On any sidewalk in North America, a blonde, 5’6″, middle-aged woman, and a 6′ 2″ man with a grey moustache, attract very little attention from passersby. We not only blend in – we’re mostly invisible. But here in Changsha, where few foreigners visit, Walter and I have become minor celebrities.
The first time we became aware of our heightened profile, we were sitting on the deck of the Roti Princess, a little local eatery that makes a pretty decent cappuccino. It was shortly after 12 noon, and many children from a nearby elementary school were going home for lunch. We noticed a pack of little boys approach the restaurant, then stop, look at us and point, speaking to each other in excited Chinese. They began to giggle behind their hands and, like a litter of romping puppies, pushed and shoved each other up the steps towards us. Finally, the tallest of the bunch came a little closer and said to me, “Hello. What – is – your – name?”
I introduced myself and Walter, and asked for the boy’s name. Then I said, “How old are you?”
The boy paused, and his forehead furrowed slightly as he accessed his elementary school English lessons. “I am – ten – years old.”
Our conversation produced shrieks of laughter from the little leader’s friends. After this short exchange, the group decided it had experienced enough bravery for one day, and toppled back down the stairs and onto the sidewalk, looking back at us as they disappeared around the corner.
Several days later, Aaron and Mia, two of our grad student guides, were touring us through downtown Changsha. Twice, Aaron was approached by 20-something-year old strangers, who put a cameras in his hands and said they wanted him to take a picture of them posing with us. The same thing happened with a young waitress in a restaurant last week. I’m sure our smiles in those photos looked as bemused as we felt.
But my favorite experiences have been with the mothers and grandmothers of Changsha’s youngest residents. All I have to do is smile in the direction of a toddler, and the child is urged to “Say hello! Say hello!” They never do, looking back at me with puzzled, serious eyes.
These interactions always make me think of the scene in the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge discovers the ghost of Christmas present sitting in his drawing room. The enormous, bearded spirit booms, “Come in! Come in and know me better, man! You’ve never seen the likes of me before, have you?” Scrooge cowers, and admits he hasn’t. I imagine the residents of Changsha view Walter and I with a similar mix of curiosity and maybe even a little fear. I can only hope that our smiles and our attempts at conversation trump the strangeness of our appearance, and leave a more lasting impression.