Thursday, April 19, 2012

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

I am walking down the main street of my little town, having just gone grocery shopping.  The day is one of those rare blue-sky days that Xinzheng experiences when a weather front causes the pollution layer to blow out one direction. The trees are splashes of color with their spring blossoms, and the air hangs heavy with their cloying scent. But as I walk and revel in the glorious morning, I feel something tug my attention away from my inner exaltation; I refocus on the busy world around me with the busses honking, the workers welding, the mopeds swerving and notice two men on bikes who are conspicuously keeping pace with my walking speed. I glance at them and get the routine English shout-out of “hello!” (This is not the customary “hey” you might give to an acquaintance back in the States, but the Ohh-look-it’s-a-foreigner-Let’s-say-the-only-English-word-we-know-and-see-if-she-says-it-too! kind of hello.) I respond with a smile and decide to return to my revelry of nature as they pick up speed. But before I can, I see these two men pull up onto the sidewalk about 50 feet ahead, and I know exactly what is about to happen. If you’ve ever been to China, perhaps you know too. I am about to have a photo shoot. You see, I am a celebrity (or sometimes a curiosity) here.

Let me tell you why. First, I am a foreigner. Period. Second, I have the idealized (and for the Chinese, unattainable) physical characteristics of white skin, blonde hair, wide eyes, and a high-bridged nose. While my appearance is in no way exceptional in America, in a country where every girl has the same color hair and eyes, the same squinty look we attribute to those of Asian descent, and the same dark skin tones, I stand out like white rose growing among hundreds of red roses. All beautiful but with an unavoidable contrast. So, I have become accustomed to the stares, the random requests for pictures on the side of the street, and the compliments that are so frequent that they have become quite meaningless. While at times highly inconvenient, my celebrity status has triggered some very fun situations.

Once I was buying toothpaste at the supermarket. I had squatted down to look at the different Crest options, and after deciding on one, I stood up and turned around to face a line of three customers and two workers who had all been watching me choose my toothpaste. Another time, I was in the train station, sitting on my suitcase and reading while I waited for my train to arrive. Gradually, Chinese men in their thirties to fifties started to gather about a foot and a half away. I ignored them until I had about 8 or 9 men standing around me in a close, silent semi-circle. I glance up, and they stare down. I say “Nihao.” Well, this causes quite a commotion. Now, they are all talking to each other about me as they gesture down to where I sit. The words “oddity” and “specimen” come to mind. A few weeks ago, I climbed a local mountain with some friends. At the top, we separated to look at different things. As I waited for them, a girl of about twelve walked up to me. I expected a request for a picture. Instead, she reaches up and feels my hair then turns and runs back to her friends. I had an urge to say, “Yes, it’s real.” Just last weekend, I visited a nearby city known for beautiful peonies. As I wander through the gardens with two Chinese friends, a news reporter approaches us and asks if he could take some pictures of me with the flowers to put in the newspaper. I am allowed to climb over the barrier and pose with the flowers. As soon as I am finished, I have a line of other Chinese ranging from teenagers to women in their forties who would also like a picture with me. I probably could fill a book with such stories! And while at times, I wish I did not stand out so, being thus admired definitely has its plusses. I know from my previous experience in China that upon stepping off the plane into the first American airport I will go through withdrawal, feeling inconsequentially small and sadly normal. So for the moment (especially since the pollution has set back in) I will revel in the amusement provided by being blonde in a world of black-haired beauties.