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. :)

Foreign Baby in Tianjin Pt. 2 — a rock star in the family

Have we ever seen this woman before? Nope. And did she just come up, start touching our kid’s face and try to make her smile? Of course!

This is routine whenever we take L out for walks. A friendly stranger or two (or ten) will often stop to try and make her smile, and that often involves touching. Younger people like the girl in these photos tend to be gentler than middle-aged and older women, at least in our experience. We have some neighbourhood committee ladies who talk so loud when they’re trying to get a reaction out of L that they make her scared; they pretty much yell in her face, but not intentionally — that’s just how they talk all day long. Those kinds of folks also tend to play a little rougher with the way the pinch legs and touch cheeks.

Obviously we don’t let the general public manhandle our daughter, but since it’s so expected that any friendly person can play with a stranger’s baby, and since “foreign dolls” (洋娃娃) are such an attraction, we try to be as accommodating as we can while still protecting L. As you can see, she likes it sometimes.

I’ve only had to directly physically block someone’s hand once, when a woman who honestly looked like a KTV prostitute tried to stick her finger in L’s mouth on the Beijing subway. People don’t understand when you bat their fingers away, but there’s no way I’m letting random people stick there fingers in our daughter’s mouth, regardless of whether or not they’re dressed like a xiÇŽojiÄ› (小姐)! Same goes for anyone who seems like they might be too rough. I use as much finesse and tact as I can, of course (we indirectly block people all the time), but obviously we’re willing to cause offense if we have to to protect our daughter. Those kinds of situations are very rare, however, and most people are great, wanting to coo over a baby like people do anywhere… just maybe a little more so.

Other stuff about having a foreign baby in China:

Tianjin, we missed you

I walk into our old neighbourhood to get my bike out of the bike park where it’s been stored the last eight months, and Dà​niáng​ is sitting outside our old stairwell just like she always does. The Chinese gourd vines she’s planted cover the entrance and reach up to the third floor. She doesn’t recognize me until I smile and wave.

“Oh, it’s you! You’ve come back!”

“Yeah, we’ve come back!”

“Ha, at first I didn’t recognize you; you have a beard now, and also foreigners all look the same.”

“Yeah, I know, we’re all chàbuduō

Ah, Tianjin. It’s good to be back.

The Best Decisions We Ever Made in China (#1): ditching the laowai ghetto

Aside from personal motivations, character, attitude, and general posture toward China and Chinese people, this is the one decision that enhanced our China experience more than any other single thing we did during our first two years in China: we moved out of the foreigner ghetto and into the most average-looking Chinese neighbourhood we could find.

(If what follows starts to sound culturally patronizing, just hold on… I saved that part for the end.)

Welcome to China! the Foreign Bubble

When we first arrived in China with next-to-no Mandarin or knowledge of our city, the organization that helped arrange our visas and school placement also arranged our apartment: we had a prearranged flat in a complex occupied entirely by foreigners where the manager had good English (back in the day this was the only place foreigners were allowed to live in Tianjin). It was super convenient, especially for China newbies who are usually high-maintenance. From the standpoint of an organization facilitating foreigners’ language school placement it was ideal. But for foreigners interested in China and Chinese, it sucked.

Ditching the Laowai Ghetto: hunting apartments armed with Chinglish

We’d come to China to study language and culture, and we’d decided before we even arrived that we’d be moving out of “洋人街” ASAP. It was inconvenient for language practice, and besides, going to a foreign country and living unnecessarily isolated from your new city’s regular people seemed really lame. So after about two months of classes we took a vocabulary list of apartment words, a map, and went and squinted at the scrawled 汉字 on the papers tacked to boards outside the little first-floor rental agencies tucked away in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

We knew what we wanted: an average neighbourhood (“average” as defined by locals, not foreigners) with a lot of outdoor community life and an apartment we could tolerate and that our neighbours, teachers, and local friends wouldn’t feel strange in. Surely, we thought, that isn’t too much to ask. Foreigners from one of the international schools told us we wouldn’t find “anything” (read: “livable”) for twice the price of what we eventually paid (also twice the price of what they said was the average Tianjin salary). We went with what our teachers told us instead, quickly realizing that foreigners can spend years in China and still know next-to-nothing about it.

