Travel Destinations

Monday, July 7, 2014

Can I Take Your Picture? Feeling Like Famous Foreigners in China

Picture with a foreigner in China
Posing for a picture with random strangers outside Beijing's Wangfujing Snack Street.
You read about it before you get to China.  But it still comes as a bit of a shock when a random stranger approaches and asks if you will be in a picture with them.  After all, usually only celebrities receive picture requests.  We experienced the peculiar phenomenon of being foreigners in China with Chinese asking to take pictures of us three times while in Beijing.  I’m not against others taking pictures of me.  After all, I am always looking for that perfect picture of locals during my travels, some of which I've used on Travel the World.  But it’s a different feeling when you’re traveling in a foreign land and yet you are the attraction. 

The first time it happened was while we were visiting the Forbidden Palace.  A young Chinese gentleman approached us and asked in broken English if my husband would take a picture of him with me. It was our first full day in China and we were a little jet-lagged and overwhelmed by the crowds.  I had warned Rome this might happen, but he still instinctively asked, “You want your picture taken -- with my wife?”  I agreed to be in the picture, and when the picture was taken he thanked us very politely and went on his way.  Before he left us I asked him why.  He explained as best he could that he was visiting Beijing for the first time and this would be a memory for him.  It turned out we saw very few Caucasians during our time in Beijing, and since he was from a different part of China, I might have been the very first he had ever seen in real life.

The second time it happened we were more prepared.  We had just finished eating scorpions on Wangfujing Snack Street when a group of college-aged boys ran up to us and asked if I would be in a picture with them.  This time I had the wherewithal to get Rome to take a picture of this happening before it was over.  Again, all the boys were very nice and thanked us.  They appeared to be taking part in a scavenger hunt.  Maybe taking a picture with a foreigner was one of their list items?

Photos with Foreigners in China
Rome got a photo request too!
The third time it happened was a little off-putting.  We were visiting the Summer Palace and decided to take one of the boats across the lake.  A group of older gentlemen who had been walking behind us decided to take the same boat.  While we waited to board the boat, one asked Rome if he could take a picture of Rome with his friends.  This was a new and unexpected development since Rome is Asian, though he had grown what could be viewed as an "impressive" amount of facial hair for an Asian man.  But once we got on the boat, things changed.  First the one persistent gentleman wanted to take a picture of the two of us.  Then he wanted a picture of himself with me.  Then he just started taking pictures of me during the entire boat ride.  There were beautiful views of palace buildings around us, but none of those were in any of the pictures he took.  We couldn't wait to get off the boat.

So if you want to feel like a celebrity, travel to China.  You’re sure to have at least one Chinese person ask to have their picture taken with you and you might be the subject of their bragging rights to friends later as they show off their photos with a foreigner.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.