She was heading towards me. A classic Asian granny: hands behind back, slightly bowed, determinedly shuffling.
She saw me, stared in mixed awe and disbelief as she shuffled, and began capsizing into the gutter.
Fortunately, several of her countrymen/women were there to grab her. As I passed by, she was still staring. So were her helpers.
Fair enough. We were in Chengdu, 1000km southwest of Beijing. Everyone else in the street was Chinese: black-haired, olive-skinned, neat-featured. I was red-faced, bearded, XOS-nosed. I looked ... well, I prefer the word "exotic".
It still happens. Less than it used to: you can now join the throngs in Tiananmen Square and get only discreet glances, except for the odd traumatised toddler. But elsewhere in China, you get stared at. Fair enough again: think how we Kiwis gape at African visitors.
How to handle it? How to turn it and similar contacts to positive effect, in a society where face (even a red one) matters?
Herewith some trite tips.
• Knowing little of their language is excusable. Knowing none implies disregard for a whole culture. Learning and attempting greetings, thanks, a couple of acknowledgments brings nods and smiles (and occasional giggles). You've registered awareness of their mother tongue and of them.
• I carry a little world map in my wallet. Sometimes in restaurants, aircraft seats, buses, I'll unfold it for clearly curious persons and point to those islands at the world's edge. It often results in pleased understanding. It also means I'm not mistaken for an Australian or an American.
• Admire. Exclaim out loud at The Temple of Heaven. Lift your hands in obvious delight at Suzhou's perfect pagodas. We're gratified when we see visitors doing the same thing in New Zealand's beautiful areas.
• Smile. Murmur a polite greeting. Doing this to small kids, who of course are all vast incredulous eyes as you pass, frequently brings an appreciative response from accompanying adults. There: you've initiated an international connection.
• Be prepared for their hosting functions to acknowledge NZers where they feature the flag of ... Australia. It happens; consular staff told me.
• Be prepared also for their sole awareness of NZ being - gag - Lord of the Rings.
• Trust most people. Locals will be intrigued by you, a bit hesitant, but essentially well-intentioned. Someone in New Zealand who asks a traveller from a Distant Land "Can I help you?" nearly always means it. Why should intentions be different elsewhere?
• And be prepared to distrust a few. The signs are usually obvious: over-effusive greetings, insistence and persistence. Use that smile; murmur the words you've learned for "No, thank you"; move steadily.
• Dark glasses help. Polite gazes can become like poking fingers. Your face grows stiff; your mouth corners begin to wobble. Dark glasses insulate you a little. I've stopped sneering at celebs who use them. Except for Tom Cruise.
• Remember you're a de facto ambassador. People make assessments of your country based on you. And, alas, on people roughly like you. In Beijing, I saw three young Westerners yawping outside a nightclub while the doorman assured them "Yes! Chinese pole-dancers!" Passing locals stared at them in disdain. Then they stared at me with the same expression. Luckily and instinctively, I found myself frowning and shaking my head at the tumescent trio. The local faces saw me doing so, and softened.
• Be ready to lift transactions into triumphs. Successfully buying a bag of oranges or finding the subway is a victory not just for you, but for any local parties involved. They've averted embarrassment; made a breakthrough. It's cause for celebration. A grin, a handshake, a little bow all acknowledge this.