When was the last time you were approached by a stranger who threw their arms around you and got their friends to franticly snap photographs?
Now, unless your name is Brad Pitt, this may be an occurrence that you have little familiarity with.
However, many non-Asian travellers in China find that they don’t have to stray far from the tourist trail to be gawked at, and in numerous cases, photographed by complete and utter strangers.
Here are some tips for dealing with and making sense of a bizarre situation.
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Know what to expect and smile for the camera
As we arrived in China’s capital just one month before the Olympic Games, anticipation hung heavy in the air. The government and citizens alike continued to work tirelessly to put their best foot forward and show the world as a whole of the greatness of Earth’s most populous nation. From the brand new dragon-shaped terminal at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, to the rows of freshly-planted trees that lined the highways, China eagerly awaited visitors from all over the planet. While the Communist government would relish the chance to showcase their nation on the global stage, it was the Chinese people who most eagerly awaited the games.
After all, they would soon have a golden opportunity to snag that coveted picture of themselves with a foreigner that would surely impress – or perhaps entertain their friends.
Being whisked along in a tour group to all the famous sights in this city of almost twelve million residents, it took but one stop to notice the stares and get the impression that people were talking about us. It was in The Forbidden City, the legendary palace complex of Chinese Emperors, where members of my group were first approached by random tourists holding cameras.
At first, it appeared that these friendly strangers were simply asking a fellow tourist to take their photograph in front of a famous landmark, but this we would soon find out was not the case.
After a few uncomfortable and confused moments the real request would traverse the boundaries of international communication. “You want me to be in the photo with you? Well, I don’t know you, but, um, sure why not. . .”
Embrace your newfound superstardom and rise to fame
Despite living in an increasingly wired nation that continues to play a greater role in the international community, most Chinese locals live in a highly homogeneous society with regards to race and ethnic background. While the People’s Republic of China officially recognises fifty-five ethic minority groups living within the national boundaries, ninety-two percent of China’s population is Han Chinese. This figure constitutes almost 1/5th of the World’s total population. As a white Canadian of mixed European ancestry I recognized that I was very much a minority on the global stage – particularly when travelling in China.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics were meant to be a ‘coming out’ party of sorts; an event to signify China’s return to the global mainstream after years of lurking in the shadows. As a visitor in China, I couldn’t help but get the impression that few Chinese had ever come across a white person in the flesh. While cities like Shanghai and Beijing are no strangers to ex-pats, international businessmen, and of course tourists, the hinterlands of China – those large industrial cities unheard of by most people outside of the country – are not exactly hotbeds of foreign-Sino cultural exchanges.
So who’s to say that it’s a bad thing to play up your new-found fame for all it’s worth? After all, in China you can feel like Pauly Shore or the guy who played Screech on Saved By the Bell without ever having to struggle through the highs and lows of an acting career. Enjoy your ever-fleeting celebrity status without having to embarrass yourself as an American Idol audition outtake that gets major views on YouTube.
People will always be curious about those who are different from themselves and maybe, just maybe, being photographed with strangers is the first step in a process towards greater cultural understanding and exchange. Remember that when you get home, nobody will care if you stand by a fountain or buy a pack of gum, so my advice is to enjoy your fifteen minutes of fame and embrace it for all it’s worth.
Mind your manners and be a good sport
The polite paparazzo that you may encounter on the tourist trail are probably not residents of China’s global cities, but part of the emerging middle class who can now afford to travel domestically within their own massive nation. Tourists from places like Nanning and Chongqing may not come across Westerners on a regular basis and may find you almost as interesting as the cultural or historical site that they are visiting.
At 6’5″ tall, my father was the Yao Ming of our group, both in stature and in popularity. On several occasions smaller dads would walk up to him while giggling as they extended a line through the air between the top of their own head and took notice to where the imaginary line reached in comparison to my own father’s frame. My mother on the other hand was often asked to pose with other mothers or younger women in some sort of strange cultural-juxtaposition photo essay.
While posing for photographs was common at all the tourist hotspots and UNESCO World Heritage Sights, stares and slow, 360 degree once-overs appeared to be the norm in smaller cities and work-a-day neighbourhoods. During a snack run to a corner-store in suburban Wuxi in Jiangsu province, I could have sworn that my hair was on fire by the way the staff and customers looked at me. Personally I found the experience hilarious, but other members of our group admitted that they thought this was a bit unnerving. At the end of the day however, no harm was done and no foul committed.
Losing it on another shopper or talking smack to somebody who was no idea what you are saying doesn’t help the situation, and won’t lead to a Nobel Peace Prize for the resolution of an international misunderstanding. Remember that you are a guest in a foreign country, an ambassador for your own country, and that your behaviour will always be subjected to a certain cultural and temporal yardstick.
Give them a taste of their own medicine
I didn’t have to go any further than the Great Wall of China to have my own experience with these unfamiliar photographers. Here at the nation’s ubiquitous tourist attraction and national symbol, I would be mobbed by hordes of school children visiting from somewhere that certainly was not Beijing. As I made my way up the hundreds of steps towards the top of the wall in humid 30 degree temperatures, I was stopped repeatedly to pose for photographs and to say ‘hello’ – an English word that every Chinese person seems to know.
Once I had reached the top I decided to turn the tables on my hosts and recruit some school children for a picture of my own! The result was a lot of confused faces and some blank stares. After a few minutes of organisation and some moderate haranguing, I managed to get my coveted photograph. The results of my experiment were mixed. Some of the children appeared to enjoy the experience. Others may have been a little creeped out. Still many others just looked confused. It was almost as if their requests for a photo was a perfectly valid and logical thing to do, while my attempt at documenting the mayhem was just bizarre.
Accept the experience as an interesting social phenomenon
This flash-happy occurrence is, of course, not inherent to China alone and may not continue for too much longer as the Western world and China continue down a path of mutual partnership and camaraderie. While ‘photo-ops’ were a daily occurrence in Mainland China, the experience did not manage to follow our tour group across Guangdong Province and into the formerly British-dependent Hong Kong.
But why China? What makes this phenomenon so prevalent in Mainland China, but not nearly as rampant in Hong Kong or Japan?
Perhaps it the availability of cheap, mass-produced China consumer products like digital cameras, coupled with the shear geographic distance between our two regions that supplies the necessary kindling to spark this trend. Fuel is thrown onto the fire as the likelihood of meetings and interaction between Westerner tourists and Chinese domestic tourists has risen as more and more Chinese set off to see their own national treasures. Before you know it you’ve got the all the conditions necessary to produce a fire – a genuine, observable, social phenomenon.
Westerners who choose to venture outside of their comfort bubble will often be met with interest – be it the opportunity to practice one’s English, to make a new friend, swindle a couple extra bucks, find a partner, or in this case – take a photograph. I believe that it is experiences like this that make international travel such an adventure and one of life’s great joys. Happy travelling!