China's Papparazzi

China’s Papparazzi

A few weeks ago there was a humorous video going around the interwebs about what it’s like to be an Asian in America. The premise is that Asians get asked all the time where they are from, even if they were born and raised in America. While the original video was meant to be a joke, there were a lot of posts on my Facebook feed about it that were a little more serious. A lot of people talked about how annoying it is to be asked all the time where they or their family are from. Believe me, I know how annoying this is because every foreigner living in China gets the same treatment, along with foreigners in just about every country I’ve ever visited. Granted, in the Asian vs. Whities scenario it is caused by looking different, but even if it is your accent that tips people off that you do not belong, you will be asked about where you are from (even if you have been living in America for 30 years). Ask any Aussie or Brit you meet in the states, they’ll tell you I’m right.

For my Asian friends out there, you may find it funny that it is not just the usual questioning that we foreigners receive in Asia. In China, I have often felt like an animal in the zoo. Chinese people are constantly taking pictures of us foreigners as though we’re some kind of oddity that they cannot wait to show to their friends. The above picture was taken when my friend and I were essentially mobbed by camera-wielding tourists in Beijing whilst we sat on a cafe patio having a coffee. Yes, Beijing, one of the biggest, most developed cities in China, where there is a larger concentration of foreigners than in my hometown of Shenyang. One would think I would not be an oddity there, but that is just not so.

In addition to having my picture taken, people ask to touch my hair and sometimes feel up my arms (because they are hairy and Chinese women’s are not).  And, as illustrated in the video, they will say anything they know about my place of origin once they know where it is I am from. They will also do the thing where they say what their first guesses were about where I’m from (usually Russia or Germany). The most uncomfortable part about the confrontations are that they usually tell me that I am beautiful at some point and then start pointing out all of the specific things they like about my face. As it is not considered polite to say “thank you” for such compliments in China, I am always at a loss for words and feel even more rude for saying nothing. Also, I don’t really enjoy being told that I have a big nose, even if it is meant to be a compliment.

My point is not that your complaints are not valid, but that it happens everywhere. People are curious about other people who look different than them. Yes, it’s annoying. And, yes, I can see how it could come across as racist, especially in a country as obsessed with being politically correct as America is, but obviously the people asking are not in your shoes. They do not realize that you are asked this every single day. They are just curious and most likely think they are actually making you feel more comfortable, not less.