Saturday, 18 July 2009

How to Look Foreign in China

In Shijiazhuang, all Western foreigners looked alike. Brunettes were surprised to hear that they had fair hair: after all, Westerners have blonde hair so as long as your skin was white your hair was blonde. Similarly, green and hazel eyes all blur into one blue haze.

The allure of blue eyes to a Chinese female provincial teenager cannot be overstated. I would find that my normally timid students, who would sometimes stare in the opposite direction to me rather than make eye contact (I believe this is some sort of mark of respect rather than a symptom of avoidant personality disorder), would fix my with a slightly maniacal stare before announcing to me ‘Your eyes are so blue.’ Quite often this nuggest would be repeated several times, as I mumbled something like ‘erm, yes, thanks’ (I mean, really, what can you say?) as the conversation stumbled along the line between endearing and creepy.

One of my older students even went as far as to wear a pair of blue contacts. Worn over her naturally almost black irises the effect was startling to say the least. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was more reminded of something from a horror film than anything else, and after all, rare are the women who can honestly say that they were free from fashion faux pas at the age of seventeen.

Thankfully, voodoo isn’t native to China, as our blonde locks (even mine, which are more of a indecisive light browny colour when au natural) were quite the temptation to young students. Not only did I have to tell them that they could not pet my hair, and no, I didn’t believe that they had done it ‘accidentally’, but I actually had to tell some of them not to remove stray hairs from my clothes. Another one of my friends had a student request a hair from her, which she loving pasted into a scrapbook beside her signature.

This perhaps makes them sound odder and me meaner than really was the case. Certainly in Shijiazhuang, often people’s natural response to something unusual was to want to touch it, unaware that this is completely shocking to the Westerner on the receiving end! Also, lacking disciplinary authority, many of my classes, especially amongst the younger students, teetered along the borderline of chaos, and allowing any sort of liberty would result in them collapsing catastrophically.

Similarly, there was a standard image of what Westerners looked like, and no matter your personal appearance, I found that this imaginary prototype Westerner had a far stronger effect on Chinese people’s minds than the individual foreigner standing before them. Surprisingly, this was true not just in Shijiazhuang, but in the polyglot Beijing Silk Market, where the shoppers are almost exclusively foreign and most of the sales assistants speak English of a quality that would make many a Shijiazhuang English major envious.

At home, I am reasonably petite, at five foot four, I wear at size 10 dress and a size 4 shoe, meaning I was around the same size of a lot of Chinese women my age. One of my students once voiced positive outrage that I was the same size as her. However, this didn’t stop shop assistants invariably bringing out shoes or clothes a couple of sizes too big to start with.

On my last visit to the Silk Market I wanted to buy a trench coat (which has already been well used in our British Summer). The assistant insisted that I start by trying on the largest size first, which made me look like I had been assaulted by a parachute. Even then, we had to work our way laboriously through various degrees of L before finally hitting on the very happy Medium.

My small and narrow feet were the subject of scrutiny when I first started working at the school. Amazement at how ‘tiny’ my feet were (by laowai standards, perfectly normal by Chinese ones), dragged on for the first month or so of my appointment. To begin with, I was quite flattered, but after a week or so I began to have wild fears that someone was going to break into my apartment in the dead of night to chop my feet off (or, at the very least, take a photograph) for the local museum.


  1. The touching by total strangers would totally creep me out. Today we have a large Asian-American population in California, but 30 or 40 years ago that wasn't the case and most of us non-Asians thought that all Asian people looked the same. That is so funny about the clothing/shoe size perception and the obsession with blue eyes! Another great and very informative post.

  2. It sounds as if things have not changed all that much. I first went to Tianjin in 1987 and since I am 6' 4", I created quite a stir whenever I was out on the streets.

  3. Interesting to hear the Chinese cliches about foreigners, and their fascination with your hair, eyes and feet. I can see that it might become a little creepy over time, though!

  4. It is more of admiration from the locals which is not bad.

  5. In France people wonder why I'm not wearing cowboy boots... culture shock is a strange phenomenon. Hope your return reverse culture shock to being back in the West isn't too overwhelming...
    Cheers !

  6. LOL! It brings back all the memories of people patting and stroking the hairs on my arms all the time when I lived in China!

    BTW, how long were you there and did you got with VSO?

  7. My son has been in Niger for 2 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. One time, as a group of people were sitting watching TV in Tim's neighbor's house, the 4-year-old neighbor boy was stroking Tim's toe hairs. Most Africans don't have arm hair or toe hair (don't know about leg hair), so they are intrigued by westerners' body hair.