In the kitchen doorway of a Harbin dumpling restaurant, a shy-eyed waitress gives me a flickering glance, steadily taking more strident pauses in my direction. Our eyes connect for one, two, three seconds — more, before the inquiring grin of a pupil grows to fill her expressionless face.
Laowai, or foreigners, in Shanghai tend to find the curious, lingering eyes of Chinese unsettling at times. In traveling to the East, foreigners make the conscious choice to step outside of their comfort zone. But in beading with Chinese society, the “demons of dislocation” can often take a weary toll.
Let’s face it. Walking down the street and hearing laowai echoed in your ear with every left step can cause a stir of qualms with a side of irritation. Despite the inundation of foreigner workers in Shanghai, many still find our mere presence worthy of meticulous inspection.
Often, while riding the subway, walking on the street, or going just about anywhere in Shanghai, it’s not uncommon to have a person lock eyes with you — serving up barely a blink. I usually passed this off at first, trying my best to ignore, but every so often I’ve decided to adjust my eyes to meet theirs to engage in a stone-eyed staring contest. This game is entirely impractical, but it says a lot. The unique brand of curiosity that the Chinese take towards foreigners does little to inhibit shame. Meeting these unblinking glares is like catching the white-washed glow of a person’s face lit up by a movie screen — an expression of fascination and awe stuck in a frozen trance. It would seem that we are truly interesting, especially to those who have recently left rusticated livelihoods behind.
Stick your tongue out, wink, puff up your cheeks into a chubby face — it’ll bring a laugh for sure, but once started, I’ve found most will continue to look on in unashamed intrigue. If you happen to have hair that is more curly than straight and/or more colorful than black, you probably soak up more stares than normal. My girlfriend’s Slinky-like, curly hair has been touched by many, sometimes furtively and other times in more blatant displays of experimentation.
The simple reality is that foreigners in China are seen as objects that are both revered and detested, a nature both sought after and capable of causing indignation. Those traveling eyes that search you or that conspicuously dart to-and-fro are filled with the utmost curiosity of your origins, beliefs and purpose. Upon entering this society, we instantaneously carry a level of prestige, yet we’ll never fit into the society as anything but an outsider — a laowai.
As China’s influence expands, so does its view of the world. The Expo 2010 has already introduced millions of Chinese to countries that they would otherwise be unable to see. By stepping into this dynamic country at this particular turning point in time, foreigners are playing ambassadors whose actions have more impact that any pavilion, no matter the level of brouhaha and queues it manages to stir up.
Accept it or reject it. Upon returning home one day, looking at foreigners in your home country will conjure up memories and lessons learned of how it feels to be on the receiving end of inquiring eyes. Though irritating at times, a feeling I’m glad to have experienced.