Beijing has changed my child. I thought I was prepared for many scenarios moving to China. I anticipated that we would not understand a thing, that it would be very difficult adjusting to this new culture. However what I did not anticipate is that my daughter is seen as a rare species.
When we arrived after a 14 hour flight we had to make our way to the hotel and we were so tired and overwhelmed, that we did not notice that people where acting differently towards our family. Then we decided that we should visit the Forbidden City, stupidly on a Saturday. We realized very soon the scope of what awaited us. People swarmed around my daughter, touching her, talking to her, talking pictures, and soon we turned into the attraction. Now, don’t get me wrong, everybody was friendly and very curious. But my daughter got scared, and I am very protective of her private space; my husband a bit less so as he is Latin so he is used to people being closer to him. I however am a true Dutch girl and I do not appreciate people coming too close to me.
I try to teach my daughter that you can’t just touch other kids if they don’t want to be touched, and that she can always say no if she does not want a hug. That day in the Forbidden City I was perplexed. I had never encountered being touched by strangers, and especially my then 3-year-old blonde toddler had almost never been touched against her will. We have been in Beijing over a year now, and I can see that my daughter knows the pattern of many people. They call her beautiful over and over and over again. Many people take pictures of Laila. People have followed us; people have tried to pick Laila up. Parents have put their children next to my child for a photo opportunity. Strange men have followed us around the compound to take pictures of my daughter. And on several occasions I have had to push people away from her, after repeatedly telling them not to touch her. An old lady has tried to walk away with my daughter in the stroller while we where shopping in the supermarket.
How does this all affect my daughter, you might wonder? She has increasingly gotten hostile towards people that approach her. She does not take it with pride, and I can’t blame her. It gets annoying at times, when I just want to pay for groceries but people are also touching her and talking with her even though it’s very evident that she does not want this. Going shopping with a toddler is already annoying; going grocery shopping in China where you don’t understand a thing and people horde around you like you’re a in a zoo is not cool. A few weeks ago a woman approached her in the mall. Clearly she wanted to touch my daughter but my daughter was a tad faster and hit the woman. She felt threatened and again, I can’t blame her.
She is used to being called pretty every day multiple times. But as a mother I know she is also smart, sweet and has an overall great personality. I don’t want her to think she is just beautiful. I feel bad when other parents point at Laila and tell their kids: “Look how pretty she is!” It feels like they are actually saying: “Look, she looks the opposite of you, how pretty!” How will my daughter respond when we move to a country that is respectful of her private space? Does she think she is only special because she is beautiful? Food for thought.
Photos: Pauline van Hasselt