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Chinese Culture can be Overwhelming for Expat Children

Vagabondjourney.com is about real life. It’s about going into other cultures around the world to learn about them — and also to learn about ourselves. Not everything is going to go smoothly when living in any country, but it is often through the most onerous and irritating situations that the most valuable learning occurs. “I [...]

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Vagabondjourney.com is about real life. It’s about going into other cultures around the world to learn about them — and also to learn about ourselves. Not everything is going to go smoothly when living in any country, but it is often through the most onerous and irritating situations that the most valuable learning occurs.

“I want to wrap you in tape!”

“I want to put you in a bowl and smush you into pudding!”

“I’m gonna turn you into a balloon and pop you!”

“I want to squeeze you into orange juice!”

These are just some of the things that my daughter has taken to yelling at Chinese people who infringe on her personal space.

Chinese girls and expat kid

As a father, I’m put into a tight position. On the one hand I want to teach my daughter to respect people, on the other hand I want to teach her how to be respected. I want to teach her how to navigate cultures, and to develop strategies to live well anywhere on the planet. I know that my daughter’s occasional foray into shouting insults is her way of sticking up for herself in a culture that showers her with vast amounts of attention and often treats her akin to a zoo animal or some kind of sideshow freak.

On adapting to foreign cultures

Adapting to a foreign culture does not mean that you have to allow yourself to be pushed along with the throng and be bullied. It means understanding the social mechanisms by which a culture works and employing them for yourself in a way that can make yourself happy, others happy with you, and to ensure mutual respect all the way around. My daughter enjoys going out and making new friends and meeting new people, but she does not enjoy being treated as a spectacle. Because of this, Chinese culture has been very difficult for her.

Wherever she goes in China, Petra is showered with attention. Most of it is positive — as the people just want to meet a blond haired, white skinned three year old and introduce their children to her — but some of this curiosity comes off very negatively. When Petra walks through the streets grown adults run up to her, try to grab her cheeks, pinch her arms, and pick her up. She sometimes attracts crowds. Fair enough, Chinese people seem to think little white kids are interesting.

While 90% of the attention Petra attracts is positive, there is only a small fringe of interactions that are overtly overly aggressive or seriously impedes upon my daughter’s ability to enjoy life here in China. Very often, this type of attention becomes too much, and my daughter makes it very clear when she is being bothered.

It sounds unbelievable, but it is not uncommon here for grown adults to come up to Petra, pinch the fat on her arm or do something else that she obviously doesn’t like, and then laugh when she cries out in pain or anger. They then often try to do it again, clearly either not getting the message or finding her reaction humorous. Petra wails and they laugh like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. The first few times I saw this I gaped in disbelief — Is this person trying to bother my kid? — but it become a regular pattern.

Haha, we made the white kid scream, how funny!

“There are few things worse that a person can do than trying to make a baby cry. It’s right up there with rape,” my wife once spoke in disgust after fighting off a couple Chinese ladies who wouldn’t cease poking and prodding Petra even after she began crying.


We were eating in a cheap restaurant and nothing was out of the ordinary. Suddenly a small group of old ladies came up to Petra and began trying to interact with her. One of them was especially insistent, and was poking her arms and trying to get my kid to give her a kiss on the cheek. Petra wanted nothing to do with the lady, and she began screaming out in anger. The lady keep at it, seriously inhibiting my daughter’s ability to eat her lunch. I sat back and watched, astonished by what was going on in front of me. This went on for over five minutes, my daughter was now crying. The lady wouldn’t remove her face from in front of my daughter, and she seemed completely unperturbed by her tears. Was this for real?

When the lady began trying to get my daughter to spoon feed her some of her food — seriously — Petra lost it and punched her square in the face. The lady got the message.

“I just punched it in the face!” Petra proclaimed when the old ladies left the restaurant.

I could not blame her.


My family was hanging out on a beach in Lianyungang, enjoying the sea, the sand, and the warm weather. Petra was rolling around playing in the sand. A young Chinese woman then walked up to Petra and tried to get her to pose for a photo. This is not uncommon, this sometimes happens dozens of times per day. But this girl did not only want to snap a shot of Petra, she wanted to pose for a photo with her. My daughter was having a fun time playing, and did not want to stop to get her photo taking with a complete stranger — again.

