Becoming a Celebrity in China

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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.


My new friends from Xinjiang Province.

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.)


In the park surrounding the Leshan Giant Buddha.


Thousands of Terracotta Warriors are standing directly behind us.


Inside a classical garden of Suzhou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Standing next to Hangzhou’s West Lake, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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!


Β Have you ever had a brush with fame while traveling?


43 thoughts on “Becoming a Celebrity in China

    • It’s always fun to see real celebrities in public. I shared a flight with Mr. Big from Sex and the City once and saw a bunch of famous people when I lived in NYC. My favorite, though, was running into Yao Ming at a Starbucks in Shanghai. His head nearly touched the ceiling!

    • It’s too bad we never met up while in China, Agness. Everyone would have thought we were twins! πŸ™‚

  1. Haha yup, I’ve experienced that a lot in China too. The funniest is when parents force their children to come and ask for a photo, but you know it’s really the adults who want one. I’ve had that experience of having to pose with every member of the family as well. I have only said ‘no’ to photos once (because I was feeling unwell) and the woman looked so upset I’ll never say no again!
    J in Beijing recently posted…Perfect Winter Days in BeijingMy Profile

    • I never had a single person force their child on me. It was always the younger people who seemed most interested. The kids are so cute, though, I would have loved to pose with them!! I know other blondes who had no problem saying no to photos, but, like you, I just couldn’t hurt their feelings like that. Besides, I figured it was payback for all the photos I took of people sleeping in public and wearing their pajamas on the street πŸ™‚

    • It really is a funny thing to experience. Often, when others nearby saw that I was agreeable to taking photos, they’d jump in line. One day I posed with five different people in about as many minutes! LOL

  2. I went to India with a group of about 40 other UK students – the jaws dropping around us everywhere we went was quite surreal! It was definitely the blonde girls that got the most attention and photo requests though.
    Catherine recently posted…A Day In My LifeMy Profile

    • Oh man, I bet they thought they’d hit the motherload! I can only imagine the commotion you all caused πŸ™‚

  3. Ha! I think this post is pretty much the perfect counterargument to all those travelers who whine about how much they wish they could just “blend in” and be mistaken for a local. As someone who is repeatedly taken as a local, I can assure you, it’s actually way more fun to be the person who is a D-list celebrity. πŸ™‚ We always get attention thrown our way because Tony is so pale he’s almost transparent AND is also 6 feet tall, but that means everyone flocks to him and I am shut out in the cold. I admit, sometimes I feel really left out because no one ever wants to take their picture with me!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Gorging on George Town: Does Malaysia’s Culinary Capital Live Up to the Hype?My Profile

    • Haha, my husband feels your pain! He has dark hair and is of average height and no one ever asked for his photo. Rather, they usually asked him to be the photographer! I think his feelings were a little hurt πŸ™‚ We’ll all just have to go someplace like Sweden where the tables will be turned! LOL πŸ™‚

    • It was really kind of sweet. And I definitely missed all the attention when I moved back to the States. I was like, “why isn’t anyone taking my photo?” Haha!

    • It’s a little unnerving at first, but you get used to it after a while. The attention upset some people I knew, but I decided just to have fun with it!

  4. When we visited China in the days of everyone wearing Blue Mao suits and riding bicycles, we also became instant celebrities. As with you, my fair skin and long blond hair intrigued them but I think it was as much that tourists were only just starting to go to China. It’s actually quite nice that it is still happening today!
    jenny@atasteoftravel recently posted…Breakfast in IstanbulMy Profile

    • Wow, Jenny, I bet that was super interesting. I’ve read about that time period, and have seen photos, but can’t imagine what it was actually like. The population must have been quite shocked to see you! It is very sweet that it’s still happening today.

  5. That must be a weird experience! It would get difficult if you were living there and just wanted to blend in, but being a celebrity for a short while sounds like it could be fun.

    In a village where I’ve worked on an archaeology dig, aside from a couple teachers the population is entirely Yupik Eskimo. Our director has white hair and a big, bushy white beard. The kids are completely fascinated with him, because no one else around has a beard like that – I’m pretty sure a few have decided he’s actually Santa.
    Jess recently posted…How to Find Gold in the Yukon – Claim 33, Dawson CityMy Profile

    • I lived in Shanghai for two years and there was no hope of me ever blending in πŸ™‚

      That’s such a cute story, I can perfectly picture the expression on those little kids’ faces! I love that there’s still so much innocence in the world!

