Just Say Cheese!

Cheese is one of my favorite things. While living in China in 2012 some of the things I missed most were the three C’s, namely, cheese, chocolate, and carpet. Tofu, which might be called the cheese of China, tasted nothing like it, and though I grew to love it, it could never replace cheese. Any cheese-like substance I found in supermarkets was highly processed and slightly disgusting, and in the few pizza restaurants I ate at there, it just wasn’t the same, except for maybe at Pizza Hut, but having corn on the pizza seemed to spoil it. Yes, for whatever reason corn seemed to be a popular pizza topping over there! In the photo above, taken last weekend, I had just enjoyed some tasty mozzarella cheese on a delicious pie.

This being Golden Week in China, which begins with the Lunar New Year celebration (this year it happened on February 5th), I thought I’d share a few memories of my experience in China. I reflected back on some times there as I collected a beautiful red envelope from the Asian Culture group at my workplace. Yay for the year of the pig!

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Despite this, I found myself “saying cheese” more often during that year than in any other year in my life. When I was young someone told me once that I was photogenic, and no one seemed to believe that more than my Chinese students, or Chinese strangers I met on the streets, at cultural monuments, in parks, or even on mountain trails.

Sometimes I caught students pulling out cameras in the back of my classes, or running away laughing after snapping my picture on the street during the weekend. Strangers might approach me when I toured places in smaller cities or rural areas and ask to get a photo with me, although funnily enough they didn’t often pull out a camera and I got it with mine. Of course, I was a novelty. In both cities I taught in, I was one of very few foreigners the residents had seen. In the first, I was the first foreigner to teach in my school on the newer side of town. In the second, I was the first American to live in the city. My pale white skin, blue eyes and light hair were fascinating to them. I suppose they felt somewhat similar to the way I did when I once glimpsed an albino girl in Beijing holding the hand of her darker skinned Chinese father. At first I mistook her for a foreigner, which seemed rather odd, but then I noticed the shape of her eyes.

Being the shy and introverted person I am, I didn’t enjoy this attention most of the time and it was quite foreign to me! Not only did strangers want my photo, they stared at me often for long moments after I had passed by. My first school put me in a local television commercial (and of course I received no pay for this and was not informed I would be featured). I found out only when I took a walk in the park one night with a teacher friend and he pointed excitedly to the jumbotron on one end of the court where people might practice tàijíquán or synchronized dance or perform grating Chinese opera. There was my face in gargantuan size, teaching in the classroom.

In the day I remember as finding “Paparazzo on Nan Shan”, I took a hike with a few of my darling students and the little sister of one who was lucky to have a sister during this era of the one-child policy. Little did I know only four years later it would end. It was a beautiful fall day, and hiking up Nan Shan seemed like a perfect choice with the cool air and golden leaves decorating the ground. It was such a perfect day, in fact, that several couples were out taking wedding photos on the mountain. And my goodness, what luck they had to find a hapless American wander right into their photo shoot!

To my surprise, they invited me to jump in. I agreed to the first, and felt too awkward to do so again for the second. But to my joy, there was a kind photographer on the mountain that day, and he offered to take several pictures of me with my own camera. Unlike any other before him, he took the photos for me, not for himself only. One of my most favorite photos ever taken that year is the one he took on Nan Shan with my little group of girls around me.

One day in Beijing (about half way through my stay in China) I had a shocking realization that I not only was getting used to having my photo taken by strangers, but I even enjoyed it a bit. I tagged along with a group of Americans around my age for the day. In my previous days there I quickly noticed that in such a large city foreigners were commonplace and I wouldn’t need to worry about being stopped.  But as there were several pretty American 20-somethings with golden, platinum, creamy or buttery blonde locks, my strawberry blonde hair wasn’t wanted. A Chinese woman gestured towards me and I smiled and nodded an “OK” for her to take a photo, but then she ushered two blondes forward and ignored me. For half a second I felt a bit disappointed. And then thought, “Hey! Why do you care? Silly girl!”. I’d rather eat the cheese than speak the word anyway.

Have you ever had strange or funny moments when you were asked to “say cheese” abroad? I’d love to hear about them in comments below!

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