SAY CHEESE: A foreigner has his photo taken with two Chinese women along the Bund in Shanghai (CHEN RAN)
It was another Monday morning as I rode Line 2 toward Fuchengmen, the closest subway station to my office in west Beijing. I had missed the morning rush and a few empty seats near the end of the bench awaited my still sleepy body. With headphones firmly planted into each ear, I watched as station after station rolled by.
Somewhere along the line, the empty seats next to and across from me filled up with four older men wearing tattered brown and gray jackets. Their skin was a leathery color, much darker than others in the subway car; their clothes were a little dirty and they were carrying large duffle bags. Migrant workers, I guessed, or country folk at the least —their skin tanned from a life of labor under the unforgiving sun.
I stared at my iPod's screen searching for a new song, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the one guy leaning in close, as if to see what was happening on the tiny screen I was so fixated on. Nearer he drew, a bit too close for comfort actually. Then he stopped his sudden invasion of my personal space. There was a pause, then a flash. I looked up. The man sitting across from me had a camera in his hand and was giving the thumbs up to the one sitting next to me. There was laughing as they looked at the camera's screen. The guy had taken a photo—and I was the main subject.
A few moments later, a second shooting occurred followed by more laughter from the group. I looked up briefly, smiled and turned my attention back to the iPod. Such is the life of a foreigner in Beijing.
This wasn't the first time someone had taken my picture, although most of the time I'll get a slight tap on the shoulder and see a smiling Chinese person holding a camera and motioning me to stand next to someone already posing in front of some landmark or tourist attraction. These discreet, spy-like encounters, while amusing, are uncommon.
During my first visit to Tiananmen Square, a group of high school age Chinese girls could barely hold back fits of giggles as they asked to have their photo taken with me. I was skeptical at first since I thought they were trying to sell me something but quickly agreed and had someone take a picture of me with the girls as well.
At the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a Chinese tour group wanted me to be the centerpiece of their group photo. They didn't speak English, but I could tell what they were trying to ask based on the camera-clicking hand gestures and the tugs at my arm as they pulled me into the shot.
In Shanghai, a young woman approached me on the Bund next to the Huangpu River and said I was "very beautiful" before handing her camera off to a friend for a quick pic. She followed her comment with an unexpected "You should remember me forever" but ran off before I could get a name or number.
Atop the Fragrant Hills in the west of Beijing, a cool-looking Chinese dude wanted a photo with me, looking equally as cool at the time. We both threw up a pair of peace signs as someone snapped away.
And while traveling in China's westernmost region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, I stopped to enjoy the scenery of a lake and waterfall and soon found a queue of Chinese tourists "admiring" me and waiting to have their photo taken with the only foreigner for miles. If I'd charged a fee that time, I could have made an easy 50 yuan ($7).
The photo archive list goes on.
But why the photos?
In my pre-China preparation two years ago, I'd read these types of requests are fairly common for Western tourists. Often the case, Chinese tourists from the country's hinterlands where foreigners aren't so abundant come to big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, see the national landmarks and also run into many of their foreign tourist counterparts. With fancy cameras in hand, many will muster up the courage to tap these pale-complexioned people on the shoulders and ask for a photo.
That was probably the case with my subway encounter: the migrants, probably from a far off province, were taking a photo of chalk-white me to write home about. I could only image the letter or e-mail that would accompany the photo; probably along the lines of "We saw the strangest thing on the subway today. It was dressed funny, had pasty white skin and had cords coming out of its ear as it stared at this tiny hand-held screen device!" Or maybe they thought I was Matt Damon. Either way, it brightened my morning.
The author is an American living in Beijing