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.
Why I travel: An insight into why I became the thirdeyemom
I get the same reaction and it freeked me out for a while, Indonesian and Thailand girls just love taking photos of me – They yearn to have blonde hair and fair skin whilst I would love to have thick black hair and a darker skin tone.
I haven’t been to Thailand or Indonesia…yet. But would love to! I agree that I would much rather have that gorgeous skin and dark hair! Oh well! Thanks for the comment!
I agree with you, Sue, and in Indonesia, Thailand and China, I have also had many stares.:)
It is funny though as the next time I went in May I was prepared and just went with it. Much better. I was the only non-Indian on three of my international flights. It was funny as the flight attendants on Jet Airways all men, called me “Phoebe” from Friends!!! I laughed pretty hard. 🙂
I experienced this in Vietnam, as well, but you’re right, India was the worst!
I lived in Italy nearly 40 years ago. I was 19 and had waist length very blond hair. Rather than having my bottom pinched, my hair was a constant source of fascination. People would pick it up and play with it, seeming to forget that I was attached to it. I agree that it makes you aware of being different and hopefully makes us more tolerant of others who don’t look familiar. I grew up with a foreign sounding name, but being a bit different didn’t bother me.
Wow! What got you coming to Italy at such a young age? Family? Waist long blond hair would be so cool. Do you have any old pictures to share?
I agree – India I felt like a minority, but I have dark hair – I think it was because it was tall. In China, my brother also merited photos but more because he played football in college and is such a big guy. It definitely makes you think about what is standard/normal. Enjoyed the post.
Thanks for reading and commenting! I guess now you got me thinking more about height too. I am somewhat tall (5’8″) and I remember when I was in Peru how short the men and women are. I towered over them and it felt so strange. I bet most Asians would adore seeing your brother with a big football build. That must have been interesting to say the least! Any posts on that on your blog?
I don’t think I’ve specifically mentioned my height as it’s not something new – I’m 5’10” and tower over most everyone in elevators and in my office, though that may be an idea for a future post! There’s a picture of my brother and I in Shanghai together though – a post at the beginning of November so you could get a sense. 🙂
Strangely in most of the Islamic nations, the locals are happy to embrace Westerners for who they are – they have a keen sense of separation between government and individuals (even in places like Saudi). China not so much – and I think there will be rising tensions for many of us expats here over the next few years as the nationalist line becomes increasingly xenophobic.
Great post, I know what you mean about standing out, I’ve got long hair, blue eyes and am on the tubby side and it’s impossible for me to “blend in” here at all. But I don’t mind the pointing and staring most days…
Interesting. So did you feel like you fit in better in Islamic countries? What about an American woman? I wonder what it would be like to go to a gulf state as I’ve never been. Do most western women have to cover their hair? In Morocco only about half the women wore headscarves so it was totally optional.
Yes, I really loved living in the Islamic world, whereas I’m still not coming to terms with China if I’m honet about it. It depends on where you go in the Gulf as to the way you’re expected to conduct yourself in the UAE – nobody covers their hair (and that includes Muslim women) unless they want to, in Saudi it’s compulsory as is wearing the abaya (the long flowing black over-dress). In Bahrain, you’ll see Muslim girls out in nightclubs dancing the night away without a care at all for clothing conventions, in Qatar the only women in a nightclub will be foreign… and so on.
