I smile because I am different

I got thinking about this post after reading something a fellow traveller had written on Facebook about being laughed at by locals. Although this is in no way taking away from her experience – which sounded horrible (but unfortunately some people, no matter where you are in the world, are just plain mean) – it got me thinking about those times when you become the centre of attention when you’re travelling.

Being English we’re not supposed to stare at people. Even if someone is making a big song and dance about something on the tube everyone politely looks the other way. However as a journalist I’m a naturally nosy person and I’ve often been told off by my friends for staring. But I’m obviously not intending to be rude. Usually it’s because I like what someone’s done with their hair or I’m wondering whether it would be weird to go and ask them where their handbag is from (in case you’re wondering, yes, I did ask and yes, she thought I was a weirdo. And, in case you’re still wondering, it was Ted Baker and yes, I did go and buy it).

And I think in other countries it’s often the same case. The locals are just interested in us. We’re flying half way around the world to see a different culture and learn about other customs, so why shouldn’t it work both ways?

I love looking at people’s faces and sometimes when I’m travelling I want to capture someone’s beauty in a photograph. So I didn’t mind when the little girl on a train next to me in Japan wanted to touch my blond hair or when the Chinese tour groups started papping me and my friends from behind a wall. We’re all different and, in the same way that I can’t stop looking at the Peruvian lady in her beautiful traditional clothing or the gorgeous little Chinese babies with their chubby cheeks, why shouldn’t they want to stare at me?

Who wouldn't want to give those cheeks a good squeeze?

Who wouldn’t want to give those cheeks a good squeeze?

That’s not to say that it’s always a comfortable experience. I’ve spent entire journeys in the back of a pick up truck in Laos with every single person in it staring at me and not one of them returning my smile; I’ve been followed up mountain paths in Burma by groups of small children laughing their heads off and I’ve had entire tour groups in China stop to take photos of me. When I’m travelling solo sometimes I feel awkward or self-conscious. But I get it. I’m a small white girl travelling alone in a foreign country. Often wearing a stupid outfit (I just can’t pull off the ‘traveller’ look) and usually accompanied by The Beast, a backpack almost as big as me. I stand out from the norm in their country.

To be fair, wouldn't you laugh if you saw this?

To be fair, wouldn’t you laugh if you saw this?

Before I went to China I’d heard really negative things about it from other travellers. Among their many complaints about the dirtiness; spitting and children peeing in the street, was the rudeness. “Everyone laughs in your face” one girl said to me.

It was only after I arrived in the country myself that I found a lot of this is down to nerves. I absolutely loved China. I found the people kind, helpful and funny. But guess what, they laughed at me a lot. They giggled when I asked for directions on the bus; they sniggered when I tried to buy food at the market and they were in downright hysterics as my friends and I tried to figure out our beds on the overnight train. But I quickly discovered that so much of it was down to embarrassment at not understanding English (and why should I expect them to speak it? I don’t speak Mandarin.)Or nerves because they weren’t used to practising the language they had spent hours in the classroom trying to learn with native speakers and in some cases, with Chinese tourists visiting the big cities from the countryside, purely the fact that they just don’t see white people that often.

I felt like the Pied Piper with this lot following me.

I felt like the Pied Piper with this lot following me.

When I was volunteering at the deaf school I stayed for two weeks in a city called Kaifeng. It doesn’t see that many tourists and the ones who do pass through certainly don’t stay two weeks so the locals seemed quite bemused by me. Every day after school I went to the same coffee shop and every day the three teenagers behind the counter giggled as I tried to make them understand what I wanted (although the menu was in English, they didn’t understand any of the words so it was usually a good ten minute guessing game). But I didn’t take it to heart as I knew it was just a combination of their shyness and excitement. Some days they would try to say a couple of words of English to me and sometimes I saw them arguing about who would bring my coffee to me. I always smiled and laughed along with them and that’s generally my rule.

Because maybe if I smile and am nice, they will be less nervous when the next tourist comes along or less suspicious when they see another white person. If I think people are being genuinely rude I act in the same way I would back at home. By trying not to take it to heart, not frequenting their business again and focusing on the many positive interactions I do have. But I always try to remember that most people aren’t laughing to be mean, they laugh because I am different. And to me that is a wonderful thing, because wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we were all the same?

#2 30b430 - Teach some English

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10 responses to “I smile because I am different

  1. Love this post Emily. I’ve never quite attracted the same amount of attention, but I travelled in Japan and China with some blondes and boy did they cop it!
    I was little shocked by the giggling Asian girls and always had to check if my dress was tucked into my underwear or something, but I got used to it. The same way I got used to pushing in line at lunch if I ever wanted to eat. But I’d hate to think what tourist must think of Aussie’s when we watch a footy match. Our behaviour would leave them puzzled to say the least, so every culture has their funny ways 🙂

    • Thanks Megan. Ah yes, the pushing in. I love it at train stations where they actually have to use cattle fencing to ensure passengers stand in a line and yet you still get people trying to squeeze past you! I know what you mean about different cultures though – I’d love to know what they’d think of Scarborough’s Skipping Day for example:)

  2. I know what you’re saying. I spent six weeks in India working at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and was initially very taken aback by people stopping in the street and staring at me. I quickly got used to it and as you say, just because our culture says not to stare at people doesn’t mean we should expect the same from other cultures.

    One thing I will say however is that a lot of the females in our group struggled to get used to it. Although I suppose groups of men coming up to a girl and flashing a camera in her face a few times a day would get a little tiresome!

    • Yes, we had the same in China – by the time I got home I was wondering why people *weren’t* stopping to take photographs of me;) I didn’t mind it though, as I always found the men quite respectful. I have heard from some women who have travelled alone in India that men tried to touch them and that I would have problems with!

  3. This is such a wonderful post. When I first moved to Mexico I got so enraged from all the staring and giggling that people did. But now I just try to embrace is and ignore it and seem to be a bit more relaxed with it. (Not 100% but I’m getting there.) This is such a great reminder to not take things too seriously. 🙂

    • Thanks Ceri. I think we do tend to take things to heart a bit too much sometimes. I remember when I first went to Costa Rica, I got really insulted that people were being so abrupt with me – I thought it was as a result of my terrible Spanish! It was only after living there for a while that I realised that was just their manner and they were even like that with each other!

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