China Beach Days in October

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The first week of October is a national holiday in China. And the beach is still more comfortable than the British Columbian beaches, lakes and rivers I grew up swimming in. We just spent a whole day body surfing, building sand castles and catching crabs with another foreign family (because our Chinese friends won’t come to the beach in October). I could hardly believe it was October. The view from our tent:

theviewonOct1

qingdaosandcastle1During sānfú (三伏), the 30-40 days of official hotness according to the lunar calendar, we don’t have to invite our Chinese friends to the beach on weekends; they’ll invite themselves. But in May and for most of September we have to go with foreign friends, because our Chinese friends are unlikely to come. Nevermind how the weather is on a particular day, it’s just not the right time of year. On Oct 1 there were still lots of Chinese families on the beach, but nearly 100% of the Chinese kids were in long sleeves, long pants, and double layers. It was only the seven foreign kids who were allowed to go swimming.

littlegreencrabOur giant sand castle usually draws a nominal amount of attention, but stick a naked blond 2-year-old on top (not pictured) and it’s like lighting a candle in the middle of a dark room. His parents were super tolerant though, and the castle was big enough that people mostly kept their distance.

crab hunt silhouette

Once the weather gets too cold for Canadian families to spend Saturdays at the beach, we’ll take our Saturdays to the local mountains for day hikes and picnics. And when it’s too cold for that, there are large local parks for the kids to run around in. It’s really only the dead of winter in Qingdao when you have to try hard to not get cabin fever.

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Chinese beach in July?

If you’re a foreign family in Qingdao, it’s understandable if the thought of spending a summer day at the beach makes you twitch. I mean, come on, it’s July in Qingdao; who’s gonna march their little yangwawas through the middle of this?

QingdaoinJuly

Your kids already get more than enough attention on a normal day from the relatively cosmopolitan, local Qingdao urbanites. But throwing them into the middle of a beach that’s packed with domestic tourists like a boiling pot of jiaozi ? That’s just cruel and unusual. And that’s why we know long-term, well-enculturated, fluent-in-Chinese families here who simply don’t do the beach at all.

But when it comes to our family, we’re a little more desperate. Not swimming outdoors in the summer would be… we might as well all be in summer school. So we’ve tried numerous things over the last four years, attempting to make the beach worthwhile. And I think we’ve pretty much got it down. Behold! This is us, on the beach in Qingdao, in July:

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Where are all the people? Why isn’t there a ring of photographers around your little blond, curly-haired children? How is it that I can see where the sand ends and the water begins? Over the last few years we’ve distilled a few tricks, like our particular place and times, and the result is that photo (four of those seven bodies are us). We do this nearly every Saturday in not-cold weather from June to September.

A “successful” beach day for us isn’t perfect, of course. On the day that photo was taken I had to politely turn away two requests for photos with our kids, and passive-aggressively angle-out photo attempts from two other people. Drawing a circle around our tent and sandcastle works as an effective barrier on about 95% of the people who pause to look, meaning only one person all day stepped over it to try and get their kid to stand next to ours for a photo (this is pretty much always a domestic tourist from an inland village or small town, where social norms are different). Most passersby don’t stop to look, but those who do merely stand outside the circle for a moment before moving on. An ATV drove up once to check us out. But that’s all in 5+ hours at the beach, which imo is a very reasonable amount of attention to tolerate as a foreign family in a wannabe 2nd-tier Chinese city.

You can see less-successful beach attempts from summers past here:

letsallgoswimming
Summer’s here! Let’s everyone go swimming! 夏天来了大家游泳去吧

Crowd-control sand castles, Qingdao, China

One of our many crowd control sand castles at Qingdao’s 石老人 beach:crowd control sand castle Turns out that building a anti-social sand castles is not the most effective way to keep the overly-curious, camera-happy, Chinese public off your kids at the beach. The sand castles help, but the best way to shield your kids from strangers’ unwanted attention is to go to the beach with your Chinese friends. For whatever reasons, when we’re at the beach with a Chinese family or two, strangers pretty much leave us alone. And it requires a lot less digging.

We’ve had some fun on Qingdao beaches:

At the beach in Qingdao, China: the biggest honking jellyfish I’ve ever seen in my entire life! [Updated!]

We were walking along the shore of Qingdao’s Shilaoren beach (石老人海水浴场) today, just past that drainage river thing near where the ATV rental guys who think they own the beach are, and found THIS:

That is the biggest honking jellyfish (水母 or 海蜇) I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I flipped it over with my shovel:

From a distance I thought it was just some garbage (there’s lots of garbage). But man. Can you imagine bumping into this in chest-deep, murky Qingdao beach water?

And keep in mind that my size-13 foot isn’t hovering *that* close to it, so the photos’ perspective makes the jellyfish look smaller that it really was.

I’d heard from friends about a local jellyfish infestation and checked the Chinese news yesterday. One guy has died this summer from jellyfish. And people we chatted with while taking pictures of this one said there was a 300æ–¤ one on a beach east of here. I’ll give you one guess regarding it’s fate

P.S. – UPDATE:
Special thanks to science writer and jellyfish expert Dr. Juli Berwald, who’s ID’d this thing for us. It’s a Nomura’s jellyfish (Nemopilema nomurai), one of the two largest jellyfish species in the world. According to the internets, it’s got a painful sting but doesn’t *usually* kill people (?!) and is edible but not considered tasty enough to go to all the trouble it would take to harvest them. They’ve capsized fishing boats and shut down at least one nuclear reactor. And you can’t just go killing them, because whenever one gets stressed it releases billions of sperm or eggs into the water. It’s not the most venomous jellyfish in the ocean, but it is perhaps the most notorious for economic impact. Do an image or video search for “Noruma’s jellyfish” or “Nemopilema nomurai” — fascinating stuff.

More importantly, these recent and massive “blooms” of jellyfish have scientists’ attention. Jellyfish are an “iconic animal of our time”; scientists like Dr. Berwald are currently researching what these jellyfish blooms reveal about the future of our oceans and our role in shaping that future. You can check out her project Spineless here.

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:
洋娃娃、真可爱、眼睛、漂亮、小美女、跟姐姐玩儿。)

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. :)