Our Kids and the Chinese Paparazzi

There is one aspect to our trip which I have not yet mentioned. It’s a weird and discomforting thing.

As I said before, our interactions with the vast majority of the Chinese people have been fun and illuminating. These interactions mostly occur though in places that are not Tourist Attractions.

At tourist areas, our children attract a kind of Chinese Paparazzi. “Look! It’s a white child!” The worst of this happened at the Oriental Pearl Tower where it seemed every other Chinese person either took pictures of our kids or asked if they could take pictures of our kids. Some just ran up and stood by Meredith or Henry while one of their relatives or friends snapped a picture. Then there was the chubby Chinese man inside the Shanghai History Museum in the basement of the tower who used his video camera to film our son and then our daughter (who was having a minor meltdown over being told not to touch things by my wife) narrating all the while.

In the U.S., taking pictures of kids or filming them out in public gets you classified as a child molester. And there is nothing more hated in the U.S. than a child molester. Witness the collected national outrage at Jerry Sandusky and his Penn State Enablers. So I can’t help viewing this picture-taking through my own Western eyes. Being exoticized is not fun, especially when it’s your children.

But I do understand how Westerners in Shanghai are a rare thing. For all the talk about how there are 120,000 expats here, and how it’s a cosmopolitan city, that number is just a tiny drop in an Olympic-sized pool of a city jammed with 24 million people.

Those expats who do have kids for the most part (so far as I can tell) live in a Giant Expat Bubble. They live in luxury buildings filled with other Western Expats. They are driven to work by Chinese drivers in private cars. Their spouses are driven to all the places they need to go in private cars. Their children are driven to their private expat schools in private cars. Other than the occasional 20-something expats you might see, the rest remain largely in seclusion. Western kids are rarely seen in Shanghai even if they live here. Given this strange fascination with Western kids by some Chinese people, I sympathize with parents keeping their kids in a protected bubble.

When our Chinese friends Bin and Zhenmei arrived and we met up with them on Saturday, we described this “Chinese Paparazzi” issue. They were shocked and a bit taken aback. Then we went with them and their son to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum and they got to see firsthand what we’ve been encountering. Three Chinese people (that we know of) took pictures of our kids. One guy started using his iPad to take a picture of Meredith, and Bin quickly told him to stop.

After my wife and Meredith had used the toilet, they were asked by a giggling teenage girl if she could take Meredith’s picture (still in the restroom).

I really have no solution to this problem other than telling them not to do it. No one has been threatening, but it is uncomfortable. We already know we stick out. There is no way for a Westerner to “blend in” while staying in China.

I had thought about taking pictures of the people who took pictures of our kids and then posting them on a blog that I would call, “Chinese People Who Took Pictures of My Kids.” But that seems like a lot of work, considering I’m having a hard enough time keeping you all updated on our wonderful adventures here in this amazing city.

So from now on, to give you all an idea of this weirdness, when I describe each trip to a tourist attraction, I’m going to give you all a count of the number of Chinese people who took pictures of our kids: Chinese Paparazzi Count.

We’ll see how it goes.


7 thoughts on “Our Kids and the Chinese Paparazzi

  1. Hi Rich!

    Laura from the Y pool here. I remembered the name of your blog and have been reading about your adventures, really interesting and educational – especially the most recent about the “Chinese Paparazzi.” I have read several books recently about contemporary China (Peter Hessler, mainly). In his first book, “River City” (or maybe it’s “River Town”), he writes about his experiences as a Peace Corps worker in some small city in China and he talks about standing out, especially while jogging! I think he lives in Beijing now, works for Wall Street Journal or some such. Anyway, funny about the guy filming your daughter’s minor meltdown. Would love to know what his running commentary said. I’m looking forward to more stories. Tom said that he was going to check it out too. Have you found anywhere to swim??? Take care, Laura

    • Laura, so glad you’re following along! Tell the morning crew hello for me. No, I haven’t found a place to swim. Well, there is a pool on the campus here but it doesn’t open until 9am. And they don’t have dedicated lanes for lap swimmers…

      But I have been running a few times, very early in the morning when it’s only in the 78-82 degree range. And I’m the only Westerner about. Wait there was one time I saw another Westerner running, I think he was Russian because I heard him talking to his young son who was a bike.

      I will definitely look up the Peter Hessler book.

      • Ok, it’s “River Town, ” and the one I liked even more is “Country Driving : A Chinese Road Trip.” And he writes for The New Yorker. His wife is Leslie Chang and her book “Factory Girls ” is also really good. 9:00 for swimming?!?! That ‘s the middle of the day! Take care.

  2. Wow. Special kudos to Bin and Zhenmei for serving as advocates to the kids, Stephanie and you. Unknown individuals photographing unknown kids would be extremely uncomfortable and I think most people would be similarly puzzled when they were experiencing this in another country. The good news – the insiders confirmed your concerns early enough in the trip that you’ll feel more prepared to address it during the rest of the trip.

    • Zhenmei also said that since we don’t know Mandarin we can’t here all the nice things the people are saying, like how cute Meredith is, and how handsome Henry is. She says she heard a lot of that in the museum and later when they went to a grocery store to pick up a few things.

      But we’re going to have to deal with it. It’s one downside to traveling with kids. The upside is that having the kids with us is disarming. Last night, the maitre’d at the restaurant was indifferent to Stephanie until she saw that we had kids with us. Then it was smoothing sailing to get in and eat.

  3. Pingback: Prelude to a transnational relocation | A Year Without Bacon: Our Expat Life in Turkey

  4. I find ervry one very gutsy and intelligent to posting this. There is a story of a 13 year old girl in London being photographed. He had a dirty smile when she looked into his face.
    I was photographed this morning by a Chenise man with a big lense and he was not alone, he had a woman with him. He photographed me when driving the tube and when I was getting off. I was thinking to go to German embassy or to police. I am glad to found the stories here on internet.

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