I love introducing new (to me) voices here and watching people connect and build community (like when my cousin in Alaska shares the words of my friend from Pakistan or a friend in Russia connects with a writer friend in Minneapolis). I’m honored to introduce Denise James and her blog, Taking Route, to Djibouti Jones readers. The site covers all things expatriate and travel-related and I think you’ll enjoy her words here. I appreciate her honesty about how hard it can be to be stared at, or to watch your kids be stared at. A friend of mine in Kenya once watched tourists frantically photograph her blond children while they played at a guesthouse as though they were on a safari. We should be respectful in how we photograph people and interact with them in our host country and we should expect the same, especially in terms of our children. Denise offers valuable tips for how to handle this kind of situation.
What Angelina Jolie and I Have in Common
Apparently, I’m important. Or at least my kids are.
It didn’t take long in my host country to learn my family was a big deal. A very big deal. I stood, leaning against the guard rail at the airport, with a 9 month old in the Ergo and a 2 year old in the stroller, minding my own business and trying to stay awake after the 36-hour trip. What is happening? Why are so many people stopping mid-step and taking pictures of us? This is so strange and creepy.
I slowly turned the stroller and myself away from the paparazzi so that I was facing the guard rail, staring at nothing and waiting exhaustedly for my husband to return from the ATM. I was hoping this movie-star-airport-photo-session was an anomaly. But, alas, no such luck, it was just the beginning.
Walking through the streets of Southeast Asia with 5 little white kids in tow causes a spectacle. My kids have learned if they stray too far ahead or lag too far behind that they are fair game for cheek pinches, head pats, and photo sessions. There’s NEVER a time we go out when we aren’t stared down, poked, prodded and filmed. I usually avoid looking up when at a restaurant. I’d rather pretend there aren’t a bajillion eyes glaring. Sometimes I feel brave and look up and engage in a stare-down competition with a complete stranger. Winner gets bragging rights. I usually win. Once a friend of a friend tried to befriend me on Facebook with my baby’s photo as their Facebook profile picture. Huh? We need royalties. I mean, we just met you.
My parents taught me at a very young age that pointing and staring were rude gestures and touching small children you don’t know should be avoided at all costs. This is an American value that is not shared with our host culture. I’m not going to lie, it can be hard. It can be draining. And some days it keeps me from going out of the house. It’s not only difficult for me, but for my children who are often treated as baby dolls rather than real children with real feelings and real emotions.
But aren’t I in this country to be a light and a joy and spread love? Yes. Yes, I am. But not at the expense of my children’s social and emotional well-being. We have had to set some pretty strong boundaries when it comes to our kids. We often disagree with what our neighbors deem appropriate. And we can’t be lax. It is our job to protect them no matter whether we are in America, Southeast Asia or Timbuktu.
Over the years we have acquired 3 main rules when it comes to our children’s interactions with strangers.
1) No one has to pose for a picture with a complete stranger. If our kids are getting their photo taken and tell us it is bothering them, we will politely tell the person to stop taking pictures and move in between our child and the photographer. If someone actually comes up and asks for a photo we always defer to the children and ask if they would like to pose for a picture. Sometimes my daughters say “yes.” Sometimes “no” My 8 year old son…he always says, “no.”
2) We always break physical contact between a stranger and our child. End of story. For example, if we are walking down the street and someone grabs the arm of my child to talk to him I will gently move the stranger’s hand off my child and start-up an adult conversation. Sorry, that just isn’t appropriate and I want my children to always feel that their physical space is respected. I will not hand over my 1-year-old baby to a stranger just because they hold out their arms. Get to know us first. Ask our names. Let us know yours and then, maybe…maybe.
3) Our children must greet adults in the culturally appropriate way when prompted by a parent. If someone asks them their name (usually in botched English), we expect our kids to answer (some do better than others). How old are you? Same. Answer them. “Salam” greetings, where the child raises the adult’s hand to their forehead, is a respectful way to make acquaintance with an adult. These are all appropriate interactions with strangers when accompanied by my husband or me. Ways of showing respect that, even if my kids are uncomfortable with it, they still need to learn. How to meet and greet adults clearly and respectively is a skill that I think all kids need to acquire.