Of course it was awkward pointing at a circle on a map and mispronouncing vocab words to rental agents who had maybe never talked face-to-face with a foreigner in their lives, but we managed to have three apartments shown to us. I wanted the first one, but the landlord balked when he discovered we were foreigners (that’s when we learned what “他有事” really means). The third location was perfect — better than we’d hoped. We incurred some 关系 debt because we had to ask a local friend (the boyfriend of a fellow foreigner) for a big favour to come with us to the contract negotiation and signing. It went smoothly, so we borrowed an electric 三轮车 and moved in.

The Benefits: people, people, people

Rather than bring local Tianjiners into our cultural space, we wanted to meet them in their own world where they were more comfortable. The single biggest benefit that living in this kind of neighbourhood gave us was exponentially increasing our daily opportunities for interaction with average, mainstream locals more on their turf than ours. We couldn’t come or go without speaking to someone, and usually more than one. The old boys club that hung out on the bike repair corner regularly included me in their Chinese chess, outdoor meals, and teasing. Families would invite us into their homes on the various big holidays. The only person we met in that neighbourhood in two years who had any amount of English — besides one charming but mentally handicapped man who would yell “I love you!” at us — was a university student three floors down who became a language exchange partner. It was a laid back but crowded, active community where language practice opportunities with everyone from laid-off factory workers to university professors were immediately available in excess of what we could handle. Those neighbours taught us more about China and made China more interesting, alive, and lovable to us than any books or classes ever could. Even on the worst days, we never regretted our decision to live there.

A few months after moving in our teachers, in their more candid moments, would sometimes confess that they felt extra awkward and distanced when visiting their foreign friends’ apartments for two big reasons. First, the furniture, decor, food, and even the way they were received as guests all felt foreign. Second, although the foreigners were taking a step down in living standards, to the Chinese their apartments just screamed wealth and economic privilege. In addition to the unavoidable language and cultural barriers, these foreigners, through their lifestyle choices, were emphasizing another gulf of distance between themselves and local Chinese: economic disparity.

The Downside: our economic elitism

The economic privilege in which most of us were raised (speaking globally here) gets us in two big ways. The first is largely practical, physical, external. The second is intensely personal.

Physical Annoyances & Inconveniences
My mother would be appalled if she saw that apartment. The whitewash was peeling and rubbed off on your clothes. The kitchen was the size of a closet. The toilet was in the shower and the exposed plumbing both precarious and temperamental. The sewer gas that came up the drains in the evenings smelled so bad it woke us up at night until we devised an overly complicated water-bottle-in-a-plastic-bag-hung-from-a-nail method for mostly-sealing the bathroom drain (plumbers don’t do U-bends in Tianjin). The windows let all the coal dust in and the layout of the place didn’t make sense to us. The electricity often shorted out and we had long extension cords running everywhere. There was only enough hot water in the winter for fast showers. I wore a toque to bed the week before they turned on the heat. In the words of younger versions of my little sisters: it was totally ghetto. But we would choose to live there again, no question. It was totally worth it. That apartment was slightly better or slightly worse than those of our neighbours, depending on the neighbours, and close enough to what they knew that our Chinese friends and neighbours felt much less awkward when they visited than they might have otherwise. I mention these things to give fair warning: if you aim to move into an average Chinese neighbourhood chances are you’ll be getting an average Chinese apartment. Count the cost, because not all foreigners are willing to pay it. Also, the neighbourhood and apartment described here, while unremarkable for that district of Tianjin, is still probably well above average for most places in China.

Uncomfortable Personal Discoveries
(Warning: confession/soap box/rant/sermon ahead.)
Whether it’s right or not, what’s a huge step down in living standards for the average foreigner is normal for the average Mainlander. If that embarrassing, awkward and unfair economic truth makes you feel uncomfortable and maybe even vaguely guilty, I promise I know how you feel, but I don’t apologize for bringing it up. That’s what we get for being the economically elite six percent of an otherwise much-less-privileged world. Keeping the hoi polloi at a distance so that we’re less poignantly reminded of this stark economic reality and our consciences are less likely to be called out does not make it any less real — but living in an average urban Chinese neighbourhood makes it harder to avoid.

