Have you ever traveled somewhere where it was utterly impossible for you to fit in? It is an experience that any avid traveler will face at some point in their travels and honestly, it is an important life lesson that I found truly fascinating and insightful.
It wasn’t until I began to get off the beaten path a bit more in my travels and become more adventurous, that I began to experience the odd uncomfortable feeling off being “different” from everyone else. You see here in Minnesota, we have a strong Scandinavian heritage and many of us are blond and blue-eyed, fairly tall and hearty looking. You can easily walk down the street and blend in anonymously. Yet once you get on a plane and fly far away to a different place such as China, everything changes. You are no longer anonymous. You are different. You are big. You are tall. Your hair is a funny color one that some people have never seen. You stand out but not necessarily in a way you would like or want to.
For those who have been reading my blog for awhile, you may remember this picture above of me with my newly made Chinese friends on the Great Wall series. As I climbed up on to the Wall for the first time, I was accosted by a herd of twenty Chinese hikers who nearly fell over when they saw me. For the next ten minutes, I posed and took pictures with all my new friends. It took me a minute to figure out why. My blonde messy hair was discovered under my cap.
In a country of 1.3 billion in which over 91% of the population is Han (or ethnic “Chinese”), any variation in hair color from the standard black pretty much sticks out like a sore thumb. Occasionally, you will see a Chinese with dyed red, blond or even blue hair. But not too often. Even eye and skin color rarely varies. Thus, looking “different” in China whether it be skin color, hair color, eye color or size, is an anomaly that for some reason simply fascinates the Chinese people and invites them to take a look.
Thankfully I had experienced this curiosity before. Last year, I was rudely awakened by the intensity of the stares surrounding me for an eleven hour drive outside of Delhi. Every single person for eleven long, unending hours not only looked but stared at my long, dirty-blond hair. It was the most uncomfortable feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life. The stares were not meant to be rude yet I felt their eyes taking me in deeply and penetrating my soul. At first I smiled back or even waved hello from the close quarters of my car window (people drive insanely close together in India!). But after a few hours of the penetrating stares, I felt like some kind of caged animal at the zoo and I buried my head deep inside my pillow and tried to hide.
I have traveled to many places that had never seen a blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned person before. My parents had taken me to rural Mexico many times as a white-haired little girl and I remember the kids chasing me and trying to touch my hair. I also remember being constantly harassed in parts of France and Italy while I studied abroad as a twenty-one year old American. I knew that the continual jokes and come-on lines were usually in good humor and that these men were rather harmless. They had believed that any American woman with blond long hair was an easy escapade thanks to all those bad Hollywood movies. I ignored them and didn’t let it bug me (except there were a few times when I was unexpectedly flashed and that bothered me immensely!).
Yet, my short time spent in India was different. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin in my life. Growing up and living in Minnesota, a place that is home to many people with Scandinavian roots, it was rather unpleasant to be the one who stuck out and was different.
Looking back a year later, I realize that it was probably one of the best experiences I could have ever had. It taught me what it feels like to be different. To be misunderstood. To be the minority. And to stick out. I realized how important it is to have this rather unpleasant feeling. And how I need to seek it out more.
I expected the worst when I went to Morocco last April. I had never been to a Muslim country before and the anti-American tensions were rising all across Islamic nations. It wasn’t a good time to be blonde. So I dyed my hair darker and arrived in Morocco as an even dirtier, dishwater blonde/brown-haired gal. What was so funny is that no one even noticed the hair color change. None of my friends said a word nor did my husband. So basically the point was moot. I arrived in Morocco not knowing at all what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to see that no one noticed me at all. I could walk freely, openly and without covering my hair with no penetrating stares, uncomfortable moments or even harassment. It was a nice change.
So six months later when I arrived in China once again I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be like India or like Morocco? Would I be treated as an oddity or just fit in smoothly to the crowds of people? What I discovered that for the most part, no one really cared except the young folks who treated me like a celebrity and wanted their picture with some foreign, blonde stranger, me.
As I was walking along the banks of the river overlooking the glorious Bund on one side and Pudong on the other, I was approached once again by a stranger. It was a young Chinese woman and her friends. They couldn’t speak English nor could I speak Chinese. But one thing was universal: A camera. I reached out to grab the camera and prepared to take their picture when I saw a smiling shake of the head. No. That was not what she wanted me to do. She wanted me to be in the picture. With her. As her blonde, American friend!
What else could I do but agree and then ask her friend to take a picture of us with mine?
Me, thirdeyemom and my new Chinese friend.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned during my travels is what it feels like to not fit in and to be different. That although we may not look the same, we are all the same in our wishes and desires in life. We all want to be happy, healthy and live a life full of love. It is this common desire that makes us human. Yet our differences is what makes the human race so grand.