In my last post I mentioned that I went and saw the Monkey King 2 on the weekend, but also that I was the only non-Asian in the entire cinema. I’d gone to the movie alone and while there was nothing about being the only non-Asian present that made me feel threatened in any way or even close – when the lights went up and everyone walked out, I had this strange feeling of being in the spotlight. Even though it’s likely nobody paid any attention to me at all beyond very mild curiosity (ie what’s this guy doing watching a Chinese movie!) – in a way, it did make me feel the tiniest bit uncomfortable. Of course this passed quickly, we were soon into the foyer and back to the real world – but it reminded me of something that I experienced back in 2008 when I spent the year living in China.
My wife and I lived and taught English in a district of Wuxi, about one hour by train southwest of Shanghai in Jiangsu province. We lived on the school and were the only westerners there. We lived in a district called Dongting – or Xishan district, we could never 100% clarify that. But one thing was certain, there were no other foreigners in the entire district, or at least if there were, we didn’t see them.
Wuxi itself is known as Little Shanghai due to its rapidly expanding skyline, and Dongting was about 20 minutes bus ride out – something like Hawthorn to Melbourne. Even smaller Chinese cities are huge, with Wuxi itself having a population twice the size of Melbourne. Dotted around these cities are fairly typical suburbs, but in many cases a lot of the older generations of Chinese never leave these suburbs. Only now in recent years are the average Chinese citizens coming into enough money that they’re able to travel – not simply around China, but internationally. But there are still so many that live and work in the same district until they die, experiencing very little of the outside world.
And so, living in Dongting with my wife (we were not yet married at the time) and devoid of a car, we walked everywhere, and it was then that I discovered how it felt to be someone different.
Imagine walking down a busy street of your local town and every person within a 100 metre radius scrutinizing you. Some may spit at your feet (though this was thankfully rare and from the much older generation), others would call out a friendly, helllooooooooooooooooooooo, or laowai! (foreigner – but not usually in a particularly friendly way)- but because it often took the courage of being in a group before people would do this, it would feel more intimidating than friendly.
As you passed by groups of people, be they the elderly or groups of cigarette smoking taxi drivers, all of their heads would slowly follow you, and they would stare unashamedly at you, their curiosity of seeing a real white guy in the flesh overriding any sense of good manners.
Imagine walking into the market and buying various goods, with people peeping into your bags curious about what you might eat, or what other western luxury items might be in there. Although their looks were harmless and simply inquisitive, being the only one of your kind felt intimidating. Of course we had so many amazing interactions with the locals, who were the most friendly, warm, generous people we’d met, but we couldn’t help but feel this way either, namely because we were different to everyone else.
As we walked back across the ginormous grounds of the school, we’d hope the students were in class for if they were in their very short and infrequent breaks, every eye would be on us (and now we’re talking into the hundreds).
Before living in China I used to always have this dream to go someplace where they hadn’t seen white people. You’d hear of people who travelled into the Amazon, or deep into Africa and were taken to some village where they’d never seen whities and offered gifts, the kids amazed by the wondrous powers of yoyo’s etc. I didn’t really think that such an experience was possible – well not a legitimate one – where the people are wearing their native clothing without tracksuit pants hidden beneath. But I got this experience in China, far more authentically than I could ever have imagined.
I became used to this attention, but to be completely honest, I never really felt comfortable roaming into town by myself. I never felt like i was threatened or in any danger, but the constant looks were always intimidating – and the looks were exactly that, constant. You could see groups of people very obviously looking at you, pointing and laughing – not maliciously, but with a childlike curiosity and wonder. But the feeling was always there.
I remember feeling self-conscious at the hair on my arms, which the occasional student would try and touch in simple wonder. Somehow, we looked so different to them.
We used to joke how we now had an appreciation to how someone like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie must feel, unable to walk down the street, constantly recognised, constantly scrutinized, but I also remember returning home to Australia, and how suddenly I was no-one again, just another white guy.
So the other night in Monkey King, it kind of took me surprise to be reminded how this felt, and in a way I am glad that it’s not something that I have to deal with in my everyday life. But I also can’t help but wonder how many people out there do experience this every day, perhaps due to their race, perhaps due to some abnormality with their appearance, or any number of reasons that has the everyday person staring at them for no reason other than they’re different, or perceived to be.
I’m so glad I got to experience what I did in China, it’s the kind of experience that’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t been in the same situation, but it’s also something I would repeat in a heartbeat and I long to return to Dongting and walk down those familiar streets and see if that familiar feeling of being unique still exists. But I also appreciate that by seeing things in such a way, gave me a perspective of minorities that I likely would have never had before, and i hope made me a better person because of it.