Though they were only a couple of meters away from my wife and I, the girl did not ask us if it was alright to take photos of our kid, and she was insistent that Petra stop playing and sit up still in the sand so that she could get her photo taken with a white kid. An older woman soon walked over and took the young girl’s camera. The young girl tried to grab Petra to make her sit still, and the older woman snapped a photo or two. But, apparently, these photos were not good enough. They kept at it, interrupting my kid’s play and trying to physically restrain her for pictures. Petra just wanted to have fun at the beach, and didn’t want anything to do with this forced photo shoot.

Petra soon got sick of it, stood up and began running away, yelling “No pictures please.” The two Chinese ladies just laughed at this and gave chase. From out of nowhere another younger woman appeared, chased Petra down and pretty much tackled her. She then tried hard to hold her still and in an upright position for the photos.

My wife and I looked on, completely disgusted. The worst part was that this behavior is not out of the ordinary. I often watch what will happen out of curiosity, I want to know what the threshold is for these people to realize that my kid does not want anything to do with them, that they are bothering her, and that they should rightly go away. After five months in China with my family I’ve not seen this threshold crossed yet. They seemingly just keep at it without end. Eventually, my wife or I need to step in and put an end to the situation.

In this case, Petra was squirming around on the beach, screaming. She was trying to use all the words that she knew to tell them to stop in both Chinese and English. The imposed photo shoot became too much for my wife to bear, and she grabbed Petra, gave the Chinese woman a dirty look, told them to stop, and stomped off. The ladies then acted like it was my wife who was the bitch.


Many people in China seem to want my daughter to acknowledge them, to perform for them, to do something that they can photograph and tell their families and friends about. Maybe they think that American kids can do some kinds of tricks that Chinese kids can’t? I’m not sure. If they can’t get a smile or a laugh out of Petra, a scream seems to do. My daughter just wants to enjoy her days here in China, she doesn’t want grown adults getting in the way of this.

It is the general protocol of most cultures in the world that I’m familiar with that if you’re doing something to a child and they’re screaming because of it, you just stop whatever it is that you’re doing pronto. The Chinese don’t seem to have this concept, at least not when dealing with foreign children. This puts my family in an awkward position: on the one hand I need to roll with the punches of a culture, on the other I need to make sure my kid is happy.

It’s my impression that the people in China generally mean no harm with this attention, but when benign intentions have a malignant effect on my daughter it’s time for me to step in. I no longer allow strangers to get in my daughter’s way just because they want to touch, hold, or prod her. I no longer stop in my tracks so some person that I don’t know can get a picture of a token white kid. I don’t allow people to stand around and just gawk at her just because she looks different than Chinese kids. If someone is bothering my kid I now tell them to beat it in no uncertain terms. I can’t allow my natural tendency to be polite to permit others to infringe upon my daughter’s desire to exist somewhere and be happy. The kid is not an inanimate plaything, she is not on display, she is not a spectacle, she deserves respect everywhere and anywhere in this world.

The show is over.

I’m not going to be the type of father who uses his kid as an excuse to try to fight or dominate the people around me. There are too many of these assholes in the world. I also want my kid to learn that she needs to fend for herself, that she needs to find her own ways of dealing with other cultures and people. For the most part I stay out of the onerous interactions that Petra has with people in China until she clearly expresses that she does not like what they are doing in a way that they should understand. If, after this, they continue bothering her I step in and put an end to the situation.

I must initially be rude. There is no reasoning here. “She really doesn’t like what you’re doing, could you please stop,” just doesn’t work. This is a very direct, loud, fast moving, and aggressive culture — roundabout implications just don’t sink in. Also, I’ve noticed on too many occasions to count that Chinese people tend to ignore undesirable requests by acting like they don’t hear them. In situations where someone is bothering my kid to the point that she’s yelling and screaming I need to get in their face and tell them to scram. But I also found that if I make a “Ho, ho, ho” type of laugh right after doing so that the person will generally react in kind, treat it as a joke, and not lose face.

If Petra decides to stop and talk with someone that’s her choice, if she decides to pose for photos then good on her for being friendly. Sometimes Petra has fun with this attention — meeting people in the streets is part of the joy of traveling — but all too often this attention becomes too intense, and I can’t blame my daughter when she occasionally acts out vehemently when someone she just meets invade her space.

