I Was Treated Like A Celebrity In China Because Of My Skin Color

I Was Treated Like A Celebrity In China Because Of My Skin Color

"I felt noticed and important, thinking to myself: this is exactly how Lizzie McGuire felt when she pretended to be Isabella."

Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

I was only 17 when I got the experience of a lifetime to travel to China with my high school and as an avid “Lizzie McGuire” viewer back in the day, I expected nothing short of amazing from a class trip out of the country. Even though the only flying experience I had prior to the trip was a quick 3-hour flight to New York the summer before, I knew that an opportunity like this scarcely comes around and if that meant I had to bear a 13-hour flight, so be it.

Before I got to China, I wanted to know everything exactly what to expect; although “Mulan” was one of my favorite Disney princesses growing up, I hardly thought that would be an accurate portrayal of what was to come so I asked my World History teacher who had traveled to China before what the experience would be like. I expected him to say things like “real Chinese food is way different from what American Chinese food” or “if you smell burning in the middle of the night, don’t worry. It’s just the smog.”

Instead, he said, “People are going to take pictures with you and of you because they don’t see black people often.” Wait, what? That was the last thing I expected to hear. Surely, he was joking or at least exaggerating because the concept of people wanting to take pictures of me just because of my skin color was so bizarre I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I found out later he wasn’t joking.

The first day I got to China my tour group and I traveled to the Summer Palace. I was immediately immersed in the beauty of the country, from the architecture to the scenery, and even the people. But just as I was fascinated with the Chinese people around me, they were fascinated with me. The moment we got there, a man started following me around taking pictures of me. He didn’t even try and make it subtle, like the way people do when they take a picture of their crush to show their best friend later, he just walked right up to me and started snapping.

I recalled words my teacher said to me right before the trip, “think of it this way, imagine if you saw a person with blue skin, wouldn’t you think it’s rare enough to take a picture?” I understood the perspective but was still shocked at how everything went down. As the days went on, more people came up to me asking for pictures together, saying yes meant opening the floodgates to many more requests and soon I had countless photos with strangers.

I’m not going to lie, it was a thrilling rush. I felt noticed and important, thinking to myself: this is exactly how Lizzie McGuire felt when she pretended to be Isabella. However, as things got complicated for Lizzie in the movie, things started to get complicated for me.

On our walk on the Great Wall of China, my friend and I, who is also black, ventured off together to take some pictures on the wall. After we got our pictures, we were walking back to meet up with our group but were stopped and asked for pictures. We complied but halfway through the photo sessions, my friend realized that she lost an iPod she was holding for a friend. We were surrounded by so many people grabbing us left and right we couldn’t break out from the circle of people that enclosed us, forcing us to take pictures with them.

In the middle of crying, my friend had to quickly wipe away her tears away to get a smiling picture with the people around us. That moment showed me a sliver of what real celebrities must go through and even though I knew they are often forced to put on an act, seeing my friend go through that was jarring. My friend never found the iPod after we broke out of the circle.

Being a “celebrity” for a couple of days is probably my most interesting experience. My trip to China was an amazing memory that I will hold with me for the rest of my life. It taught me that you can never know what someone is going through and if I ever want to be an instant celebrity, I just have to take a trip across the world.

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