What happens when a blonde American with blue eyes and extremely pale skin moves to China? If my experience is any indication, she becomes an instant celebrity!
To say that I stood out from the local population is a bit of an understatement. While China has a surprising amount of ethnic diversity, the society is still very homogeneous at 91% Han Chinese. Sophisticated cities like Shanghai and Beijing are visited by increasing numbers of international travelers, but they are also receiving more and more Chinese tourists from the rural provinces who now have the means to travel, and whose only prior exposure to exotic foreigners might be through their television set.
While visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing, I was surrounded by a group of women from Xinjiang Province, which is closer to Pakistan than Beijing and about as far from China’s cosmopolitan coasts as you can get. They stroked my arm while repeating the phrase “tai bai le, tai bai le” – or “so white, so white.” (Pale skin is prized among Chinese women, who take great pains to protect themselves from exposure to the sun.) Their ministrations made me feel a little like a petting zoo animal, but the ladies were well-intentioned and very endearing. Truth be told, having once been christened Casper the Ghost by the mean kids at school, it felt good to receive compliments on my pallor for a change.
I was asked for photos in nearly every place we visited in China, and I only declined a handful of times, usually because I was in a rush. What I found most amusing was that often we would be standing near a significant Chinese attraction or landmark and yet I would be getting all the attention! It got to the point where I decided to document these comical encounters myself. The below represent only a fraction of my photo shoots. (No word on what the Chinese are doing with their photos.)
But it’s not just blondes who have all the fun. If you stand out from the local population in any way, prepare to draw some scrutiny. One friend of mine was complimented for her naturally curly hairstyle, a look Chinese ladies of a certain age go to great lengths to emulate. Another friend, who is large in stature, was regarded with awe as he towered over the crowds. A brave Chinese girl even asked him for a photo, much to his amusement.
My favorite celebrity moment occurred when a friend and I were walking along the Bund, Shanghai’s riverside promenade, one sunny afternoon. As we posed together for a selfie, we were swarmed by a large group of visiting Chinese tourists. First the women came alongside and put their arms around us, beaming as the men took our photo. Then they switched places and we got a photo with the men. Finally, they asked a passerby to take one of us with the entire group. As we were chatting, it was revealed that they thought my friend and I were sisters; my friend is Egyptian and we look nothing alike. We laughed about this episode for days!
Have you ever had a brush with fame while traveling?