This one time I got mobbed at a Chinese secondary school. True story.
It was a school in Hebei province, a couple of hours outside Beijing by bus. I was there with an Australian friend to teach 11-15 year-old middle school students about the our home countries. It went well enough, spoke mostly in Chinese, summoned all my knowledge about England which I could also express in Chinese ( which limited the content to the weather, football, the fact we drink tea with milk, and something about the Queen ). This was all fine.
Then these kids swamped us like an R Patz/T Swifty combo. They wanted us to write in their English textbooks, they wanted photos with us, they tried their English on us, they wanted signatures ( both Chinese and English ). I got cornered coming out of a toilet and had various bits of paper thrust at my chest. I wrote my name 莫求天 so many times it was barely legible by the end. We got stared at no end in the corridors, we got shouted at from upstairs windows, even the canteen workers got out their flip-phones to take photos with us.
I’m not saying there’s anything special about us, we’re just foreign. This happened further away from the city where people are probably less accustomed to Waiguoren 外国人 ( literally: outside-nation-people ). But even in the city I’ve been asked for a photo, and quite a lot when I skate ( but that’s probably cause of my mad skills on 8 wheels ). When my mum and sister visited, Rachel and I were snapped up pretty well in the Forbidden City ( la madre was a bit put out that she wasn’t photographed as much, sorry mum ). We are minor celebrities, so be glad if you know either of us.
We foreigners are something of a novelty. My hair colour has attracted the odd comment from people ( blond or ginger ? ), and fellow blogger Joe has been pointed at by kids on the tube. Some of the internationals have it the other way round: they are Asian but not Chinese, or Asian heritage but not Chinese, so everyone expects them to speak fluent Chinese and is amazed that they can speak English so well ( cue home-girl Jade: “I’m from London, I should bloody hope so” ). And many Chinese seem not to be able to comprehend a Belgian friend of mine. He’s black, speaks French, grew up in Europe, and people here can’t get their heads round it. They just ask him if he’s Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan ( not even a joke ).
Basically, I have become ‘the other’. I’ve always lived in England, and been to countries like Canada or Germany where I speak the language and blend in fairly well. Here I stand out like a full English breakfast at a vegan buffet. With Europeans I’m British ( oh so British ), with Koreans I’m Western, with Americans or Australians or Africans I’m European. With Chinese I’m just a white foreigner. It’s a defining feature of being an exchange student: “I do not come from here”.
Generally the Chinese fascination with foreigners isn’t negative. Sometimes it means free drinks, or more table service, sometimes it means that cabs won’t stop for you, or you get ignored. I want to add that this is only my experience as a white British foreigner. There’s a certain amount of respect which comes with the fascination, but I have heard of the unfortunate experiences of other foreign nationals.
Being pointed at, getting quizzical looks, feeling out of place, this is the experience of the stranger. I never really considered myself a foreigner, I’ve always just been “me”. When I’m back in a place where I don’t stand out, I’ll have empathise more with foreigners, because everyone is a foreigner somewhere. And I am very much in the somewhere.