Twin girls get twice the attention that's given to foreign faces

Updated: 2011-12-08 07:55

By James Ritchie (China Daily)

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Twin girls get twice the attention that's given to foreign faces

I always wondered what it would be like to be famous.

When I started traveling to China seven years ago, I began to find out.

Everyone looked at me. They struck up conversations. Sometimes they took pictures - with or without asking.

Of course, I didn't get any of the real perks of life in the spotlight, such as money or adoration. It was like being a minor celebrity - maybe a reality show contestant or your local weather forecaster.

The experience was educational.

Being noticed can provide an ego boost, but never being able to blend in can also be unsettling. Sometimes you just want to be normal.

At any rate, there's an instant cure for people being interested in you. Just bring along someone more interesting.

Twin girls get twice the attention that's given to foreign faces

On my family's most recent trip to China, my twin daughters facilitated my own slide into relative obscurity.

Twins attract notice anywhere, including the United States, where we live. But Chinese people have both an affinity for children and a fascination with "hunxue'er", or people of combined Asian and non-Asian descent. Our 3 year olds got the royal treatment.

People generally spotted me first, which was not hard to do, given my 1.89-meter frame.

Foreigners are becoming more common in my wife's hometown of Changzhou, Jiangsu province, but they still turn heads. In the old days, I would hear people whispering about me, and every now and then, a braver soul would step forward to practice a bit of English.

This time, people quickly noticed that I was walking with my wife and our twins, and suddenly a full-grown foreigner, seemed about as intriguing as a houseplant.

They'd kneel down to get a good look at the girls.

Then they'd launch a few questions at my wife and me, never really looking at our faces: "Are they twins? How old are they? Where are you guys from? Do they speak Chinese? Do they speak English?"

At times, crowds of five to 15 people formed.

If I answered, the onlookers would nod, then go back to cooing at the girls. It was a far cry from years gone by, when people would lavish me with praise for even the simplest Mandarin utterance.

The twins were ambivalent about the whole scene.

When they were in a good mood, they'd play and chat with people. Other times, they'd try to ignore the strangers and then protest when they got too close. By looking away or scattering, they consistently thwarted any attempts to photograph them.

They did, however, enjoy the accommodating attitude many Chinese people have toward children.

Kids are welcome most places, and no one is surprised when they act like kids.

The girls got fidgety while my wife shopped in a computer mall. When they took an interest in the two spinning stools in one guy's booth, he invited us in and let them play there for nearly an hour. I hope the distraction didn't cost him too many sales.

When my wife visited the dentist, the staff received them as VIPs. They got full run of the hallway. The nurses kept trying to hug them - with little success.

It's natural for parents to step aside as the younger generation grows up.

I'm proud to be outshined by my daughters. I am glad, however, that they aren't at center stage all the time. I don't imagine it's healthy.

And my girls don't understand this yet, but audiences are fickle and stardom fleeting. At an amusement park we visited, they and a bunch of other children were enjoying themselves in a pumpkin-shaped playhouse when a blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch girl of about 7 came along. I'd talked to her father earlier in passing.

A young local woman sat nearby. She had, until then, rarely looked up from her phone.

"Hurry!" she called to her child.

"Stand by the foreign girl and let mommy take your picture!"