If you’re a thinking, reflective person at all then living significantly below the comforts you’re accustomed to brings special challenges. Basically, you begin to discover how much of a pampered, manicured, whiny, elitist snob you are who has tragically confused unwarranted privileges with basic entitlements. When you get genuinely frustrated and upset about how sub-standard everything is, then you can enjoy the guilt that comes with realizing that you can’t handle what’s more than good enough for most of the world; for thinking that living more like the majority of the world is such a big sacrifice for which you should get some sort of multiculturalism medal. And when you’re in a good mood and those physical inconveniences aren’t annoying you as much as they would the average foreigner, then you can hate yourself for actually feeling proud of the fact that you deigned to lower your living standard closer to that of the global average, for thinking you’re better than all those other foreigners, and — last but certainly not least — for being so patronizing to the local Chinese.

The silver lining, I guess, is that living this way also creates ample opportunity to contemplate lifestyles that respectfully transcend economic divisions while still being honest about who we are and acting morally with our affluence given the economic disparity in the world… Anyway, that’s a big tangent I maybe should have saved for another post, but it’s part of our experience, so I’m leaving it in.

Gearing up for Location #2

That old apartment with its neighbourhood comes to mind today because right at the moment friends in Tianjin are securing an apartment for us for when we arrive in a couple weeks (we had to let the old one go when we left for Canada). When friends are doing us this huge favour we obviously don’t want to be picky, and with the baby we won’t be as mobile or tolerant/flexible as we were before. I’m also only on a year-long contract, so I don’t know how likely we’ll be to move after we arrive. The photos they sent make this second apartment look several notches above the first. I guess we’ll see…

Fun Chinese Apartment & Neighbourhood-related Posts:

Related “Living in China” posts:

A Foreign Baby in Tianjin Pt. 1 – is this our future?

While we were in Canada having our baby, some Mandarin school classmates of ours stayed in China to have theirs (I think they’re finishing up their second year of full time language study). I asked them in an e-mail about anything we ought to know before we bring L back to Tianjin in September, and their reply is… I’m not sure how to feel about this yet! Some of it I expected, but other parts (like #3 & #5) — wow. Here are some excerpts (I added the headings and rearranged the order a bit):

1. Benefits

Having a baby in China has its challenges but such a great experience. Our son has opened so many doors for us in getting to know people and the culture here in ways we did not expect. It is so wonderful to see him bringing joy and delight to people also and to see faces smile when they see him. We don’t mind photos taken of him either.

(Photos? Ha, you mean, like this?)

2. Rock Star Babies

We knew that we were going to generate a lot more attention with our son but did not expect just how much. People here LOVE babies and foreign babies are a great source of curiosity. It seems that everyone wants to have a look. At the hospital where we gave birth, every nurse came in wanting to look, other patients and their relatives and friends wanted a peep. It happens on the street and in shops, at the local clinic where we get immunisations, in our xiÇŽoqÅ« (neighbourhood)… pretty much everywhere. He is the little foreigners’ baby and is the only foreign baby in our local area (as far as we can tell) and is pointed out as such with ‘look at his big eyes, white skin’, etc… Because we are a mixed couple, people also want to look to see who he most resembles. For the first four months (he is now just over 5 months) just until recently almost everyone who was Chinese said that he was too small. People have asked to hold him and want to hold his hands or touch his skin… this is tricky.

People always ask, “How old is your baby and how heavy are they?” They will no doubt make comments about L’s size and in comparison to other babies. Babies here are FAT, well not all but they adore fat babies and aspire to having a fat one. We have seen very obese looking ones. I have been told because they look cute and also because they seem healthier looking. What they don’t tell you is what goes into the baby. Many if not most feed their babies on formula thinking it is best. When our son was 3 months old, a lady came up to us in a restaurant to tell us that we can now start feeding him sugared water!!! I assume she thought, just like many, that he was too thin. He was definitely not thin, weighing in at 3.8kgs at birth!!!

