Arizona, one of the most frequent comments that people would make when they found out that I speak Spanish was "It must be nice to be able to understand what they're saying about you".
However, in all my comings & goings around Spanish speakers, I never once heard anyone I didn't know talk about me in Spanish as I waited in the line at the grocery store - or anywhere else for that matter.
Of course, I did my fair share of eavesdropping, but the conversations that I heard were almost always about mundane things - "Did you get the avocados?", "How much were the tortillas?", "Papa called & said to hurry up with the piñata." They were in their own worlds, talking about what was important to them - I didn't figure into their chit-chat.
I've been in China for a little over a year now, & I've been earnestly trying to add Chinese to my foreign-language repertoire. My current language studies include eavesdropping on other people's conversations to see how much I can understand. I spend my days surrounded by a cacophany of unintelligible language, but each day I understand just a little bit more.
The other day I noticed that I can now get the gist of what people are saying - for the most part. Even though I don't understand the details, I can tell if someone is talking about their plans for the weekend or what they had for lunch. & surprisingly, I've started to hear other people talking about me.
I often notice people noticing me. I'm a foreigner here & people are amazed by that. When I step on the subway, people often do a double-take then quickly look away, trying not to stare. Some people take photos of me with their cell phones, trying to make it look like they're checking their email. Children point at me & tell their parents they see a laowai, a foreigner.
All of this I've been experiencing from the start. But now that my Chinese is kind of decent, I'm also starting to hear people say things like, "Hey Zhou, look at the foreigner!" or "That foreigner sure is tall" or "I bet she's from England." Often I pretend that I don't understand, allowing myself to be the object of speculation, the mysterious white alien. It's kind of fun. My next language learning challenge will be to actually respond to their comments - in a nice way, of course.
Learning another language opens lots of doors for us. We can learn about another culture, speak to people from other countries, & get a much better understanding of the world around us. It also takes away the mystery & makes what was once alien & exotic seem terrestrial. Our fantasy version of a culture is tranformed into reality - a reality where we're not so different from each other after all.