We might be able to blend into a crowd in some countries, but in China where practically everyone has black hair, dark brown eyes and only one child per family, our pack of three fair haired kids under the age of six made us stand out like plaid pants on prom night.
There is no better story to illustrate this than what happened to us on our seventh day living in Tianjin when my husband, Brian, an avid runner, competed in a 5K race.
He saw a poster in the elevator of our apartment building advertising the event, and during all the chaos of the move and getting settled in a new country where we didn’t even speak the language, he was somehow able to find out where the race was and get registered.
It only cost about $2 and his race T-shirt was a size XXXL. Yes, you did read that correctly—triple XL. He normally wears a size large, or extra large because he is tall and broad shouldered. But, this shirt was even a bit snug. The Chinese tend to be built a bit smaller than we Americans.
The starting line was at the new soccer stadium, about one mile from our house, a venue for the 2008 Olympic Games. Tianjin is located about 70 miles southwest of Beijing where the majority of the events will take place.
Race day came and, since I didn’t want to miss out on the fun, we loaded all three kids into a taxi and made our way to the starting line together.
There were about 10,000 runners and everyone was required to wear the t-shirt they were given at registration, creating a human sea of white. Luckily, Brian wore a red bandana on his head and was slightly taller than everyone else, so he was easy to spot.
It turns out I was easy to spot too.
I hadn’t realized that an American woman with three blonde children in tow would be about as exciting as a movie star sighting at a crowded event like the race.
I was carrying Isaac in a baby backpack and Sophie and Ian were walking alongside me. Every time we stopped, a crowd formed around us. People were snapping photos left and right. Everyone wanted to touch the kids’ heads and squeeze their cheeks.
People were saying things to me in Mandarin, which I, of course, could not understand. Kindly, anyone who knew English would translate, telling me the kids were beautiful, asking how old they were, and most importantly—were they all mine?
“Sanga Haiza! (Three kids!)” People would shout in amazement when I told them that, yes, I was the mother of the 5, 3 and 1-year-old munchkins.
I have to admit, at first there was a part of me that loved the attention. What mother doesn’t want to hear how cute her kids are?
But, after about 10 minutes of all the staring and stroking, it got really old for the kids and I was wishing I knew Mandarin for “please back off.”
On the bright side, everyone was friendly and sometimes even helpful. Once, while Brian was running, Ian got about 10 paces behind me and, as I was urging him to catch up, someone gave him a friendly nudge in my direction.
And, when the chocolate ice-cream Sophie was eating began to drip down the front of her shirt, a total stranger started wiping it off. It was nice since I had my hands full with the other two and their dripping ice-creams.
It was such a strange feeling to be the center of so much attention. Before I went to China, one of my biggest fears was the possibility of losing one of my children in a crowd. It was soon apparent that this would not happen since the “crowd” turned out to be a bunch of people standing in a big circle around our family staring.
During the race, a man with a very nice camera came up and started taking lots of photos of the kids. Then, I saw the first runners crossing the finish line and, with a surprised look on his face the camera man jumped up to photograph the winners like he was suppose to do. He missed the shot because he was so preoccupied with my kids!
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Thus began our life in a fishbowl.
At home in our 11-story apartment building, it seemed that everyone knew who we were though we could only identify 3 or 4 families out of the total 44 apartments.
Whenever I boarded the elevator, whoever was inside would push the number 4 button. My first thought, “Oh, they are going to the 4th floor too like me,” was dismissed when they pushed another number and I realized that they were pushing the 4 for me. No matter how many times this happened, it kept producing a strange feeling inside of me to process the idea of complete strangers knowing something as intimate as where I lived.
Not by coincidence, an American mother and her two daughters lived just two buildings away from us. For, several weeks in October, our friend has had a male visitor from the states.
One day, on the way to the grocery store, the cab driver started going on in Mandarin about something. Brian and I could understand the name of our friend and as he went on we picked up a few words we knew like “father” and “wife.” He was also making gestures and we finally understood that he was asking about the mysterious new man in our friend’s life.
It seemed little bizarre to me that even the taxi drivers were discussing our personal lives.
But, it really wasn’t so bizarre. After all, in China, it is common to discuss everything. People frequently ask each other how much money they make or how much they paid for something. It’s as common as saying “hello” to ask, “Where did you get those shoes and how much did you pay for them?”
Shortly after I arrived in China, I had my first Asian guest. As soon as she walked in the front door, she proceeded to peek in every room, bathroom and closet and then immediately wanted to know the square footage and how much I paid in rent.
I found out later that she was so curious because she was in the process of looking for a new apartment in the area. Still, it wasn’t very discreet.
Even at the grocery store, other shoppers regularly walked right up and started sifting through my cartload of items. Perhaps to see what the foreigner was buying. If the person saw something she liked, she wanted to know where I found it.
Another regular occurrence at the grocery store was workers telling me what to buy. I will pick up a bag of, say, brown sugar, and a worker will hold up another bag and say, “Buy this. This brand is better.” I have never, ever had this happen in the states.
Everyone is into everyone’s business, so it should have come as no surprise that we were constantly under a microscope since foreigners in Tianjin are very, very rare.
In the city of over 10 million people, there were only about 3,000 foreigners, or less than .003% in 2006. Many of those foreigners were Korean. I almost never saw other western foreigners.
We traveled to Beijing and a coastal resort town, Qingdao, where we saw more foreigners in five minutes than we saw in five weeks of walking the streets of Tianjin. In addition, we stuck out like someone with a 12-inch Mohawk because of the unusually “large” size of our family.
We were an oddity worthy or photographs, video tapes, occasional autographs, and constant stares. Mostly we got smiles, curiosity, and once strangers had verified that the three kids belonged to us, lots of thumbs up and “good jobs.”
The constant affirmation was nice but, all of the attention was exhausting. Realizing that everyone is watching your every move is unnerving.
On the other hand, when our cab pulled up next to a flatbed truck packed with workers who looked like they were worn out and all of their tired faces cracked into smiles as they pointed at our blue-eyed curly-haired one-year-old, I felt like it was worth it.