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Staring – Yinchuan, China

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It tends to start with silence.

Most Chinese restaurants are bustling, noisy places. Eating groups are always talking, shouting, slurping and burping, so when I sit next to a table and everyone falls silent it’s clearly noticeable.

There are quite a few foreigners in Beijing – nowhere near the numbers in Shanghai, but still enough that we’re not that rare. Given the high influx of migrant workers from the country, it’s possible that it’s the first time they’ve seen a real live foreigner, but it’s still wearing that they’ll stop, nudge each other, point and stare open mouthed. Despite how common it is, this behaviour is rude by educated Chinese standards, and Chinese friends will often point out that those staring are probably ‘fresh off the train’ from the country. I’ve even been followed around supermarkets by whole families, animatedly discussing everything that goes in my basket without saying a word to me.

Getting followed round the supermarket

They followed me for ten minutes, so I figured we knew each other well enough for a family photo...

Most of the time it’s necessary to let them stare, but it can be uncomfortable when it’s not possible to just walk away. In smaller restaurants groups have got up and rearranged their chairs so they can all get a good look. When they eventually stop staring from the next table (which can be some minutes…) they’ll continue loudly with a conversation about me, despite being clearly audible a few inches away at the next table. This is followed up with frequent glances to see how I’m doing with chopsticks and noodles, then something will be said and they’ll all stop and turn and stare again. It’s unlikely to be rude but can still be unsettling whilst I wonder whether I’ve got spinach in my teeth, my flies are open or I’ve grown an extra head (which to be fair I’d probably discreetly glance at as well).

It seems assumed that foreigners outside the CBD are completely unaware of Chinese customs and language, and I assumed people had more interesting things to talk about, but the more Mandarin I learn the more I realise people within earshot will openly discuss me with no attempt at subtlety or discreetness.

Then there’s the groups of school kids who’ll walk along the pavement towards me, whispering all the way, then once they’ve passed shout “Hello!” and run off giggling.

The first few times it’s fine, but after a while living in one place it’s easy to feel comfortable, then incidents like that drag me back out, reminding me quite how out of place I really am.

Anyway, what caused me to reflect on all this is that I found myself visiting the town of Yinchuan last week. It’s about a third of the way across China from Beijing and one of the towns we drove through along the Silk Road towards Istanbul back in 2006. I hadn’t expected to ever return there and five years on it’s completely unrecognisable.

Yinchuan Western Pagoda

Yinchuan Western Pagoda

Yinchuan is a small prefecture capital straddling the Yellow River in the Ningxia province, two hours flight across China. (Well it’s small by Chinese standards – it’s only home to a million people). What’s immediately noticeable here is the number of universities and schools per capita. Education seems to be a priority in this province and it shows.

Despite me not seeing another foreigner in the week I was there the residents just took me wandering about completely in their stride. Obviously people take note and glance across occasionally, but very little out and out staring.

In general, people were actually much friendlier. Old men would smile and nod or say ‘Hello!’ then carry on with their day. People sitting on benches would watch me pass, but continue with their original conversation.

Kids coming out of school were a bit more excitable and wanted to practice their English. This was quite fun and the next day I walked past the school during morning break time and a small group ran over and shouted “Hello”, Hello”, “Hello”, a somewhat mistimed “Bon Soir” and even an enthusiastic “Yee-Haw!”

Taking a break in a small bun restaurant the owner was slightly taken aback at a large foreign chap appearing in his doorway. Struggling between my poor quality Mandarin and his heavy Hui dialect we established I wanted xiao long bao and any type of green vegetable. The only other customer looked on as I prepared my chilli and vinegar dip and nodded in satisfaction that I seemed to know what I was doing. After my food arrived the owner sat down and shared a drink with his friend. Exchanging a glance they both smiled and said “Hello”. We chatted for a bit whilst the buns cooled down. It was the usual “Where are you from”, “Where are you staying” and “What are you doing here” small talk, but a refreshing change from the prolonged silent stares of Beijing, and a fine excuse to order a second tray of the light and delicious steamed pork buns.

The next morning at the German hotel I went down for breakfast and sat where the waiter directed. Immediately conversation at the next table stopped, and both businessmen rotated in their chairs to face directly at me. They stared silently for over five minutes before I got annoyed and impassively stared back.

