Why Chinese People Like to Stare at You, and How You Should Respond

Staring. One of the best ways to make a person feel a little uncomfortable, especially if they are a complete stranger.

When I was growing up, I was taught that it’s rude to stare at someone else.


Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/StevenDepolo

But come to China and try telling someone on the street not to stare. You might as well tell them not to breathe! It’s one of those phenomenons that has its roots planted deep within the culture and it shows little signs of stopping.

Last week, I went swimming with a Caucasian expat family that has three kids. Within sixty seconds of entering the kiddy pool, we were swarmed by at least two dozen children (all of whom were Chinese) who were all staring and asking questions. They kept inching closer and closer until we literally had no room to move around.

We tried moving to another part of the pool, but the same thing happened again. Finally, we settled ourselves in a deeper part of the pool where there were mostly adults. I felt so bad for this family. All they wanted was to enjoy a nice swim to themselves. But because they were foreigners, they unfortunately attracted all this unsolicited attention.

I spoke with my tutor about why Chinese people stare so much and she said that it’s because Chinese people are naturally curious to see a foreigner. Many people here have never seen a foreigner in their entire lives (except perhaps on TV).

To the Chinese mind, foreigners don’t belong in China. Why should you leave your comfortable, wealthy nation to come to a more crowded and less wealthy country that many of its citizens are hoping to leave?

Staring is also a common thing between Chinese people. We once saw about 50-60 people circled around two men who were arguing about something. Another time we saw a motorbike get hit by a taxi in the middle of an intersection. (Thankfully, no one was seriously injured.) Within just a few minutes, there was a crowd of several dozen people standing on the side of the road just staring at the wreck.

Since Chinese people will also openly stare at other Chinese people, why should they treat you any differently? It might seem like they’re picking on you because you’re a foreigner, but the truth is that they’re just doing what they’ve always done.

Even though I’m Chinese-Canadian (and therefore look like everyone else here), I still get stared at. This time it’s not because of how I look, but because I’m speaking English. Whenever my wife and I are in the middle of a conversation at a local grocery story, for instance, we get lots of strange looks from people as we pass by them.

Truthfully, I still get a little annoyed by the staring sometimes. I feel like my personal privacy (a strongly-held value by many Westerners) is being invaded.

In responding to other people’s stares, I sometimes have to remind myself to put myself in their shoes. Curiosity is something that influences all of us. If I saw something that didn’t belong in my country, I would probably stop and stare for a little while, too.

It’s also important to remember that you are a guest to their country. As such, you cannot expect them to conform to your culture. What you might consider offensive in your culture just might be considered the norm in their culture.

If someone is giving me the blank expression kind of stare, then I’ll usually ignore them until they eventually quit staring on their own. If the person is close enough, sometimes I will start a conversation with them. Turning an awkward moment into an opportunity for relationship just might be the most rewarding thing you can do.

Have you ever been stared at? How do you respond when people stare at you?


25 thoughts on “Why Chinese People Like to Stare at You, and How You Should Respond

  1. During my first years in Beijing, apart from the staring there was also the photo-taking πŸ˜€
    But nowadays there are so many foreigners in China, I can’t believe the “maybe they have never seen a foreigner before” explanation, that would be true maybe in the middle of the countryside, but not in the big cities, and you still get stared at in the big cities. So I think it’s just what you said: for them, staring is the norm!

    • The Asian tendency to love taking photos is something that both my wife and I can identify with. Hehe.

      I live in a “small” city of about a million people, and there are plenty of people here who have never seen foreigners. But you’re right, this can’t really be a legitimate excuse for Chinese people living in bigger cities. Still, just because you’ve seen a foreigner before doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily had a conversation with one!

      • Haha yes, that’s for sure! But most of the staring ones are not looking for a conversation, and if you start talking to them they feel embarrased (and pretend they don’t understand you).

        With the photo taking I meant taking photos of me! With or without my permission πŸ˜€

      • Well, if you embarrass them that much, they will probably stop staring at you…which solves the original problem, right? Haha.

        Oh yes, we’ve been been the subject of many Chinese photo-takers ourselves, and we don’t even look different from them! What is your response to people who take photos of you? Do you take photos of them? πŸ˜€

      • Hahaha not really. Sometimes if I caught them trying to take my picture and I was in a good mood I would pose for them. But the photo taking happened mainly in Beijing and Shanghai, in Suzhou people don’t care about foreigners, haha.

  2. Maybe the Chinese stare because they are curious at what they’re looking at. White foreigners is something a lot of them don’t see too often, so when they spot one they will stare and wonder what the Caucasian person is doing in their part of town – starting probably helps them to read body language, what the latter is doing.

    When I go back to Malaysia I tend to speak in English and always get stared at for this. I don’t get bothered by their eyes at all. It’s just me πŸ™‚

    • Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m pretty fascinated with some of the things the locals do and I’ll give them a prolonged glance every once and a while. Perhaps a little more discretely than they would, but I suppose it still counts as staring! πŸ˜‰

      What’s the primary language in Malaysia? I thought most Malaysians can speak English.

