just shout it right back. When they take pictures, I pose. Or I make a horrible face so at least when they show their friends they don't have a good picture of me. I honestly must be in at least a dozen family albums now and I like to imagine them all sitting around the dinner table saying, 'This is a famous statue. This is what we ate for lunch. And then this is when we saw that white guy'.

But privacy is a luxury that cannot be afforded in China. There are literally too many people to have personal space so everyone lives their life right on top of one another. Unlike America's 'don't talk to me if I don't know you' mentality, the people in China have an incredible practice of openness and community that I think we could stand to learn from. They're involved because they care, not because they want to placate a personal interest in your private life. They rarely want anything more than to hear your story and offer theirs.

Taking advantage of these approaches has honestly given me some of my best memories so far here. In a sea of people, those who approach you usually turn out to be characters of some sort with an interesting story or skill to share. Whether it's the guy who tried to teach me how to fight, the guy who let me pound some kind of rice mixture, the crowd that gathered in a public square to find out where we were from....the list goes on and on. But one problem I have not had yet in China is making friends. I'm interesting simply because I'm white. I'm even more interesting because I know some Chinese. And what's more, I can grow facial hair which is pretty much impossible for everyone else here. Literally had a lady in the supermarket touch my mustache without asking yesterday....

Anyway, I'm learning to embrace my 'whiteness' and understand the odd position that this places me within the new community where I live. I really can't complain. The people here are too nice for me to hold anything against them, and the vast majority of it comes from cultural differences. I'm learning to let insignificant things go.

^Impromptu photo shoot, I only know two people in this picture haha


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