Thursday, April 15, 2010

312 M&Ms Later . . .

We’re in the airport in Li Jiang, Yunnan province, waiting for a flight to Beijing. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and the kids all have lollipops, which means they’re sugared up and squirming around and over each other like so many baby rats.

Across from us stands a man, Chinese, maybe thirties, early forties. His face is dark and weathered, his hands broad, as though he’s a farmer or construction worker. He’s standing between two rows of seats, swaying aimlessly, looking around. One hand is in his pants’ pocket; the other dangles at his side. A digital camera hangs from his wrist. As it swings, I catch a glimpse of the LED viewer. It’s on, flashing images of the waiting room at waist level: rows of hard red seats, dim fluorescent lighting, a water cooler and shelves filled with kitschy souvenirs. I follow the man’s eyes for a moment, watch as he glances this way and that, his eyes darting around the room, snatching a glance at Lucy, staring toward the doors, sneaking a peak at Jamie. I’m tired, not twenty-four hours from hurling my guts out all over the floor of a skanky hotel bathroom, and here’s what I’m thinking:

“Give me a break.”


“For God’s sake.”


“Just go ahead and do it already.”

The kids get a lot of attention in China. This is particularly true of Lucy and Jamie, who both heads of spun gold. We’ll be at the Tai Po market, watching a butcher scrape the scales off a grouper. I’ll raise my camera, eager for a picture of the man, the cleaver, that wooden block made from the round of a tree—and get a disapproving frown. Lucy, on the other hand, will raise her camera and the same man will stop mid swing, grin at her, and hold up the half-cleaned fish, its gills still working.

Or we’ll be walking down the street, when a pair of teenage girls in frocks and leggings turn and point at Jamie on my shoulders. One of them will chirp, “Hello!” to which Jamie will respond by curling his face into his shoulder and grimacing.

Or we’ll be in Kowloon, going down and escalator. Coming up the other side will be an old woman in a plaid coat, her hair short and white and neatly combed. As we pass, she’ll glance at Lucy, her blue eyes, her pug nose. Then she’ll reach out one hand, the fingers wrinkled but tipped by long clean fingernails—and softly brush Lucy’s hair.

In Gweilo, Martin Booth’s superb memoir of a white boy’s childhood in Hong Kong in the 50’s, Booth talks about walking down the street and having Chinese men and women unabashedly reach out and stroke his blonde hair. “Gold is a lucky color,” he explains. “To them, touching me would bring good fortune.”

And then there’s the picture taking. Most of the time, folks are polite—this is Hong Kong, after all. They’ll tap Ellen or I on the shoulder and say, “Can I take a picture of your daughter?” Or your son. Or your children. Then they’ll kneel next to Lucy, or Jamie, or Will, or all three, and smile for a husband or wife or friend with a camera. Usually this will lead to small scene where more and more people gather around, asking for pictures. Once, at a temple in Vietnam, Will and I were strolling back from a bathroom stop and saw a half dozen people sprint—sprint—across a stretch of green lawn toward something hidden behind a stand of firs. We didn’t have to ask what it was; we both knew Jamie and Lucy had been spotted. One of Ellen’s friends who lives on the mainland swears his kids have attracted large enough crowds of camera-wavers that food vendors have rolled their carts over and set up shop.

Every anglo I know who’s experienced this phenomenon—which would be every anglo with blonde children in Asia—will eventually, over the course of a conversation about it, say out loud a thought I’ve had for a long time: what do these folks do with these photographs? I mean, I keep picturing the scene eight years from now, when this guy with the camera is sitting on the couch next to a friend, thumbing through some snapshots of his trip to Shanghai, when his friend will point a finger at one snap in particular, of a plump-cheek little blonde girl who looks like she’s ready to bite the head off a bat.

“Who’s that?”

“Oh,” the photographer will say, “I don’t know. Just some kid we bumped into.”

I’m trying hard not to be judgmental here, really I am, but this just seems weird to me. Barring running into Jennifer Anniston at the local Kroger, wearing a tank top and short shorts (her, not me), why would I want a picture of someone I barely know?

Ellen, of course, is more gracious: “For a lot of these people, this might be the only blonde person they’ve ever met—or even seen. Who knows? Maybe they grew up in a village somewhere out West and this is their first trip to the city.”

