In a small city in China a few years ago, I was eating dim sum with some friends. Just as I was about to put a dumpling in my mouth, I saw a digital camera and a hand hovering directly in front of my face. The old lady who was holding the camera pretended to offer me tea, but instead of pouring me a drink, she snapped my picture, scampered off, and proceeded to show it off and have a good laugh with her friends.
This wasn’t an isolated occurrence, either. My light skin and blond hair is a dead giveaway to my Western heritage—and a sight to behold—in many foreign countries. And when you’re traveling internationally, especially once you get off the beaten tourist path, you may find yourself in similar situations.
Being the foreign spectacle isn’t always welcome, but it’s usually harmless, and it can even be a little fun. Here’s how to keep your cool when you become the center of attention.
In Thailand, the word farang means a type of guava—white on the inside. It can also mean foreigner. In India, the word is gori, in Rwanda, it is msungu, and in Latin America, gringa. No matter where you are, expect to hear some version of this word called out hundreds of time a day.
And that’s OK—it’s (usually) not malicious. Just smile when you hear people talk about you, especially if you know the language. Know when to be the graceful foreigner (in response to “Look how beautifully she Namastes!”), and when to play the dumb foreigner (“I am so sorry I knocked over your mango stand, please let me help you!”). Use humor to curb cultural miscommunication.
It's hard to walk down the street in Asia without running into them. They are the aunties, school girls, and young men who will innocently ask, “picture picture?”—then have 16 of their friends come out and also want a picture taken with you. I have been pulled into photos with pandas, babies, and government officials, sometimes willingly, other times without being asked.
When you get frustrated, think about how many times travelers like you take pictures of random things and people when abroad, sometimes without asking. Be calm, and understand that it is simply because people are pleased and curious to be among another’s culture.
And, rather than being just another prop, use this time to exchange a few words in local language, teach English (a few photography words might help), and generally forage some sort of meaningful connection.
The Doctor’s Exam
In Korea, while visiting a rural community that had never seen foreigners before, a small, hunched old lady came up behind me and grabbed my butt with two hands. Jolted by the invasion of my personal space, and still trying to be a good guest, I asked her if everything was OK. She smiled, and proceeded to grab my cheeks again and sit next to me the entire evening.
In many countries, there’s a different sense of personal space (read: absolutely none!). You will likely be examined closely: Some locals may touch your skin or pull locks of your hair. They will also talk about your height, weight, and appearance—and share their observations with their friends, too.
This one takes some getting used to. Most of the time, it’s harmless, but if someone is getting weird or too personal, don’t be afraid to take a (gentle) stand. Step out of reach or change the subject by asking about the other person’s hair, children, or hometown.
Just as the West is obsessed with tanning, many other countries are obsessed with lightness—instead of tanning salons and bronzers, you will find lightening creams and products quite common. Local people may compare themselves with you by sandwiching your arms together and comparing your skin tones. If you are a woman of color, locals may rub your skin, touch your hair, or repeatedly ask where you are from.
Transform this curiosity into a teachable moment. You can explain that having color in the United States is considered beautiful, and that tanning is a popular beauty treatment. You can also explain the unique diversity in the United States. Still, it’s best to handle incidents like this on a case-by-case basis—if you’re uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to change or leave the conversation.
Everything is Beautiful!
The word “beautiful” quickly tires abroad. Outside the United States, it is dropped constantly: People will call you beautiful because of the prevalence of over-saturated images of Western beauty, or just because they want you to buy something. A more genuine compliment is when someone calls you “cute” or says you have a “kind heart.”
If a young woman or small child calls you beautiful, stop and respond with “no, you are beautiful!” This means a lot, coming from a foreigner, and it makes people stop and think about their own sense of inner pride and beauty.
I’ve learned to accept random photo-taking, being sized up, and other moments that turn my life into a spectator sport in the countries I visit. And when you’re suddenly pulled into the spotlight, I’ve learned that the best thing to do is to keep a light heart, have a sense of humor, and, most of all, be patient and calm. Just as we travel and marvel at the difference of the other, locals do too.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Jesionka.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author