Stopping Traffic — Green Eyes in China

Before we went to China, several people, including my Chinese teacher, told us that people would stare at us. I thought it would be 6-foot, blue-eyed Jim (the Good X) who would draw all the attention, but it wasn’t. No one told me I would be the one who would stop traffic.

We were on our way to the Friendship Store near the Baiyun Hotel. Nearing the spot where we’d transfer to a tram, we made our way to the back doors of Bus 22 and waited for it to stop. When the doors opened, people began streaming in before anyone could get off the bus. It was early in our year, and, coming from Colorado, we weren’t yet accustomed to public transportation and especially not to crowds of people pushing and shoving. 

That day an old woman from the countryside happened to look up and saw my eyes. She stopped on the steps of the bus, pointed, and cried out, in Cantonese, “Like a cat!” She froze where she stood, looking frightened, blocking the door, causing a traffic jam of bodies.

Jim had made it out, but I was trapped inside. To prevent an incident, the bus driver closed the doors and took off. I got off at the next stop and walked back. 

Over time, I think “my” city got used to seeing us around. That never happened again in Guangzhou.

I knew I was the opposite in appearance of every Chinese person. Curly, reddish hair, freckles, green eyes? It’s a look that has been regarded with suspicion all over the world, not just in the People’s Republic of China.

As the months went by, and the only foreign faces I saw were those of my brown-eyed, dark-haired Irish colleague Ruth and my husband Jim, I more or less forgot my own face. One afternoon, after I’d been in China ten months or so, and was used to seeing only Chinese faces, Chinese coloring, I was stunned by the bright green eyes of a Uygur man sitting on the steps of the Moslem restaurant. I stopped and stared. He grinned, laughed, and pointed at my eyes. I’m sure I blushed, and we both laughed. 

I got used to the idea that I wasn’t completely human in the minds of many of the people I encountered there in the Middle Kingdom. Most people who approached us on the street either wanted to practice English or change renminbi to Waiwei Qian. There were times when we were pushed, shoved, and called names. One night someone threw rocks at us as we waited for a tram. Events like this said, “Yankee, go home.” I guess these events could be labeled “racist,” but I didn’t see them that way. Nonetheless, it was unpleasant and somewhat scary.

Having worked as a paralegal in a law firm for three years before I escaped the clerical jungle for the PRC (People’s Republic of China), I understood something of law in general. We carried with us paperwork that said we were Chinese and had jobs that were beneficial to China’s modernization. “Ma Sa and Ji Mu” were our legal identities. There was nothing I could do about my appearance or the fact that, for some Chinese, the devil has my coloring. The potential may have existed for an “international incident,” but friendliness, openness, and the willingness to speak even bad Chinese was usually enough to disarm anyone. Walking away worked, too.

We spent our last day in China in Shanghai from where we would fly to San Francisco. Shanghai was comparatively cosmopolitan, and I didn’t expect to create a disturbance that attracted the police. My heart was full of the journey ahead of me, the journey “home.” I wanted to take in every remaining moment of China. After a full day of sightseeing, I just wanted to walk around, savoring Shanghai’s vibrant street life. 

We were walking in the neighborhood near our downtown hotel. On a blistering August evening, no sane Shanghainese was going to stay in a tiny, dark, sweltering apartment. Everyone had pulled out folding chairs and tables, set up charcoal stoves for tea and dinner, and sat fanning themselves, talking, laughing, spitting, cooking. Sidewalk life poured into the street, leaving a lane for pedestrians and bicycles. As we passed, someone noticed my eyes. I heard it again, this time in Shanghai inflected Mandarin, “Like a cat!” EVERYONE stopped what they were doing and came to look at me. I stood calmly while they looked and asked me questions. “Where did you come from?” “What are you doing in China?” Meanwhile traffic couldn’t move through the intersection. 

The cops came and broke up the “riot,” scolded me, and told us to move along. We went back to our hotel, surprised that in Shanghai, which even then had far more foreigners than did Guangzhou, no one seemed to have seen green eyes before. 

***

The featured photo is from 2008, when I was the lead singer for The Cure. 😀
Also, this is a chapter from As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, my book about teaching in China in 1982/83

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/04/rdp-saturday-eyes/

32 thoughts on “Stopping Traffic — Green Eyes in China

  1. Poor green–such a bad rap. Once at work I wore a navy skirt and a green top. An Irish gal I worked with looked aghast and told me her grandmother always said, “Blue and green should never be seen except by the devil himself.”