Fair enough. Jing, one of our guides during our recent trip to Xi’an (terracotta warrior land, in case you’re trying to place it), once mentioned in passing that pretty much no one had their own TVs until the mid-90s—and a lot still don’t. That in mind, seeing Lucy or Jamie with their hair that strange white-gold flashing in the sun—or even Will, with his greenish-blue eyes, pale skin and high cheekbones—must be like the one time in my life I encountered a Masai tribesman in a small village in East Africa, his tightly braided hair powdered with red clay, his shoulders taut and deep brown black beneath a plaid robe—a moment, a sight I still remember 24 years later.

When we told our friend Dat we were going to visit Vietnam over Christmas he made a point of warning us that our children would be doted on.

“They’re going to grab them,” he said. “Don’t take it personally. They just really love children over there.”

He wasn’t kidding: we’d be walking around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, and a group of tourists from—who knows? Southern Vietnam? Bangkok? Japan?—would grab Lucy and Jamie, squeezing them in their arms while this friend or that snapped a photo. One young woman was so physical with Lucy—snatching her up, planting her on her lap, and pinching her cheeks until Lucy squealed—that the guide had to intervene, chastising the woman and dragging Lucy back to our circle.

It was there, I’m afraid, that I began to get a little irritated. Part of it I’m sure, simply had to do with jealousy on my part—I mean, where were the hoards of skinny Asian women clamoring to be photographed with me?

Part of it, though, was simply that I didn’t like the idea of Lucy thinking she has to oblige every stranger with a camera (I mean: think about that sentence!). I’m not alone in this feeling: Ellen’s friend in China, the one getting kickbacks from the ice cream man, says he’s learned enough Mandarin to say, “She’s not a toy. She’s not a doll. She’s a little girl. Put my daughter down.”

Bad enough, I figure, that Lucy had no choice but to come to Hong Kong, had no say in what school she went to or who her friends would be—now she has to confirm her lack of agency in the universe by being a Kipi doll for a bunch of people she doesn’t even know? Call me ungracious, but I know my gender theory and I know objectification, and all of this was making me more than a little Judith Butlery, if you get my drift.

More to my liking, actually, is the way Jamie has taken to handling all of this: way back in November, we were visiting in a nunnery near Diamond Hill when a monk in a garnet robe approached and made goo-goo faces at Jamie. His response? He pursed his lips, squinted, and raised his fists.

That’s been his approach ever since. I’ve actually tried similar tactics with my deans and provost, but to no avail.

There’s a more somber side to all of this, of course. Every once in a while when we’re traveling on the mainland—waiting at a restaurant, maybe, or in line for a taxi—some slightly worn-looking woman in her late forties will be behind us, weighed down with a groceries in a plastic bag. Her eyes will be tired, staring off into nothing, almost studiously avoiding everyone and everything around her. But then something will catch her eye, some movement of Lucy’s, or Jamie meowing like a cat, maybe.

And then her gaze will lower and you can see her struggling for a moment to take it all in. Her eyes will travel from one head, to the other, and then to the other. And then they’ll do it again—one head, another, and another. And then she’ll just pause, not so much staring or stunned as—I don’t know what: overwhelmed maybe? Or simply that much more tired and broken by her life.

This is China, after all, where the one-child policy has been in place since 1978. And though Wikipedia will tell you that polls show almost 80% of the Chinese supporting the policy, I’ve yet to meet one who’s expressed that sentiment.

That children hold a special place in the Chinese heart is perhaps the most obvious and stupid thing I’ve ever written—where aren’t children loved, after all? But in China, there’s something different about this affection, something almost tangible but not quite. What causes it, exactly, I’ve yet to figure out: perhaps it’s the emphasis placed on carrying on the family name, and the way male children can do this. Or perhaps it’s the lack of a good care policy for the elderly, and the way children take on their parents as they grow old.

Of course, we care about name and the elderly in the West as well, but these things aren’t written into our contemporary social fabric the way they are in China: we’ve become a live in the day culture, a culture not particularly distracted by fears of the eradication of our family name. And we have Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a plethora of nursing homes to chuck Ma or Pa into when they start insisting they can sing like Sonny Bono, or take to wearing bright purple trousers in public and on their heads. Americans care about family, yes, but we often care just as much or more about career, or cars, or having a fancy home that we can’t afford but that has a built in trash compactor in every bedroom.

