The first time it happened, it was a lady at the next table in a café, and she had been cooing at baby for five minutes before pointing her phone at him, so I kind of just let it be. The second time it happened, when a woman in the queue at the airport stood behind the small crowd that had gathered around baby and started silently snapping away, I found it really rather unpleasant.
The third time it happened, my friend and I were sitting in the park with our babies and I didn’t even notice it, but my friend shook her hand and said ‘bukeyi’ (‘you can’t’).
It’s a phenomenon in China that catches fair-haired, blue-eyed foreigners by surprise: local people taking photos of you without your consent, sometimes so brazenly that they stand next to you and pull a pose. Some western friends seem to find it largely amusing and while others find it annoying, but when it happens to my own child find myself feeling a lot more creeped out and downright angry. I thought our baby might get away with it being half-Asian, but the big blue-brown eyes he inherited from his British ancestors are attracting a lot of attention.
‘In what world is it ok to do this,’ said my friend once when she was feeling particularly fed up.
I agreed. Coming from the outwardly polite societies of Japan and the UK, where we protect our privacy obsessively and walk around pretending we haven’t noticed the people around us, it’s hard to get my head around how you could point your camera at strangers like you would a cute cat or a weird statue. Of course, in Japan and the UK we like to take photos of strangers too, but we at least extend the courtesy of doing it hastily from behind a magazine.
I don’t really think that the people who take photos of my baby are going to use them in any dodgy way; most likely they’ll show them to a couple of mildly interested friends before leaving them to gather metaphorical dust in the iPhone album never to be seen again, along with pictures of cute cats and weird statues. Maybe that’s what annoys me too – that my baby is only a fleeting interest to this person and yet his photo is saved on their phone forever. Naturally, I want people to really appreciate my baby, which is why like many parents I periodically throw photos of him at Facebook acquaintances screaming ‘Like it! Like it!’
As well as these paparazzi snappers, who are usually young and usually women, my friends and I also get approached by mostly older Chinese women and sometimes men who mutter disapproval or offer advice about our babies. Expat parents get a lot of this when we took our babies outside in their first few weeks, which is a no-no in Chinese culture, but it still happens when the kids are older.
‘She can’t sleep in the carrier like that, she’s uncomfortable.’
‘The air is too bad, you shouldn’t be taking him out.’
‘Is she still breastfeeding? [Poking my friend’s breast] It’s good to breastfeed.’
It feels odd at best and frustrating at worst – especially when they remark on the very thing that you were already worrying or feeling guilty about – but at least these are strangers who’ll say what they have to say then disappear. I shudder to imagine what it must have been like for mums living in small villages of yesteryear when Mrs Everything’s-my-business down the road would wag her finger at you and your baby every time she saw you. Fragmented communities where people don’t know their neighbours are not great, but I find myself thinking that a bit of anonymity is a good thing for a flustered, first-time mum.
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