Thursday, February 25, 2010

Making friends with kids

How to talk to them without coming across as a perv?

On my flight from Copenhagen to Beijing (I normally fly Finnair but this time I tried SAS) I was seated next to a Chinese kid who was travelling alone. As some of you might have guessed, this made me rather ecstatic. During my soon 4 years in China I have had very limited Chinese-kid-contact. Finally I had a whole flight to make a new, 12-year old friend.

Turns out that my little flight buddy George, however, wasn’t as keen as I was. He glared at me suspiciously when I first asked him if he was travelling alone in Chinese. I felt like a perv.

It took some 10-15 minutes before he came around:

-Why is it that you laowais nowadays know how to speak Chinese?

-I live in China,
I explained.

-But you are not Chinese? he said, suspiciously. 

-No I am Swedish. But I live in China.

He looked at me for a moment, before he finally said:


Unlike most Chinese people I’ve chatted to throughout my time in China, George wasn’t interested in my answer. Instead of looking impressed and happy about the fact that we could communicate in his mother tongue, he looked doubtful and confused.

I decided to do things his way and kept quiet, and as expected, it didn’t take long before he started to ask questions:

-Do you know what the name of this airline is?
(Yes, Scandinavian Airlines)
-Do you know what kind of computer games they have?
(No, I don’t play computer games?)
-Why don’t you play computer games?
(I’m bad at it)
-Why do you have a bottle of water with you?
(I bought it)
-Do you know anyone else on this flight?

Once the questioning had started I didn’t have to hold back anymore. I asked him where he had been (Trollhättan –he said this in Chinese so it took me a while to figure it out! Not the biggest Swedish city there is!), why he was travelling alone (his parents were still in Sweden), if this was the first time he was flying alone (yes it was, but he had been on airplanes before, he’d visited Italy and France as well as Sweden. Didn’t like these countries as much as Sweden though –yeah, of course I had to ask!). I also asked him if he had to study hard in school (not too bad, he said) and what part of Shanghai he liked best (Gubei –but he wouldn’t say why). He thought the places I liked (Xuhui, Luwan) were boring.

Our conversation was interrupted by a minor drama to our right. A woman seated next to a Russian guy who had taken off his shoes and put his feet on the wall (he had the front seat in the middle of the plane) was upset by the smell and wanted to swap place. Little George watched the drama unfold with great interest.

-Laowais are extremely strange, he eventually concluded.


-In the city where I was (Trollhättan), people would say hello to each other even if they don’t know each other!

I was tempted to say:

“Well in Suzhou strangers used to drive past me, stick their head outside the window and yell HEEEELLOOOOO!” –but I kept back.

His comment also brought back a memory of me taking a photo of a farmer in Shuangxi, a country village outside Changsha in Hunan. When I later showed the photo to Rocky, my Chinese friend whose hometown it was that I had visited he asked me: 
“So, Jonna, do you know this farmer?” and I said: “No! Of course not!”
“So why did you take his photo?!” Rocky simply could not understand why I would want to photograph a stranger.

(At this time, I thought about all the times I have posed with groups of Chinese strangers at the Bund or at the Great Wall, but held back).

I was keen to hear more about why laowais were considered so strange in George’s head, but about that time we had taken off and the computer game function was on, so I lost little George. He spent most of the rest of the flight eating candy, snacks (he was constantly offered by the air stewardess who fussed over him), and playing computer games. Some hours before landing he finally offered his candy bag to me, confirming that I wasn’t a perv after all. It felt good, although I am reluctant to admit that I still am to get my head around how to reach out to Chinese kids. Maybe I need to learn how to play computer games?


Anonymous said...

Just take a job as a teacher, you'll get to know them quickly ;)

Anonymous said...

Kids love me. One trick to get kids to love you universally is to shower them with attention by treating them as equals and being a "kid" yourself.

Jonna Wibelius said...

kanmuri -hm... not sure if I like them THAT much... ;)

anonymous -yeah, I know u r right. Just doesn't come naturally for me! Maybe I have to wait until I get some f my own.

revmatty said...

The comment by anonymous has a lot to recommend it. I've got three kids (one adopted from China) and so frequently deal with kids, and frequently meet new ones. Treat them with respect and actually listen to what they say and they'll talk your ear off.

Unless of course they're just shy or not particularly talkative that day, which happens.

Morry Morgan said...

Australians, like Swedish, also say hello to strangers, which confused my (Chinese) wife, during our most recent visit. She ended up measuring the amount of random 'hellos' from people we met on the street and low-and-behold, it was the Chinese who didn't acknowledge us - and by Chinese I don't mean Chinese-looking. These passers-by were talking in Mandarin.

The only time I ever got a random (friendly, and not 'Wow! There's a laowai') hello was walking in Xuhui district amongst all of the old French concession houses, on a crisp Sunday morning, when a Chinese man, wearing a tan suit, white gloves and a matching Trilby hat came riding out of a compound and anounced in immaculate English, "Good morning". I had a smile all day.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Anonymous said...

only guys can come across as pervs...

newtaraday said...

You cld try another experiment when you are trapped in a car in a traffic jam... Try waving to the children in other vehicles... for me... Its often only the laowai children who wave back...

Perhaps the lack of trust in the culture... A chicken and egg problem