  2. I don’t know about your green eyes, but mine get greener when I’m upset or angry. Kevin takes one look and knows he’s done something wrong!

  3. You have lead such an interesting life!! And although you stopped traffic supposedly with the green eyes, I’m guessing you moved with the grace of a feline and had a mysterious air not unlike a cat to contribute to the effect!

  4. What a life. I love it. The only thing in which I could relate was being blonde (“Sun-In” kind 1988) in Chihuahua Mexico for a month with my friend, (ironically for character in your post) Kitty. A stranger stroked my hair and others would stare. So let’s get this straight~I wanted you to be my teacher. And now, I know I would’ve wanted to be a roadie following you singing. Your life is a novel I love reading. 💚❤️💕🐶

    • Sun-In was awesome. I used it in front. It was mildly effective, but I felt cool and glamorous regardless… Yeah — in Mexico they are fascinated by blonds. In China they were also fascinated by my freckles and some old women in a remote town tried to wash them off with saliva. 😀 ❤

  5. In Colombia in the early 80s I was traveling with a red-haired green-eyed friend from Australia. One day we missed the last bus back to town and hitchhiked. We were picked up by some local guys in a Jeep and they immediately began flirting with her. Since she spoke no Spanish (nor did her husband-to-be who was there) I quietly interpreted. One was comparing her hair to the sunset and another plied her with herbs from their own garden, giving her a sizable quantity when they dropped us off in town as darkness fell. We had to burn them before we left town.

  6. Great story, Martha! What an adventure.

    My father, part of a Boeing Flight Test crew, visited China in the early ’70s, delivering 707s. He said whenever they ventured out to sight see (always with Chinese minders), they were like magnets to the curious Chinese on the street. Especially a tall woman in the group who piled her long blonde hair on top of her head. Dad said the Chinese women shyly approached her, wanting to touch her hair. How unique to be so…unique!

  7. Fascinating story. Especially about your eye color being an issue. I never realized green eyes were seen that way. I remember being in Chinatown in San Francisco in the 1990s and in the packed crowd my husband and I stood head and shoulders above everyone else. There were some stares but not much else. Very odd feeling.

  8. this is brilliant ! I also have green eyes and red hair my parent used to laugh and say thank God I was born in this century haha I’m also left handed there would have nothing down for me x

    • It is a diabolical combination. You might know but the word for left in Italian is “sinistra.” My mom made me be right handed as they did back in the day.

      • when I was in school my languages teacher would always say a word to me but being the disruptive pain the neck that I was as a teen I just brushed it off but seeing that word “sinistra” I’m pretty sure this was what she was saying to me, hmmm. can I ask if you don’t mind ? how did that work making you use your other hand ?

        • I sucked the thumb on my right hand. My mom (a teacher) saw what that meant early on. She just took my thumb out of my mouth and made me do things (write, draw) with my right hand. There are still things I do better with my left hand. It was pretty common back in the 50s and before.

          • Wow…ive read a few stories about children being made to use the right hand over their left it just strikes me as Sad yet fascinating in a strange kind of way would you say your more ambidextrous ? tell me to mind my own by all means I’m just really interested x

    • Oh, yes. Not only is “left” from the Latin “sinistram”, but “right” is from the Latin “dextera” – so we lefties are evil and right-handers are skillful. To be “ambidextrous” is to have two right hands, since they are better than left. Most left-handed people are at least more ambidextrous than right-handed people because we live in a right-handed world – in ways that a right-handed person totally takes for granted. And yes, left-handed kids were (are) made to use their right hands because the left is evil – when I was a kid, only the Catholic school kids were thus forced – the public schools were “progressive”. But I have met people younger than I who were forced into right-handedness in public schools as well. (Don’t ask me why the preferred spellings are “dexterous” and “ambidextrous”.) (As consolation, look up “dextrous” on thesaurus.com. It has meanings of which I was unaware.)

      • i love learning new stuff this is great and have always found being a leftie as my bit of unique I will absolutly look up the meaning of dextrous I’m really intrigued .

    • 1982/1983 as it says in my post. I was teaching in China at that time, one of 100 foreigners then in Guangzhou, and one of about 20 non-Asian foreigners. I’m sure this has changed. So many foreigners work in China now.

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