It has been a very long time since I visited in China, over ten years. I enjoyed my trip very much. I stayed in Shanghai mostly with entry and customs in Beijing. I noticed something, the staring. I have been to other Asian countries as well as many countries around the world and no where were people less abashed about openly string at me. I am pretty stereotypically Scandinavian in my looks so I can understand some looking but people on the street just seemed to stare at me, straight in the face and eyes without looking away. Made me kind of feel very uncomfortable and kind of like a freak. Is this a common reaction and why did I seem to encounter so much more of it in China than other countries?
Also in contrast the customs/immigration officials did not look at my face at all. They just looked at my passport and visa and did not look up once even to match that I was even the same race as my picture. I have been enjoying reading some of the posts in your blog, I have not gotten too far yet but subscribed for future reading.
You know your email name is almost identical to a Polish poster recently?
Anyway in Europe/Western cultures your mother always taught you never to stare it's rude, in China as recently as 20 years ago staring was perfectly acceptable and some people due to the unequal changing and shaping of society is still is acceptable. The ten years ago you talk about is when foreigners were REALLY rare in China. I still remember the mid 1990s when Beijing was chocka with bicycles the bicycle footbridges still exist today but are no longer used as the car and moped have taken over. I guess you found it more prevalent in China because foreigners in China are still fairly rare China sees them in movies and has the odd English teacher but there are few large groupings of foreigners in China.
In the UK you have China town, India town, Korea town... areas like South London where the population is predominantly black. In China it is hegemonic and everywhere you look Han Chinese.
If you find it annoys you then simply stare back 9/10 time times they will look away and blush.
Don't worry though TCG gets stared at in China all the time for the most mundane things, at the end of my 2009 big motorbike ride (see link at the top of the page) I ended up in Beijing. I wore army boots because they could be ridden and walked in easily. I could feel people staring at me... Though in truth a combination of a westernised diet and environment has caused me to look different from other Chinese people. Stand me next to my relatives who stayed in China and HK and it is easy to spot me apart (I actually find it hard to blend in whilst in China. My sister has identical experiences. So don't worry about it.
The looks you will receive are usually out of curiosity especially if you are in a city where few foreigners live. When I travelled to Urumqi China (essentially the middle of nowhere) I was stared at a lot as I simply did not blend in. For most people in China their lives are not great. They work long hours in factories or uninteresting jobs which are both dull and repetitive. Your brief appearance may lighten up their day and act as some sort of interest for them to talk about later on and thus they are scanning you.
In fact many of them are having an internal struggle in their heads attempting to muster up the courage to talk to you. I mean there are 10000s of schools of English in China and yet nearly 100% of the people who go to these schools have no opportunity to use what they have learnt.
Granted this is rude to us, but it's pretty normal in China.
So you get stared at, it's just the culture. As stated earlier you can stare back! I do this whenever I get the chance (not often). Usually, the offender starer drops the gaze and turns red. If I'm nasty I will keep looking at them (though this has more than once almost led to violence).
Then smile and walk away or even approach them if you want to have a chat.
Some people may take photos of you too, the thing is they will have double standards! Yank out your camera and take photos of them or photo bomb them and make the photo look bad.
But don't take yourself too seriously in China. Have fun and enjoy the attention. People are just curious. It might get annoying after awhile but hey you're (semi) famous!
Remember as a foreigner you will need to accept that you will be stared at simply for being different. You will usually be taller, fatter, and often paler then most Chinese, and this means that the more of your white skin that you expose, the more staring you will receive. You are expected to abide by a different set of rules simply because you are a foreigner, and you will be treated differently as such even if you act or dress in the same way as the Chinese.
I'd note this will happen less in tourist heavy areas as they are used to what foreigners look like, though this is not always true. As said my motorbike trip 2009 I did look weird. I was heavily emaciated from Russian food and booze and yet I was walking through tourist places like the Forbidden City tourist trap Hutongs etc and would still get looked at.
Regarding the passport thing, they immigration officers simply don't care, and really in getting your visa the embassy should have done its job in checking who you were. Visas in China are a money making scam for the government anyway and 100% of people never dare press the button on many immigration desks asking how my service is today!