Long before I moved to Singapore — before I had kids, even — Japanese tourists would occasionally stop me on the street during the summer months and ask to take my photo. Not because I’m beautiful, you understand. That’s what I thought at first, until one photographer disabused me of that crazy notion.
“Excuse me,” he asked as he approached, waving his camera at me. “You are usual Canadian lady?”
Chosen for being ordinary. Okaaay.
I never wanted to disappoint visitors to my country (we Canadians are very nice, I hear), so I always smiled for the camera. I like to imagine them showing their holiday snaps back home: “Here’s the CN Tower. Here’s Niagara Falls. And this is a typical Canadian woman we met at a bus stop in Toronto.”
That kind of thing never happened when we lived in Singapore, which has grown accustomed to its large expatriate community. In China, though, we were a bona fide tourist attraction, especially at places such as the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square, where most of our fellow sightseers appeared to be rural Chinese visiting the big city. Considering the number of people who tried to rub the freckles off Elder Daughter’s face, I’m guessing many of them had never seen white people up close before.
Younger Daughter was the undisputed star of the family. I would hear people talking about her as we walked past. “Hen piao liang” (very pretty). “Wa wa” (doll). Even once, hilariously, “Nicole Kidman.” Elder Daughter and I would roll our eyes at these pronouncements, while Younger Daughter graciously accepted whatever compliments came her way.
In Beijing, so many people lined up to have their photos taken with us, we joked about charging a fee. There was a very clear hierarchy of preferences: Younger Daughter was most in demand, then Elder Daughter, and finally, me. Nobody seemed to want Chef Boyardee, except as de facto photographer.
Things got a little intense now and then. On two occasions, Younger Daughter found herself being scooped up and carried to a nearby group waiting for their photo op with her. After that, I kept a death grip on her hand at all times.
She wearied of celebrity fairly quickly, and started replying to photo requests by saying politely in Mandarin, “No photos. I don’t want. Thank you.” But it seems asking was only a formality. More than once I noticed a man (it was always a man) sidle up to her casually and pretend to be admiring a nearby statue while he manoeuvred into position. A shout from a camera-wielding confederate would be his cue to whip his arm around Younger Daughter’s shoulders and flash a smile as the shutter clicked. Then he would disappear into the crowd. We called these “drive-by shootings.” (Pretty clever, eh? You can see a small sample in the video below.)
Expat life is bursting with unexpected moments like that. The blow-your-mind factor is what makes expatriation such a life-altering experience. Here’s the question, though: with the bar set that high, can you ever again settle for ordinary?