In contrast, family remains the fundamental social institution in China: perhaps this is simply because of a longer tradition dating back to sometime before the glaciers retreated; or perhaps it’s because of the oppressive and socially-isolating nature of an Orwellian government; or maybe it’s just because the Chinese are better and more caring people than we are. One need only think of the riots following the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes in which hundreds of children died because of poorly-constructed schools. When’s the last time Americans took to the street because of their children? Following the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres, our sympathy for parents who lost their children stopped the moment we started discussing the possibility of redefining gun laws: in America, we care more about gauge and ballistic arc than we do kids.

None of which, of course, is going through the head of that woman as she stands behind us in that line for the taxis, gazing at our three children, any one of which we’re likely to be yelling at 11 out 12 waking hours a day.

What she is thinking, I don’t know. But as her dark eyes roll from blonde head to blonde head to chestnut head, her jaw tightens, slightly, and the line of her mouth becomes thin.

In recent weeks, it’s become clear that even Lucy, recently-elected chair of the Hong Kong Center of Attention Organization (HKCAO, for short), has gotten sick of all the attention. On a flight back from Shanghai a few weeks ago, we were stuck at the tail of the plane (“Just one more dumpling!” I’d said. “Don’t worry: we’ve still got plenty of time to get to the airport!”) right next to the bathroom. After the meal had been cleared, folks started lining up to clear their systems, resting their elbows on our seat backs and chewing on toothpicks. I was on one side of the aisle with Lucy, while Ellen was on the other, so I’m not entirely sure what happened, but eventually someone pulled out a camera and started snapping photos of Jamie. Next thing you know, there’s a mob scene at the back of the plane, maybe fifteen people grinning and waving digital Cannons, trying to get pictures of Jamie, with Jamie, or of the back of someone’s head looking at Jamie.

Lucy was next to me, curled up in the corner, observing all of this. She’s never been a good flier, Lucy, and she’d had a long weekend of playing with her friends and arguing with her brother, so maybe it was that. Or maybe it was something else. But when someone in the crowd finally noticed her there—her golden halo glimmering in the light bouncing off the clouds—and raised a camera, smiling, Lucy just frowned and shook her head.

“No,” she said.

And that was that.

Until we were in Li Jiang and we ran into a couple from Virginia who had four kids. They were in China for the long haul—two years down, and no end in sight as far as they were concerned. Their youngest two were blonde, and as it often does, the conversation turned to this phenomenon of strangers photographing our children.

“Our kids were really getting sick of it,” the mother eventually said. “Until we started with the M&Ms.”

“M&Ms?” Ellen and I said, wondering if we’d missed a semi-kinky chapter in The Lonely Planet Guide to China.

The woman nodded. “Every time they allow a stranger to take a picture of them, they get an M&M. We tell them they have to smile broadly, though. We consider this our little contribution to greater understanding and world peace.”

Later, I was in our hotel room packing up (who knew vomit-soaked clothes could weigh so much?), when Will and Lucy came sprinting in.

“You owe us three M&Ms!” they shouted.

“Don’t mention food,” I said. “What happened?”

“We got our pictures taken,” Will said.

“Three times!” Lucy chimed in.

“We smiled,” said Will.

“Like this.” Lucy spread her lips from ear to ear, baring her teeth like a Jack-O-Lantern on methamphetamines.

“And that didn’t scare them?”

At which point they both pummeled me with their fists until I threaten to barf all over them.

So now we’re in the airport in Li Jiang, and farmer man is standing beside us, switched on camera dangling from one wrist. He’s struggling to get up the nerve, I can tell—maybe he’s never met westerners before; certainly he’s never seen one as big and, well, green as me. I know I should help him, should nod or something, but honestly, my stomach is doing a tango with my large intestine and it’s all I can do not to curl up on the sticky floor of the waiting room and moan.

