This is a picture of me in Hangzhou, China. I’m the one on the left. I’m the one who looks European (and, in this particular photo, slightly backward). I’ve got no idea who the young men with me are, or who is taking the photo. In the background you can see a panoramic view of Hangzhou’s West Lake: “one of China’s most revered tourist draw-cards” (Lonely Planet). Yet, for a bizarre five minute spell on top of the Leifeng Pagoda, I was the main attraction…
It started with a little girl pointing me out to her parents, who then came and asked to have a photo with me. Then another person did the same. Then another. Then another. This picture was the last in a papparazi-esque sequence. Now, there is a chance they may have mistaken me for someone famous. I can, in a certain light, see a touch of the Tom Hardys about me… But I think it was simply because I’m a Westerner.
I was really surprised by how much attention I drew in China. It is slightly disconcerting to be of as much, if not more, interest as Beijing’s Imperial Palace. And to the Chinese staring isn’t a bad thing – if you notice them looking they’ll just keep doing it and you’ll find yourself locked in a bizarre blinking contest. I just assumed that they would be more used to seeing pasty, white people out and about in the year 2013. When I lived in Thailand I experienced similar moments – car-horns honking, people singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at me as it was the only English they knew. Some westerners I know struggled and became quite tense under the scrutiny. But, since a small part of me is an attention seeking slag, I always relished it.
As for the notice I got in China, my theory is that most of it was from other Chinese tourists, from more rural parts of the country, where seeing a weird looking foreign-devil is still quite a big thing. I doubt the big-city Beijing and Shanghai-ers were giving me a second glance. And I was glad to arrive back in Hong Kong, where locals are too busy, and just too darn cool, to give anything a second glance, let alone a ten-to-the-penny foreigner.