Stories from China: May I Take Your Picture?
Being one of two Westerners in a rural Japanese town leads to some staring. They still stare into my shopping basket in the grocery store and they still watch me walk into the bank. I thought I was used to it. I thought China couldn’t possibly stare any more than i was already accustomed to.
… Silly Kendra!
I was in Beijing, strolling down a winding hutong alley in the early morning on my way to my subway station and a shopkeeper waves, smiles… and pulls me into his open storefront and sits me down on the stool next to his. A place of honor from the look on his face. Passers-by chuckle and make jokes and use their smartphones to take pictures. Fifteen minutes of awkward “I only speak two words of Chinese” later we smile and wave and he sends me off with a bottle of the local Coca-Cola.
In the Forbidden City I ask an elderly couple to take my picture. They use my camera, their camera, their daughters' camera and eventually get a picture in with every member of the family and me! I was on that lovely overlook in front of the gate to the Imperial Gardens for probably half an hour giving a remarkably popular thumbs up pose. And the thing is, you’re all walking the same route so you bump into each other again time after time after time.
In the center courtyard of Beijing’s Confucius Temple, my white-girl fame reached its zenith. I was enjoying the gorgeous ponds and the interestingly twisted trees with my new Italian friend when he photobombed one of the dozens of Chinese tour groups speeding around. The tour guide looked panicked but about fifteen minutes later we were still neck deep in excited husbands, wives, kids, grandparents and the family friend, all taking their turns to laughingly try out our now signature thumbs-up!
He got all the wives in a pic, I got all the husbands and then all the kids. Just when you thought it was over, each family took their Christmas card-style family portrait with the two of us. I now have some idea of how celebrities must feel, but they were so happy we just couldn’t say walk away.
Fast-forward to western China, taking a taxi around Jiayuguan you see the same people at all the sites–it’s not a big town and one ticket covers everything you’ll ever want to see. The day is basically a taxi parade! At the Overhanging Great Wall site this family kept hilariously photo-bombing me. They knew some English and took turns jumping in my pictures. Sometimes the dad, sometimes the teenager or the grandma with her grandson. It was a hilarious reversal of my first situation. It also made the steep climb a lot more interesting and my pictures a lot more memorable.
The last situation I’ll talk about was on a bus to town in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. A bunch of Chinese tourists admiring my scarf turned into all the cameras coming out and playing musical chairs so they all got a turn smiling with the foreigner! They kept chatting on and on to me, helping me perfect my smile-and-nod routine in just the right places. It was one of those times I wish I'd had some kind of translating device or book so I could join what seemed to be a lively conversation.
I didn’t meet too many non-Chinese people on this trip but most of the ones I did said they eventually got annoyed by the constant attention and all the people who don’t come up and ask for a photo. The ones who just whip out their phone and hold them at glaringly obvious, awkward angles. I even heard some people reserving a desert camping trip because they just wanted to be somewhere alone, without any Chinese.
While it definitely tries your patience sometimes (I took to standing behind pillars waiting in the subways) and is super bad for schedules (you’re on vacation, you should try to be flexible anyway), I absolutely loved everyone I met this way (and my ego got a serious boost as well).
The places are the people when you travel. Seeing everything is fascinating, but for me it’s always the people I meet that make or break a destination. The way I see it, avoiding the local people defeats the whole point of travel. If I only wanted to see a place I’d look at pictures online--it’s a lot cheaper and a lot more couch-potato friendly.
I’m not Chinese. I’m not Japanese. And I will never, ever look like I’m not a tourist in these countries. So my advice is to relax (you can’t change that fact), smile (you’re in an amazing place meeting some very enthusiastically friendly people), and laugh along with them. You just made someone’s day. Good for you!