When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach…

…this happens. It doesn’t always happen exactly the same way, but what happened this past weekend is pretty typical:

(Language students! Listen for these key words:

I know we’re not the only foreigners in China that regularly attract this kind of attention from total strangers. How do you handle it?

In North America, if some stranger started taking pictures of little kids at the beach or wherever I would automatically interfere and probably call the police. Because that behaviour is outside our norms; chances are too high the person is a creep.

Our two-year-old, with… I don’t know who.

But what about in China, when photographing, talking to, and even trying to pick up a stranger’s kid isn’t considered odd? I don’t mean that Mainlanders are always running around posing with each other’s toddlers; other Chinese toddlers aren’t exotic to them. And I don’t mean that China doesn’t have its fair share of perverts. I mean that this behaviour isn’t seen as violating anyone’s privacy or personal space. When it does happen, the idea that the person’s a pedophile doesn’t even enter people’s minds. 99% of the time, they really are just being friendly and curious in a socially acceptable way. (They don’t perceive an ever-present pedophile threat like North Americans do; their society just hasn’t ‘caught up’ to ours, apparently…)

“Wa! The foreign doll is so cute!” “Wa! The Chinese boy has no pants!”

It is stupid to respond coldly or meanly to a Chinese person because they don’t behave according to North American norms. Actually, that’s being an ethnocentric jerk. You’ve got to understand what their behaviour means within their social context, because that’s where you are. If you’re going to treat people like they’re doing something wrong when they genuinely don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, then you’d better be able to articulate a really good reason (or have a good reason why you have to treat them that way regardless — but “It’s so annoying!” is not a good reason).

A typical crowd for our family, from two weekends ago. Compare to the next photo below.

But feeling annoyed is totally understandable and natural. And not all friendly and curious attention is the same, because Mainland China is not a monolithic society:

  • The more cosmopolitan Chinese are more likely to ask you before taking pictures of your kids. Bonus points for them!
  • Typical 2nd-tier city urbanites with leisure time on a Saturday behave like in the above video: form a crowd, take photos, try to hold hands, touch your kid’s face, pick up or otherwise pose with your kid — like the kid’s part-human, part-tourist attraction. It often starts with some mom or grandma trying to get their kid to make friendly and pose with your kid. Collecting photos is a thing here. These are the majority in our experience in Qingdao and Tianjin. I understand getting annoyed with this, and I understand looking for ways to counter it, but I can’t see how it’s right to respond to them like they’re doing something wrong.
  • Peasants (people from the countryside or inland cities) either hang way back, seemingly intimidated, or do like the urbanites but louder, coarser, more blunt. Like yelling at your kid from a few feet away so they’ll turn for a picture, as if they’re a zoo animal: “Hey! Look at me! Look over here! Hey!”
  • The worst (in our experience) are those who don’t attempt to communicate with you or your kid and won’t acknowledge you even if you address them in Chinese. One day I was playing with our youngest in the waves, and a middle-aged countryside woman runs over, grabs our youngest while yelling to her friend to come take a picture, oblivious to our daughter’s efforts to get away — as if she’d just caught a big fish! — and to me yelling at her. I grabbed my daughter back while giving the woman an earful, but she never looked me in the face. This kind of thing almost never happens.

The problem is that for the most part they aren’t doing anything wrong, but to us foreigners it feels wrong, like we have a right to be annoyed or offended or alarmed (and in our own countries we would). So our default tendency is to respond negatively because to us their behaviour is inappropriate. And some days you just want to relax at the beach without having to deal with it! Some days, you feel like doing this:

I have mixed feelings about the moat; it just seems so… anti-social:
“Take a hint, people!”

Bad China Days and fits of anti-social sandcastle-building aside, here’s what we aim for:

  1. Kids’ physical safety does not get compromised. We are there, fully alert, creep radar running on Chinese and Western dual frequencies, ready to wield those shovels if necessary. And call me ethnocentric or whatever, but you are not sticking your finger in my kid’s mouth (yes I have batted fingers away.)
  2. If our kids indicate (verbally or non-verbally), or we suspect, that they don’t want the attention, then we fend people off immediately/preemptively. You can still do this politely and with finesse, though sometimes in the moment I’m more blunt than I should be. And this only applies to “special” attention; we expect our kids to be nominally decent to people (respond to normal greetings, say thank-you, etc).
  3. Plan ahead. If you’ve got an option where unwanted attention is less likely, then take it. When we go to the beach, we always aim for the least crowded areas.

Or you can send subtle, anti-social messages by doing things like making a moat around your picnic blanket:

It works! See? (Though it’s not 100% effective — such subtlety is lost on most domestic tourists and āyís over 45.)

Maybe that sounds kind of stringent. But in practice it translates into our kids getting a lot more interaction than the average foreigner family, I suspect.

Basically, we protect our kids, but (try to) remember that most of these “overly-friendly” (by paranoid North American standards) Chinese strangers aren’t doing anything wrong. They aren’t breaking their social rules, and if you respond to them like they’re being inappropriate, your response simply won’t communicate. And you’ll come off like a jerk. Which is understandable, since expecting local Chinese to behave like Euro-Americans is just dumb.

