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An American Child is a Chinese Spectacle – The Experience of Being a Traveling Child in China

TAIZHOU, China- It would be a vast understatement to say that my two and a half year old, light haired, Caucasian daughter attracts a lot of attention in China. To be honest, she attracts mobs. Wherever she goes people stop and try to talk with her, they take her photo, shoot videos, pinch her cheeks, try to [...]

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TAIZHOU, China- It would be a vast understatement to say that my two and a half year old, light haired, Caucasian daughter attracts a lot of attention in China. To be honest, she attracts mobs. Wherever she goes people stop and try to talk with her, they take her photo, shoot videos, pinch her cheeks, try to pick her up, and, if one is available, they find a Chinese child to stick in front of her to see what happens. Sometimes my daughter says “Ni hao,” smiles, and is friendly; sometimes she yells and screams and punches out and the attention givers.

“I don’t want them touching me! They are all trying to touch me!”

Generally, if they don’t approach her too quickly or aggressively, grab her, or try to pick her up Petra is cool — she either enjoys the attention or reacts with ambivalence. But if someone tries to snatch her up she goes on the offensive.

And good for her.

Petra Shepard in China

All travelers need to know where to draw the line between making local friends and being an object for their amusement. The attention that a traveler attracts in many parts of the world is part of the joys of traveling off the tourist trail, but it can also be one of the biggest annoyances. All travelers need to come up with their own parameters of what to allow people to do to them and what to prohibit. The people in China who give Petra a lot of attention are just being nice and friendly — most of them have probably never seen a little white child before — but Petra has her limits:

You can look at me and talk to me but don’t grab me and try to pick me up, and definitely don’t expect me to stand here all day posing for photos.

These are her parameters, and as a traveler of the world she is entitled to draw lines in this regard exactly as she pleases. My wife and myself are prepared to jump to her aid if local affection comes off as mild aggression. Sometimes the people here really don’t understand when they are bothering or scaring her, or they seem to think that the wails of white children just makes them even more adorable. Sometimes the Chinese are so full of ooohhhhs and ahhhhhssss and baby talk and smiles that they seemingly fail to recognize that the object of their affection is screaming at them and trying hard to land a right hook. But most often Petra takes the attention well and enjoys it — becoming proud of herself when she speaks some words in the local language to the cheers of the crowd. She is pretty use to this game by now, as she has been showered with this type of attention and affection by locals throughout her travels, but I have to admit that attention she receives in China is truly to the tenth degree.

Watch video of Petra in China


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Filed under: 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 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

10 comments… add one

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  • Pierre April 16, 2012, 9:18 am

    Hahaha ! That’s really impressive !
    It appears that if you take 5 cents for each picture, you’re gonna be very rich soon … !

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    • Wade Shepard April 16, 2012, 8:36 pm

      Yes, we should set up a little stand in the street and have Petra earn her keep 🙂

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  • Amy @WorldschoolAdventures April 18, 2012, 5:41 pm

    Yikes that is a lot of attention! I wonder how my boys will handle it….I could see that getting pretty old pretty quickly!

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    • Wade Shepard April 18, 2012, 9:44 pm

      You’re right, they’ll probably get sick of it pretty quick haha. But it is cool that Chinese children are so accessible and there is a lot of opportunity for kids to meet each other and play. Petra likes that. It’s just the people grabbing at her and trying to pick her up that she’ll rather avoid haha. When are you coming to China?

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  • Tiffany April 23, 2012, 11:30 pm

    I have to admit that throughout the video a constant stream of giggles and “aw!”s could be heard reverberating through my microphone. Does that mean I’m officially Asian now? Or did you ever just consider that fact that your daughter is an adorable little thing by all racial standards and is probably going to grow up to be a supermodel?

    By the way, your Chinese is impressive!

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    • Wade Shepard April 24, 2012, 1:27 am

      Thanks! Yeah, she is pretty cute when she’s not on the attack haha. Yes, I do think you’re quasi-Asian and that you should move to China and teach. The experience is the other side of the moon from what S.Korea seems like.

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  • Jeanne @soultravelers3 May 16, 2012, 6:11 am

    Happy you left a comment on our blog, which let me know you are relatively nearby! 😉 Petra is getting big…too cute!

    We’ve run into that a LOT with my little blonde American in Asia ( and elsewhere) and she shocks them with her Mandarin ( as she does with her fluent Spanish). The Thais are so bad at this ( sometimes being so over-the-top playful that they have hurt her by accident) that she doesn’t even want to go back to Thailand. ( But we will).

    When she first arrived at 10 years old to her 1000 kid Mandarin high school in Asia, as the only Caucasian, EVERY body stared for days, including the teachers. But now she fits in and has wonderful friends from all over Asia. I think it is great for kids to learn to be different sometimes and builds compassion.

    So many traveling families miss the opportunity of deep language learning for little ones and it is one of the world’s best free lunches, so happy to hear that you are taking advantage of it while she is young. It is the easiest time to learn and will serve her well.

    Hope we can connect when we visit China or if you come to Penang!

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  • Chaya Shepard May 16, 2012, 10:11 am

    Hi Jeanne,

    I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences, Mozart is more blonde than Petra! That’s a good point about it teaching compassion for differences. I also think that it is good practice for setting personal boundaries and standing up for yourself, not that Petra has ever had any hesitation with these things.

    People here too have gotten a little too aggressive with Petra. Usually it’s by accident the first time, like pinching a chubby leg too hard or pulling on Petra’s hair, Petra usually responds by yelling or crying for 5 seconds or shaking her finger at them and usually that’s it, but then some (especially older women) will laugh try to do it again to make Petra cry again. It drives me crazy. That’s when I get a little mama bear.

    It would be really fun to meet you, while we’re both in Asia. Are you planning on visiting China in the next year?

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  • Casey Smith August 8, 2012, 1:12 am

    Wow, that is something else. She is pretty adorable. My husband and I are talking alot about boundaries–how to spot the moment just before our 4 year old Maggie is overwhelmed with attention (blue eyes, blond hair, fair skin) and the best ways to get her out of there. We’re nervous a little but hope she can adjust as well as Petra has. Thanks again for the videos!

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    • Wade Shepard August 11, 2012, 10:55 pm

      You sometimes have to be rude. It sounds blunt, but sometimes that’s all there is to it. You sometimes have to tell people directly to stop touching her and to go away if they’re just standing around in front of her gawking. Some of the attention is truly wonderful, but when people start treating my kid like a zoo animal (like when they poke and prod her and try to pinch her and laugh when she screams in pain) I have to tell them to scram in not so nice of a way. It’s a real personally dilemma sometimes, as you want to be polite to people and kind, but you also want your daughter to be able to enjoy going out in public without being treated like some kind of spectacle. The above video shows the good attention, I will try to make a video of some of the more onerous encounters we’ve had.

      All for all, most people here are genuinely nice to my kid, and going out in public with her is a great way to meet and talk with people.

      Hope everything goes well with your daughter here. Keep in touch.

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