One of the first things I’ve noticed about Nanjing is that there are very, very few foreigners, so as a result, I definitely stick out. I am guessing that if you live here, you better get used to the staring. Every time I’ve been on the train, I’ve been the only “round-eye” there, and without fail people take a few seconds to stare.
Since my friend Laura has to go to work during the day, I have been going sightseeing alone, and for sure I’ve been getting a lot of looks as people walk by. Sometimes people talk to me, usually just a “hello!” or a “hi!” and a big smile. I’m assuming that people are just curious to see our differences and our similarities. Even in the supermarket, for example, people stared openly at my shopping basket to see what I was buying. They must be wondering, what do foreign people eat? And when I went into a local restaurant, they watched in amazement as I ordered a plate of dumplings, and then spent about five minutes discussing the fact that I had ordered dumplings. I don’t mind the curiosity… in a place with few foreigners, even trivial things like what you buy in the supermarket or order in a restaurant seem to offer interesting new cultural insights.
But where are all the tourists? Where are the expats? Why do I see so few of them? Okay, so Nanjing is not as famous as its neighbour to the east, Shanghai, or the capital to the north, Beijing, but Nanjing has its fair share of attractions. Nonetheless, the staring is a bit hard to get used to! I thought to myself, this must be how an Asian exchange student feels when he walks into a country-western bar in Texas or something!
Today on the train, there was, for a change, another foreigner. In fact he was a tall, well built young black guy. We both got into the same car and he came up to me to talk. Turns out he is from London, and working here at an English Language school. I thought to myself that if people shy away from me when I sit on the train or get into an elevator, then this guy must for sure have a hard time. If white foreigners are scarce, foreigners of any other race are even scarcer. I’m pretty sure that he came to talk to me just because he was lonely. We only had a few minutes to talk, since my stop was coming up, but as I got off the train and the doors closed I felt like I should have gotten his email address or something, or invited him for a Friday night drink tomorrow. I remember how hard it was when I first arrived in Tokyo, and how incredibly lonely that first month or so was, not knowing anyone, not having a single person to call you up and say, “Hey, what are you doing tonight?” But, alas, the train pulled off, and it was too late.
It’s a bit funny, thinking of befriending a total stranger, because you wouldn’t do something like that in your own country. You wouldn’t just chat up somebody on the train and ask for their email address. But hey, when you’re the minority, you better stick together!