I’ve written before about how friendly Chinese people are to children, and I think it’s one of the most wonderful things about this society. It takes a village to raise a child, according to the old adage; and in Beijing people still feel it’s their responsibility, and their joy, to value and protect all children.
It’s certainly a healthier situation than in the UK, where a series of scandals have broken trust to the point where all strangers are assumed to be pedophiles until proven otherwise. (At the height of national paranoia, a pediatrician was besieged in her home by angry and confused parents. I wish that was a joke, but it’s not.)
However, a friend’s experience, related under the condition of anonymity, raised questions of where the boundaries are drawn. The friend was leaving the Burger Festival with his wife and son when a young man in his early twenties ran up.
“Excuse me,” he said, “can I have a picture with the beautiful boy?”
Any western parent will be used to being asked to pose for pictures, and those asking will be more or less subtle about the fact they don’t really want the adults, they want the cute laowai kids; most often, a picture with their own kids is the ultimate prize. They’re usually not Beijingers, who would never admit to being impressed by foreigners, but out-of-towners who’ve rarely seen anyone who isn’t Chinese.
The friend considered these requests harmless and generally encouraged his child to play along. In part, he admitted, that was because he didn’t want to appear snobbish, or – OK, let’s use the word – racist. On this occasion though, after taking a quick selfie with his arm around the boy, the young man then kissed him on the cheek before disappearing with a shout of thanks.
It all happened so fast that the father had no time to react. He is certain that the young man meant no harm. But the child was left humiliated and angry.
In the UK, an adult male kissing a stranger’s child would be likely to be chased down by a mob and beaten to within an inch of their life. However much this might make the adults feel better, it’s likely only to add to the child’s distress. But without resorting to violence, there are many who think that children’s right to refuse unwanted physical contact is insufficiently respected. Even being made to kiss an old auntie when you don’t want to, some say, is a step along the road to child abuse. Others think those people are crazy, and this is political correctness gone mad. These questions are even more urgent in a society where stroking a stranger’s dog is often frowned upon, but touching their child is considered acceptable.
In this case, the father feels bitterly ashamed he didn’t protect his son better and has decided that the child will no longer be expected to pose for photographs with strangers, unless he actively, positively expresses his agreement; which likely means never. And if as a result people think that they are arrogant, even racist, that’s a small price to pay for ensuring his child’s boundaries are respected.