Gawkers in Shanghai

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By Aviva Hope Rutkin

My roommate doesn’t mind it. “It’s mostly funny, if anything,” she says. We are standing at the corner of Guo Shun and Huang Xing, waiting to cross the street to the supermarket. In the thirty seconds we’ve been here, half a dozen cyclists have passed by, each one slowing to stare open-mouthed and wide-eyed at the new attraction.

They are looking at us.

I am white, of Eastern European descent. I have light-colored eyes and pale skin that burns easily in the summer. I am taller and more solidly built than even the average Western woman. I am, in short, an oddity in Shanghai, and the sight of me seems to take many aback. Every day, I confront a new set of curious, searching eyes.

Gawkers tend to fall on either end of the age spectrum. They are also overwhelmingly male. “I’ve noticed it’s mostly old people, which I think is because China was closed for so long, so they didn’t see a lot of foreigners growing up,” muses a redheaded friend. Those with fair hair draw the most attention. “The little kids love to stare at me too.”

Most of my classmates aren’t bothered by the attention. They recognize that the stare isn’t malicious, or even sexual; the starers are simply intrigued. Most will look away as soon as you acknowledge their presence.

Sometimes the staring comes off a little eerie. Leaving one restaurant after lunch, it seems like every employee is lined up at the door to wave us goodbye. One girl laughs and gives them a classy Queen of England wave.

“I feel like a celebrity,” she says.

I don’t. I feel weird. What we are experiencing is good-natured, but it’s discomforting, and I haven’t caught up to my classmates’ acclimation. I am the sort of person who likes to blend in with the crowd, to remain inconspicuous. Now I can’t walk down the block without turning heads.

In a large city, one is bound to walk past hundreds of other people throughout the day. There is an unspoken understanding that all of these people will continue about their business and generally stay out of each other’s way. Staring breaks the bubble. It creates a relationship between two total strangers. One minute, you’re on your way and in your own head. The next, you’re making eye contact with someone. One of you is interested, for whatever reason, in the other. You are sharing an experience. I wonder what goes through their head when they see me. What makes them look so shocked? I wonder if some people are looking at me and thinking gwielo: white ghost.

I decide to test the onlookers. One night, as our taxi home is idling at a light, the young men in the car next to us start peering in.

“Hello!” I call out the window. “Ni hao!”

They look away, then laugh. “Hello,” one says.

“Zen me yang?” I ask excitedly (What’s up? How are you?), but red turns to green and they speed away. I don’t even know what I want, or what outcome would make me happy.

Last night, a pack of us Union students went out to Helen’s, a local expat hangout. We crowded into a long table shared by other foreign students, and one leaned over and struck up a conversation with my friend Amanda. He was an Asian man, a few years older, and they spoke for a few minutes in a friendly way. As I waited for my meal, I watched them speak. I noticed his right arm casually draped over the side of a neighboring chair. His hand was seriously disfigured: nubby, malformed fingers contorted into an immobile fist. It was a few moments before someone called my name and snapped my gaze away.

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