You are a blond haired, blue-eyed, six-foot tall Scandinavian. It’s your first trip to China, and you are very excited. But from the moment you get on the plane, you have a nagging feeling that you are being watched. You brush it off, but you still feel a little unsettled as the plane touches down. It’s not until your first day out in the city that it hits you: everyone is staring. Why? you ask yourself. You touch your face, your hair, your clothes. Did I forget to dress properly? you wonder. The people staring giggle as you make your frantic dance. You catch one of them whisper, “lao wai” as they pass you, but you don’t know what it means.
This is an experience shared by most foreign-looking people visiting China. It leaves many feeling exposed and uncomfortable, because where they come from, staring is what you do when you see something wrong, out-of-the-ordinary, atrocious, or embarrassing. But in China, people have a tendency to stare at anything that captures their interest, good and bad alike. Therefore the stares experienced by “exotic”-looking foreigners (lao wai=foreigner) in China might induce discomfort, but in fact the stares harbour no ill-intention, merely curiosity. Conversely, in Western cultures, when we observe something about another person we find fascinating, in order to not make them feel uncomfortable, while reflecting on what we’ve observed, we try to avoid staring while doing it. This is not the case in China.
I was talking to a Chinese friend, and “the staring thing” came up. He told me that the Chinese love to loiter around, staring together at whatever is happening. If there is nothing better you should be doing, you can be found staring at something more interesting. 凑热闹 (cou re’nao) “gathering around merriment” he called it, as if it were an activity like playing ping-pong or eating a meal. He called these people 闲人(xian ren) which literally translates as “leisure” and “person”, but I think is best translated as “people with nothing better to do”. I can’t help but draw a parallel from this to Lu Xun’s apathetic observers at the execution of their countryman. These people were gathering around to stare not because they had invested a genuine interest in the man’s fate, but because they were “gathering around merriment” as they had nothing better to do.
My friend then related a joke: a single man is standing in a plaza, staring up at the sky. The Chinese people, unable to resist their nature, gather around and stare in the direction he Is staring. Some time passes, and after a while, someone thinks to ask “What are you staring at?” The man, confused, replies “Huh? I had a nosebleed!”
The phenomenon of staring at something like an accident is common the world over. But these people are disdainfully called “gawkers” in the English-speaking cultures I am familiar with. Yet gathering around a street performance is approved behaviour: the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable are defined differently from culture to culture.
To a foreigner living in China, getting over “the staring thing” is a bit of a hurdle. You know that their stares have no ill-intention, but you still feel uncomfortable. What I have slowly come to realise is that you have to remind yourself that there is no malice behind those “stares”; instead, you must think of them as “looks”, albeit really long looks. In your home country, certain actions are associated with certain attitudes. Projecting these attitudes onto the same actions in a country where the mentality is different is a mistake, as can lead to self-induced discomfort, misunderstandings, even unnecessary hostile feelings.
This world is becoming increasingly more global. In light of this, we must actively work to understand foreign cultures, to understand different mentalities to get behind the “why” of previously incomprehensible behaviours. To that effect I wish to continue in my observation and analysis of the cultures that come into contact with me, and sharing what I see with the world, in the hope that it will lead to greater mutual understanding, and fewer lao wai getting pissed off at the “long looks” of xian ren.