      • Most Malaysians speak English. But they usually prefer to speak their mother tongue, either Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese or Hindi. I too like to stare back at people who stare at me – it helps me work out why they are staring at me. Tit for tat πŸ˜‰

    • Are you sure Bolehlanders will stare at you when you speak in English? Most Malaysians won’t give a hoot when you speak English, unless of course you as a Chinese speak with a Matsalleh (Malay equivalent to ‘gwailo’) twang. THEN THEY THINK YOU ARE JUST TRYING TO IMPRESS OR SHOW OFF. MOST BOLEHLANDERS ARE MORE TURNED OFF THEN IMPRESSED AND THEIR STARING IS TO REMIND YOU OF THEIR TRUE FEELINGS. Haha,,no offence meant. Just the unpleasant plain truth, Bolehland style.

  3. I never really cared about the stares when visiting China. Actually I have a rather good method of scaring them away…okay, no bad method I promise! I usually have my video camera with me and go around filming whatever I can catch (I always make some terrible holiday movies) so this means when the people on the street see me with the camera they quickly look away πŸ™‚

    I also go swimming alot when I visit China and as soon as I enter the pool I can practically feel those eyes on me but mostly nobody ever comes too close as I am in the deeper part of the pool. Only some of the older people usually come to me and ask about some swimming techniques etc and I usually give them some quick tips

    • Haha, that’s a great way to scare people off! It reminds me of this one time when I was taking a picture of a super busy cafeteria-style restaurant. One Chinese guy saw me and held up a food tray in front of his face. I gestured to him that I wasn’t taking a picture of him, and then he laughed.

      I can imagine that you would be a little bit more intimidating to approach than small, Caucasian children. πŸ˜‰ Although sometimes I am very surprised at how bold some Chinese kids can be!

  4. We get stared at in India, and Kyle sometimes has people following him. (especially children) I glance at people right in the eyes to let them know I know they are there, but otherwise I do nothing.

    • It could just be my impression of India, but I feel like people there stare even more. India can also have the “crowd/mob” mentality, right? Where everyone circles around a couple people that are doing something interesting?

      • Yes, there are always more people than any given task requires so most people end up just standing around.

  5. Oh man i get stared at all the time! It’s not so bad where i live in Beijing as there’s a lot of expats in my neighbourhood, but in other parts of Beijing, and especially when travelling out of Beijing, I get a lot of stares and have a lot of photos taken. I don’t really mind so much but, recently, me, my husband and a friend where in Chengdu sweating it out over hotpot. A woman brought her child over and proceeded to film her with us as we ate. I was not too happy about it but didn’t dare ask her to stop. I didn’t mind letting the girl practise her English on me, I just didn’t want to be filmed all sweaty and gross with my hotpot haha!

    • Oh yeah, I live in Sichuan province, so I definitely know what hot pot does to an outsider! Too bad she didn’t take pictures of you BEFORE you started eating. πŸ˜‰

  6. I lived for four years in Gunagzhou and I had a aweful lot of staring. I am a bald guy with ttattoos and a full red beard. I am sure that all the expats here can imagine what kind of “attraction” I have been.

    I friend of mine once went shopping ith me in beijing Lu and she tought me to say “Ni can shen me?” (what are you looking). That caused the people to stare even more, because westerners (I am from Amterdam living in Berlin) are (or were, no idea how much that changed) not supposed to speak chinese.

    I loved my years in China and I still miss it somehow, but I never got used to the staring (and the spitting!!!) there.

  7. taught english for short time in a large city ten years ago in china, saw 13 other white people in about 6 weeks other then the white folks i saw at a foreign church once and the people I worked with, was stared at all the time, in this large city (over 5 million and even more millions than that)

  8. We are all the same. Staring into the eyes of another person with whom you are not engaged in a conversation and holding the stare at eye contact is a challenge, as in all species. Staring into eyes which are blank is unnerving. It is unsettling and it is intentional. The pep rallies communist nations provide to their peasants is always the same: “We are right and those who are not like us are wrong.” If this were in America, the entire globe would by shaking their fist at the Americans for not allowing diversity and the slow disintegration of their customs and history. Our reality is a sick twisted attempt at investor protectionism in the hopes the natives will not know one nation’s loss is another nation’s gain.

  9. Hi, I live in Canada (Richmond, BC) and Chinese people stare at me and my house. I was wondering why this is the case. Thanks.

  10. Thanks for your post. It helps some. I can deal being stared at neutrally, but I have had some older men and women look at me with what really looks to be reatrained anger and hate. I must admit I resent you saying we don’t “belong in China”, as a Canadian born Chinese, do you also feel the same way about yourself? What if I was to say you don’t belong in north America or especially Europe?

    • Thanks for your comment, Mike.

      When I said that foreigners “don’t belong in China,” you’ll note that I prefaced this by saying “to the Chinese mind.” Though China is still very much open to foreigners, particularly in large cities, it still remains a monocultural nation. This means that foreigners will clearly stand out — especially in smaller cities where they are not expected to reside.

      • Oh right, that’s it, Chris. You prefaced it by saying to the “Chinese mind.” But when you said, “Remember, you are a guest in their country,” you did NOT preface that with anything. So when I see a visibly East Asian person in North America, I hope they all remember that they are guests in my country. That’s how we should treat them.

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