…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:
- 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.)
- 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).
- 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. :)