There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve never encountered before that happens here in China. It surprised me as Guangdong is quite a prosperous province and foreigners are not all that rare. Nevertheless, people like to snap pictures of foreigners whenever and wherever we are spotted. Totally random and candid photos that probably usually only have the back of our heads.
I first noticed this phenomenon in October when I was walking around downtown. I was with a friend and we were exploring a large park that runs along the coast. There were a lot of families in the park as it was part of the National Holiday week which celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It seemed like I was hearing an awful lot of the little “shnik” sound that digital cameras or camera phones make in imitation of a real camera shutter. Yet because of the number of people in the park I figured there was just a lot of photo-taking going on in general. Then I heard a little “shnik” right behind me and I turned to look. Two girls were sheepishly lowering their phones. They caught my eye, giggled, and hurried away. “What?! They’re taking pictures of us!” I laughed. “Yeah, they do that sometimes,” my friend wryly explained.
After that I was much more conscious of the fact that every passerby was a possible foreigner photographer. I noticed how the longer their eyes were glued on you the more likely they would take a photo. Shnik. Shnik. Guiltily furtive photographers who turn away quickly and sort of scurry off, giggling with their friends. From all the giggling, you can probably infer that most of the photographers were girls. But not always!
Another weekend we were in the train station, heading off to Guangzhou for the day. We were the only foreigners in a small sea of Chinese. I was very focused on maintaining our place in line, as the women behind me was determined to edge in front of me. (The art of queuing is non-existent here.) A man had been starting at us for quite awhile, which is not all that uncommon. My friend Sarah receives a great deal of attention with her blond hair and blue eyes—the Chinese are positively transfixed, enraptured. Sure enough. “He’s taking a picture of us!” she said quietly. “Yeah, they do that sometimes.” It was my turn to say it.
And what is it that the Chinese do with all of these poor camera phone pictures of foreigners? It’s not like they are good pictures, since half the time it seems to be of our backs. Do they share them with their friends? Like Twitter? Like celebrity paparazzi? Foreigner sighting at Jusco! Two female foreigners on the bus! Tall foreigner in the grocery store! It’s a little embarrassing thinking of all of these lousy pictures of me cluttering up people’s cell phones.
My friend Stephen likes to go on the offensive and jump into people’s pictures. And of course they are always happy to have him. Yeah! Foreigner in our picture! Or he’ll pose if he senses they’re going for it—the V-for-victory is the classic choice. Sarah told me of students coming up to her and showing her pictures of herself on their cell phones—she teaches their friends who sent a picture of her to them. Uh, awkward?
Of course at this juncture, I simply must make comparison/contrast to Georgia, as it’s my other frame of reference for understanding this type of activity. Please excuse me if that bothers you. Ahem. In Georgia, a country with far fewer foreigners, I never had—to my knowledge—an instance of drive-by-photography. It would’ve surprised me less in Georgia than it does in China. Georgians were eager to meet me, to talk to me, etc. After the formalities were over, sure, they would love to take a picture with me, of course. But with me, not just of me. Their interest in foreigners was equal to the Chinese, but their approach was a little different.
To be fair, I have also had some Chinese ask to take pictures of me or with me. I met some lovely students in the park one day that were so excited to meet me. We took several pictures as they rotated photographer and photographees. Then they gifted me a papaya and went happily on their way. One of my students surprised me one day by asking to take a picture with me. I was happy to oblige, though I certainly hadn’t expected it.
Nevertheless, the random photography of foreigners remains, for me, a uniquely Chinese behavior at this point in time. One that is both puzzling and endearing. I think that some enterprising university student could make some money off this interest in foreigners. Can’t you see it now? Sarah, Stephen, Charlie, Will, Amy—BINGO!