In reality, most folks in our host culture are kind and genuinely interested in friendship. They really can’t help but be shocked by our foreign faces and light skin. I try to keep that in mind. I also try to live by the words of my pastor back home: “Christians never have a reason to be unkind.” Living a kind life, especially when it comes to my kids, takes effort and supernatural strength and prayer…lots of prayer.
What about your family? Do you have paparazzi? How does your family cope with the similar situations?
Denise James is co-founder of Taking Route, a blog for expats “taking root while in route.” When she isn’t writing you can find her planning sewing projects that never happen and watching Netflix. She along with her husband and 5 children reside in Southeast Asia. Connect with her at Taking Route, via Twitter, or join #TakingRoute #WeeklyPhotoPrompt via Instagram
The staring/gawking/paparazzi thing is my #1 culture shock trigger. After 8 years and 4 kids it hasn’t changed. So when people ask me what my favorite part about coming back to America is, I answer, “Anonymity.” Stepping off that plane and instantly blending in and no one cares about my ringlet-topped fair-skinned babes. 🙂 Thanks for the tips! I do the 2nd one, but not near as much as I should. Gonna get better about it!
OH my gosh!! I have to share this! I just wrote about this after reading the article in ALOS about suddenly realizing you are a minority. http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2015/01/22/no-one-stares-anymore/
Here’s another perspective!
Thanks for this article. While to a lesser degree, my family gets stared at a lot. We are uncommonly tall for Bolivia, and have lighter skin and hair. My kids are petted like cats by strangers, daily. I try not to make a big deal about it, but the thing that bothers me the most, is the comments about our blonde daughter. She is told, and I am told every day, how pretty she is, especially her blue eyes. That’s not my daughter–she’s funny and clever and thoughtful. That’s what I want people to see and know about her. Having been raised by parents who fiercely emphasized that looks don’t matter, it makes me very uncomfortable.
This is my life. We too are raising five caucasian kids in SE Asia. My son asked if we were movie stars or something. I like your rules. My youngest daughter has learned to duck down and move away quickly when someone reaches out to touch her hair. We always try to remember to smile, even if we are walking away quickly. It does get old.
Interesting. I have thought about this some, but haven’t experienced it with my family. We live in a country where we look like everyone around us, and our children prefer the local language, so they even blend in when they’re talking. Sometimes people stare and ask questions about the size of our family, but it’s nothing like what you’re describing here. That would be incredibly hard.
Our children have had to learn a non-American physical space bubble, though. Here in public transport and other situations, it’s quite common for someone to need to hold a stranger’s baby or help in other oway. So, your rule #2 is one for me to think about. In the past I’ve had to push it the other way, telling my little one, “Yes, you will sit with this nice lady in the bus” and such.
Yes, how sweet anonymity is when you don’t have it!! My four blond blue-eyed children were touched, and stroked constantly at first when we moved to SE Asia, though I soon learned to move away and avoid it. Sometimes people wanted to tease the toddler by taking away her stuffed animal and pretending not to give it back.. Wow, that had to stop too. Once in a restaurant which was relatively quiet, the entire kitchen crew came out and made a circle around our table, just staring and watching us eat.
I am blond and blue-eyed too, so caught my fair share of attention. My Asian friends commonly critiqued everything about me: “You have a pimple on your face! You don’t look good in that dress! Your hair is so soft!” (while touching it) Once a man followed me around a shopping area telling me I had magic snake eyes. He wouldn’t stop so I finally told him I was going to call the police, not that I had any idea how to do that!
For me, the overall effect was to rid me of self-consciousness forever. Here, I could not fit in and constantly did odd things like kiss and hug my children in public. I really began to ignore the staring and not mind what people thought in general. It pretty much holds to this day, many years later, and I am thankful for that. It gives quite a freedom to let that go!
Ah yes, the good friends who point out our pimples…”What is THAT awful thing on your face?!”
I have the “luck” that my son has darker hair but my youngest is quite pale and is blond. Once in a beach in Phuket, she was playing in the sand and from one second to the other was surrounded by hoards of Chinese tourists taking pictures of her. I was so astounded I didn´t know what to do. I laughed and picked her up and then they started taking pictures of me! Thankfully their speedboat was leaving and they all rushed off. It wasn´t very nice.