I started to write this post on the sixth day after my arrival in Beijing in August 2015. I finished it almost six months later on the 30th of January 2016. I am happy to finally be able to share it.
Today is my 6th day in Beijing, China. I feel as though I have been here for considerably longer. Since my arrival, my days have been filled with everything from trying new food, doing on campus admin, looking for parts for my laptop, getting medicals done for a residence permit, drinking Chinese beer and learning Chinese. The sun has shone relentlessly at a high of least 32 degrees Celsius since my arrival and the days have been divided into those with clear blue skies, and those with a smog induced milky white sky.
Before I left South Africa I received all manner of preparatory and survival advice, tips, secrets and information from friends, family and acquaintances. While some of this advice was considerably insightful, some of it I listened to and dismissed quickly because it seemed loaded with generalisations that I didn’t feel comfortable adopting in the absence of personal experience.
I am a young black woman from Zimbabwe who grew up in South Africa. I have dark skin. This being known, I can’t count on one hand the number of people who warned me to prepare to be stared at, photographed, poked, prodded or marvelled at. This advice sounded dramatic at the time. I spoke to my dad who had travelled to Guangzhou recently, and his experience seemed mild enough.
In any case, I found it worthwhile to write about and share my experience of being stared at since I got here. I have mostly found it amusing and also very interesting. Staring is not a habit unique to any one group of people. While some people stare more often than others, one usually stares at something when it is different, curious, intriguing, confusing or stands out. On the other hand, people also stare out of shock, amusement or disgust.
Given my observations, the greatest number of stares has come from young children, the elderly and men. Some stares are brief, and quickly broken by the eye contact of my reverse stare (which I am gradually perfecting I might add). Other stares are long, brazen, and include a slow and deliberate up down scan with the eyes.
Now, if there is such a thing as a level up to staring, it would be the aggressive picture taking. I was amused by the poorly-executed attempted discretion of the first photo taker. Said lady pretended to be looking at something on her phone, which she held up at face level. She maintained this odd position as she probably tried to focus the image and had to turn around as I walked past to get the shot.
The second photo taker tossed all discretion out of the window and pointed his little digital camera right in my face before casually proceeding. I experienced a sense of genuine amusement after both incidents. I also experienced a sense of shock because I had formally been dismissive of the fact that might be photographed in this way.
I stopped writing, until eight days later:
8 days after beginning this piece, I have a total of two weeks lived experience in Beijing. The stares are no longer surprising. I have now digested the reality that part of looking so different in what is an incredibly homogeneous society are the reactions to that difference, in whatever form they may come.
With race issues being particularly personal for me given my up-bringing in South Africa and Zimbabwe, I now intend to more actively explore the nature of the race discourse in Beijing and maybe even China. This will include looking into the existence and character of colourism among Chinese people.
The last two weeks have exposed me to one or two other things I was either told about or read online in preparing for my stay in Beijing. One of these is related to the forewarning or alert about the frequency of gob and saliva spitting in public. While I find this particularly disgusting, this does not happen as often as I had feared it would (gratitude is endless in this regard). The noisy churning of gob from deep in ones throat and the subsequent spitting of this gob on the walkway, at the base of a tree or wherever really, does however happen a lot more than I would like or than I have ever experienced.
The Associate Dean of the program I will be undertaking summed up my current experience of Beijing quite perfectly. The jist of what he said is that, Beijing is the kind of place where in one sitting you can have can have an experience that reinforces and affirms your love for the city and its charms. However, very soon afterwards, you might have an experience that makes you feel the complete opposite way. It is really a topsy-turvy, dynamic place that needs to be experienced beyond what is apparent at face value.
Six months later, I finally finish this piece as I prepare to post it on the blog:
Picking up and learning the eccentricities of a new place, weather pleasant or not, is generally always an exciting process. In the six months since arriving in Beijing, there has been no end to the various opportunities the city gives you to learn it and be confused by it. Reflecting on my first two week’s perceptions of is so interesting because when asked about my stay in China thus far, I no longer really feel the need to talk about stares or saliva because there are so many other more interesting things to talk about.