As I try to give my daughter the social space to interact with people and work out her own inter-cultural problems, I need to accept the solutions she comes up with — even when I don’t like them. Petra realized early on that crying out when some Chinese stranger pinches or tries to grab her often only makes the situation worse. She has tried many strategies, such as cowering behind either mine or my wife’s legs, or even trying to run away. When we first arrived in China she would say, “No thank you, no thank you,” when she didn’t want people touching her. They would usually then cackle, “Ting bu dong, ting bu dong,” and up the attack. I then taught her how to tell them to stop in Chinese, but this also did not work very well. They usually would just mock her words, thinking it was cute that she was speaking their language, and continue their affront unabated. She has now settled on a recourse that has proven far more effective:

When someone is given her too much unwanted attention she looks them in the eye, points her finger as close to their face as possible, shows her anger, and yells insults in English very loudly at them. What she says is usually rather strange and imaginative. One of her favorites insults is “I want to wrap you in tape!”

I want to wrap you in tape??? Where this came from I have no idea. But it works.

My daughter seems to have figured out through trial and error that East Asians tend to get very embarrassed, nervous, and timid when being yelled at in public — especially when they don’t understand the words that are being spoken at them. In point, she figured out how to make them lose face, or to fear the prospect of such. This is usually enough for them to step back and check themselves. Petra is navigating the seas of culture, she is using the social patterns that she’s observed to her advantage, she is sticking up for herself.

She is doing what works.

Do I like it that my daughter is in another country shouting insults at people? No way. But I have to admit that 95% of the people she lashes out against deserve it.

I want to teach my daughter to respect the people around her and to be friendly. But this situation in China is extreme — we have not dealt with this kind of intense and persistent unwelcome attention anywhere else in the world. I have to recognize that my kid is just sticking up for herself the best way she knows how.

If I want to raise my daughter with a sense of her own personal autonomy and self-responsibility then I need to allow her the space to find her own solutions to social problems. When she goes too far — which sometimes happens when she preemptively responds aggressively to someone who had not yet done anything to provoke it — I step in after the situation is over and explain what I’d rather see her doing. I basically tell her that she needs to first tell people nicely that she doesn’t like what they are doing, and if they don’t listen to her to resort to more intense means. If this doesn’t work then I’ll step in to help. So far, this is working. Petra has since adjusted to the culture that she is acting in.

A Chinese person would never do some of the things they try to do to Petra to another Chinese person’s kid. It just wouldn’t happen, it would be socially unacceptable. But there are different parameters of respect in China for foreigners, and, for some reason I can’t understand, some people here feel they can walk right up someone they never meet before, treat their kid like a zoo animal, and think that it’s OK just because they are not Chinese.

It’s not OK.

Our Chinese friends here treat Petra with respect, they treat her like they would a kid from their own culture, and she responds in kind. In the familiar spheres of this culture, my kid is one of the gang. Only when out in the streets around people we don’t know is she feasted upon. But this is getting better as my entire family adapts our strategies to meet these circumstances.

Adapting to another culture does not mean that you should allow yourself to be bullied. Being respectful of other ways of life does not mean that you need to be some kind of floofy pansy walking on eggshells trying to to offend anyone. To the contrary, I feel that standing up and demanding respect from people is the most respectful way to act in another culture. My daughter is taking the initiative to fight her own battles when she has to. She no longer allows strangers to poke, prod, grab, pinch, or bother her. She doesn’t cower when in challenging circumstances — she acts, reacts, and finds the best ways to move through the society she is operating in. This is not always easy, this is not always graceful, but it is necessary.

Petra is navigating her world. She has become a good traveler.


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Filed under: Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, Travel With Family

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

12 comments… add one

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  • Steve-O September 2, 2012, 3:46 am

    I think I am gonna start punching people in the face too, if it works for Petra, it might work for me…lol

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    • Wade Shepard September 2, 2012, 8:27 pm

      For sure, the next time an old lady tries to get you to kiss her swing away 🙂

      Link Reply
  • Jack September 2, 2012, 5:44 am

    I don’t know if it’s because my kids are mixed race, their age or where we live, but we don’t have too many problems with it in Xinjiang. I suspect that it’s where we live because I have students with blonde hair and blue eyes.

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    • Wade Shepard September 2, 2012, 8:25 pm

      For sure. It’s also my experience that people are more use to seeing people who look different than them in the west of China where there’s way more cultural/ biological diversity. Petra is also real young. I wonder if she will still get all of this attention when she gets older? I don’t really think so, as they treat her like a baby. I wonder how she’s going to take it when people stop ogling over her?

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  • Bob L September 3, 2012, 10:18 am

    This is both funny AND educational.