We ALWAYS get asked… where was your baby born, did you give birth naturally or have a cesarean, do you breastfeed or use formula, do you prefer boys or girls and how many children do you hope to have???

We have chosen to carry him in a sling or the baby bjorn or sometimes if it is too hot we just carry him in our arms. The sling and baby bjorn also creates attention and people either think it is not good for the baby or it is a novel, very convenient way of carrying a baby.

3. Bad Parents!

Things that we would think was ‘normal’ like taking our son out after the month inside was considered wrong! We were constantly told to go home, we even had a couple of complete strangers yell at us and tell us how irresponsible we were. Even though he is almost 6 months, we still get comments but better now. These experiences have made us think twice before leaving the house. Early morning is a good time to go for walks and generally that time is acceptable and we have also gone for walks around after dinner and that is mostly Ok. It is so hot now anyway that we stay indoors a lot…

4. Free Advice

Our son has eczema. This means he often has red patches on his skin especially cheeks and chin. We often have people commenting and telling us what we should do and what to eat and what not to eat, etc… Some have responded with pointing at him and looking in horror. Most often people comment out of concern and we appreciate peoples directness with us. You can tell the difference between people who care and those who don’t.

5. Health Hazards

Having a baby makes you realise just how many people here smoke! It is hard to avoid in restaurants and well pretty much everywhere.

The local Chinese clinic […] You can get a brief consultation but the clinic is mostly always busy (unless it is raining outside… this we thankfully discovered this week), ventilation poor, noisy and very crowded. If you have a foreign baby this attracts A LOT of attention so everyone crowds around while you are having the consultation, it makes things tricky. Hygiene at the local clinic is below what we would consider ‘standard’, nurses don’t use gloves and we have never seen them wash their hands. My parents visited us for a month in May and accompanied us twice. They saw mothers letting their babies wee into the hand basin (which incidentally has a sign all about the importance of hand washing) and were aghast. They pleaded us to never go back!!!

Best to get as much immunisations as you can before returning. We have chosen to get him immunised at the local Chinese clinic which is an experience in itself especially if you have a ‘foreign baby’. We have been told by other foreigners that often the injections are ‘watered down’ so we have opted to get the imported stuff. This may not be true & I don’t want to be spreading untrue rumours. It’s just that our doctor friend told us this was happening where he is in China and we simply didn’t want to take the risk as immunisations wasn’t something to muck around about. We go to the local Chinese clinic and pay extra for the imported stuff. Unfortunately the imported stuff is very expensive.

6. Baby Maintenance & Accessories

You can buy lots of things here. My family sends us some trusted things but overall mostly everything else has been given to us from people here or bought. Tianjin has two very large baby companies with catalogues and internet sites where you can ring and order and have goods delivered the next day. Very convenient especially buying diapers, etc.

Anyone else want to share their foreign-baby-in-China experiences/advice/warnings? Seriously folks, we’re all ears!

Related Posts:

Our friends the rock stars

Yesterday we had a school trip to a local museum, the Shi Family Mansion (Shijia Dayuan), which was a preserved old style home like you might see in kung-fu movies. A couple families brought their kids. Oscar and Toby (blond, glasses) have lived in Tianjin for about two years, and I think they’re handling their pseudo-celebrity status rather well:

Poor guy on the left… wonder what he’s thinking.

It can actually be pretty tough for kids when they have to deal with this kind of attention, but these two have come through the woods and are in the process of working this to their advantage. I almost died laughing when a bus load of uniformed school kids, led by a guy in an army uniform, came marching past us and these two suddenly jumped into the middle of it and started dancing around. The museum wasn’t bad, but I think that was the high point for me.

We have a ton of photos that I just haven’t had time to upload yet. We’re busy getting the apartment up to shape (sealing the windows, putting in U-bends so the sewer gas doesn’t flow up the kitchen and bathroom pipes and wake us up… again, etc.) I’ll try to get them up this week so you can see the neighbourhood. April is a really beautiful month in Tianjin.