September 26, 2014, by Tony Hong
China and Warhol’s 15 Minutes of Fame
By Phoebe Smith,
Studying English at the University of Nottingham UK.
As a staunchly cynical soul, Andy Warhol’s 1968 prediction that ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’, has always struck me as a sadly accurate interpretation of today’s media-fuelled, body-conscious lifestyle. Before my visit to China, I viewed the modern Kardashian-style concept of fame as the epitome of Warhol’s dark prediction; however I have since found an even more profound example of his words.
Hailing from England’s south-east, I have always been familiar with large groups of Chinese tourists flocking around London and other major cities. In fact the spectacle is so familiar to the vast majority of Britons that we don’t so much as blink. Tourists come to Britain from so many varied places, and our population is so culturally diverse that it takes an awful lot to turn heads at home. Therefore it didn’t even occur to me that during my stay in China, our Summer School group which boasts many assorted nationalities, may well cause a stir. It seems that for European students here in China, Warhol’s prediction is taken to an entirely new level.
My first experience of this prevalent fascination with foreigners came before I had even landed. On the plane to Shanghai I was engaged in conversation by a charming Chinese boy called Michael, who was returning home to Hangzhou after studying for a year in the UK. I found it incredibly surprising just how interested he was in me and how many questions he had about general British culture, the answers to which I’d have thought he’d have come across while studying in Britain. My only conclusion to this quandary was that perhaps, like many Chinese students studying at Nottingham, Michael had befriended other Chinese students during his time in the UK, and not mixed much with the native students. This answer could well be correct as even at Nottingham, a UK university which boasts a highly international student-body, there is commonly an impermeable division between Eastern and Western students.
During my stay in China, I have slowly come to appreciate and understand the possible reasons for this strange and regrettable phenomenon. While in Britain we have a multi-cultural society which is very used to the sight of tourists and people from other continents, outside of the major tourist areas of China, the Chinese public rarely come into contact with foreign tourists. Even on Nottingham’s Ningbo campus, the international students do draw a few covert stares.
Therefore as a Caucasian girl studying in China, I and many others of the group had to quickly get used to our strange celebrity status amongst the public. Never in any other country have any of us felt we’ve drawn so much local curiosity. Even close to the international Ningbo uni campus, a few of our party were asked to pose for a photograph with a Chinese restaurant owner because they were his first foreign customers. Throughout our two week stay, we have become used to the stares our group draws and the requests we get to pose for photographs with people.
Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame seems almost guaranteed here for European students, our aesthetic differences inviting a lot of local attention. While this fascination at first feels flattering, it is not long until the constant staring and covert photographs begin to feel like the invasive attention celebrities often receive. Over the course of the summer school, many of us have found ways to deal with the attention we receive, such as moving away from a spot after being asked to pose for one photograph, so as not to encourage many more requests. Or even turning our cameras back on those who attempt to furtively follow us and take pictures without asking our permission.
Though seemingly only a strange, minor inconvenience, it is interesting to examine the mentality behind this phenomenon. It is possible that Westerners receive so much public attention in China for the same reason that students such as Michael, do not fully integrate with British students in the UK. It appears that while China has slowly opened up to the influences of Western media and fashion, the two cultures are not entirely compatible and so cannot be fully merged. Western images and perceptions of beauty can be seen everywhere in China, from cosmetics advertisements, to decorative images in non-native chains such as Pizza Hut. However while the Chinese public are familiar with Westerners in imported films and music, they rarely come into contact with any foreigners outside of the more popular tourist spots. In such a vast country, many indigenous people may not have visited their main national tourist attractions, and so are understandably curious when a group of students of various nationalities visit their more obscure city. Especially if these locals are only familiar with people from these foreign nationalities, from the imported media they receive.
Despite seeming less important than some other observable aspects of Chinese culture, this is an interesting facet of society which can merely be taken at face value or further analysed. This investigation allows us to discover the reason why everyday members of a progressively more Western influenced society, are so taken-aback by Western visitors to their previously closed-border country. As Eastern China gradually becomes a more attractive destination for Western tourists, this unusual aspect of the culture will most likely slowly disappear over time, which should herald a change that Western tourists can only welcome.