being white in Asia
There I was, walking the bustling streets of Shanghai, arm in arm with my best girlfriend, browsing the shops and enjoying a fired squid. We were talking away about where we wanted to go next, when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. He was super tall, white skinned, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a scruffy beard. "Omg," I whisper in my friend's ear, "look over there, a Lao Wai! I'm going to ask him for a picture, no one is going to believe this."
At least, this is what I imagine must be going through the heads of the random Asian girls that stopped me to ask for a photo with them. Personally, I don't, and never will, understand the strange fascination that other races/cultures have with supremely sunburn prone jackasses such as myself. But in every country so far except for Japan (probably because they're super polite), I receive massive attention wherever I go, and it's not for any reason other than my body's differences in skin, eyes, and hair pigmentation. Pretty messed up.
During one day alone, while walking about the streets of Shanghai, I had three groups of girls request photos with me, one man straight up take a photo of me, numerous violent double takes, several kids pointing and in open mouthed awe, several adults pointing discretely, and three randoms approaching me for awkward conversation. This was all within a few hour period, in a town with 22 million people, a number of them being fellow caucosoids. It's definitely not because I'm immensely pleasing to the eye, famous, or truly note-worthy at all.
And don't even get me started on the contacts that make your eyes blue and pupils larger, the photo booths that make your skin smoother, lighter, and pupils larger, or layering pounds of white make-up on your face. Please, stop trying to look more caucasian, you're more beautiful and less creepy looking exactly the way your genes made you.
Honestly, one of the reasons I've been loving Japan more than other parts of Asia is for the extremely diminished amount of fucks given about my presence. I seemingly don't matter to them, which is exactly how it should be. I should only matter if I give you a legitimate reason to give a damn about me, and my difference in race is not one of them. Having conversations like the following with random, awkward locals that decide to approach me while I'm trying to enjoy a cultural performance is not particularly appreciated:
Him: "Have you been to X before?"
Me: "No, actually."
"...X, have you been there?"
"No," shaking my head.
"I don't understand, have you been there or not?"
"No," shaking head even more noticeably.
"No, I haven't been there!"
"Oh. Okay. Is that a Canadian brand... your jacket?"
I had similar experiences with "reverse-racism" when I was in Uganda, but much more extreme. There, children would chase after and crowd around me, chanting in chorus, "How are you! How are you!" At least there I knew it was because they hoped I would take them back to America, or would start shelling out money (both of which they asked for). I was continuously greeted with a friendly "Muzungu!" as I walked around, and people would help me get to wherever I needed to go, whether I asked for it or not. Not to mention always being treated better by security guards... they would allow me to pass through without search, giving me a big smile, all the while relentlessly digging through the pockets of everyone else. That was definitely pretty fucked up. But given how poor the country was, and how relatively rich all Westerners are in comparison, it was at least understandable.
But here in Asia, where the economy is growing faster than my own country's, it hasn't been to ask me for anything, it's just been in pure fascination and idolization... and it annoys the hell out of me. Except for the odd gifts of snacks while I'm hiking, that's pretty awesome.
I've talked about this with locals, and fellow travelers alike and find their opinions interesting. Some locals say it must be nice to know that I have something that they like (maybe if I was trying to find myself a bride?). Some fellow travelers think it's cute and fun, and it makes them feel like a minor celebrity. At times it is at least funny as hell, like when someone does an extremely obvious double take, or when the person at the airport check-in counter actually jumped in his chair when he saw me walking up to him. Most of the time, it's just ridiculous.
Coming from a culture that tries to de-emphasis racial, gender, and socioeconomic differences, except for making friendly jokes at each other, makes me feel really weird about being treated differently for being white. It's essentially racism -- if not to me, then to everyone that isn't white. By treating me and my pale-skin brethren better, you're essentially devaluing and insulting everyone else, including yourself, which is worse than anything else. All I can hope is that one day other cultures eventually lose this fascination with my white ass, and appreciate it for what it is, inherently unspectactular.
It'll be interesting to see how the Philippines treat me. I've heard they love Westerners there. At least the English will be better, and they're warmer hearted so the conversations should be significantly more comfortable, and the staring less pronounced.
As always, thanks a lot for reading my random thoughts, I'd love to hear some of yours in the comments below, or feel free to email me directly.