If you are a white foreign woman like me, or otherwise different from the Chinese because of your appearance, be mentally ready to turn into a celebrity. Not that you would get movie roles as you get off the plane, but you might be much more noticed on the streets than you were back home.
First you will hear those whispers (or more like shouts) around you: “看，是外国人！” “kàn, shì wàiguórén” “Look, it’s a foreigner!” Chinese people seem to make a hobby out of pointing out all the foreigners they see on the streets, restaurants and public transportation means. Two words for foreigner you hear the most are 外国人 wàiguórén and 老外 lǎowài.
You will hear kids and adults all shouting “hello” or more like “halou” at you where ever you walk. It’s fun when they are kids with cute smiles and I usually wave my hand and greet them back. But when it’s an adult and a total stranger, I often just ignore them if the situation feels a bit uncomfortable. I totally ignore them if they shout something like 洋妞 yángniū foreign babe at me! (Really, this happened once in my home village.)
If you know Chinese you might hear full conversations about you being discussed around you. Just two days ago I was walking home from the bus stop and passed by a group of young men. There isn’t many foreigners living around here (perhaps just three on this island) so there is a chance that I was the first foreigner those guys saw around here. They started discussing about me in Cantonese, but unfortunately my Cantonese wasn’t good enough to understand that much.
One step closer to stardom is having your pictures taken, with or without permission. Nowadays everyone has a camera on their phone and there are probably more photos of you out there than you even realize. I’ve had my photo taken in the Forbidden City, on a beach in Hainan island, in a metro with my boyfriend and tens of times more in other places. I rarely deny if someone asks to take a photo of me as they usually ask nicely, but I don’t like having me captured without permission.
You might also notice that when you move to or travel in China, everyone wants to be your friend. I get asked of my mobile phone number, QQ number or WeChat account on almost on a monthly basis on metros, busses, at the gym etc. I never give my phone number to strangers, but sometimes I give my QQ or WeChat if I find the person interesting and would like to make friends with them. But very often it’s just an awkward “no” when I don’t want to see that person again and they insist on having my contact information.
So moving to China will have a huge impact on your privacy and the way others react when seeing you. It can feel funny at first, but you might grow tired of it after a year, and a two, three, four… Just remember that the Chinese don’t do this to annoy you, it’s just a totally different culture down here.
Have locals taken pictures of you too in China? Share your experiences in the comments!