noticed she was taking a photo of me as soon as she sat down.
I was chewing on a piece of spicy duck neck – one of the top three foods to eat on a train in China – on a train from Guangzhou to Guilin.
If you’ve ever chewed on a piece of spicy duck neck, you’ll know that it is not a particularly elegant dining experience – the crevices of bone and cartilage hide many pieces of overly chili-flavored, greasy meat, and the main goal is to gnaw them all out no matter how long it takes or how little dignity you have by the end.
So that moment of anatine resource extraction was captured forever within her fake-diamond encrusted iPhone 8888.
What do people do with these photos?
Do they share them with their friends and family, a souvenir of their time on public transport? Do they add them to an album as part of ongoing research into the dining habits of foreigners? Is it all about those sweet, sweet WeChat Moments likes?
Of course, this was not the first time this had happened to me in the years I’ve been living in China.
Once, a couple asked my ex-girlfriend (current wife) and I to pose with them after we had raced around the Xi’an city wall on the back of tandem bicycles.
I understood why you would want to capture that moment. It was almost ludicrously fun and romantic. I wish I had that photo.
I don’t understand why a uniformed, middle-aged military officer wanted to take a photo with me when I was barely succeeding in staying awake and eating bread outside a car rental place near the Bird’s Nest at 5 am.
I didn’t look my best, and was barely able to scrape together a smile as he ordered – with a voice used to being obeyed – my then-squeeze (now spouse) to take the shot.
Perhaps it was my generally disheveled appearance that he wanted to capture, especially in contrast to his painfully shiny buttons. Maybe he showed that to all the troops back at the base to boost morale, “No need to worry about the Thucydides Trap, men! If it all kicks off with the Americans, this is what we’re up against!”
I remember the first time that happened to me. I was in perhaps the most obvious Beijing destination for someone on a laowai (expat) safari – Sanlitun.
I was walking through the Taikoo Li shopping center eating a bagel (a persistent theme in these stories now that I think about it) when a young, attractive couple stopped me in my tracks.
The man gestured at his camera, and I assumed he was asking me to take a photo of the pair of them. But when I reached for the Nikon, he shook his head and non-verbally indicated that he wanted me to pose with his lady friend.
As a good guest in this country, I agreed to what I assumed would be a quick snap. I think that guy must have taken about 50 shots of us from various angles. The weirder part was that the girl got rather too close for comfort the whole time, squirming into different poses while I stood stock still, frankly freaked out.
After about three minutes, the guy stood up, grabbed my hand, looked me straight in the eye and finally said something to me.
Well eventually, following the duck-neck-memorialization incident, our train arrived in Guilin. It’s a great town, nice stuff to see and good stuff to eat.
After booking our trip down the river to the tourism-ravaged town of Yangshuo (good pork-stuffed snails, tell them Josh sent you), we went to check out Elephant Trunk Hill, a symbol of the city that supposedly resembles a pachyderm drinking from the Lijiang river.
My partner had been to the city as a small girl, and she started reminiscing about the trip she had taken there with her father.
One of the things she was still able to remember, over 20 years later, was that there had been foreigners on the hill that day and that her father had asked her to pose with them. She could remember nothing about them, other than that they were blond and not Chinese.
But she did remember the incident with genuine fondness. So, non-Chinese readers, next time an army officer, weird couple or duck-neck voyeur whips out their phone to get a visual record of your appearance for all eternity – smile big, you’re making memories.