Looking Different

Today, there’s a middle-aged man waiting at the bus stop. My guess is, he isn’t used to seeing foreigners, because he is staring at me, in that open way I suspect is reserved for exotic animals and white girls. He keeps staring. I look him right in the eyes, and he keeps staring, unfazed. I look away, and I can feel his eyes on me. What is he thinking?

I move behind a wall of the bus shelter. He walks right around it and keeps staring. He actually keeps this up for about three minutes flat.

I want to tell him, “I feel uncomfortable when you stare.” (Especially when it’s a man!) But isn’t curiosity about foreigners a good thing? It is in theory. It is, but it makes me feel like I’m in a zoo.

When I walk down the street, people toss out “Hellos” left and right. The first day I arrived, my roommate said, “Don’t answer them. It’s rude.”  “Is it?” I asked. Then I found that “Hellos” have numerous meanings. Mostly, it just means “Hey, you’re white!” Often, it means “Buy my fruit!” “Take my taxi!” Sometimes, people yell “Hello!” and crack up. They’re laughing at themselves, but I feel that my language is the joke.

I went to visit my roommate’s hometown, and when we walked through an alley of pottery sellers, I got the regular chorus of “Hellos”. Translating this as “Buy my stuff,” I smiled and walked on by, but my roommate said, “Hey, you should answer them!” I had become the rude one.

Once teenage girls crept up to me on the beach, when I was in a pack of colleagues, and shouted “Hello!” very loudly. I responded by saying 你好 (hello in Chinese). They screamed in shock.

I arrive at work and walk up to the elevator. The cleaning ladies are standing around, chatting. They get into the elevator with me. “Morning!” one of them says, cracking herself up and giving me a hug. I smile back.

Then, one of the ladies reaches out and grabs my hair. Does she know she’s making me uncomfortable? She strokes my hair and discusses it with her friend, whose hair looks exactly like mine.

I simply don’t understand – is someone being rude? And if they are, how should I respond? And if someone truly is being rude, how can I tell them how I feel? I’m at sea in a series of social signals I can’t make sense of.

And, despite all those things, how can I deal with my own feelings about how people see me? Simply relishing the attention, as many foreigners here do, feels off to me. First, I don’t honestly enjoy it. And second, even if I did, the attention itself feels a bit unfair.

I would like to show people that Canadians are friendly and nice, and like China.  But I can’t decide when to play along with how people treat me, and when not to.

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