My first year living in china was spent in a small town in the mountains in the south western tip of Shaanxi Province. When you live in a small Chinese town you get to experience China in a unique way and by small town I mean somewhere so small Chinese people from other areas had never heard of it. And more importantly so small I was the sole foreigner in the town.
At first being the only foreigner in town was a bit intimidating because people would stare at me everywhere I went and I would often catch someone whispering and pointing in my direction or simply snapping a photo of me. But soon enough they got used to me and I got used to it. With time my daily routine was more or less inconsequential to the general population. Having said that, I’m pretty sure that if I had ever gotten lost they would all have been able to direct me home without me giving them my address. In fact, I used to joke about being sure they knew every minute detail about me – what brand of toilet paper I used included.
I say they got used to me and I to them but there were still moments when I got surprised. All I had to do was stray a block outside my regular route or go to a different restaurant and something was bound to happen. For example, on my birthday two friends from school took me out to dinner at a fancyish restaurant where the staff was so fascinated by me they not only gave us dessert and a bowl of noodles (typical birthday fare in China) for free but they also insisted on taking a photo with me.
Coincidentally another thing that happened was having my meals at restaurants being paid for by complete strangers. This didn’t happen every time I ate out but it did happen often enough that I more or less got used to it. The way it happened was usually like this: I’d sit and order my meal, eat it and then when I asked for the bill they would tell me that it had already been paid for by the people sitting at “x” table. Sometimes the people were still there and they would smile and I would thank them, at other times they had already left. Occasionally when they paid for my meals they would tell me and add a little speech about being happy I was there and ask me if I enjoyed Chinese food, or even just praise me for using chopsticks so well. Mind you, my mandarin was never better than a 2 year old’s so I’m sure lots got lost in translation but that was the gist of it.
On weekends I would go down to the park with my Kindle and people watch in between chapters. On one of these occasions a group of kids approached me, they were from a nearby village and were only in town for the day. Needless to say I was the first foreigner they had ever seen. However, unlike the adults – who mainly just stared – these kids were super friendly and we spent a glorious morning laughing while trying to communicate relying on body language, the few english words they knew and my nearly non-existent mandarin. The kids were being chaperoned by two women in their 20’s who at first were so dazzled by my presence they didn’t say or do anything but after deciding I was “safe” soon proceeded to take a million photos with me.
But the uncanniest story of all has to be the one where I was once walking across the main square with my friend Sasa when a man approached us and started talking. I could tell he was speaking about me but as I didn’t speak mandarin I had to wait for Sasa to translate. The conversation lasted something like 15 to 20 minutes and it amounted to him first wanting to know why I was there and then saying how glad he was that I, a foreigner living in China, had chosen this small town to settle down in. Plus wanting to know my opinion on everything and hoping I was enjoying my time and assuring me the town was very proud to have me living amongst them. He went so far as to say I was a “new light, a star bringing new life to the town” and at some point even said I was a local celebrity. I seriously don’t recall everything he said but it was kind of embarrassing, sweet, and funny at the same time.
So if you ever want to know what it feels like to be a celebrity with people snapping photos of you everywhere you go all you have to do is move to a small town in China.