After living in Beijing for a year and a half, I've nearly forgotten what it feels like to be a celebrity. Since residing in a district of Beijing that includes some of China's best and most popular univerisites, the area near my home is densely packed with foreigners. Most native Beijingers don't give us "laowei" (slightly deragatory Chinese word often used to describe foreigners like myself) a second glance. Besides the occasional migrant worker, me and my fellow laowei don't get much attention. But this in not the case in most parts of China where it is not uncommon to be gawked at, photographed, and even followed. Call it a curse or call it a huge burst to the self-esteem (I'm still trying to decide), it happens constantly. It helps having a big (we're talking in relative terms here) and stong Chinese man at my side. This usually prevents any annoying or rude remarks, but when I'm on my own I'm left to my own defenses.
Currently I am not alone, but with my big, strong Chinese man. We are away from Beijing and in southern China, awaiting the approval of his visa which will allow him to travel to America. Being here is almost like being in another country. The language is different (Cantonese rather than standard Mandarin), the food is different (sweet and light vs. Beijing's salty and greasy eats), and the people even look and are shaped different. In fact, this is a great area of the world for those who are vertical challenged. Standing at a mere 5'4" I am taller than nearly everyone, men included. The only downfall is I have a good 50 pounds on the majority of people down here. My big butt alone is probably getting loads of attention. Luckily I can't understand a word of Cantonese, so I can't hear what anyone is saying about me and my behind. But they are definitely looking, that I know for sure.
A classic case of my celebrity status occured tonight. We went rollerskating (haven't done that since 6th grade Special Event) at the local rink. This was one happening place-9pm on a Tuesday night and it was packed with teens. . .and then there was us. As I sat down to put on my skates I couldn't help but notice a young girl staring at me and waving vigurously as she walked by. It was one of those awkward let-me-look-around-to-see-if-she-is-actually-waving-at-me moments. With no other potential targets within close range it was clear that she was waving at me. She was so intensely focused in her wave that she ran into a guy and nearly fell down. A minute later she walked past again and continued to wave. I couldn't help but think: Wow, I am really special.
It was then time to try out my rollerskating skills. It's been 12 years, but it's definitely like riding a bike. A skill that you never quite lose, but then again it was never a skill that I mastered in the first place. As I wobbled to the rink I could feel the teenage boys eyes baring into me. I got the usual chorus of snide "hello's." This is a time when I would prefer people weren't staring at me. It really puts the pressure on and I said a little prayer that I wouldn't fall flat on my ass. I also noticed, that on top of being the only foreigner in the place, I was also wearing the most scandelous attire. My built-in-bra tank top was alone in a place filled with young girls conservatively dressed in short sleeved tops and school uniforms. Hmm.
I showed no fear, however, and got out there and skated. The sad truth is, it's just not that exciting anymore. It's pretty lame. It turns out things have changed since sixth grade. Although I was rather bored, I did manage to put some excitement into the life of one high school girl. While taking a break at the side of the rink, I felt her looking at me. I knew it was coming. . .I always do. She was trying to work up the nerve to talk to me. A real, live foreigner in her presence. She knew she had to seize this rare opportunity to practice her English. And she did. I admire her for this. In a country where saving face means everything, it takes a lot of guts to talk to a stranger in a language that one only has ever heard in movies and in the classroom.
But her English was bad. Really bad. We tried to speak in standard Chinese, but her pronounciation was incomprehensible to me. That left only one option-rollerskating. She grabbed my hand (hand holding was everywhere at the rink, even guys were holding hands) and off we went. When we finished skating she asked for my number and asked me to promise to never forget her. A priceless moment, but one I've strangely experienced many times. I will surely miss this place when I return to America. I will also miss my celebrity status.