I got thinking about this post after reading something a fellow traveller had written on Facebook about being laughed at by locals. Although this is in no way taking away from her experience – which sounded horrible (but unfortunately some people, no matter where you are in the world, are just plain mean) – it got me thinking about those times when you become the centre of attention when you’re travelling.
Being English we’re not supposed to stare at people. Even if someone is making a big song and dance about something on the tube everyone politely looks the other way. However as a journalist I’m a naturally nosy person and I’ve often been told off by my friends for staring. But I’m obviously not intending to be rude. Usually it’s because I like what someone’s done with their hair or I’m wondering whether it would be weird to go and ask them where their handbag is from (in case you’re wondering, yes, I did ask and yes, she thought I was a weirdo. And, in case you’re still wondering, it was Ted Baker and yes, I did go and buy it).
And I think in other countries it’s often the same case. The locals are just interested in us. We’re flying half way around the world to see a different culture and learn about other customs, so why shouldn’t it work both ways?
I love looking at people’s faces and sometimes when I’m travelling I want to capture someone’s beauty in a photograph. So I didn’t mind when the little girl on a train next to me in Japan wanted to touch my blond hair or when the Chinese tour groups started papping me and my friends from behind a wall. We’re all different and, in the same way that I can’t stop looking at the Peruvian lady in her beautiful traditional clothing or the gorgeous little Chinese babies with their chubby cheeks, why shouldn’t they want to stare at me?
That’s not to say that it’s always a comfortable experience. I’ve spent entire journeys in the back of a pick up truck in Laos with every single person in it staring at me and not one of them returning my smile; I’ve been followed up mountain paths in Burma by groups of small children laughing their heads off and I’ve had entire tour groups in China stop to take photos of me. When I’m travelling solo sometimes I feel awkward or self-conscious. But I get it. I’m a small white girl travelling alone in a foreign country. Often wearing a stupid outfit (I just can’t pull off the ‘traveller’ look) and usually accompanied by The Beast, a backpack almost as big as me. I stand out from the norm in their country.
Before I went to China I’d heard really negative things about it from other travellers. Among their many complaints about the dirtiness; spitting and children peeing in the street, was the rudeness. “Everyone laughs in your face” one girl said to me.
It was only after I arrived in the country myself that I found a lot of this is down to nerves. I absolutely loved China. I found the people kind, helpful and funny. But guess what, they laughed at me a lot. They giggled when I asked for directions on the bus; they sniggered when I tried to buy food at the market and they were in downright hysterics as my friends and I tried to figure out our beds on the overnight train. But I quickly discovered that so much of it was down to embarrassment at not understanding English (and why should I expect them to speak it? I don’t speak Mandarin.)Or nerves because they weren’t used to practising the language they had spent hours in the classroom trying to learn with native speakers and in some cases, with Chinese tourists visiting the big cities from the countryside, purely the fact that they just don’t see white people that often.
When I was volunteering at the deaf school I stayed for two weeks in a city called Kaifeng. It doesn’t see that many tourists and the ones who do pass through certainly don’t stay two weeks so the locals seemed quite bemused by me. Every day after school I went to the same coffee shop and every day the three teenagers behind the counter giggled as I tried to make them understand what I wanted (although the menu was in English, they didn’t understand any of the words so it was usually a good ten minute guessing game). But I didn’t take it to heart as I knew it was just a combination of their shyness and excitement. Some days they would try to say a couple of words of English to me and sometimes I saw them arguing about who would bring my coffee to me. I always smiled and laughed along with them and that’s generally my rule.
Because maybe if I smile and am nice, they will be less nervous when the next tourist comes along or less suspicious when they see another white person. If I think people are being genuinely rude I act in the same way I would back at home. By trying not to take it to heart, not frequenting their business again and focusing on the many positive interactions I do have. But I always try to remember that most people aren’t laughing to be mean, they laugh because I am different. And to me that is a wonderful thing, because wouldn’t the world be a boring place if we were all the same?