As a white-British woman, being stared at for my skin colour is not an experience I have really encountered. So upon my visit to SE Asia this year, the sudden interest I drew to myself purely by walking around was an entirely new experience, and somewhat of a short-term novelty.
My complexion has all of the characteristics of a typical ‘English rose’. In actual fact, my blue eyes, blonde hair and fair skin would often have me mistaken for a Scandinavian when on holiday as a child. Whilst I have always hated the fact that my skin can barely get a tan, those from Asian cultures aspire to having a fairer complexion. This is because in Asian culture, your skin tone is an indication of your wealth and/or class. If your skin is dark, you are likely to have obtained a deeper complexion from working outside in the fields, therefore indicating that you are poor. Whereas if you have lighter skin, you are considered to be wealthy. This explains why you will see many locals, particularly women, walk around in near forty-degree heat covered from head to toe, whilst I’m sat baking in my shorts and a tank top and contemplating a display of indecency because even this is too much clothing!
Here is my experience of being a blondie abroad:-
People want to take your photo.
Local people, especially Chinese tourists in my experience, will try to get your photograph (either with you, or just sneakily behind your back). Men in particular may ask to have a picture taken with you. If you want to know how you can put a smile on somebody’s face, just grant their wish of having their picture taken with you. I do wonder how many people have claimed I’m their new English wife on their social media accounts though…? Personally, I don't mind. I love to snap photos of the locals in beautiful traditional dress or just going about their daily business on the street market, so why shouldn’t locals be allowed to commodify me in the same way? At the end of the day it is a bit of fun and flattering to think that somebody wants to have a silly selfie with me.
Expect to be stared at – A LOT - and with no level of subtlety about it.
I remember riding my bike around Hoi An, Vietnam on a particularly scorching hot day. I pulled over to apply some sun-cream, only to find that when I stood back up from replacing it in my satchel, I had become the centre of attention to local people and a big group of Chinese tourists who had been watching intriguingly the entire time?! Who knew my upper epidermis was capable of attracting such attention!
‘Hey beautiful Lady, Where are you from?’
As a female traveller in general, you are susceptible to these sorts of questions from men. Blonde hair and fair skin is very unique though, and tends to make you stand out even more. Again, this does not really bother me, I know how to handle this kind of attention when travelling, and if you do not want to encourage questions such as these, I often find that a friendly smile and carrying on about my business does the trick. I do not believe there is anything sinister in these harmless albeit cheeky compliments. If you do not like the attention, then cover yourself up or tie back your hair. Do not be rude unless you are experiencing genuine harassment. Somebody is only paying you a compliment. Just laugh it off and embrace it. A well-received compliment can make their day as much as yours.
After five weeks of backpacking through this region, I too was beginning to observe people’s skin tone. For a brief moment, I experienced what it felt like to be the minority for once. There was no escaping the fact that I was a foreigner in this region with my glowing white skin and blonde hair. As much as I embraced it and found it amusing that my lack of melanin attracted such attention, I began to consider how it feels for somebody in my country to be stared at for their skin colour. I wonder if they find it amusing like me? Or whether instead it is marginalising and less of a positive experience of being gazed at.
One thing is for sure, in this region of the World, your skin colour can be enough to strike up a friendship through somebody enquiring about where you are from.... 'No I'm not from Scandinavia!'