“I always feel like somebody’s watching me, and I have no privacy. I always feel like somebody’s watching me, tell me is it just a dream?”
These lyrics are from the chorus of a song by Rockwell that was released in 1984 and featured Michael and Jermaine Jackson. I have also heard them quoted by many African-Americans when they begin to travel internationally. I have traveled all over the globe – Europe, Japan, Middle East, South America – for the last 30 years I have experienced being ogled from time to time, but have never found it to be particularly problematic. As one who was born and raised In a diverse area of northern California, looking different from people around me has always been part of my daily life.
However, I’d heard from friends that traveling in China was a different experience altogether; and they felt like they were watched and studied everywhere they went. Last November when my family and I traveled to China I found out what they had experienced. We spent time in Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai and were quite popular everywhere we went. It was not a negative experience and no one was rude or intrusive. They were simply intrigued and had probably not seen many (if any) people who looked like us. In the large metropolitan areas of the big cities we went to malls and restaurants and nobody paid us much attention. But it was a different story at the major tourist sites like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Even Chinese tourists from outlying areas come to visit those sites also and it’s doubtful that they’ve ever seen anyone with dark skin. They would look as we passed by with expressions that were a mix of amazement and curiosity. Eventually some of the younger ones would approach us, smiling, with iPhones in hand, and we knew that they wanted to take a picture of, or with us.
Even though we didn’t speak much Mandarin and they didn’t speak much English, we managed to communicate. This young lady told me to use my “pretty face” before her friend took the photo. I gave it my best shot:)
This young lady stopped me on the steps of the Shanghai museum. Even though we were traveling with a group of people, they always seemed to single me out. The rest of the group got used to it and joked about me being “mobbed by the paparazzi” everywhere we went. It was quite hilarious.
A few weeks ago we returned to China. After all, one trip is not nearly enough to take in all of the history and beauty that ancient culture has to offer. We had only been in country for a few hours when my popularity became apparent once more.
The following day we traveled to Shanghai. We’d just finished riding on the Maglev train when I noticed a family looking at us and pointing. This time I decided to beat them to the punch so I pointed at my camera and asked them to take a picture with me.
They were so tickled, that the lady in yellow snatched off her coat and grabbed my arm to strike a pose. After Robert snapped the picture I thanked them by saying “shei, shei”. As we walked away they exploded into giggles, surprised that I had thanked them in Mandarin. At least I hope that’s what they were giggling at, they may have been laughing at my pronunciation. Either way we all had a good time.
I enjoy meeting people whenever I travel and it has been my experience that people will treat you like you treat them. I have found that folks are just folks – all over the globe.