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.
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 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?”