This didn’t elicit any reaction until one loudly asked the other “Where is he from?”

“Germany?” the other suggested

“England” I corrected “Are you from Beijing?”

“Yes! How did you know?”

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Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.

36 comments

  • I live in Shanghai and never feel that anyone is ‘used’ to ?? … I just got back from a trip to India (which was fantastic) and what a rude awakening, on the Subway back to my place, just glares the whole way back. Also, since I can speak Chinese, I got to listen to the ‘comments’ from the locals picking me apart.

    Don’t believe the Hype: Beijing and Shanghai may have beautiful buildings, but are about 50 years away from being ‘developed’…

    Reply
  • Glad you enjoyed India. The people there were wonderfully cheerful and inquisitive. I remember being surrounded by dozens of smiling kids asking “What is your good name?”, “Which land are you from?” and “What is your service?” whilst their teachers tried in vain to corral them onto a waiting public bus.

    Reply
    • >“What is your good name?”, “Which land are you from?”

      I got “Sir, sir, you have great big nose” from a market seller in Margau, Goa. I’m sure he meant well, but needless to say, he got no sale from me 🙂

      Steve – you should hawk this article around some magazines. I really enjoyed reading it.

      Rob

      Reply
  • Yeah I used to live in Shenzhen, and I really think the vibe in the smaller towns (egads! Shenzhen has 12m ppl) is of genuine curiosity, its very innocent/naive, whereas in SH, they’ve seen a million laowai before, and to be honest, they’re getting a little tired of us.

    PS. My friends let me know that SZ is now full of expat (i was there 4-5 yrs ago), and the innocent SZ i used to know (like Eldorado, or Atlantis) is gone forever… tsk tsk.. I will always cherish those memories 😉

    Reply
  • I’m into my tenth year here in Korea, and the “Let’s stare the Foreigner Syndrome” has pretty much run its course. Although, Koreans still love to stare into my shopping cart at the grocery store.

    I traveled in China last summer, and couldn’t get over the amount of staring. Honestly, it got old fast.

    Reply
    • I went to Seoul and Jeju last year, and people seemed more used to foreigners than here (or at least less ‘starey’). I’d imagine it must have been worse when you arrived 10 years ago.

      Reply
      • Great article.

        I’ve been living in Asia for over a decade and I find the staring (in South Korea) differs quite vastly between locations. Ironically I notice it more when I visit Seoul than I do in the small village I live in.

        I went to Beijing for the first time last June and found people staring at my feet. Evidently it was considered way too cold to be wearing sandals!

        Reply
        • I had noticed that whilst elsewhere people do tend to watch what I’m doing, the Beijingers do seem to look me up and down more, often lingering on the shoes/trousers as I walk past.

          Glad it’s not just me – was beginning to think there was something wrong with my feet!

          Reply
  • I recently went on a trip with friends to the tiny island of Pingtan off the coast of Fujian . When we arrived on one beach, we were accosted by a group of school kids who literally squealed with delight when they saw us. After the 20th photo request and usual questions (and one less usual cry of “take me with you!”) we rounded them all up for a group shot but it was hard to be annoyed because they were so wide-eyed and innocent, plus we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere. When you are on the Bund and trying to take your own photos and people keep sneaking up next to you, that’s another story!

    Reply
    • I haven’t been asked to “take me with you” yet thankfully!

      I remember a few years ago at Kong Tong Shan being asked to pose with a family for numerous group shots. When I asked if we could take one with my camera I was flatly refused!

      Reply
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  • Great site to read at 7 am after coming from the Gongti clubs.
    Regarding the feet starre, it’s incredible.

    I was at a fund raiser CFFC charity even after party at Hatsune in the Village,
    and had all the “westernized” Chinese girls ALONG with their “western” boyfriends,
    just staring at my gator shoes… And I was in a full suit!

    One American gentleman had the cheek to ask me if it’s ok, if he could spill some of his
    drink on my shoes!

    So, what is worse…. The locals living in the sticks, or the “westernized and educated” .

    Sigh, I miss the initial days in China, about 9 years ago..

