How to stand out in China

We are two weeks into our visit to this amazing country.

We’ve seen all kinds of amazing historical wonders.

We stood on the Great Wall.

We visited the Forbidden City and the  Terracotta Warriors.

We learned about the great poet Dufu and wandered ancient streets.

And most of the time we’ve done it with a crowd of cameras behind us.

the lineup

That's the lineup forming behind the photographer

We are the show.

hgd pic request

Ish and I aren't exempt

A Black, English-Speaking Family with two very cute ( if I may say so myself) kids under the age of 10 can draw quite a crowd in China. It can be a bit off-putting at times. Especially at first when we had no idea why they were staring.

But soon enough there were gestures showing us that they liked our skin, that they were enthralled withthe boys’ hair, that they were interested in our difference.

curious hair

Some ask to pose for pictures. Sometimes we say “yes,” but we’ve also taught the boys how to say “no thanks” in Mandarin. It’s important to us that they feel in control of their image and that they don’t feel they have to stand and smile and pose with everyone who asks.

more pic request

Occasionally we’ve had to be forceful in our “no” but most of the time people are accomodating, walk away and move on. The only people that truly bother me are the sneaky ones. People have gone so far as to set up elaborate settings so that they can take a picture of the kids without our permission. In some cases a couple will have one person pose in front of us or in our path and then wait until we walk into the frame or look up to snap the photo.


If we catch them doing it, Ish and I are not above doing it right back. We’ve alarmed a few people that way but without the language we have no choice.

This isn’t a one-sided issue. We’re tourists in this town and we too have a camera in hand. I try to remember how it feels to be the unwanted subject on the side of a lens when we’re taking pictures as well. And there have also been times when the photo-taking has worked in our favour.

Ish had just finished asking our guide Laura about the rules around asking some nuns in monk robes we saw walking in the Forbidden City for pictures, when one of them walked over and asked if they could take a picture with us!

nuns + kids

Ish + nunsThat one was a win-win in our books.

But there are also days when we just don’t feel like it. The kids are on edge, we’re tired and posing for photos isn’t what we want to do.

At the end of one particularly tough day, we had an idea. Why not give people something to really look at.

We pulled on the outfits and posed

Samurai Camfor picture

Warrior Eafter picture

Royal Couple

Will and Kate have nothing on us ;)

after picture.

warrior madThe crowd of people that had immediately gathered and were snapping away erupted in laughter.

Warrior laughing

And we laughed right along with them.

Some things are funny  in any language.

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{ 19 comments… add one }

Susan Irwin September 7, 2011, 11:46 AM

We have lived in China for 2 years now with our 7 and 9 year old light-haired kids – and the photo issue is a daily strain.  My son had a huge meltdown about it just last night, so you never really get used to it.  I just showed my son your blog post, and it helped him a lot!  Enjoying the blog!


Heather September 7, 2011, 8:06 AM

So glad to hear it helped him! Thanks so much for letting me know. Hope it gets a little easier going forward.


Ginathompson September 8, 2011, 4:27 AM

Loved this post Heather! Now, you know that celebritydom isn’t always fun! Well, I’m sure you already knew but now you have the experience too.


Heather September 8, 2011, 8:32 AM

You’re right! I won’t be sneaking up on any celebs anytime soon.


Wandering Educators September 8, 2011, 1:08 PM

what a hoot! and it can get tiring, i remember that from living in japan in the 80s. sometimes, you just don’t want to stick out. but no choice! you’re handling it very well, i think! glad you’re having fun! :)


Ron Shake September 8, 2011, 3:31 PM

Loved this! what an experience for everybody involved!


Heather September 11, 2011, 1:44 AM

Thanks. :)


Manon Sim September 9, 2011, 5:56 PM

Love it sounds like you guys are having a blast for the most part :).


Anonymous September 25, 2011, 10:52 PM

So cool. SO COOL!  Embrace the differences! Your sons are super GORJ!


Heather September 26, 2011, 7:55 AM

Thanks :)


Anonymous September 25, 2011, 10:54 PM

Sidenote: I’ve had people take photos of my son (who is black and super cute) in that sneaky way too in Vancouver! I always move beside him and covertly block or ruin their photo. When I grow up, I will actually just ask them to not to.


Heather September 26, 2011, 7:56 AM

ha! I get it. I really do. I was so surprised by the range of my reactions to it. I like the ruin the shot approach.Stay young! ;)


Jen Maier, urbanmoms October 3, 2011, 6:22 PM

Love this post, Heather. I have always been nervous going to certain other countries because I get the whole “TALL WOMAN” response – similar to yours – staring, photo taking, posing, etc and it makes me feel uncomfortable. I am glad you guys were able to find some control and a great compromise.


Jessicambay October 3, 2011, 9:29 PM

I’m 5’9″ female, with translucent white skin, freckles and red hair.  While I didn’t receive as much attention as it sounds like you guys are getting – I did get quite a few photo requests while traveling in China last year.  I agree – sometimes it’s fun, some times it’s not.  Mostly it happened in tourist places where a lot of Chinese visit from the countryside, so really outside of television, they’d never seen anyone like me. Such an education either way!


Sue Black October 4, 2011, 7:25 AM

Hey Heather,
My daughter and I had the same experience in Beijing and Chengdu. I had short bleached blonde hair at the time.

Really enjoy reading about your adventures :))



Carol Perehudoff October 25, 2011, 12:38 PM

Hahahahaha! Oh, Heather. Empress-wear suits you. Your family looks adorable.


amanee November 25, 2011, 1:44 PM

Good post,

The same experience of photo-taking sneakiness happened to my family of four ( two adults and two young girls) in Hong-Kong while we were visiting Victoria Peak. 
I remember doing the same thing in Japan with nun-dressed women advertising menus outside restaurants. I promise then, never to take a picture of anybody without his/her consent. The experience of having a picture taken without your consent is intrusive and disrespectful.


Heather November 25, 2011, 7:41 PM

So true. That experience in China has dogged me for the rest of the trip. I see someone in a scene I think is beautiful and I think twice where I might’ve just snapped away before. We’re in Vietnam now and while people are still fascinated by the boys (especially their hair!) things have calmed quite a bit.


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