Throughout most of the 20th century China was largely cut off from the rest of the world.  The Cold War meant that no foreign tourists were visiting the country, and even after China’s reform period in the late 1970’s and early 80’s it was primarily business men and politicians that were visiting China.  Today, while cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an (home of the terra cotta warriors) are flooded with blonde haired, blue eyed, fast talking Americans, Brits, and Aussies, most of China is still largely unfrequented by foreigners.  The reason for this is simple.  Many of the famous cultural sites around the nation were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and since the Chinese have a different concept of cleanliness than Westerners, most of these unvisited cities and villages are considered far too dirty and hostile to attract tourists.  As a result, most Chinese people have had very little exposure to Westerners, and combined with the increasing fascination with and influence of western culture China, Chinese people in cities like Liaocheng are often transfixed by the sight of a Westerner.

Save for a handful of teachers and their families, I’m the only Westerner on the Liaocheng University campus.  While I’ve been to places in China where a Westerner is less common, I still get a lot of attention for simply existing every time I leave my dorm.  I would compare it to walking around the streets of New York with a camera crew.  Some people don’t give a shit.  Some people stare wide mouthed with a look of absolute confusion on their faces.  Children like to point and shout, “wai go ren!” Foreigner!  Some people giggle and wave, and every now and then they shout “Hello!”

At times it’s funny, and maybe even a little flattering.  At times it’s annoying, and at times it’s downright obnoxious.  Chinese ideals of privacy are far more relaxed than we have in the western world, and it isn’t considered rude to stare or interrupt while eating or talking with a friend.  It can become rather exhausting at times, but I’ve learned that I don’t have nearly as bad as black people in China.

Will and Kissi are both from Ghana.  Will is a student at the school (though he lives off campus), and Kissi is a teacher at an English school in the city.  While people here might find my appearance curious, Kissi and Will routinely incite genuine shock among the masses.  It’s common to hear people gasping as Will and I walk to a restaurant together, or to see people whipping out their camera-phones to snap a picture of him as we walk by.  Today I met Kissi on the street and during the short period of time we were conversing on the street a crowd of about five or six people gathered around us, just watching and listening.  They stood within a two feet of us, studying us up and down, listening to the gibberish that came out of our mouths.  One guy even leaned over me as I dug something out of my bag, just to see the kind of things a Westerner likes to carry around with him.  Had they known that either of us spoke a word of Chinese they would have most certainly engaged us in conversation, most likely asking Kissi silly questions like “What basketball team do you play for,” or “Is your blood black?”

While it might seem rude to western audiences, this kind of attention is usually in sincere curiosity and geniality.  In fact it’s considered a great boost to one’s face to be seen interacting with a foreigner, and Chinese people are usually very friendly to outsiders.  The other day I was walking on the sidewalk and a guy pulled his car over, walked up to me, and asked if I wanted to go drink with him.  I would have done it, except that I was headed to class, and I promised that if he ever saw me again I would go with him.  After all, who could pass up a few free drinks?

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