I expected it would happen–that my daughter might draw attention when we went out in Shanghai. It happened a little when we were in Ciudad Juarez. But then, for obvious reasons, like narco-trafficking gangs and a dearth of sightseeing spots, we did not go out all that much in Juarez. And given Juarez’s border location, many residents spend quite a bit of time in the U.S., so a blonde-haired child is really not that out of the ordinary. Plenty of Juarenses are blonde themselves.
In the China of 1994 I was the subject of some curiosity on the train from Beijing to Chengdu; a wedding party in Qingdao-which one of these people does not belong?
China is different though. I knew that. When I was in Beijing as a student in 1994 I had my fair share of “oh my gosh it’s a foreigner!” experiences. I was aggressively stared at, grabbed, photographed, and petted. A woman once, in a terrifying display of jungle cat reflexes, vaulted over her store counter to grab hold of my hair. When I stopped to admire some footwear at an underground shoe store, I was soon surrounded by a group of curious onlookers. In one holiday weekend in Qingdao, my friends and I were asked to stand alongside no less than 20 bridal parties for photos.
Twenty two years later China is not the same place. In 1994 there were around 26,000 foreigners studying across China (1,257 of them were from the US according to the Institute of International Education), while today there are over 300,000. Currently, there are some 170,000 non-Chinese (i.e. not from Macao, Hong Kong, or Taiwan) residing in Shanghai alone. No doubt that is a drop in the bucket of the over 14 million Chinese residents, but it is far more than the approximate 6,000 registered foreigners in the city in 1994. And the Chinese in the big cities like Shanghai are sophisticated, educated, international-minded people. They travel overseas. They study overseas. They work in multi-national companies. They speak foreign languages. These days no one in the big cities is interested in having their picture taken with me. I do not cause a stir going about my daily business. Thank goodness.
However, that does not appear to apply to children.
On the right is what happened when I stopped to consult my map while we visited Pudong during Chinese New Year week in February 2015. What was particularly interesting to me was not only the crowd wanting photos of my daughter, but they wanted photos with my daughter. Even the grown man on the bottom right in the brown leather jacket. On the left we stop along the walkway around West Lake in Hangzhou in April 2015. Some girls had stopped to ask if they could take a photo of C and I said they could – the rest of the crowd took advantage.
From our first day out, my blonde, curly haired, fair skinned child has been the subject of interest. A LOT of interest. The kind of in-your-face, pushy, camera-wielding-hordes-type interest, akin to celebrity paparazzi. Some people are respectful and will approach me and tell me in Chinese, broken English, or excellent English that my daughter is very cute and ask if they can take her picture. Some try to take the pictures on the sly, which is easy enough to do with camera phones, but they are giggling so much and/or talking loudly in Chinese about my daughter and their secret photo taking, not realizing I can understand. Others are bold in their complete disregard of how either I or my daughter might feel about their photo taking. They may touch my daughter’s hair, her arms, her cheeks.
I get it. Soon after arriving in Juarez I took my then 8 month old child on a tour that included a market in the historic downtown. Our guide warned me that people may stop to admire my child and in so doing would be compelled to touch her – not doing so would bring about the “Mal de Ojo” or Evil Eye and unfortunate consequences for the child. I do not know of a similar superstition in China, but that does not mean there is not one. Or that such touching is not simply a function of a different sense of personal space or of cultural mores not extending to foreigners (because physical contact and affection between even people you know, much less strangers, is not a Chinese tradition)? Or maybe cute children are simply irresistible? I too am guilty of taking pictures of beautiful children on my travels.
This seems completely normal, right? Just a day out in the city and people whip out their cell phone cameras or their telephoto lenses to capture your child sitting in her stroller sucking her fingers or sporting a new hat you just bought her from the street-side hat seller just to my left out of the frame.
I will admit it; I also find it flattering that people admire my child. I am her mom and I naturally think she is quite special. But there are times when the attention is terribly intrusive. For instance, when we took the train back to Shanghai from Hangzhou. Thirty minutes into the journey a man boarded the train and sat in the seats in front of us. He showed great interest in my daughter and he turned around and snapped a picture of her. I happened to notice him scrolling through the photos on his phone and saw he had not one, but two photos of my daughter. In one of those photos my daughter is wearing a different outfit – it was from another day! That bordered on disturbing.
My daughter has come to really dislike the attention. In the beginning when people approached me to ask to photograph her I generally agreed. However I noticed that C became irritated rather quickly by the attention. (It was very hard not to notice) She would hide her face, slump down in her stroller, turn around her face could not be seen, or make faces at the camera. But the requests kept coming every time we were out and about, and I began to feel less and less good about allowing these strangers to take a photograph despite C’s obvious discomfort. So then I began to tell people if they would like a photo they have to ask my daughter and they may do so in English or Chinese. With the ball in her court, my daughter usually consents to a few photos and then retreats. Her stroller now has a canopy that she pulls down as low as it will go and those who attempt to pull it back often receive an unwelcome surprise – my daughter hisses at them like an angry cat!
My daughter actually agreed to these photos!
All of this attention raises two big questions in my mind. The first is how will this affect my child as she grows? Will this make her self-centered? Will she become less and less inclined to go out? Will she become withdrawn? I do not have the answer but I do not want us to stay inside our apartment complex all the time when there are so many things to see and do in Shanghai. I do not want my child to feel fear or frustration from the attention but rather learn to handle it and positively express herself (we have to get beyond the cat growling and hissing).
The second is what in the world are all those people doing with photos of my child?