Chinese?! Noo?? Canada?! Oohh!!!

A foreigner’s life in Hohhot is anything but invisible. Hohhot has developed significantly over the past twenty years: apparently, twenty years ago there was only one road in the city!! So the majority of citizens here have emerged and become desensitized to the western-development that has overtaken a great deal of the city in a very short time…that is to say, with the exception of …to be blunt…white people.

As a foreigner, I am definitely a minority in Inner Mongolia. Western people are not common in Hohhot, and most of the locals have never even seen a foreigner in person before!! When me and my fellow teachers walk down the street, eat at a restaurant, go shopping, have drinks at the bar, etc… we are met with the shocked and unbelieving stares of passerby’s, who are not afraid to turn as you pass and keep staring. Very often their stares are accompanied with the word “Wàiguó rén!! Wàiguó rén!!” which means “foreigner” in Chinese. And it doesn’t stop there. The locals will openly point at you, talk to each other in rapid chinese about what they are witnessing, or even approach the foreigner to say hello or ask for a photo! Almost everyday someone passes me and says “Hello!”, and usually I say “Hello!” back, which is followed by a burst of laughter from the well-wisher and his/her friends. It literally makes their day: “Oh my God! Guess what?! A Foreigner said hello to me today”! One time, it was quite impressive, a young man shouted “Hello! Welcome to China!!” to which I replied “Thank you!” and he and his accompaniment had a good laugh about it.

It’s interesting, because apparently the Chinese find pale skin the epitome of beauty. In China, the women buy face cover-up that is a significantly lighter shade then their actual skin colour in an attempt to look paler. They also avoid the sun at all costs in the summer: many walk with umbrella’s during the day to shield their skin from the sun! This is such a contrast to home, where girls (and boys!) fake-and-bake, dose themselves in chemical spray, and sizzle their skin in the summers in crazy attempts to look darker! So when Chinese people see pale-skin foreigners, one of the reasons they stare is because they find their white skin so beautiful. And don’t even get me started if you have blond hair!! Blond hair is such a rarity in China that the Chinese will actually walk up to you and touch it, just to feel it for themselves!!

It can be quite amusing, but also a bit agitating at times. You get used to it after a while, but  I’ll get annoyed and snappy about it occasionally, depending on my patience that day. For example, on Monday Tamlyn and I were walking to the import store and were behind a group of young men, and one of them literally slowed down to walk next to us and would not stop staring (mostly at Tamlyn, for she is much more white than I)!! Well, on this particular day I found it quite rude and annoying, so I said “Go away!!” and waved him off, to which he said “I don’t understand” in Chinese. So I said again, “Go away! Now!” and waved more furiously towards his friends. He and his friends laughed, and kept staring until we crossed the street and entered the import store. They meant no harm and seemed quite friendly, but still…go away!! They are so interested in foreigners and their looks that it can get invasive at times, always being stared at. But like I said, you get used to it and most of the time it doesn’t bother me.

Unlike my foreign co-workers, I am half-Chinese! So I don’t always get the same treatment as my white co-workers. I definitely have Chinese features, yet the locals know right away that I’m a foreigner, based on my dress, mannerisms and lack of answering their questions. So most of the looks I get are not ones of shock, but confusion. They give me the double-take: as I walk by they look at me and then look away, nothing interesting here, but then their head snaps back after their brain registers that there IS something different!! I guess I can describe it as being “sneaky Chinese”; they’ll never know I’m actually one of them unless they ask.

Most of the new people I’ve met from school have asked me what my background is, and they are always so surprised and interested when I say that my father is Chinese and my mother was white. Their interest turns to surprise when they find out that I don’t speak any Chinese at all (except for the Chinese I’ve picked up here so far)! A random man on the street asked me if I was Chinese, and I made the complete conversation the title of this entry [see title for clarification]! A few days ago, a man actually got out his picture phone and took a picture of me as I walked by! Even my students have taken pictures of me while I’ve been teaching (which obviously led to me confiscating their phones until after class)!

So yes, I’ve definitely gotten some entertaining reactions from the locals here. Hopefully I will learn some actual sentences in Chinese and be able to communicate with them! This is my goal anyway. I’ll share more interactions I have with the locals as the year goes on!!



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ben Babcock
    Jul 01, 2011 @ 03:21:17

    … the locals know right away that I’m a foreigner, based on my dress, mannerisms and lack of answering their questions

    Indeed, that’s how I knew the first time I met you.


  2. Blaine Copland
    Jul 01, 2011 @ 04:44:02

    You “sneaky Chinese” you! It’ sounds like when people try to comprehend my daughter’s Western looks with their Middle Eastern surname. The first time their Mama Bazorg, which means “big mother” in Persian (I shall hold my sarcastic tongue on that one) saw them, the first words out of her mouth were “They look like British children.”


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