Some related stuff:

P.S. – Though sometimes I have to admit, I do wonder…

P.P.S. — Not actually recommending the sandcastle “spite fence”, though I’m definitely tempted to use it again. :)

6 thoughts on “When little foreign kids go to a Chinese beach…”

  1. This is easier to solve than you might think. Just teach your kids to say: 一张照片一块钱. The Chinese think it’s funny, and half the time will actually pay. The kids don’t get annoyed anymore. It’s a fair exchange of goods and services. It can draw some crazy huge crowds though…

    1. Ahaha… the thought has crossed my mind, just to make funny and see what people would do (I’ve heard that people will actually pay up sometimes!). Don’t know if I’d get my kids to say it though — still trying to sort out how we raise them to interact will impact their relationships with locals when they’re older. Though it is tempting… I could dig a moat and build a toll booth!

  2. Just when I thought I’d been out of China long enough to be nostalgic for it … To be honest, I think you’re being too generous regarding cultural norms. The fact of the matter is: 1. Chinese people don’t interact with Chinese kids this way. 2. Chinese people that I’ve asked will explain the behavior–and I get it–as the excitement of meeting a foreigner and long standing social conditioning that foreign kids are cute (have you ever noticed that you can’t buy a Chinese looking doll that’s meant to be played with, except at Ikea? Or at least I couldn’t find one). And no individual understands that they are not the only ones who want to touch/take photos/point out the foreign child to their child. But nevertheless they generally agree that staring is rude, that they wouldn’t let their own kids take food from a stranger, that they would never let a stranger carry their child off, etc. (They don’t worry about pedophiles, though sometimes they should–but that’s another post. But they do worry about kidnappers.) So to say it’s culturally acceptable is only sort of true.

    I guess it helps that your kids don’t seem to mind it. The day my 2-year-old hit a waiter in a restaurant who wouldn’t leave her alone, I decided it was probably time that I start being a little more preemptive in defending my child’s right to not to interact with every stranger who wants to touch her. (For the record, I did tell her it was the wrong thing to do. And also for the record I really didn’t want to tell her that.) Two years later, and 6 months out of China, she still dislikes physical contact from anyone except her parents, and I’m betting there’s a connection.

    As to how to deal with it, I really don’t have good answers. Our friends also agreed that there is no polite way to tell someone to not touch your child. We eventually just decided we would have to be rude. On good days, at least, we tried to be rude as kindly and politely as possible. But we would still tell people to back off and stop taking pictures. I would occasionally go around and point out Chinese children to my children but the point seemed to be lost on them :)

    Mostly I am just currently appreciating the ability to go to the park with my kids and be anonymous, without checking the pollution index first.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences — they’re interesting! Ideally, I’d like to be generous in attempts to understand cross-culturally. Then when I make a negative judgment call about something, there’s maybe more behind it than just my personal preference, and I have a better chance of communicating clearly and constructively about why I’m rejecting whatever it is.

      “we tried to be rude as kindly and politely as possible”
      We totally understand this. Today I told two people to not take pictures and one was offended (the other one I talked to more afterward and made nice with). I passive-aggressively blocked two other groups of people from taking pictures by making sure I was standing in just the right spots. And I pretended I didn’t see/hear/understand at three other moments. Because our oldest didn’t want strangers taking her picture today so that was that. (Still had three or four kids we didn’t know playing in our “moat” though – ha. I need a portcullis or something.) As far as we can see so far, you’re right: there is no not-at-least-slightly-offensive way to tell people to not to touch or take photos of your kid.

      I don’t completely buy your Chinese friends’ agreement “that staring is rude, that they wouldn’t let their own kids take food from a stranger, that they would never let a stranger carry their child off, etc.” That sounds like the kind of thing the more cosmopolitan, foreigner-adjusted Chinese would say (and believe on some level) when they’re with foreigners, but it wouldn’t be too hard to show examples of those things happening in our area or to whittle down their statement with nuances and exceptions. When I say it’s culturally acceptable or socially acceptable, I just mean that the people who do it don’t imagine that they’re being impolite or doing anything wrong. But I did go back and tweak a paragraph after reading what you said. I shouldn’t say this behaviour is common among locals, as if Chinese kids routinely drew hands-on crowds or pictures from strangers. I mean they don’t perceive any sort of inappropriate personal space or privacy violation, attitudes about privacy and personal space (and children’s psychology) are just way different here.

      We’ve seen friends’ kids end up at the hitting strangers stage. I don’t have answers either. For now I think we’re aiming to make it so that they’ll feel in charge of their own bodies/space, and that mom and dad are on the ball enough to make sure their reasonable privacy desires are respected. If they don’t feel the need to bat people away, I think (hope) that will create more space for them to relate positively to people. But this is all stuff we’re in the middle of thinking and talking over.

  3. I know a few people in the UK who find it strange when Chinese/Japanese tourists want to take photo’s of their children who have blond hair. Probably never seen it before because they have only jet black hair.

    1. Just spent some time in Southeast Asia, so comparing locals’ reactions to our kids was interesting. Without fail, those who wanted photos with our kids were Chinese tourists.

      But I suspect that has to do with how Chinese use/relate to cameras/photos at least as much as it does with how exotic they find little foreign kids. In other words, they tend to take photos for slightly different reasons.

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