by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Amber
Before we traveled to China to adopt our younger daughter, I expected that a white mom carrying an obviously Asian baby would attract a lot of attention from the locals. In the city where we met my new daughter L, few Chinese are even aware that international adoption exists. In addition to the laminated cards provided by our agency that explained that we were adopting our daughter, we were ready to answer any questions that would accompany the stares we certain we would receive. What we didn’t expect is that no one noticed our youngest daughter because they were so busy gawking at M, our four year old.
“Hallo!” they shouted as she walked down the street.
“Oooh, piaoliang! (beautiful)” Old ladies cooed as they stroked her cheeks. In Chinese, they commented on her light skin and her large eyes.
A group of school children on a field trip surrounded M shouting “hallo!” and “How are you!” while trying to grab her arms and pat her back.
It almost became a little ridiculous. Random strangers on the street stopped us and asked if they could take M’s picture. Twice we were asked to take a picture of the stranger standing next to her.
“This must be what it is like traveling with a celebrity,” my husband said after the fourth or fifth time we were approached that day.
At home in the Midwestern US, we have occasionally had run-ins with overly enthusiastic (usually white) strangers who seemed just a little too interested in our biracial child and her “beautiful eyes” or whatever false compliment they choose to mask the fact they are staring at her. This almost always when she is accompanied by both her father and me, which makes her biracialness more obvious, I suppose. Most of the time, we are fortunate to go through our days with relative anonymity.
Not so in China.
Almost everywhere we went, M was faced with comments and compliments about her appearance. At the beginning of the trip, we thought it was just because she was a child and clearly a foreigner. Once we joined our travel group, we noticed that the other siblings in our group (both older Asian adoptees and white children traveling with white American parents) received a little attention, but not nearly as much or as consistently as M.
Eventually, my husband and I conceded the attention was because of M’s blend of white and Asian features. It is no secret that many Chinese have adopted a standard of beauty that is influenced by the pervasiveness of western culture. I don’t think M was attracting so much attention because she is objectively attractive, M received so much attention because large, round eyes and fair skin are fetishized in China.
Early in the trip, M seemed to enjoy the attention, but by the end of the trip, she was clearly very uncomfortable. The last straw came with four old ladies in the Guangzhou airport. They leaned over the huge pile of suitcases I had placed in front of M to give her some privacy and proceeded to dissect M’s appearance in Chinese. When M angrily shouted “Bu yao! (don’t want!)” at them, I stood up and chased them away. We spent a lot of time on our trip trying to find the right balance between being polite guests in a foreign culture while also shielding M from attention she clearly didn’t want.
When I asked M what she would miss about China, she only said “Mama, I am so glad to be going home to America. I won’t have to talk to any strangers there!”
Amber is currently underpaid and overworked as the full-time parent to two daughters. Amber blogs about motherhood, adoption and life in her Midwestern, multiracial family at American Family.