  6. Haha I can’t imagine how much attention you get in places like China, Heather! You actually have blonde hair! I always laughed in Japan when students would ask what the word “blonde” means and the Japanese teachers would always just point me out and say “Like Jessica sensei’s hair” when really it couldn’t be described as anything else but brown! haha While I was asked for photos sometimes in Japan when someone had the courage to ask, I think the place where I was asked the most was in Indonesia. They were crazy for pictures with foreigners! I actually don’t mind it. While I don’t really understand the fascination, especially in places that get lots of tourists, if it makes someone smile, then I’m happy to pose for a photo with them.
    Jessica – Notes of Nomads recently posted…The Paternoster: Europe’s Non-Stop ElevatorMy Profile

    • Haha, I love how they think all Westerners look alike! My Egyptian friend, with long silky brown hair, couldn’t believe they thought we were sisters! I was never asked for a photo in Japan, though I did cause quite a sensation at the zoo in Sapporo – a group of school children were visiting at the same time as me LOL! And I completely agree with you, Jessica. I may not understand why they want the photos, but I’m happy to do it if it brings them joy. The looks of disappointment the few times I did say no were too much to bear!

  7. I just loved the photo of you with a young girl where you said Terracotta warriors stood right behind you! She definitely thought you were more interesting! Love it! Something like this happen to me in Istanbul, but it was the other way round, people wanted me to take pictures with them so I would remember them! Lol…. I did, and when I think back… it is quite funny!
    Rosemarie recently posted…Tanjong Jara Resort Ҁ“ Uniquely MalaysianMy Profile

    • That’s so cute! I love encounters like that. We’ve also taken photos with people we’ve wanted to remember, like our incredibly kind tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap and the random lady who gave us a ride in China. I’m at my parents house right now, and the other day I came across a photo of a wonderful tour guide we had in Europe some 20 years ago – and I remembered her like it was yesterday!

  8. Oh it’s so crazy all those people asking for photos! It was the same for me when I was travelling in China, even though I’m a brunette. People would see me first and want a photo, then they would gasp and see my blonde travelling companion and push me aside. Then they’d gasp again and push the blonde aside when they saw our ginger friend!
    Charlie recently posted…3 Places to Find Romance in GdaΕ„skMy Profile

    • LOL, I can only imagine the reaction to your ginger friend! My dad has red hair and freckles, but he didn’t come visit me in China. Though he caused quite a sensation in Vietnam – they loved the red hair but hated the freckles!

  9. Haha this is so funny and interesting! I’d probably be quite the hit in China then – I’m blonde, pale, blue-eyed, and have curly hair.

    I do stand out quite a bit in Spain. Sometimes when I go clubbing, people just start petting my hair. I’m talking about complete strangers, though I’m pretty sure they were just on loads and loads of drugs…
    Jessica of HolaYessica recently posted…Learning Spanish with Fun Cat ExpressionsMy Profile

    • Oh yeah, you’d be very popular in China! Your hair would most definitely be petted, and absolutely no drugs would be involved! LOL

  10. I am on vacation in philadelphia and a group of tourists from China just stopped so each of them could take pictures with me. I was 20 yards from the Liberty Bell and next to independence hall and what were they taking pics of… Me on a bench. I was like what is happening. Did a search and found this page. Lol. Even here were a novelty.

    • Haha, that’s spectacular! Thanks for much for sharing this experience with me, it really made me smile. I’ll be on the lookout for over eager tour groups the next time I’m in the States πŸ˜‰ Happy vacationing!!

  11. Haha, loved reading this! I do have 1 question about myself now though; I’m going to China (on vacation) and I’m a 1.86 M long girl (about 6ft2), I’m pale and I have dark blonde/light brown hair. Will I become a tourist attraction myself aswell?

    • Hi Anne-Sophie, I suspect you will get a lot of attention in China! Of course, it depends on where in China you go and how many tourists from the countryside happen to be there at the time. I couldn’t walk on the Bund in Shanghai without getting mobbed with photo requests, but was generally left alone in the rest of the city. If it happens, just smile and pose. You’ll make their day! I said no once when I was in a rush, and the guy looked so crushed that I never said no again. Have a great trip!

      • Hi Heather, I really can’t imagine how that’s going to be! I’m excited and a little bit scared at the same time, but I’m sure that taking a picture isn’t that bad. Thank you for respronding so quick, I was browsing the whole web about how being tall is like in China haha! Thank you!

  12. Hi Anne-Sophie! I came across this while researching a phenomenon that has been happening with my daughter. We live in California and on 3 occasions now, Asian women visiting from another country have asked for pictures with my daughter. She was 3 the first time it happened. We were at a touristy fruit stand and the women just started passing my daughter around to have their picture taken with her. The most recent time was in Hollywood. It always takes me by surprise. My daughter is 6 now, so she is not some cute little toddler. However, she has blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin. I have come to the conclusion that this has to be the reason they want a picture with her. I enjoyed reading your stories, they made me feel better about my little girl having her picture taken with strangers. She has become uncomfortable with it now, so I did tell her she never has to do it again. Hopefully the people wanting pictures will understand.

      • No worries, Jenelle! Though I was trying to figure out who Anne-Sophie was LOL! πŸ™‚

        It definitely took me by surprise the first few times, but I got used to it after a while. Other people I know, however, always said no because it made them uncomfortable. Your daughter isn’t alone on either count!

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