I recently spent two weeks traveling through the rural hinterlands of south China.
Two facts quickly became obvious. One, I am very white. Two, 1.2 billion Chinese are not.
Thus, most places I go, I draw a certain amount of attention, in the same way that a bikini-wearing Jennifer Lopez walking a cougar down Broadway would draw a certain amount of attention ? not that I usually wear a bikini when traveling.
In the rural areas, most Chinese have never seen a Westerner up close before, and they often react like you?re a little green Martian.
Old men squatting on the sidewalk freeze in terror as you walk past. Babies start to cry. Bicyclists see you, forget to look where they?re going and hurtle into garbage trucks. Children scream and hide behind their mothers.
The braver ones shout ?Hello!? in English, and erupt in peals of laughter when you reply in kind, stunned that you can talk. And most everywhere you go, people point and excitedly whisper to each other, ?laowai!? ? foreigner!
All this can get rather annoying, especially when you walk into a packed restaurant and every single person stops mid-chew and stares at you, or when you get on a bus and all the passengers look at you like you?ve dropped out of the sky.
But it can also be highly entertaining, especially if you?re an attention-starved egomaniac like myself. For one, you get to be a celebrity.
People have no qualms about sitting down next to you and peppering you with questions ? I once was interrogated by an entire train crew for a good two hours before they tired of me.
You can make somebody?s day simply by eating in their restaurant ? the staff will excitedly wave you in, sit you down, serve you and talk about you in excited whispers the whole meal long.
And if you can speak some Chinese, even if it?s terrible, people look at you with a kind of childish admiration which in America we usually reserve for football players and rock stars.
I also find there?s a certain liberating feeling that arises when you are completely removed from your own culture.
Because you?re surrounded by a bunch of people who think you?re the strangest thing they?ve ever seen, you can act however you want ? they think it?s just ?what foreigners do.?
You also don?t have to worry about how you look, because nothing you do will change the fact that you?re a freak.
So you?re forced to enjoy it. And there?s a lot to enjoy, because mundane things suddenly become novel.
Sometimes exasperating adventures ? successfully ordering a bowl of noodles or buying a bus ticket ? bring a peculiar Odysseus-like satisfaction from having persevered over another.
The weirdest part of traveling for me, ironically, is when I see another Westerner ? my gut reaction is to scream and run the other way as fast as I can.
I admit it?s bizarre ? I go for days as a total outcast, and when I finally see somebody I can talk to, it?s the last thing I want to do.
There?s probably a psychological explanation, but as far as I can tell, I just forget how to act around other foreigners.
So, the next time you want some attention, feel free to come to China.
You?ll certainly get plenty. Just stay away from me.