When I was teaching music in Johannesburg, the black children used to come and stroke my hair whilst I was playing the piano. 😉
Wow, that is cool and so special. Did they also touch your skin? What a wonderful memory! I really enjoy traveling and feeling what it is like to be different. My biggest experience of this was in India. I had never been stared at so much in my life yet it was more of a curious glare as I bet a lot of the people had never ever seen someone like me with long blond hair and light skin. It made me understand more about what it must be like to be different. Something everyone should experience, right. 🙂
Yes, the tiny one used be sitting around me on the floor, and loved to stroke my feet. The nail polish fascinated them. 🙂
Wow, that is really cool! 🙂
We found celebrity in Xi’an but not because we are blonde (both my husband and I are green eyed brunettes) but his build was what attracted the attention! He is broad shouldered and has a hairy chest that peeks out from his shirt collar. Men were grabbing their wives and having him pose with them in pictures. Children followed him in crowds… he was a celebrity! One man even told him he looked like a Panda Bear, very hairy and strong! Even in Shanghai people will reach out and touch his arm. Some think he is cold (they are already bundled up in mild temps and we are crazy in short sleeves). We go relatively unnoticed in Shanghai, but Xi’an we had lots of stares.
You’ve really got me laughing hard! That is hysterical!!!!! 🙂
It was funny… want an ego boost? Go to China!
Not sure it is just the blonde hair Nicole, because we had requests for pictures in several places in China, even in Beiing! We aren’t very big either 🙂
Good point Madhu! Perhaps I should have called the post the notoriety of being “Different”. What I was trying to get across in a humorous way is how much unwanted attention and stares you get when traveling to a place where you have different skin, hair, eye color, etc. WHen you look foreign and different. SO I bet that is why you and your husband were stared at too in China. You stood out. Maybe its just something CHinese, right? Anyway, thanks for the comments and I’m still not sure why I wrote this post (on rude comments) or why I let this strange response get under my skin. I just thought I’d throw it out there I guess. I have gotten a lot of interesting commentary however! 🙂 N
I’m blonde and I live in Italy and let me tell you the looks and comments I get. It happens, Im not imagining it nor am I trying or thinking Im the center of the universe. It … still … happens.
Yes I agree. There is a lot of sexism out there and I’ll never forget when I was backpacking in college with a fellow blonde haired female. We were literally chased in Brindisi by men giving us obscene gestures and making us feel dirty. I was flashed twice while living in France and felt the sexism strong there. This was all twenty years ago but I still think there is a lot of sexism out there against foreign women. They think they are easy prey.
There is plenty of sexism in Europe, or Italy against foreign women, I see it daily.
Hi- Firstly I found your Blog via Broken Light Collective. I love this post as I am a typical “english rose” married to an Iranian. Although I have to wear Hijab whilst in Iran, my fair skin and rosy cheeks give me away and it took me quite a while to get used to the stares as I walked by. With hijab a little more relaxed at the moment, more of my hair shows, and when we were last there in April I will literally “mobbed” by a group of schoolgirls all wanting to speak with me and have their photos taken with me. This was fine to a point but after 45 minutes of this in Fin Gardens on a public holiday crowds of people started to gather with their cameras and video recorders and it got too much. Not before I got my own back however becuase I made all the girls stand together whilst I took a photo of them! They loved that but in the end my husband had to make our apologies and we had to leave. They don’t mean any harm and there is certainly no malice. It is mostly curiosity with very few Westerners travelling to Iran these days but I still find it difficult on occasions.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for you living in Iran. Thanks for sharing your story. I look forward to reading your blog about your experiences there!
When I was in Morocco, about half the woman wore head scarves and the other half did not. Before I went, I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d receive with my fair colored hair so I dyed it a little darker but it still looked light in comparison. Yet I was relieved to find no harassment or stares except from unruly young men who probably had seen way too many silly American movies or sitcoms and thought all western women were looking for a one night stand. It is interesting how the world perceives people from other cultures. That is why it is so important to travel and really see and try to understand each other! 🙂 Nicole
I found this post because I was looking for others to relate to in this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on being different in China. I am a young English teacher living in a second-tier city in China, Wuhan, in the Hubei Province. My husband and I are also from the Midwest and it has been difficult for me to remain patient when I am bombarded daily with staring and photographs. A couple of weeks ago I had a young man take my photo as I walked into a store to do some shopping without asking for permission. This happens frequently with cellphones on the bus and on the street as well when people think that I don’t know that they are taking my picture. Sometimes it makes me feel more like a spectacle than a human being with feelings. I have long blonde hair as well and once had a woman grab onto my ponytail when I was shopping in a store.
