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Getting stared at in China: Cultural curiosity, globalization and racism

By Ari James | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-08-07 15:40

Have you ever walked into a room and caught everyone's attention at once? Have you ever been gazed at, from top to bottom, as if you were an ancient, foreign relic on display? Have you ever stared back, challenging, only to have your surveyors continue to watch you, unperturbed?

These are daily occurrences for foreigners in China. I am stared at every single day as I go about my daily life. Be it on the street, in a store, or on the subway, I am stared at like a walking spectacle. While I cannot speak for all foreigners, I can, however, seek to critique and expand upon my own experiences in a global context.

Chinese people are curious about the outsider, this I understand. However, staring is the least of it. Bolder strangers have asked to take a picture with me, or even of me. On a class trip, my two close friends and I, all women of color, noticed that people were sneaking pictures of us. Even worse, there was one older gentleman who approached us and asked to take photographs of us. Awkward and stunned into silence, he took our lack of response as an affirmative, and began positioning us the way he wanted us. Standing or kneeling, we did it all. I feel stupid now for having gone along with it, but as our professor stood behind the man and took pictures of us as well, laughing delightedly, it was difficult to see the insidious nature behind the hilarity of the situation.

On my street in Nanjing, where I lived for four months, my neighbors continued to fall into a hush at the sight of me, their heads swiveling around quickly to watch as I neared. I have become friendly with some of them, gone so far as to chat with them, but the staring never ends. I continue to be the visiting roadside attraction, promising the audience new and exotic sights. There are hushed whispers in my wake, and every time, I wonder: when will they grow tired of me?

The stares are not in anyway malicious. I am entirely aware of this, but they are still able to catch my attention every time, to correct me whenever I dare to think that I have grown accustomed to life here.

As a multi-racial woman, it is difficult not to see the differences in the way varying foreigners are treated. From what I have experienced in the past, most Caucasian men seem to be approached with a sense of awe. These Caucasian men are asked if they are celebrities, perhaps even compared to Brad Pitt, before a request to take a selfie is posed. This could be the epitome of Western idolization in the East and the effect of years of western media on Chinese culture. But perhaps, this is also tied into the colorism that is often entrenched in Chinese culture and media.

From every angle, Chinese people are bombarded with skin whitening products, with advertisements that feature Caucasian rather than Asian models, and whiteness continues to be idealized. The bud of racism in that very notion aside, foreigners have come to be equated with whiteness. While the intent is not that of discrimination, the result is shockingly close. Where this notion leaves the rest of us, people of color, I do not know. In a culture transfixed on whiteness, where do the rest of us stand?

From my experience alone, the lack of representation, and perhaps the lack of understanding about other cultures, fuel the curiosity that many people I come across tend to possess. Curiosity is welcomed, and even encouraged. Curiosity will even ultimately be the key to fixing this problem. With education and exposure to different peoples and cultures, China can and will continue to flourish as a global hub. However, when curiosity begins to breed a lack of respect and consideration for others, that is where it has the ability to morph into racism and even xenophobia.

While on my commute home the other day, I was once again confronted by the type of insensitivity that I detailed above. As a mother and daughter boarded the subway car, the older woman whispered to her teenager, in a barely hushed voice, to look at the "黑人" or "the black person". The words shook me. In that moment, the other foreigner and I became mere objects, tools with which the mother could teach her child, and subjects to be observed under glass.

She pointed the other foreigner out with a single finger, the way one might at a bird or a beast. The mother pointed, and her daughter craned to look for the foreigner as she would an elusive and exotic creature. Throughout the ride, the young girl and her friend continued to sneak glances at the other woman, darting looks at her as if she were on display. I wonder how often I have been pointed out in the exact same way.

As China continues to globalize in an effort to make its mark on the economic marketplace and the cultural zeitgeist, I fear that it will be the lack of empathy and insensitivity that will stand in its way. Beijing is already a global epicenter, with foreigners on almost every street, and yet this type of insensitivity continues to occur. Foreigners are here to enrich their lives, to learn more about China's long history, and hopefully to make a positive impact on it as well. They are not here to be part of a human zoo for the Chinese people.

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