How to Handle Celebrity Status in China

When you’re a foreign teacher in China, celebrity status is almost a guarantee. I knew, before I came, that blending into the crowds of the small town in the middle of China wasn’t going to be an option since I’m unmistakably American. I wasn’t, however, prepared for the instant celebrity—the constant stares, the enthusiastic pointing, the blatant demands for photos. I’ve smiled awkwardly with groups of eager students, older couples, or even monks, and I’ve lost count of the number of children I’ve made cry when their parents insist on shoving them close for a quick snapshot for the family scrapbook. While I’ve become a little more used to being stopped on my walk to the grocery store, I’m still often surprised by the opportunities that arise simply because I’m an obvious expat. I’ve attended formal banquets, performed dance routines, and even participated in an international cycling competition simply because I’m a non-native. In the two years of expat life in China, I’ve lost count of all the moments of undeserved popularity, but I have learned a few ways to cope with it.

Accept with understanding. One of the most important things to note is that the stares and pointed fingers aren’t intended to be rude in any way.  Particularly in smaller cities, many Chinese see few, if any, foreigners in their daily lives. For most of my university students, I was the first foreigner that they had met; consequently, I’m still greeted with awed expressions and selfie requests within the classroom. Growing up amidst a diverse culture, the attention I received in China threw me off at first, but I gradually came to realize the rarity of “foreigner sightings” for many Chinese. This helped me to be more understanding of the intentions behind the otherwise uncomfortable attention.

Feel safe amidst the spotlight. While being the center of attention can be very uncomfortable, I quickly realized that I never felt threated or unsafe in the midst of it. I still don’t love being pointed at on my afternoon run or stopped on my way back from the supermarket, but I don’t worry about being in a dangerous situation. The attention doesn’t make me feel nervous the way it did initially.

Know that if you say “yes” to one picture, you’re saying “yes” to many. I get it—You’re at the mall and a tiny kindergartener comes up to ask you in well-rehearsed English if she can have your photo. You can’t say “no,” of course. Even before her picture has been snapped, though, there’s an eager group of people ready to take her place. Before you know it, you’re stuck in the middle of a shopping center or zoo or sidewalk wearily posing for photo after photo because you have no way of politely ending the cycle of paparazzi. I know, I’ve made this mistake quite a few times myself, which brings me to my next point:

You should keep this in mind as a general rule of thumb. The smaller the town, the more attention you are likely to draw as an expat in China.

Get comfortable saying “no.” This is something that took me a little while to learn. My first few months living in China, I never turned down a request for a photo or an opportunity for a conversation with a stranger ready to be friends. I didn’t know how to do this politely in such a new environment. Even now, on a normal basis I’m unlikely to deny a little kid, a nervous university student, or a friendly street vendor—pretty much anybody!—but I do allow myself those moments of privacy or personal space when I need them. I do say “no” when I don’t feel like taking pictures, or when I feel like the questions are getting too invasive for my comfort. There are definitely moments when I’m not up to smiling and feeling like an exhibit at the zoo, and that’s OK. You will likely need to do be very blatant about this—the tired half-smile or the vague denials won’t usually communicate the “no” that you want them to. You’ll need to say an explicit “no,” and probably more than once.

When all else fails, smile and wave. When I first arrived in China, I certainly didn’t have the language skills to communicate that I wanted to be left alone. Surprisingly, an obvious inability to speak Mandarin doesn’t instantly dissuade people from bombarding you with questions about your life. Now, while I can communicate a little more, there are still many situations where someone is extra persistent or it’s just too much work to explain why I don’t feel like taking a selfie while I’m waiting in line for my food. In these moments, it’s just as easy to smile politely for a photo and talk for a few minutes with vague details about my personal life. A smile does go a long way, and most of the time it’s really no problem at all.

With a highly introverted personality, I’m not a huge fan of being the center of attention. I’d much rather blend into the background and be the observer rather than the observee. That said, I’ve learned a lot about how to handle the automatic celebrity status you receive in China just for looking different. I do use the coping methods listed above, but, because the people are so friendly and eager for brief interactions, I’m usually happy to participate in some small talk and hold up a few peace signs for photos. As something that I would certainly never have in my home country, the unwarranted celebrity is a unique part of the expat experience.