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 in Changsha, where few foreigners visit, my teaching partner Walter and I became minor celebrities.
The first time we were 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. A pack of little boys approached the restaurant, stopped, looked at us and pointed, 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 over their shoulders at us as they disappeared around the corner.
The Saturday that Aaron and Mia, two of our grad student guides, toured us through downtown Changsha, Aaron was approached twice by 20-something-year old strangers, who put a camera in his hands and said they wanted him to take a picture while they posed with us. The same thing happened with a young waitress in a restaurant a week later. I’m sure our smiles in those photos looked as bemused as we felt.
But my favorite experiences were with the mothers and grandmothers of Changsha’s youngest residents. All I had to do was smile in the direction of a toddler, and the child was urged to “Say hello! Say hello!” They never did, just looked back at me with puzzled, serious eyes.
These interactions always made 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 viewed Walter and me with a similar mix of curiosity and even a little fear. I can only hope that our smiles and our attempts at conversation trumped the strangeness of our appearance, and left a more lasting impression.