And Me with my Blonde Hair:
Postmodern Curiosity in China
Dear Dr. Wang:
I am influenced by Whitehead's philosophy and, like you, I am attracted to the idea of the mutual transformation of East and West. That’s part of the reason I traveled to China last summer as a language student.
But I have a problem. I went to a large city in southern China and stayed for two months. I have blonde hair and I discovered that everywhere I went, people would stare at me. Some people even wanted to touch my hair. I like Chinese culture and people; but I must admit that it seemed rude to me to be stared at like this. I want to be perceived as a person not as an artifact in a museum. Sometimes I was even a little frightened. Can you help me? Can you give me perspective? How can I look at being "stared at" in a postmodern way?
Eloise (with my blonde hair)
Thank you so much for writing. Let me say two things quickly. First, I really like blonde hair. And second I understand completely how you felt.
As a citizen of China I have seen the phenomenon of “being stared at” many times. Let me offer a postmodern response in the spirit of Whitehead.
We postmodernists believe that human beings are born to be curious about unknown and new things. Chinese people are no exception. Somehow this curiosity is built into our genes, and it is a wonderful thing. As you know, we are working hard in China and other parts of the world to encourage educators to nurture curiosity in their students. And we are curious ourselves. That’s part of the reason you went to China, and that’s part of the reason I have visited the United States. Indeed, that’s part of the reason I am a consultant to this website.
I majored in English in college, and this gave me the opportunity to see foreign teachers and to talk with them often. I am now a college teacher who teaches foreign students Chinese language and culture. This offers me the chance to make friends with foreigners from Canada, Australia, Britain, America and Israel. I can talk with them face to face and have meals at the same table. My friendships with them have given me a new perspective on life, and I hope that in many ways I am growing in East-West thinking.
But there are many, many Chinese people, especially remote places, who have never seen a foreigner with their own eyes, except on TV. But that doesn’t prevent them from being curious about people from other cultures and from being thirsty to know about them. That is why they stared at you in that city. It was curiosity, not disrespect. They are just like the two of us – filled with curiosity – but they have few opportunities for face-to-face contact.
The word contact in Chinese is 接触(jiē chù) means to come close to, to touch, to engage. For those people mentioned above, the only way to have contact with foreigners is by coming close to and having eye engagement, sometimes touching foreigner’s hair as it is so different from theirs. As a Chinese I completely understand them. Their methods may not be proper, but their intentions are good. In their way, they are “postmodernists” too.
Today as the world is getting smaller and smaller, turning into a global village, a big family, I hope you can forgive and understand my fellow citizens. You and I alike believe that forgiveness and understanding can lead to tolerance of different cultures.
With tolerance perhaps we can even find enjoyment in zero-distance contact (零距离接触). This is a phrase we use in China to name face-to-face contact. As we have more opportunities for this kind of contact, we Chinese can see more, listen more, feel more, and in the end, understand better.
I know that having people want to touch your hair was uncomfortable for you. If this happens in the future, please just smile, put your hand up, and say “No.” They will understand. In the language of Whitehead’s philosophy, think about their subjective aims, their motivations. If you understand their intentions, perhaps you won’t feel unpleasant by being stared at. You will be willing to go close to them and talk with them with smile on your face.
In my own experience, friendship begins with curiosity, but then grows deeper. We begin by being curious about differences; and the differences can be quite beautiful. And then we discover that there are shared experiences even with the differences, and shared aims, too. We constructive postmodernists are at home with differences and with shared experiences.
One of our shared experiences is simple curiosity, a subjective sense of wonder. They say that philosophy begins in wonder. I think cross-cultural interchange can begin in wonder, too. As you visit China please know that you are giving our citizens an opportunity for wonder. We are very grateful, and we hope that you will find some things wonder-full about our culture, too, and our people, including those who stare at you. Even staring can be beautiful if filled with wonder.
Dr. Songhe Wang