First Encounters

By Heidi Biron

 

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In America, we take diversity for granted. In some Western Chinese communities, like Sichuan, there is very little diversity. In fact, it is quite rare.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in China, I was assigned a site mate, a current and more experienced volunteer who worked in the same city. Warren was my site mate in Longquan and we were the only foreigners in our community. We had, in a sense, become local novelties. Many residents had never encountered a white American. When they first caught a glimpse of us, they had confused looks on their faces, which quickly turned into curiosity.

For example, when I would walk onto the local bus, I got stares from everyone. However, my favorite encounters were with children and the elderly. It was amusing and rather entertaining to see their reactions.

FirstEncounters
Heidi Biron at the Bamboo Forest in Yibin, China, July 2013. Photo courtesy of Heidi Biron

Children would make quick eye contact at first, and then immediately divert their tiny eyes. Then, they would look back at me, become a little braver, and stare a little longer. I always acknowledged them by smiling and waving. This created such excitement in them and their faces would light up. They began to tug on their parents’ clothing to get their attention and they pointed towards me with overwhelming joy. It was as though they were meeting Santa Claus for the first time. Their parents looked up at me, gave me an odd stare and an awkward smile, and then quickly went back to what they were doing. The children, however, continued to watch me closely.

It was bizarre when an elderly person would first see me. They confronted me immediately. They were not shy and boldly pointed out the differences between us. They commented on how my nose protrudes and on the color of my eyes. I have green eyes and dark hair. In Western China, American females are stereotyped as having blonde hair and blue eyes.

First Encounters
Heidi Biron and her host sister, Abba in Chengdu, China wearing traditional China dresses for a ceremony, July 2012. Photo courtesy of Heidi Biron
I have been asked so many times, “If you are an American, why is your hair brown?” Because my language skills are still somewhat limited, I was unable to explain to them that there are many different kinds of Americans, with many different characteristics. Instead, I always reply with a phrase that is easy for me to say: “Because I am beautiful”.

Back home, I would normally be offended by people staring at me. However, being a foreigner, I am flattered. I know they stare because I am an oddity to them. They are curious; they want to know more about me, and where I come from. These encounters open my eyes to the diversity back home. It is nice to blend in with the crowds back in America, but it is also nice to stand out as a Peace Corps volunteer in China.

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