A funny thing happened when we arrived in China.
It started innocently enough. Riding the train to the Shenzhen airport, having just crossed the border from Hong Kong, we watched as a young local boy cast curious looks in Brock’s direction until he visibly worked up the courage to shout, “hello!”
“Hello!” Brock replied with a laugh and a smile.
A few minutes of silence passed, followed by a question from our little friend.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from the United States,” Brock responded. “Your English is very good.”
“America!” he exclaimed, before staring shyly at the floor.
We saw him quietly struggle for the words to keep the conversation going, until he departed the car with a wave and a jaunty “good bye!”
How cute, we thought. Maybe he’s learning English in school and was excited to practice on someone.
But before long, as we journeyed through Chengdu and then traveled on to Xi’an, we realized that eyes were on us everywhere. Especially on Brock.
Subtle glances gave way to openly blatant stares. Strangers pointed in his direction and made little effort to hide the pictures they snapped with their cell phones as we passed by. Even as we visited major attractions like the Panda Research Base and the Terracotta Army, where we were surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, it often felt like Brock was the exhibit on display.
Occasionally, the bravest of the bunch would ask to take a picture with him, most notably during our trip to the Great Wall, where groups of Chinese visitors repeatedly stopped us to request a photo op.
At a strapping 6’2”, and currently rocking a pretty ferocious travel beard, Brock rarely blends into any crowd. In China, his stature is even more pronounced. But what was behind this bizarre phenomenon that made the locals flock to him like paparazzi?
Though we can’t say for certain, it was, most likely, just the novelty of being distinctly Western in appearance.
“Wu yi xi wei gui,” they say in China. Objects that are rare are precious.
For many Chinese, the opportunity to see a foreigner outside of the movies or TV is still a fairly uncommon occurrence, particularly in the smaller cities with a less robust international community. (Which also explains why our presence was of little interest to the residents of major expat hubs like Beijing and Shanghai.)
While international travel is on the rise, just 7.5 percent of the Chinese population ventured outside their country last year. And unlike the United States, which is home to a remarkably diverse population, China is a homogenous nation where physical appearance has little variation and more than 90 percent of the people are Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group.
So we laughed and took it all in stride, enjoying our brief moment of “fame” as we lived within the fishbowl during our two-week adventure in China.
Though Kanye West has said that the experience of living there as a child prepared him for being a celebrity, we’re hoping this is as close as it gets for us.