They looked at me like I was seven feet tall and bright green, shot down from a flying saucer in a beam of light right before their very eyes. While I was not green and had never rode a flying saucer, I was taller than almost all of the Chinese in this particular village. At five foot nine, with blue eyes and European features, I stood out the most in our traveling group, with my best friend, Amanda, in second; the rest of our group consisted of the Chinese side of her family. According to Aunt Annabelle, this was a shorter region in China; farther north they were generally taller. While this was interesting to know, it didn’t reduce the amount of slack-jawed stares in our direction.
I first realized I would be getting a lot of stares in China in the first restaurant we went to, which was less than a minute’s walk from our hotel. I also realized that the lack of caucasians wasn’t the only thing different between this part of China and America when a bowl with scalding water and an empty bowl was placed before us at our table. Aunt Annabelle told us all to rinse our plates and chopsticks with the hot water, then dump it into the empty bowl. I wasn’t sure which was more disturbing, that we were about to be incredibly rude and rewash the dishes placed before us or that she thought it was necessary to do so. Fortunately the delicious food sedated my initially turbid thoughts.
One of the Lee’s relatives who often went with us on outings would bring her daughter, a cute girl of seven or eight with big round eyes and glasses. At first, really shy, she would hide behind her father’s legs while staring at us foreigners. On one night-time trip around the city, after another huge dinner at a place famous for pigeon (it was actually incredibly good; They also were known for these giant balls of hollow fried dough) we had stopped at a huge Sun Yat-sen monument, with hundreds of stairs leading up to a statue looking over the city. I remember racing the little Chinese girl part of the way up. I don’t recall how it started, but it couldn’t have involved words (I could only say thank you in the dialect of Chinese where we were, and not very well, apparently, for the relatives gave me funny looks whenever I tried to thank them for dinner). I was glad laughing and giggling were universal.
When she stopped staring and started playing I knew I had changed in her mind. I was a friend, or at least, not an alien. It felt nice to be accepted by an almost complete stranger in a foreign country for not be anything other than myself.
I guess that was when I really started treating China differently. Stares I got in public bothered me less; after all, I had been staring at all of them, too. When visiting Amanda’s relatives, I felt they were mine also. I learned that I can belong anywhere. All I need is an open heart and open mind.
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