It’s a good thing I am not a self-conscious person because right now there are probably a lot of photos of me on QQ (Chinese social media). I’m in someone’s pictures from Beijing, from the Great Wall, from Hua Shan, etc. It’s weird to think about, because I won’t ever see them, and it won’t ever tie back to me, but they exist, if not on the internet, then at least on someone’s hard drive. Another person, someone perhaps modest or humble, would find this very disturbing. All I can think about though is “Dang. I wish they would ask so I can at least be smiling when these grace the internet” and “I wonder what they caption this… ‘look at me with the strange American I found!!!’”
But really… what do they do with these photos and why take them at all? I know the basic reason is because I’m not Chinese, but that doesn’t really tell me anything. Who cares if I’m not Chinese, is that interesting enough to warrant a photo shoot? Being the scientist that I am, I decided to observe patterns and form a theory of my own.
My first observation is that there is no typical age range for the people who ask to take photos of me. I’ve posed with small children, my peers, a couple preteen boys and even a pair of middle-aged women. The only demographic that hasn’t asked for a photo with me is older men and, let’s face it, that’s because it’s creepy.
My second is that one picture is never enough. No matter who asks, or how politely they ask, it’s never just one picture. It’s funny because, at first people are so unbelievably shy! I can see them staring at me as I walk past and then every once in a while, one person will pluck up the courage to ask for a photo. Then once I accept, a bunch of Chinese people come out of the woodwork and it becomes a full on photo shoot. I get yanked around and posed and placed with this person and that person from this angle and that one. And just when I think it’s over, they have another camera. And of course there are group shots and then solo shots and then a couple awkward selfies, just for good measure.
My third is that the further away I am from a metropolitan area the more photos are taken of me and the less discreet people are. When I went to Shanghai for example, the only photo I had to pose for was with a bunch of Korean tourists. In Beijing, which is a little less urban, I’ve only posed once but I do notice people taking pictures of me. They think they are being surreptitious, but I can feel them staring. And sure enough when I turn around, there they are, holding their cameras poised waiting for the moment I look their way. I imagine it’s like the relationship between zoo animals and zoo patrons. There is no actual interaction due to a safe buffer distance, but we both know what’s going on. At the Great Wall, about an hour or two north of Beijing, I was asked a few times for photos and a couple people took some discreet pictures. And then in Hua Shan- the most remote area I’ve been to thus far- I was asked on 5 separate occasions in a 27-hour time frame to pose for a picture with someone.
My fourth is that people are very enthusiastic about these pictures. It’s not just like a “hey, can I take a photo?” People are genuinely excited to take pictures with me! A group of college kids had their program director take about a million pictures of me with every imaginable combination of them. When I finally insisted that I had to leave, one girl said to me “I love you I’m coming to California to find you!” I mean that’s a bit stalker-ish and creepy, but I’m chalking it up to a language barrier. The next day, a guy asked me for a photo while I was scaling down the side of the mountain in a harness and then proceeded to climb up to where I was to take it- now that’s commitment.
My fifth is that they don’t take photos with every foreigner they see, so there is something about me, and the small subset of foreigners they do ask, that makes them excited.
My sixth is that people always ask me where I am from when they take pictures with me. And more often than not, they are surprised by my answer.
Combining all these observations together, I have deduced that, yes, the basic reason is because I am not Chinese. But more than that, I think it’s because I am also not distinctly anything else. This is why they ask me where I am from. This is why the further away I get from metropolitan areas the more pictures I get. People in big cities are more exposed to people like me (especially cities like Shanghai which are swarming with foreigners). That must be why they take pictures. I am a novelty to them- like squatting toilets are to me or oceans are to someone from Kansas. Does it bother me? Not really. Do I find it flattering? Not really. It just is. The only thing it makes me feel is that I do not look like an American. But then again, who does?