Today, after a morning spent discussing the natures of both tiger ownership and capitalism in 口语 class, I packed up my things and let myself loose in Xiamen. Most impressibly, I became absurdly cognizant of my 外国人 status. I ran into Echo, Antonio, Christina and friends outside the golden 麦当劳 arches of 西村 around noon, with my everyday ‘super-high-maintenance’ appearance intact: loose and comfortable clothing, my locks more voluminous than a just-baked mantou, and sunglasses perched unassumingly atop the bridge of my freckled nose. I looked like I always did, save for a jacket and a particularly conspicuous spring in my step (my iPod’s Shuffle feature was kickin‘ today) but felt distinctly like the whole world was watching me more closely than usual; people do stare, even in The States, probably just ‘cuz I have really big hair.
“You guys,” I started with concern, “Do I look weird today?”
I received confused looks which said No more than usual, but were translated into words more kindly, along the lines of ‘You appear bright!’ and ‘You just don’t look Chinese’ and my favorite, ‘You look Minnesotan!’ *I assumed that Everett meant, because I was wearing a brightly colored shirt, I was trying to make up for the lack of color in my surroundings- and Minnesota needs all the compensation it can get.
Antonio saw me after this reassertion of my normalcy and immediately started cracking up.
“WHAT, Antonio! WHAT IS IT?”
“Nothing,” he covered, chuckling. I was not going to let this go. Something was wrong.
“Well, I remember you telling me that when you went to school, every so often you’d get to wear ‘Civilian Clothing’ and that you guys didn’t really know how to dress yourselves ‘cuz you wore uniforms and… well… you have your own style.”
“My outfit clashes, doesn’t it.”
“It’s cute. It’s very you.”
I suddenly became aware of the crazy nature of my clothing. I’ve always dressed aberrantly, but I try to dress well in my own way, not like I’m five years old and dressing in the dark. I took off my jacket, which was bright blue, and didn’t really go with my bright teal shirt. Lord knows I’m already noticeable enough in China. I’m not one to care about how people perceive my clothing, because I usually like wearing things that are difficult to pull off, but being in China means that when people notice you, they don’t just notice you- they stare until you’re uncomfortable. Even after all the thought I’ve put into self-confidence, and knowing that no one’s opinion of me but my own really matters, I couldn’t have people worrying that I wasn’t aware of my clothing’s clashing nature, and didn’t want to deal with TOO much attention (some is always nice, mind you). By removing my jacket, I was really just assuaging my own worries- Why was I so uncomfortable with being regarded? And whose to say anyone was even judging me? They may have just been noticing the bright colors of my clothing. I could have been introducing some new, loud, colorful Western clothing style, as far as they were concerned.
It was a wakeup call, nonetheless- I’m always dressing how I want, which tends to be kind of differently, and I usually do like attention; but as a foreigner in China, I don’t need to wear different clothes to stand out- any statement I make is an invitation not to regard but to gape. Even when I dress normally, people watch. I like to be able to attract attention when I want it and disappear into the crowd when I don’t. Despite all of this, I intend to push myself to continue being confident in my clothing choices and dressin’ like I always do, even though my personage is pretty much a petri dish under a microscope, and maybe invest in some more ‘Chinese’ interpretations of Western dress to see if that helps me blend in just in case I really need a taste of what it’s like to be Chinese. Not that I expect clothing to mask my 白人 appearance, but it might buy me a few seconds of time being treated as Chinese before people notice that my features are not.
While feeling like I’m not getting the ‘real’ Chinese experience due to my loudly non-Asian looks, being easily picked out in a crowd brings its own benefits. Right after this interaction with my group members, I found a table outside and sat down to do some homework. Not fifteen minutes in, a woman with rosy cheeks and eyeshadow like lilac mica sat down at the table with me and started talking. I learned that I write pretty Chinese characters (一般般), that I’m pretty (Uh oh, what’s she tryna sell me?), that she works for Mary Kay (aha), that she used to work at the Overseas Education Center (oh?) that I should bring my friends for a free facial to her office (this has got to be a pitch) but really, I should just come over and speak Chinese with her and her friends at her office by the train station because she can help me practice (awwwwwww!). 黄爱秀 gave me a Mary Kay pamphlet (“Do you use Mary Kay?” “No, but my Grandma might have.” “Oh.”) and her business card, and I decided to use this opportunity to practice my Chinese, asking her about her favorite products, if she liked working for Mary Kay, how long she’d worked there, etc. Luckily for me, because she’d worked at the Overseas Education Office, she could get by in English when I had questions, but was eager to help me use my fledgling language skills. She even looked at my book with me when I told her about the Chinese creation story we’d just read in class, and asked to trade phone numbers with me! It was cool to see how Western business was giving someone opportunities and really changing their perspective on life- Mary Kay is a company that empowers women as individuals, something that’s not so big in China. In the end, I don’t know if 黄爱秀’s intentions were truly anything but business-oriented, but if I weren’t naturally paranoid, she could have fooled me.
So, while I sometimes want to fade into the woodwork, sometimes it’s useful (and more fun) not to be able to- I get to interact with people who might not have been comfortable enough to approach me (but whose curiosity gets the best of them), I get to practice my Chinese skills, and most importantly, I get free facials.