the pictures for this post have no relation with the post whatsoever. A tree in Yili.

Number 2 in a never-ending series on what the !*&^@#*& are people thinking?

I’ve recently been thinking about what other people think about me. I am not doing so out of egocentrism, per se, but rather due to the bizarrely diverse array of assessments concerning my own appearance that I’ve received, unsolicited and free of charge, over the past year or so. In the past two weeks alone, people have told me that I look like:

  • Marx (of Communism, not of comedy)
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Some Boy from Twilight
  • Marx (again)
  • Someone from a “斯坦的国家” – a “-stan country”.
  • A Tibetan
  • A European
  • A Xinjiang person (Uighur)
  • Marx (again. really.)

Admittedly, the frequency of Marx comparisons has increased in proportion to the size of my beard. If it continues to grow, Marx will soon be abandoned Confucius.

But in all seriousness, how could one be compared to all of the above figures (not to mention Osama Bin Laden  last year) and not start to wonder what people are thinking when they see me wander down the street? I look so foreign and unfamiliar that a few of the quieter students – whom I’ve been teaching ten hours per week for more than four months – still can’t speak to me without bursting into nervous, confused laughter.

ETP H-B after getting into the finals of the relay race competition. This was originally a six-legged race (yes - five students tying their legs together), but the format was changed to a simple relay after several students were hospitalized

The confusion over my appearance was especially evident this weekend. Despite temperatures in the grasslands approximating those of Pluto’s outermost satellites, I took a trip to Xiahe/Labrang. As my recent work productivity at home had dropped precipitously, I wanted to finish writing my final exams amidst different surroundings. Happily, I can state that this goal was accomplished, as the lack of internet in the hostel precluded distractions (aka Jon Stewart et al).

Due to the aforementioned frigid temps, I decided to wear my brilliantly warm fake-sheepskin Tibetan jacket for the trip. Little did I consider the added attention (even for random Northwest China) I would get in such attire.

Walking down the street, I would get the average stares from those who didn’t look at me carefully. But for those individuals who were looking carefully, I caused (not to put it too technically) a full-scale explosion of the brain and associated cranial organs. Eyes popped free of sockets. Neurons crumpled helplessly in defeat. Mucus uninhibitedly sprung free of noses. Faces showed confusion, defeat, loss. Etc.

In simple terms, here was the mental problem (impossibility?) I presented. I was wearing a Tibetan jacket and my face was mostly covered by a scarf and hat much like those worn by motorcycle-riding local nomads. The only clue as to my not being a local (aside from my inability to speak Tibetan) was the small patch of my face showing between the bottom of my hat – just above my eyes – and the top of the scarf – which rested high atop the bridge of my nose. One or two inches of white skin visible between overlapping layers of fabric. I was in some ways a local, and yet I was evidently not.

And the white skin was noticed, and its presence invariably stopped people cold.

What did these people think I was? A strangely light-skinned local? [these people do exist, and, I’m sure, are constantly mocked for being foreign-looking] A representative of some strange nomadic tribe from across the mountains? Marx/Osama/Lincoln/That Boy From Twilight in hiding?

And more importantly, why does my appearance seem to matter so much? Why does the question of what, exactly, I am seem to carry so much import? So much stock is put in appearances that oftentimes little stock is left for anything else. The initial judgments concerning me, or you, or anyone at all, really, from Obama to Hu Jintao to the recently-passed-away Dear Leader to your parents and families and friends; these judgments, once made, will likely never be overcome. Judgments which will be generalized not only to your family, but to all of your ‘kind’ – race, nationality, religion. Judgments which transform themselves into law engraved upon the stone tablets of the mind. The mind is always searching for resolution, classifications, neat categories. None of us fit. The mind explodes.

Regardless of thoughts, it was interesting to wear the Tibetan jacket and scarf for the weekend simply as a sociological experiment. What do I look like, anyway – and does this appearance have any correspondence with who I am?

Who knows. But as I continue to garner comparisons (physical) to Marx et al, I continue to wonder about what the hell is going on inside peoples’ heads when they see me.

Samir, Leader of Men (aka ETP HB class monitor) ordering some of our other students around at the race


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One Response to Appearances

  1. ibuibulai says:

    How did your students end up in the hospital as part of a relay race?!? over-enthusiasm/aggression/competitiveness??
    ah the getting of strange looks, ad nauseum…. though nobody’s compared me to anybody strange recently.

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