Imagine a situation where all you have to do is show up, and you're a big deal. It's not beauty, or talent, or acknowledged skills or virtues. It must be crazy being a beautiful blonde foreign girl in China. And I remember how another foreign teacher and his wife couldn't go outside with their baby without being absolutely mobbed. That would get tiring. We're not overwhelmed with attention, but we are treated with deference and good cheer most everywhere we go. People look at us and nudge their companions to make sure they saw us, too. Children tug on their mother's sleeves and even babies give us perplexed stares.
We walk into a restaurant and sometimes induce panic in the wait staff, but more often, there is a palpable flurry of excitement. Sometimes the manager comes over and asks us to please return often and bring our foreign friends. If we go into a little corner store, we are pretty sure that we'll be the topic of conversation at supper that night ("you'll never guess who came into the store today....") Once a baker summoned his next-door neighbor to come take a picture of us in his shop. We went into the bank to get some 100 yuan notes changed to smaller denominations and I know that we received faster and better service than we would have if we weren't foreigners. We've taken to calling it "foreigner privilege," as in "check your privilege."
I don't think that street vendors adjust their prices upward when they see us, at least not in this city. Often they slip in a little something extra for us. Yesterday Ross bought some apples (the apples here are delicious) and the vendor threw in an orange as well. Or we buy four meat pies and we get five. Frankly, it's enough to turn one's head a little. A while back we were riding our bicycles through the university campus -- not the school where I teach, but a full-fledged university that has a number of foreign students. So people didn't take particular notice of us, and frankly I felt like a washed-up celebrity. (Doesn't anyone want to take their picture with us?)
So one thing we try to do is be aware of our demeanor when we're in public. We try not to be absent-minded, or grumpy-looking. We are representatives of our country and culture and that's something we take to heart. We try to be aware that everyone we come into contact with, whether it's a bus driver or a sales clerk, is going to form an impression of us. What is a routine encounter for us -- say, passing by someone on the side walk -- might be a big deal for a middle school student who wants to try out his, "how do you do?" on us. When we ride our bicycles through the local villages, the perplexed stares of the locals transform into happy smiles when we say "nie-hao" to them. And I may be overdoing it a bit, but I like to give a slight bob of the head to the white-haired grannies and grandfathers.
We try to listen for the person who has just gotten over the surprise of seeing us and has decided to call out "hello" to us, just as we've passed by. We turn around and say "hello" back at them. If a little kid is staring at us, we are sure to smile at him or her, and as I've mentioned, Ross gives them a little Canadian flag pin if they look old enough not to swallow it. We don't want anyone to interpret any inattention on our part as a deliberate slight. Noblesse oblige, after all.
It's just a fact of human nature that people will form an opinion about an entire nationality or a race based upon the behavior of the few representatives that they've met. Ross and I want to uphold the Canadian reputation for being polite.
Okay, there is one exception to my model behavior. Here's the thing: in China, unlike most companies in Canada, the work shift often starts with all the staff assembled out in front of the restaurant or store, where they receive a short pep talk from the manager, followed by group chant/shouting, or group calisthenics or dancing. Whenever I see this kind of regimentation, I lose all self-control. If I can walk behind the manager, where he can't see me but the staff can, I start making faces or doing funny walks, trying to make the staff people crack up.