Eventually he’s saved: a mildly clownish man in a dark suit traveling with his buddies and a tinkling box of Tsing Tao grabs Jamie as he toddles past, propping him on his lap and poking his ample belly, grinning something at him in a dialect I’ve never heard before. In a matter of minutes, a crowd has gathered, mostly men, mostly in their forties, all of them with cameras, all of them taking turns posing with my three tooth-flashing children. I count flashes and clicks as best I can over the wheezing accordion and stomping heels in my gut, and make it almost to twenty before the furor dies down and we’re left, dazed and flash-blind, in our formed plastic seats.

The kids are thrilled of course, asking when they can get their candy, if they’ll have to share with the other children on the tour we’re about to join, if they each get their own bag or if we’ll get something larger and split it up. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this. At one point I swear I catch Lucy glancing desperately around the room, grin pasted to her face, trying to make eye contact with someone, anyone with a camera. That’s a bad thing, right? Doing things with strangers for candy?

There is one thing, though, that I do like about all of this: at almost every one of these mob scenes, if I step back and look around, I’ll find a stooped old man standing off by himself, hands behind his back, his neck bowed but eyes bright as he surveys the goings-on. Like with the woman at the taxi stand, his eyes will do the count, dancing from blonde head to blonde head to chestnut head—and then he’ll do it again, from head to head to head. Eventually, he’ll look up, glance around, as though hoping to share a joke. Most times he’ll catch me watching him, then nod his head towards the kids and raise his eyebrows: “Yours?”

I’ll nod.

His lower lip will arch into a pinched smile, and he’ll do the math again, nodding at each head, then glancing at me as he raises first a pinkie, then a fourth finger, then a middle finger. Finally he’ll hold them toward me, backwards, pressing his index finger down with his thumb. He’ll shake the hand, questioning: “Three?”

I’ll nod. Three. Yes.

He’ll look again, as though contemplating. Then he’ll do the count again with Will and Jamie: 1, 2—and look at me. Two boys?

Yes, two boys.

Then he’ll glance at Lucy, nod at Ellen, and look at me for confirmation. And one girl?


Then he might, depending on where we are, on what generation he’s of, on how much English he knows, say, “Happy family,” in a thick accent. And I’ll nod back. Yes, two boys, one girl, that’s the perfect mix. In China, that’s a happy family.

At this point, he’ll just flat-out grin, eyes bright, nodding his head.

Someone once asked me if I thought this was in approval of my virility, an hombre a hombre, “Way to go, dude!” kind of interaction. I don’t think so. There’s nothing lewd about it, nothing jarring or creepy, no thrust of the hips, miming a woman’s spread thighs.

Nor is it anger, or jealousy, a low-simmering resentment of a government or a policy that leaves parents vulnerable to loneliness and discomfort in their old age.

No, it’s more like satisfaction: one human being looking at one family, an essentially random selection of chromosomes and split cells and social variables that, could, in the worst case scenario, eventually make us all but strangers to one another. But not now, and not yet, and maybe not ever. No, right now, all this old man’s eyes and nods and grin shows me in this one human being looking at this one family, this one bald man and this one patient woman and these three mildly insane children, and saying, “Yes.” Just, “Yes.” And, “This is good.”


Najla said...

Holy cow! You've got a couple of superstars on your hands! They may need an agent.

wi said...

Hi Paul,

Just happened upon your blog from "Nesting in Skyscrapers." I have been prowling the internet for the last month or so looking for blogs of expats living in HK because our family will be moving to HK in August from Michigan.

Just a couple quick questions. We have two children (current 3rd & 4th grade) and we are looking at schools in the NT as my husband's office is in Sha Tin. He and I are coming to HK on May 1 to look at apartments and tour several schools. Can you tell me anything about the following schools? American International School, International Christian School, Hong Luk Yuen International School, Sha Tin Junior School. In reading your blog, I got the impression that your children are attending a Christian school even though it sounds as if your family are not evangelical Christians. We are Catholic so that puts us in an entirely different category. Are you finding that a Christian school is ok for your children and have you been able to make friends with other parents. I am scared that if we send our kids to a Christian school that I will have a hard time making friends with parents since I don't have all of the same beliefs as many.

Also, any tips on looking for housing or did the University do all that for you?

Thanks in advance for any help you can offer. It's a big move for someone in her 40's that has never used a passport.