Tales of a former rockstar.


The other day I had a nice little chat with a new staff member who recently started at my company. Her background is Chinese Malaysian, but she’s effectively full Australian. Like myself she had previously lived overseas (in England and Germany) and is also suffering from a permanent case of travel bug. I found it amusing that despite being completely Asian in appearance, because her parents had taken on Australian nationality, she was not able to get an international visa. I am always envious of people who have an international parent/grand-parent which allows them amazing visa options to go live somewhere else in the world. I had assumed that being Asian she would some way somehow maintain some link to possibly go live in Malaysia at the very least, but nope, there’s no chance.

So we were then discussing China, and I was talking about some of the things I had experienced over there. I was telling her about my teaching experience, and my classes of 55 kids and some of the challenges involved in handling them. And finally, we discussed how our trips to China would be vastly different. Despite the fact she is Australian, speaks perfect English (and no Mandarin), if she returned to the Chinese mainland where her ancestors came from, she would receive no special attention. She would simply look Chinese and that is effectively that. I on the other hand would almost be given celebrity status because of my pasty white skin.

In order to make sense of that, you really need to experience China for yourself. It is a country where foreigners are held in high regard and often given special attention. Of course this doesn’t apply to everything and you’re usually also a great big white target to be scammed, but a lot of the time, you feel important.

As the only 'whitey' in Beijing Aquarium that day, I swear she bee-lined to my whiteness to wave - but hey, maybe i was dreaming.

While less common in Shanghai, Beijing and likely Shenzen/Guangzhou, you’re stared at on a regular basis. Not just a sneaky peak from the corner of the eye, but a full body, mouth wide open stare. When you are dining in restaurants, people are trying to have a look at what you’re eating, and get some idea of your chopstick skills. When you’re in shops or supermarkets, the contents of your shopping bags become a magnet for the curious. You’ll often be asked to pose in a photo, or moreso, will notice people trying to take sneaky photos of you. You’ll have students approaching you wanting to practice their English, or lure you off to a scam tea ceremony.

All of the above was pure novelty for much of the time I spent living in China, though it did get old. In Xishan district Wuxi, most Chinese had never even left the area, so seeing real live white folk in the flesh was amazing. We would walk down a crowded street, and all eyes within a 100 metre radius would be firmly fixed on us (and not in a way that made us feel threatened..well mostly). It’s an experience you simply can’t have in most parts of the world, with even some of the most remote villages of Africa and South America still being tourist targets.

As time advances and China becomes even more modern, much of this will cease. There are of course many thousands of foreigners living in China, and even more there on a regular basis for business, but compared to the numbers of Chinese, this is definitely a minority. If you get over to China, embrace this particular experience as unless you’re somehow a TV or movie star, you’re not likely ever to get this kind of attention. For me, the most depressing part about the entire experience was returning home. When I stepped onto that plane, un-familiar with the white folk that filled half the seats, stepping into an airport that was again mostly white, the dominating emotion was one of nothingness. No-one was looking at me, no-one cared what I was wearing, how tall I was, how broad my shoulders were. Once more I was a nobody – the same as everyone else.

In beautiful LiJiang, when they're trying to take a sneaky photo, counter them by photographing them back! In their face!


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7 Responses to “Tales of a former rockstar.”

  1. Austin Guidry Says:

    Great post, man – I definitely had that in Lanzhou. I agree with everything you’ve said here. It really WAS hard going back to being “just another white guy.” It’s hard to explain it without sounding egotistical, but you did a nice job of it!

  2. Marcus Says:

    Hah hey Austin, cheers. Yeah you’re right, it skates the edge of sounding like an egotistical knob alright – but that so isn’t the case..well I hope anyway 🙂

    I think anyone whose been there, particularly in small places like Lanzhou and Wuxi, know exactly what i mean.

    And hey i just checked out your youtube link, you’re going back for a month? Man I am envious as. Get that dui bu qi song learned, would be a pisser playing that to a class 🙂

  3. Austin Guidry Says:

    haha definitely! I actually got a job offer to teach in Lanzhou for a year at Lanzhou Jiaotong University, so I’ll have plenty of time to play with my band! I’m going back in June for a little bit to observe some classes before the summer vacation and to see my friends before they graduate. I’ve got some stuff to take care of in early August in Texas, and then it’s back to Lanzhou!

  4. Marcus Says:

    Oh nice one, you’re going back to Lanzhou? I take it you’re happy to return there again? I guess already knowing the layout will be an advantage, but you dont want to try something new? It did look like a nice place though.

    Where was it again approximately? Im envious of you being able to blog about it as you’re there. I’d go back tomorrow if i could.

  5. Austin Guidry Says:

    Yes, I am definitely happy to return to Lanzhou! I am going to be at a different university, so that will be kind of new, but I wanted to go back to Lanzhou because of a couple of reasons. In Lanzhou, people on the street mostly speak Mandarin, not the local dialect. That means great practice for me. Some of the older people speak the dialect, which is a little difficult to understand…but I was hoping to continue my language learning in the same place where I had studied it before. I didn’t want to learn half of my Chinese in Lanzhou, where it’s more standard, and half of it in Fujian, where the language is notoriously different. It would probably produce some kind of weird half standard, half dialect Chinese. So, yeah, definitely wanted to go back to Lanzhou for that reason.

    Another reason is that I just loved Lanzhou – I visited 7 other cities in China, and the only ones I thought I could live in were Yinchuan and Tianshui. I applied at schools in both places, but never heard a peep out of any of them. Also, I’ve got 关系 in Lanzhou. I had no teaching experience and no TESOL to show on my resume, but the fact that I had been in Lanzhou and I have friends all throughout the city probably helped me out. Once I get some teaching experience and my TESOL, I’ll probably head off to Tianshui, Yinchuan, or maybe Chongqing. We’ll see!

  6. Austin Guidry Says:

    Sorry – Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province. If you looked at a map of China and put your finger right where you think the geographic center is, that’s Lanzhou

  7. Marcus Says:

    That all sounds really good – I may have to try and visit the city one day – hell, I’ll come say g’day if you’re still there 🙂

    I like the idea of you having friends all through the city – it reminds me of that book River Town. I bet your Chinese will improve expotentially the longer you’re there. I really envy you having that opportunity.

    I’ll be definitely following your blog as you go along, so I expect some quality content, particularly videos showing local life!

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