Please don’t ask, please don’t ask, I chant silently as the three-year-old girl next to me on the train from Shanghai to Suzhou runs her hand up and down my arm.

I know she will though. I can almost sense her articulating the question in her mind, and I’m not surprised when she speaks.

“What are these?” she asks, pointing to the innumerable freckles spotting my pale arm, her tiny face scrunched up in confusion. Relax–it’s only a 45-minute ride. This will be over soon. “Well . . . um, they’re just my natural skin,” I offer, an answer that doesn’t make much sense in English and is probably less clear in Chinese, especially to a preschooler. I remind myself once again to look up and memorize the Chinese word for “freckle,” since it would really come in handy at times like these.

The girl’s mother jumps into our conversation, perhaps understanding that I don’t know how to explain to her daughter why my skin is covered in brown dots.

“They’re from the sun,” the mother says, “because her skin is so pale, when she goes into the sun, she gets spots all over. Right?” She turns to me for confirmation.

“Well, I have more of them (What is that word? I know I’ve learned it!) when it’s sunny out, but I have them all the time. They’re just natural.” I wish I could do better than this weak description, but my efforts to remember “freckle” have robbed my brain of any other Chinese-speaking abilities, and I fall back on simple vocabulary and grammar when talking to the mother. She doesn’t seem to mind my elementary sentences, instead focusing on my half-agreement with her explanation.

“See, they’re from the sun,” she tells her daughter, who is still rubbing my arm, apparently fascinated by the speckled surface of my skin. I lean back against my seat and sigh inwardly, chastising myself for not having come up with a better explanation by now. I’m still learning Chinese, but after having the freckle conversation so many times, I really should have the vocabulary down pat.

I knew before coming to China that my red hair and fair skin would attract some notice, but I thought it would be limited to people staring at me now and then.

I didn’t anticipate that the staff at the salon in Beijing where I got my hair cut for the first time would save the clippings (and bring them out for display each time I returned). I also never imagined that people would ask me if I had a skin disease when they saw my freckles, or that strangers would walk up to me and touch my arms in wonder.

Every time I pick up a pen, someone is sure to comment on my left-handedness and inform me that China doesn’t have any left-handed people. Being a redheaded foreigner in China–even in its biggest cities–means living under constant inspection as people examine me and catalog my differences.

Sometimes I relish the opportunity to speak with those scrutinizing me, and I cheerfully answer all of their questions. At other times, though, I wonder to myself why I’m such a source of interest, when the Chinese evening news features plenty of foreigners with features similar to mine.

Rationally, I know the answer–that, unlike people on television, I’m standing right in front of them, living proof that some people truly do have red hair and freckles, or write with their left hands. Nonetheless, I have difficulty dealing with the attention.

At those times, when I’m tired of the staring, the questions, and the touching, I desperately wish I could fit in here, that I could just disappear into the population of 1.3 billion and go about my life without having anyone ask if they can take a picture with me (which happens, on average, about three times a week).

Such invisibility, of course, is never going to be a possibility for me in China, and part of my education here is learning how to accept this.

I’ve never been the most outgoing person, but living and studying in China practically requires me to speak with complete strangers almost every day, since the Chinese generally aren’t shy about striking up conversations. I sometimes have to give myself a pep talk before taking train rides or walking into a crowded room, and I sternly tell myself that I can’t just learn about China and its society through observation. I must also participate.

It’s hard for me–I’d much rather hang back and watch what’s going on around me–but I know in the long run, I’ll be a better Chinese speaker and have a more thorough understanding of the country if I open my mouth and start talking.

I had expected people to be hesitant to speak with me, but to the contrary, my ultra-visibility and obvious outsider status seems to make people more interested in chatting with me, as they want to explain their country to a foreigner. They know I have a lot to learn, and they’re willing to help.

It’s by reminding myself of this that I resist the urge to act like the obviously irritated panda bears I saw at the Beijing Zoo last summer, who curled up in the backs of their cages and ignored the crowds trying to photograph them. Like the pandas, I’d rather not be the focus of attention, but the rarity of redheads in China means that I’m going to be on display, whether I like it or not. Embracing this and viewing it as an opportunity for both personal growth and cultural exchange may be difficult, but it also guarantees that I will learn so much more than just the language while I live here.

Although the Chinese is important, too. What’s the word for freckle again? Queban.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham comes from
Philadelphia, Penn. She has attended Saint Joseph’s University
and Yale University, studied Chinese with CET Academic Programs
in Beijing and Hangzhou, and is currently a student at the
Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies in
Nanjing, China.

The Abroad View Foundation is an international
education organization that fosters global awareness and
cross-cultural understanding among study abroad students and
international students.