I know that most of this happens because of both curiosity and a lack of exposure and education to foreigners. There aren’t a lot of women who look like me in this smaller city. I know that I just need to continue to be patient and understand the perspective that people here are coming from. It is not malicious and they are not trying to insult me, but I hope that with more exposure to differences they can understand that foreigners like to be asked before they are touched and photographed by a stranger. Especially because I know that many of my students post EVERY photo they take on their micro blogs so it is unsettling to think that a stranger might post my picture online for uncountable numbers of people to look at who are also strangers.
Because there are so many differences between the two cultures there needs to be understanding of perspectives from both sides.
Thanks so much for stopping by! It is funny because when I wrote this I found the situation a bit strange and humorous while I was in China. I was only there for a week so I just let it slide but I do recall how uncomfortable I felt when I was in India. There it was long, bone-chilling stares of bewilderment like I was some kind of leper. I know it wasn’t meant to be harmful, just curiosity for these people had probably never seen someone with light skin, eyes and hair. I probably looked like a freak to them. But it was not a pleasant feeling and I can totally understand how uncomfortable and annoying it must be for you, especially being in a smaller town. Obviously it won’t ever go away. People will always be curious. For me, in an odd way, it made me understand how others who come here to Minnesota from faraway lands like Sudan must feel in a blond-haired-blue-eyed state. It made me realize too when I travel to always ask permission when I want to capture a photo of a person and to treat them with respect. I wish I had more advice for you! But the good news is that the Chinese people aren’t aggressive like some of the men in other countries are towards western women. Good luck! 🙂
this happened with my 2yr old son. He was White Blond and we were visiting in Italy, a group of ashen family came up and well it looked like they were worshiping him. they asked if we, (the parents) would let them hold our son and take a pic of them, ( a group of about 15) take a pic with this boy. they were so sweet and saying how precious he was and said they were going to hang it up on the wall. I said yes but my husband was in front taking the pic, and me , his mom and my sister, was on either side, just encase they decided to take him from up. hoping kindness was all it was and thankfully it was.afterwords they shook our hands, let the hole family hold such a boy, very blond and pail skinned boy. Robert, however had no idea what was happening to him, just another day having fun taking pics. but in a way it made me as mom feel special thinking I have made this angle that people would flock ofer to him. now years later, he is still quite a boy growing up into being a feign young man of 14.
Great story! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
I have always had dark, thick hair and fairly tanned skin, and I have been to many places where I didn’t look anything like the locals, but I’ve never had an experience like your Indian one, most of mine have been similar to your Morocco; only once has someone asked to have a picture with me, a Korean lady in Bali, Indonesia! Maybe I should go to more Asian countries, and see how the people react to my Brazilian look!
Fascinating! I am going back to India this May and that is where it was very strange to be fair and blond. We will see how it all pans out but this time it is business and not pleasure so I’m sure it will be quite different.
Great post! I can totally identify with you as my daughter and had similar experiences while traveling to the most obscure places in Brittany, France!
Yes quite different isn’t it.
I’m not blonde, but the sun here has faded my hair enough that it’s bordering somewhere between (really) dirty blonde and brown…and I’m amazed how much attention it gets me as well. It’s also curly, which is something they don’t see often in Asia, and it’s taught me to embrace the curls I used to flatiron daily!
Love the new site design. Glad I got to see this post from a while back!
Thanks Jessica! Now India is even crazier. I think many Indians have never ever seen someone with light hair as it was borderline uncomfortable. Did you find that?
I’ve never been more uncomfortable anywhere than I have in India, though it probably wasn’t all to do with my hair color. I had terrible acne (caused from an allergy to China), so I was asked at least three times daily, “what happened to your face?” Plus, just being a white girl in many of the off-track places is asking for attention! Somehow, I still managed to fall in love with the country
When do you leave again?
