We sang our first song acapella, on a red carpeted stage, with blinding LED spotlights, in front of over 200 people.
We practiced for weeks leading up to this moment. It was a big deal to some of us because a charity was involved. I looked over to my friend from San Diego who put the entire event together and was acting as tonight's MC, and he gave me a head nod. 3, 2, 1…
“Silent night, Holy Night..."
A few days before this past Christmas, 10 foreign teachers from my school went caroling. It might have been the first time Christmas caroling has been performed in the city where I live. If not, it was definitely the first time for 10 white ~ wai guo ren’s ~ (foreign country persons) to do it.
My friends and I are a part of a very small minority here in a countryside China town called Jinhua (in the Zhejiang province, about 2 hours southwest of Shanghai).
We are outsiders. We are white people. We also speak English. All of which is extraordinarily rare here. I promise I’m not overstating. Out of the close to 2 million people in the local area, maybe 1,000 are white foreigners. That’s .05%.
Silent Night went poorly because our guitarist showed up late. We were relying heavily on the guitarist because we can’t sing, have no melody, and were on a stage performing in front of hundreds of people.
We shrugged the rough start off though, and by the time we all flipped our lyrics books to Hark the Herald Angels Sing, our guitarist was plugged in and the nerves had subsided.
Looking back, it was silly to be nervous. The people watching didn’t know our names, our family, friends, Instagram handles, and couldn’t understand a word we were saying. But we’re human and rejection is rejection anywhere. (And, we really did sound terrible.)
I blinked and the crowd began to swell.
We had a lot of support at the event from our school, Chinese teachers, their friends, students, and students’ families all showed up and were helping to collect money for the charity, but when I peered out into the growing swarm of spectators, I could see unfamiliar, smiling, and gaping open-mouthed Asian faces.
I’m used to that look. I get it every single day. It’s a look that says “I’m a stranger completely dumbfounded by you. You are a spectacle.”
You know in America or other Western cultures, when you’re staring at someone you think you know but maybe you’re not 100% sure you do, or you’re staring at a very attractive person, or even someone famous, and you get caught, you do a quick look-a-way and pretend you weren’t looking?
In countryside China, there’s no quick look-a-way. It’s so rare to see any person who’s not Chinese that looking away out of shyness or out of courtesy isn't an afterthought, much less a triggered unconscious response.
Sure, it felt degrading to be leered at like a zoo animal when I first got here, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. The more I think about it, my discomfort early on had nothing to do with them. Their interest in me comes from an honest place of curiosity, not one of disrespect. And now, if I’m being honest, I think a part of me likes the attention.
A few years back, I was at a rap concert and my friend leaned over to me and yelled over the deafening music, pointing to the piano player behind the rapper, “If you had a choice to live the most comfortable life in the world, made really good money, had your dream job, dream wife, but you were the man behind the man…would you choose that lifestyle? Or do you want to be the man? Do you want the fame?”
I told him I wanted the fame. Maybe that’s a really naive and self-indulgent answer but it’s the truth.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be famous. I’ve pretended virtually my whole life. In my most center of attention-filled moments, I’ve pretended. During basketball games. At my birthday parties. My high school graduation party. During speeches. When I post on social media. When I did a national radio interview earlier this year with my friend. Everyone is focused on you. You’re showered with attention, but it’s a deep kind of attention, one that says you’re doing something special and that you’re worthy.
What a great feeling. You feel so much connection. It's why our culture is so enraptured with fame, we want that feeling.
It’s why most people are unafraid to confess being the ogling spectator who watches Entertainment Tonight, reads People Magazine, and unabashedly embraces their innate desire to be famous. To be a Kardashian, to be friends with a Kardashian, to be followed on Instagram by a Kardashian. It’s a glimpse into a world with unlimited red BMW’s, spontaneous trips to Paris, weddings only queens deserve, and also a deeply satisfying human need, love and admiration.
Still, I know a lot of people who pretend that they don’t like attention, that they don’t want to be famous, they think it shows a lack of character or something, but I’m not ashamed to admit I do.
Deep down it’s human to want to feel valued, deeply respected and admired, which fame most certainly delivers. I realize it’s a slippery slope, that needing that sort of approval from people is dangerous because it’s ephemeral and because you’re basing your self-esteem on something external. Maybe fame brings out some ugly narcissistic tendencies too. But, we’re human, imperfect and there are negative side effects to everything.
In reality, what if our desire for fame and recognition is the real reason behind why we all work so hard? What if it’s the reason we stay up to 1am to finish studying for an exam, perfect a new song or a blog post, and polish up a business proposal or a design?
It’s possible that the desire for fame and deep appreciation is the underlying catalyst for all creation and the advancing of society.
It might not be. But it also might be a major part of it.
Once we got through the traditional church songs, everyone loosened up.
We hit, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, Frosty The Snowman, Oh, Christmas Tree. The classics. The crowd was sipping hot chocolate, the Bailey’s in my hot chocolate had kicked in, dozens of people were sporting Santa hats we handed out, and they were all trying so hard to sing along. Countryside China has Christmas spirit. This was fun.
We rounded out the performance with Rudolph and Feliz Navidad.
My San Diego-an friend thanked the crowd in fluent Chinese and I followed my friend Jeff off the stage and noticed two attractive twenty-something Chinese women giggling and smiling at us.
They made the picture-flashing hand gesture. Of course we obliged. Who are we to say no to our loyal, unyielding fans?
Fame grants you a special platform. It gives you infinitely more reach and more authority. Our caroling event raised over 20,000 RMB (about 3,300 USD) for charity in less than 45 minutes.
Do you think we would have raised that much had we not been white foreigners? Not a chance. In America, would your charity raise more money and awareness if you had DiCaprio caroling at your event or me?
There is a problem with fame. Dreaming and constantly obsessing over fame can make you believe that you can be somebody and just have all of that, without actually doing any work.
That’s what I’ve learned about being ‘famous’ in China -- the special treatment I get is not real. I’m a Kardashian. I haven’t actually done anything to deserve any additional respect or admiration, which is why it feels wrong. I just look different and because of where I’m from, I’m crowned.
Okay. I have no idea what it’s like to be famous. I won’t unless I actually become famous. Which won’t happen unless I run into Jennifer Lawrence and tell her that my grandfather lived next to her parents house on Ormond Ave in St. Matthews growing up, and we used to play together in her wooden tree house, and she remembers and we laugh about it and then we grab drinks, we date and get married.
But wait, even then I'm fake famous.
But until that day comes, I’ve realized that no matter where you live or where you are in life, it feels good to be noticed, valued and appreciated. It’s not shameful to desire that. It’s human.
Some days in China, I wear my hood up and speak softly. I want to blend in and not be seen. What have I done?
But lately, I feel guilty if I don’t embrace the fact that I’m an anomaly where I live. I feel remorse if I don’t step up on the platform and do something with it. As long as I’m working, as long as I’m doing something, I think I can feel good about it.