“Hey, hey!” these are the unforgettable words from the Chinese men and women I encounter daily. The happy, odd, rude, puzzling and sometimes offensive tones escape their lips as we enter into a game of charades.
Them: “Hey, hey.”
Me: Stares in puzzlement (remember, “hey” from a stranger is rude)
Them: hand gestures- showing me their phone in selfie mode with massive smiles on their faces
Me: Thinking, not this again- awkwardly smiles and agree to it.
Out of nowhere comes a second person with her family/ friends and shoves their phone right in my face. At that moment, my mind travels a billion miles, the Zulu in me erupts, “haaibo!” It is at this point when things tend to go south.
The first time I had these strange moments, I was confused for days. I remember telling my colleagues about what had just happened on the subway. Their reaction was nonchalant because they have been through this several times and have found a way to deal with it. They shared their stories and how invasively normal it is to have strangers shoving their phones in your face, stealing a pic or two—not forgetting what aggravates me the most, the touching.
Apart from “sorry mabebeza”, from the kasi guys, abo “my size” in Jozi, and rush hour at Park Station, Johannesburg, where we’ll be pushing one another to get to our destinations. Never in my life has my personal space been invaded as much as it has been here.
After the hilarious conversation with my colleagues, I knew I had to pick my battles. Of course, not every selfie is worth a reaction; for some, you smile and move on. On the bad days, you show them the middle finger as you grin at the stolen moment. A shared notion amongst the expat community is; you become the tourist attraction when you visit the tourist place. I was with a friend at West Lake, Hangzhou enjoying the scenery and taking pictures like everyone else. Weren’t we the star attraction? Every time we’d stop and take a picture, there would be a person or two next to us stealing a selfie. Like seriously, we know, we’re famous- take a billion pics it’s fine.
“So this is how you guys live here?”
During my first year in China, a close friend (bf) from South Africa came to visit; he had never been to China- like most of us. He had a lot to talk about after his trip and the celebrity moments had him in stitches. He was amused by how Chinese people are so fascinated by foreigners that they feel the need to take a picture. There were moments he’d be frustrated by it but he quickly adapted. One of our memorable moments was meeting this lady who kept touching his beard and wanted a picture. She even gave him her WeChat contacts coz well what else do you do when you see a celebrity? He couldn’t help laugh at how ridiculous the whole encounter was.
My younger brother, who “loved” being a celebrity, enjoyed the ridiculous admiration. However, he also had moments where he’d tell them to stop. He is pretty tall; now imagine this tall, bald young man amongst people different from him. Yah, being a foreigner in China is a wild sport. They would point at him, those who are shy would whisper behind his back, and the brave ones would ask for a picture. Even though he’d smile and welcome the picture moment but one could sense the annoyance every time this happened. On the days we entertain this ridiculousness, we ask for a picture in return; what else can we do? My little brother and I have a few of these pictures taken at the amusement park in Wenzhou; it was a crazy day in a small city.
As much as we try not to be phased by this whole thing and stay calm, there are days where one would be going through something, and this invasion is unacceptable. There are a few moments where we had to be loud and demand that they delete our pictures. We will let them know, it isn’t polite for them to steal a picture or any of the strange encounters. Sadly, they do not see anything wrong. I’m one person who always turns a blind eye when I see someone taking a picture of me without my consent. I have found a way of hiding my face from the paparazzi because confronting people who do not understand you is not worth it.
When I lost it- embarrassing moment
Well, a few months ago, I went all crazy on one security guard. He got me to a boiling point. A friend and I went to this tattoo parlour; the security guard did not want to let us in when we got there. Understandable, we called the tattoo artist (Momo) to talk to the guard. My friend knows basic Chinese, so he tried to explain why we were there. The security guard was not hearing us. Eventually, Momo called them and asked that we should be allowed in. Didn’t the security guard act unreasonably? He kept saying no (I only caught that from what he was saying). We asked why we can’t go in regardless of a few other people going in; he didn’t give us a reason. Therefore we had to wait for Momo to come and resolve this.
While we were waiting, this amused the other security guards. One of them was taking a video and pictures. It was at that moment I went crazy on him. I demanded that he deletes the video and pictures; I demanded his phone! I was fuming while this man found it funny. That was the first and the last time I was outraged by the stolen picture moments. I’ve seen a few foreigners do it and I understand it does get to you. When Momo came down, he had to tell the “photographer” that what he did was unacceptable. Momo checked his phone if the video and pictures were deleted.
Even through the occasional frustration, I have found humour in all this. The small town I now live in can drive you insane, I barely see other foreigners, which is sad. One time I went to the dry cleaners, iyo Jesu! ngithi the whole street came out to see Miss Sibiya, the celebrity from South Africa. “Meiguo ren, Meiguo ren” was whispered from every shop door. Impulsively, I uttered NanFei ren. One of the older men shouted, “Mandela”, and I knew it was game over. In our odd conversation, another one asked, “Ni hui shou Zhongwen ma? (Do you speak Chinese?).” Another impulsive response escaped my lips, “Wo bu hui. (no, I don’t.).” Oh, flip! The two Chinese sentences I have memorised have turned me into a Chinese speaking foreigner; thee A-List celebrity. Wasn’t I surrounded by grannies and kids, laughing at what only God knows? Then all of them started asking me random questions, now I can only understand a few words, and if a billion of them talk at once, I go blank.
Life as a celebrity has to be the strangest normal thing- Chronicles of a foreigner
The only way I have survived this madness is through humour and venting to friends (safe space). Also, sarcasmhas saved my life hence my uncanny responses. It sucks that my well-constructed sentences go over their heads. Nevertheless, I still respond with, “Oh my, I didn’t realise I am famous.” I have made Chinese friends through these strange encounters. Life is still strangely normal.