I leave in two weeks! Yikes! Can’t wait though. It will be a lot of work and I checked the temp and it is baking hot!!!!
This blog brings back good memories. We are midwesterners who adopted our youngest from China in 2002, and went back with several families who all got their babies at the same time 10 years later, in 2012. My 17 year old oldest daughter, 5’7″ and 115 pounds, accompanied us. She was treated like a supermodel in Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Guilin. Tall, young and thin…the young boys stood in long lines waiting to get their pictures taken with her. One even went back and had his picture taken a second time. I was treated like a celebrity as well, with my highlighted blonde, curly hair. Definitely a place to revisit if you ever start feeling bad about yourself!! 😉
Wow, I can only imagine! I bet it made your daughter feel good though! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
this post is so amazing that i found something so similar with my experience of studying in a white-dominated country, and the feeling of being different really helps to improve our perspective
Yes indeed. 🙂
As an Indian, I’ve seen this happen with some of my American friends back in Chennai… people stare at them like they’re from another planet, and it makes me feel really uncomfortable for them after a while. I think it’s because a lot of people (especially the numerous rural migrants from the surrounding villages) have really never seen a blonde-haired person before, apart from in Western movies and TV shows (and sometimes not even that!). Imagine seeing someone with naturally green or blue hair… I imagine it must feel like that for those people, haha. And many Indians really don’t seem to understand the concepts of privacy and personal space anyway, so that probably makes it worse.
I always wondered how it would feel to receive that kind of attention – until I visited Vietnam and China last year. I travel quite a lot, and people in most countries take almost no notice of Indians, probably because we’re so numerous everywhere. In Vietnam however, people stared constantly, and it looked like some of them really couldn’t believe their eyes. I was told by a local guide that there are barely any Indians in Vietnam, and almost none in Hanoi – and most people had simply never seen an Indian before (or even a dark-skinned person for that manner) whereas they were somewhat used to Western tourists. There were even a few instances where I caught people clandestinely filming/photographing us, haha. In Guangdong, we were stopped almost every few feet by random people (invariably excited young women) who would ask for pictures with my little brother – many of them claimed he was really cute because of his big eyes. All part of experiencing a foreign culture I suppose 🙂
Thanks for the comment! I have been back to india since then and this time I was prepared and did realize that there are not many people there other than Indians so of course I was like a foreign object! I love India and the culture, people and food. Hope to go back! 🙂 I bet your trip was eye-opening as well!
When I taught at a predominantly black school in Johannesburg, the children would often sneak a quick stroke of my hair whilst i was playing the piano. 🙂
Oh, that is so sweet! 🙂
I loved your article. Some of you might be quite curious to learn that in some parts of China blond hair is a normal trait, and not because of European decent. (At least normal enough that in small villages you see it here and there.) I can’t imagine how they are treated if they ever travel to different regions of China. They would have that difference in traits without the awe of Hollywood that makes some areas treat foreigners lightly.
Thank you. I would love to explore more of China especially the more remote areas. Interesting comment too! Thank you for it!
Have to say, sadly it’s because of colonialism. The apartheid living in the past in my country for example, where the Dutch segregated people based on race in the past. They put the whites on the top, next are Arabs, Chinese, and Indians, and put the natives as 3rd class citizens. Also, the world’s been revolved around Caucasians for too long already.
Thanks for stopping by! For some reason, this really old post seems to be found at times. Since I wrote it, I’ve traveled a lot more and I agree with you. It is like this in Africa as well. Terrible things that have been done in the past and I agree with your thoughts! That is why I love to travel and escape. The good news is that the US is truly becoming a melting pot. My own state has dramatically changed over the past 30 years and was once highly Swedish and other Scandinavian heritage but now we have the highest number of Somalis living outside of Somalia and a large Hmong population as well.