I should probably start by saying that I’m a woman who stands six feet tall in my bare feet. I’m also very, very white, with all that entails. That information will be important in a moment.
I’ve just returned from a year living in Fuzhou, China, a relatively small city by China’s standards. I say relatively because I’m Australian and I’ve spent most of my life in cities that only just got that label. There were eight million people in Fuzhou – half the population of the whole of Australia. But large or small, the city is big enough to need English teachers, so I spent a year there teaching.
A six-foot tall white woman, in a city that doesn’t get tourists. If you’ve travelled to Shanghai and Beijing, you might not see the problem. Those cities get tonnes of tourists, so people there are used to the variety of Western faces and skin tones. But Fuzhou never gets tourists; it’s just an ordinary working city like so many others in China, and Westerners definitely stand out.
Living there made me understand how celebrities must feel. When I walked down the street, people would stare and giggle. Groups of school children would point at me, rush up and scream hello and then run off laughing. Bus drivers did a double take when I got on the bus, and some of them twisted around in their seats to stare at me while the bus was idling at the lights. I had people follow me down the street, recording me on their camera phones, while others came up and stroked my face as if they couldn’t believe that my skin was real.
There’s another side effect of the relative isolation of smaller cities, and that’s the language barrier. Travelling in Shanghai and Beijing, you start to believe that most Chinese people speak at least a little English. Perhaps that’s just a bit of the Westerner’s arrogance; we believe that everyone can speak and understand us. But hardly anyone in Fuzhou spoke English past the most basic greeting.
The eyes eat first
Going to a restaurant meant hoping for a menu with pictures, or walking table to table and waving at other people’s food. The waitress usually followed me on my trek through other people’s meal time, giggling and commenting about me to the other customers. People stared at me throughout this procedure. I got very used to blushing and carrying on with what I needed to do.
Another painful experience, and probably the one I hated the most, was going shopping for cosmetics. For some reason, I attracted shop assistants like I was magnetised. After five minutes in these kinds of shops, I would have three or four assistants trailing after me and telling me things about the products that I couldn’t understand. It was the one time that I couldn’t just brush off the attention. For some reason, buying toiletries feels private, and having a fascinated audience made my skin crawl. I’d generally leave without buying anything, and eventually ended up getting most of what I needed from the local Walmart. Nobody followed me around in there.
That’s right, Walmart. Despite the almost complete absence of foreign visitors, the infiltration of foreign brands was well underway even in Fuzhou. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Prada and Gucci all feature prominently. Walking down some of the streets, you could almost forget what city and country you were in. That is until you walk into a tiny, dingy eatery and sit down to eat something you had chosen from a picture on the wall.
Safety in small cities
Despite the staring and pointing, I felt perfectly safe everywhere I went in that small city. It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk home alone after a night at work, or after a few hours at a restaurant with workmates. I would walk down uneven, dark streets without the slightest concern or hesitation. That in itself was something I had to get used to. Back home in Australia, I wouldn’t walk home alone at night through any neighbourhood. And yet in China I did it all the time, although the neighbourhoods I walked through definitely weren’t the best. But I never felt threatened or unsafe.
In a way, it was strange to feel so secure. I was in a foreign country, a place where I didn’t speak the language. Most of the people around me couldn’t understand me, so if I needed help it would be impossible to ask for more than the basics. And yet I found myself doing things that I would consider extremely unsafe back home, and feeling perfectly secure about it. That’s a puzzling aspect of my trip that I’ve never quite worked out. I just know that as long as you avoid areas that have a lot of bars, China feels very safe for a woman alone.
I’ve recently returned home from China and it’s been an adjustment. I’m grateful to no longer be a celebrity with fans running after me calling out greetings in English and I don’t miss bike riders staring at me so much that they disrupt traffic. But I do miss being a part of the busy, ordinary life of that small city in China.
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