Everyone must have wondered at some point “What’s it like being a celebrity?”. Most of us will never know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of the rich and famous. Except for a Westerner, there’s a way to experience life as an A-lister, travel abroad!
In many countries around the world, particularly in Asia and Africa, Westerners from all walks of life become minor celebrities, simply because they’re a Westerner. But why? How are we treated so differently? In this article, I’m going to look at some of the ways Westerners feel like celebrities while abroad, for better or for worse.
Table of Contents
You’re a Rare Sight
The whole reason you’re treated so differently in the first place is that many people simply haven’t seen a Westerner before! Of course, it’s not the case in every country. Countries like Singapore, Thailand and Japan are so familiar and exposed to the West that the sight of us isn’t anything special.
However, once you venture to lesser-known countries or more rural areas, sightings of Westerners become much rarer, and you’ll quickly become a fascination! You’ll constantly be stared at whilst walking through the street (sometimes blatantly), and might even be pointed at as you hear whispers of “Wow, look, anAmerican!”, which most people assume you are.
“May We Have a Picture?”
It’s an absolute guarantee that you will be asked for a photo at least once during your travels. As you’re a rare sight, much like if you saw a panda in a zoo, you’re going to want a photo to remember the experience.
You can’t help but feel like a celebrity as groups of people timidly approach you asking for a picture and start to giggle like schoolgirls when you put your hand around them. Blondes, redheads and tall blue-eyed people are by far the most popular, as they’re not really found outside of the West, at least not naturally.
Most of the time, people are very polite when they ask, but even so, it gets pretty tiring when it happens 10, 15 or 20 times a day. But what’s really annoying is the sneaky photos. You’ll notice people trying to point their phones at you discreetly in places like subways or restaurants, trying to snap a pic without you realising. That becomes very annoying very quickly.
“Time For a Few Questions?”
Sometimes on your travels, people will come up to you just wanting a little chat, particularly if they’ve got some level of English. Some people are just generally interested in having a conversation with you or getting to interact with a foreigner who visits their country.
Other times they’re motivated by learning. A few children and young adults might approach you that want to ask a few questions. They’re looking for someone to practice their English with, and a Westerner is an obvious target. Some students are literally brought to tourist spots and told to hunt down foreigners for an interview.
Again, much like a celebrity, it’s entertaining at first. But after a full day of answering the same set of questions “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Do you like it here?” It gets a little tiring.
You’ll Become a Tool
Though you might find plenty of locals wanting to be your friend, sometimes there are ulterior motives. You’ll find that while abroad some people want to befriend you, not for your friendship, but simply to claim that they have a Westerner as a friend.
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They’ll want to post photos with you across their social media so everyone can see that they socialise with a wide variety of international friends. You’ll be brought to events just to be showed off, essentially becoming nothing more than a status symbol.
You Become an Object
The problem with all the stares and constant photographs is that, at times, you simply become an object. You’re no longer a person, you’re simply seen as a “foreigner”. For many, you’ll be nothing more than a novelty toy to play with.
Most people are perfectly decent and polite individuals who respect you as a person, but some people don’t. You’ll find many people don’t consider how you feel and just want you to dance like a monkey.
You really begin to appreciate why some celebrities seem like assholes. These people are just going about their normal day and are suddenly disturbed by some disrespectful and provocative piece of shit who sticks a camera in their face and asks them questions about their personal life. Sometimes you just want to be left alone.
You’d be surprised how many doors become open to you as a Westerner abroad, literally! People will often invite you into their homes and prepare home-cooked meals or give you a bed for the night. Restaurants and bars will try to entice you into their place of business to give this foreigner a local experience.
It’s really a combination of everything we’ve talked about already. Most of the time these people have nothing but the kindest of hearts who really want to look after and interact with a foreigner in their country. Other times the Westerner abroad can be seen as the novelty to have around. Either way, how often are random foreigners invited into our homes in the West?
Get In For Free
For the 2 years I lived in China, whenever I went to a club I didn’t pay for a single drink…not once. Why? Because I’m a foreigner, and foreigners attract young locals. With those young folk come the older (and hopefully richer) gentlemen who are willing to pay ridiculous amounts for tables and drinks. Simple business.
Of course, don’t expect to get the entire world given to you for free just because you’re a foreigner. But it’s no secret that certain industries (particularly in Asia) want Westerners there, and realise that we’re quite an attractive incentive for locals. Therefore places like clubs, bars, even gyms will do whatever they can to bring foreigners in.
Where You’re From Matters
Where you’re from will give people an immediate impression of you, for better or for worse. Of course, practically the entire world is guilty of this. Plenty of people make snap judgments based on where a person is from and it’s a real shame.
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Most people will immediately assume you’re American, which is pretty divisive around the world. You’re either immediately associated with TV shows, musical artists or basketball, or you’re looked at as a supporter of Trump. I’ve heard first-hand stories from Americans who prefer saying the state they’re from than claiming to be “American” or simply saying their Canadian to avoid any trouble!
It goes to the other end of the spectrum too. The British have it quite nicely in comparison. Speaking from experience, people automatically assume you’re more of the BBC and royal family persuasion, so already given an unfair advantage. Either way, your nationality will often correlate to how much of a celebrity you become.
Your Skin Colour Matters
It’s a sad reality that even in the West racism still exists. Even sadder still is that many parts of the world even further behind on the PC train. It’s no secret that in certain parts of the world, a certain skin colour will put you at an advantage compared to others. What’s more crazy is that even when you cross one border, the roles will be reversed.
Take China as an example, it’s a sad reality that white people are lorded so much higher than any other race. You will have people approaching you to compliment “wow, so white!“. While black people are seen as objects of fascination, people wanting their photo’s taken, touch the person’s hair and skin, and generally stare at them in wonderment. If you don’t believe me, then check out this National Geographic article.
We Get it Easier
Another way a Westerner is treated like a celebrity is that we have everything much easier when we travel abroad. We tend to get preferential treatment. Westerners get more hands out there willing to help, more invitations to people’s houses and offers of home-cooked meals. People wanting to befriend us and take care of us, simply because we’re foreigners.
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For some reason, many people such high regard towards a Westerner, and such, life becomes a little easier when we travel abroad. Is that the case when the roles are reversed? When’s the last time your family invited a random tourist into their home?
You Want a Job? No Problem!
For some people, it takes months of hard work and determination to find a job, especially when trying to find and maintain one abroad. Well in some ways for a Westerner abroad it’s much easier: “You speak English? Sure you can have a job!”,“Oh, you’re white? You’re hired!” And yes, skin colour does sadly play a role in that too, just look at my article on Being an ESL Teacher.
Absolutely it’s discriminatory and completely unfair, but it’s simply the case for many countries. Sometimes all you need is a degree (not even in a particular field), and maybe not even that. In some places, your skin colour and English ability are all that matters.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.