Lessons in awkwardness: Part I
The thing about travelling as a Westerner in China, as any Westerner that has travelled in China will know, is that at times it can feel like you are walking round with a neon sign above your head advertising your endlessly fascinating other-worldliness.
In every city, in every town in mainland China, a foreigner will, more often than not, be seen as nothing more the foreigner he is upon being first encountered “in the wild” as it were. Whispers of Weiguoren, shouts of Laowai, staring of various degrees of intensity depending upon exactly where in the country you happen to be, are an almost constant occurrence, threat, annoyance, or maybe even delight, depending upon your way of looking at things. Shanghai may be the only exception to this rule given its international outlook. Even good old Beijing is still liable to give out its fair share. Hangzhou was no different. Maybe it was the number of tourists from whatever foreigner-free city they had come from. Maybe it was the lack of white-man doing the rounds that week. But my first few days in the city were a story of stares, hellos and photograph requests, pretty much from the off.
Maybe it also shows that despite China’s supposed opening up to the outside world, away from the Shanghais and Beijings of the country, there really is still a lack of engagement with and knowledge about the West in many parts of China. Indeed, I’m struggling to think of a third city in which white-man walking down the street wouldn’t be considered an event worth relating to the family over dinner that night. Maybe Guangzhou and Shenzhen due to their proximity to Hong Kong, but other than that, I’m drawing a blank.
But whatever the nature of the stares one receives when quietly going about one’s business in China – whether it be the blank “I can’t believe my eyes” look that tracks you motionlessly from shop-fronts and doorways as you pass, the stunned double-take, or the nudge and whisper alerting others to your presence – contrary to outward appearances, it is, for the majority of the time, just good-natured curiosity that’s behind it all. A wave, a smile, or a friendly “ni hao” will often result in much hilarity all round once the foreign devil’s humanity is revealed.
Anyway, after already eliciting more than a passing interest on my brief trip out and about around West Lake on my first day in Hangzhou (there were three photograph requests that, in contrast to my fear and modesty of a couple of years previously, I acquiesced to quite readily), I decided that from now on, such prizes as I was giving away wouldn’t be going completely free. Whenever possible I’d be getting my own little souvenir as part of the bargain. Thus we have the first of what will no doubt be many rogues’ galleries demonstrating both my lack of range when posing and the very desperate lack of any rudimentary sense of composition when it comes to Chinese tourists taking photographs. Enjoy!