‘May I have a photo with you?’
Again and again I encounter this request in China. It matters little where I am – walking the street in a town, visiting a Buddhist temple, climbing a mountain, or simply minding my own business in a quiet space. And I have come to know the look that precedes the question. An inquisitive and studied look that is almost a stare – no, more than that, a look with the hint of dreaming, if not the stirring of a strange desire. When I return the gaze, eyes are averted, but only for a moment. Sometimes I utter a ‘nihau’, if not a few further sentences in Chinese, sometimes not.
But the question nearly always follows and then the sidling up for a photo. An older woman with curled hair, much laughter and a willing friend to take the shot; a young woman with a mobile phone and a selfie; a group of two or three or more, each of whom poses in a cute way; an effeminate man who sidles up intimately and utters an affectionate word or two. If I am quick enough, my own camera comes out as well and I ask someone to take a shot. If the person is too short for a good shot, I simply pick her up so that our faces are at the same height. At times it becomes a sequence of photos, with yet another person stepping forward to make the same request.
Obviously, this experience can go to your head, making you believe you are some kind of movie star. Best to avoid that self-impression at all costs. So in order to keep my feet on the ground, I have been trying to figure out the reason. Is it because people still wonder at foreigners (laowai), those strange figures from afar? Is it due to a curious exoticism in a country where everyone has dark eyes and straight, black hair? Is it because of some ‘Asian’ propensity to take photos of oneself before a significant site in a slightly different way? In the end, I simply asked a few people I know.
After much discussion, they agreed that it is mainly due to the fantasy of the foreign man. That fantasy is – as most are – a distinct mixture of contradictory elements. On the one hand, the foreign man can be seen as a rampant beast. With an over-hanging belly, red face, and drooling lips, he is out to get what he can in China (mostly with women). Yet, the foreign man may also embody the dream of an ideal relationship: devotion and sufficient resources for security, along with a window into a very different life from another culture. Even more, the foreigner may provide a desirable aesthetic – height, strong nose, blue eyes, light complexion. Of course, the fantasy also has a distinct sexual dimension. Yet, while many may entertain such a fantasy, few are willing to act on it. Indeed, a fantasy functions as something upon which one does not act. It remains a projection, a desire that cannot be realised, is even destroyed if acted upon. And so a photo can try to capture that fantasy.