Posted by: Brian | April 6, 2009

Travel & Karaoke

Traveling in China can be pretty fun for a white person. I don’t mean that in any sort of rude way, and I’m not trying to be racist or prejudiced or anything. The fact of the matter is simply that you look different than ninety-nine percent of the people around you. If you’re somewhere that’s not popular among tourists, you might be one of the only white people there. That makes you the subject of a lot of attention.

For starters, people will almost constantly be staring at you, just because you’re out of the ordinary for them. Some of the more adventuresome might even take a photo or two. I’m not kidding, I’ve had that happen to me. My friends and I took a picnic lunch to the local zoo on a great afternoon that was subsequently ruined by a rainstorm. Anyway, at several points during our afternoon, a random person would come up and start taking pictures of us. With the first guy we were self-conscious, with the second we said hello, and with the third we started taking pictures of him right back, which ironically seemed to make him very upset.

You’ll also get a ton of kids and teenagers who say “hello,” then giggle and run off in embarrassment. It seems as though almost every single kid in China can say hi in English, if only that one word and nothing else. There have been countless times that I’m just walking down the street and I hear someone around me shout hello. It’s pretty crowded in Kunming, so I don’t always know who it is, but I get a kick out of it. On a side note, they seem to be quite shocked if you’re actually able to respond with anything substantial in their own language.

My personal favorite, though, is when Chinese introduce themselves to you, which usually happens for one of three reasons. Either:

a) they want to practice their English, which is usually imperfect and thus a great chance to work on your Chinese;

b) they like to meet foreigners and talk about our home countries, which is a very fun conversation;


c) they want to invite you to go somewhere with them.

That last one might sound a bit odd, but I’ve lost count of the times somebody has asked me and my friends to join them for dinner, or go dancing, or to karaoke. I had my first serious experience with that last one a couple nights ago.

If you’re not already aware, allow me to inform you that the Chinese take their karaoke very seriously, and that many of them are great singers, and the rest are at least decent. Speaking from personal experience, you’ll probably embarrass yourself. It was still fun, though there was one awkward moment in which I had to explain to my new Chinese friend that no, most of the American songs on the karaoke machine aren’t popular anymore in America, and that I don’t like listening to Britney Spears, Madonna, or Michael Jackson. He seemed quite shocked to hear that.

In short, being a foreigner in China is a great deal of fun if you’re willing to put up with a lot of extra attention. You meet a ton of interesting people, get free food and entertainment, and occasionally experience things that you would never have done on your own (karaoke, eating strange local foods, etc). On a related note, be prepared to receive a lot of compliments. I’ve never thought of my pale skin and red hair as exotic, yet I’ve been told that three or four times since getting here about six weeks ago. It’s even better if you’re like my friend Emil, who is a six-foot-three-inch Swede with blond hair and blue eyes. The Chinese absolutely love him.


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