    Reply
    • Very strange request regarding the shoes!

      I have no problem being stared at in the countryside. I don’t like it, but it’s somewhat understandable. I just don’t see why it happens in Beijing so much.

      I was recently in Chongqing and Chengdu, and whilst people of course glance at us, they don’t then just stare and stare, despite the relative lack of foreigners present.

      Reply
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  • Great post! Very accurate.

    Most people you tell about the constant staring just don’t get what the big deal is, but by reading your post, I’m glad to find someone who understands 🙂

    I’m going to link your post in one of my upcoming posts if that’s alright?

    Regards!

    Reply
    • It’s one of those things about China that builds up over time. If you’re only here for a couple of weeks the it barely registers, but after living here for a while it gets annoying. Please feel free to link to the post.

      Reply
  • Hi! Nice read:)
    Just stumbled across this when searching for reasons why Vietnamese people have been staring at my feet so much lol

    I lived in Korea for 9 years and left just over a week ago with my Korean hubby to move to NZ. On a quick trip round Vietnam/ Cambodia right now and became very curious as to why so many people have been staring at our feet..?:) Lovely locals everywhere we’ve gone but can’t figure out the feet staring. Didn’t notice it in anywhere else I’ve been and between. hubby and I we’ve been through most of Asia. Baffles me. haha.

    Oh and btw – after 9 years in Korea the general staring severely irritated me. My husband only had to deal with it for 3 years with me and it annoyed him more lol He used to tell me to say ‘ What are you looking at ?’ in Korean. I’d just tell him they must’ve all got eyes for Christmas ! Lol

    Reply
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  • This is an interesting article, especially from angle of someone who has been borned and lived in Yinchuan for almost 20 years. And,now, I think this kinda weird situation won’t happen to often, but people would still come and say hello , how r u, where are u from etc, lol. Since, the Stupid English text book writer and average poor English speakig standard. I think people in Yinchuan are quite warm and kindharted. And, their English level are improving. Taking me as example, Now, I’m living in BNE Austalia and trying to get my master degree. After that I’m gonna go back and make changes in my homeland. Anyway welcome to Yinchuan, there are quite some travel spots are worth to visit. And, If u need helps, u can contact me. And I’ll try to help u. Since I’ve received lots of helps from local people in Australia and I know how important that means.

    Reply
      • Hi,

        A very entertaining read and I know exactly how you feel. Although my 2 year old son gets all the stares now.

        A few years ago we went to my wife’s home town (in Liaoning province) for New Year. Now that was an starefest, but you can excuse them, the last Europeans there were the Soviets in the 50’s. I even got reasonably (in)famous during my time there.

        Reply
        • Agreed, it’s fun in the countryside when everyone is just being friendly and inquisitive. In Beijing, it’s taken 3 years of living here, but people are getting a bit less interested in me when I’m just wandering round my housing complex buying milk or bread.

          Reply
  • Brilliant post, I’m currently writing a similar one myself and can definitely relate. I live in Baoji near Xian, smaller city and way inland, so the staring verges on downright ridiculous at times. I’m writing a post about it however because I’ve just spent Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and the staring in Shenzhen – which is a lot more westernised and so close to Hong Kong – was just as bad, if not worse. We couldn’t believe it, especially when they get so many western tourists visiting from Hong Kong and English is spoken more widely.
    It just seems to be something unavoidable in mainland China wherever we go. Sometimes I’ll ask in Mandarin what they’re looking at, other times I can’t help but laugh. Generally speaking I love the place, but their amazement never ceases to amaze me!

    Reply
  • The feet staring is all about status. In ancient times, the emperor and his merry band would wear curly toed shoes. The more curl, the higher your status. Lowly peasants of course would not be allowed to wear these shoes.

    Today, of course, our footwear is more sensible, but as exotic and presumably rich foreigners, the Chinese naturally check out our footwear to determine our status. When they see an Australian flip flopping his way down the street wearing “thongs”, it puzzles them immensely. Why would a rich foreigner be wearing cheap rubber thongs (flip flops). Only a peasant would wear these. So of course they cant help but stare at our feet, especially if the weather is cold. Viva the cultural differences I say. This is why I have come to China.

    Reply

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