    Have you tried teaching her the phrase “You should be ashamed of your self!” In Chinese? I have been told be female travelers that this sometimes works on men who are bothering her. Maybe it will work on old ladies in a save face culture. I don’t think that one should worry about offending someone that is doing something that is offensive, even if it IS acceptable in their culture. If I would not tolerate a certain behaviour at home I would not tolerate it abroad (at least behaviour directed at me).

    Good for you giving Petra a chance to learn to stand up for herself. She is bound to grow up to be a strong confident adult.

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    • Wade Shepard September 3, 2012, 8:16 pm

      Yes, this is pretty interesting. Many people do listen to Petra when she tells them to stop in Chinese, but there is this 10% fringe that is impervious to everything she tries to do or say. They actually mock her Chinese like, “Oh, so cute, she’s trying to speak our language,” and increases their assault. It’s incredibly strange, and truly is an aspect of a culture that I’ve never observed before. I mean, I’ve never seen people treat another human so inanimately, as though they have no concept that what they are pinching and prodding has feelings, likes, and dislikes. On one level it’s pretty interesting to watch, especially as the kid tries lots of different strategies to deal with the situations herself. What I think is positive about this is that Petra is taking responsibility for herself, and she doesn’t just expect me and my wife to save her. She just fights it out til the end on her own. This is interesting as well. I would think that when I was a kid if some stranger was bothering me the first think I would do would be to call for my mom. But, then again, I grew up in the USA and if a stranger even looked at me funny my mom would flip out on them.

      When I’m out on my own with the kid I don’t allow anyone to screw with here — partly because I feel they’re disrespecting me (which they are). I have to admit that if I’m out with my wife I feel a little more distance from the situation and will sometimes just stand back and watch what will happen out of curiosity — especially as Petra is getting bigger and stronger. But what is good is that as soon as I step in everyone scatters, so I know that just flip a switch and stop all onerous actions immediate.

      I think teaching her how to say, “You should be ashamed of yourself” would be pretty good. I don’t know how they will take it. Maybe they will just mock her? Maybe they will try to retain face and continue what they are doing? Maybe they will scram? We’ll find out.

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  • Alex September 3, 2012, 12:55 pm

    I have exactly the same problem, however nowhere in Chinese culture is what they do to your daughter and try to do to my daughter acceptable. I have found that two things work very well for me. The first is a very loud “don’t touch” in Chinese. The second I have only had to use a couple of dozen times, but has never failed and that is to slap the persons hand very roughly. Speaking usualy makes them go away or at least stop touching, but slapping always makes them extremely embarrassed and they always just about run away.
    I realize that this is totally unacceptable outside this country and I don’t like doing it, however my daughter is not a play thing for others amusement, nor as I stated before is what they are doing acceptable in Chinese culture as this kind of touching between Chinese would usually cause great offense.
    Just for comparison to some of your comments and what the others said, I have found the interaction with my daughter to be about 60% harmless, 30% is weird or not quite right and 10 % is actually agressive and nasty.

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    • Wade Shepard September 3, 2012, 8:26 pm

      It’s good to hear that we’re not alone in dealing with this:-) Yes, it is tough when you need to resort to these measures to ensure that your child has a good life somewhere.

      “I realize that this is totally unacceptable outside this country and I don’t like doing it, however my daughter is not a play thing for others amusement, nor as I stated before is what they are doing acceptable in Chinese culture as this kind of touching between Chinese would usually cause great offense.”


      Right on, you’re ratio of interaction types is also pretty accurate. I left out the “30% weird,” but it totally occurs.

      Where are you in China? We’re in Jiangsu province, so if you’re ever coming through this way feel free to stop in.

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  • Sonia September 4, 2012, 10:17 pm

    You should start a business charging people for your daughter’s autograph! I bet they would fight for it! LOL

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    • Wade Shepard September 4, 2012, 10:59 pm

      The probably would! Maybe start charging for photos. They seem to like taking pictures of me too, so maybe we could make a good side business together?

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  • emma September 14, 2012, 3:05 pm

    i knew people where embarrassing petra but i did not know to what extent this was happening. when i am next in taizhou if i ever see anyone trying to harass this poor toddler then i shall give them a piece of my mind. toddlers no matter what colour or race should be given the same respect anywhere on the planet.
    i dont even know children from my own country that would subject a little child to this.

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    • Wade Shepard September 14, 2012, 9:07 pm

      Haha, for sure. Children even know when to stop. Now that she’s speaking more Chinese I’ve taught her how to say “You’re annoying, go away.” This seems to work.

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