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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Strube

Paparazzi, Pickups, and People Magazine

“Excuse me but can I take your picture?” 

I looked up from my sunglasses to see an studly Chinese man wearing a semi-unbuttoned business casual shirt and shiny Ray Bans. He waved. I waved. Maybe it was the fact I looked lost again. Or maybe this was the new pick up line on the South China Sea. Forget “Hey baby, your legs must be tired because you’ve been running through my mind all night.” That was so Saved by the Bell. The new pick up lines ask for your mugshot, just in case the Facebook facial recognition software actually works and then, via internet, you can become long lost soulmates. It cuts out the awkward “Can I have your number?” line. 

He seemed nice enough so why not say yes? I’ve never had strangers ask for my photo before.

As I agreed, a woman with an even larger Nikon slithered out from behind the bonsai shrubbery of the seaside park. Personal paparazzi? How fancy! Maybe this was a new form of matchmaking service here in Hong Kong, where you hire someone to photograph the moment you meet your future wife. She was smiling very large. Mr. Ray Bans was smiling even larger as put his arm around me. I smiled for the camera too. With Mr. Rayban’s arm around me and the fill flash of the Nikon highlighting all secrets, I noticed a glimmer on the photographer’s left hand. A wedding band. I looked down at Mr. Raybans left hand to find… a wedding band. This was not a pick-up line but a married couple working together for a Kodak-based relationship. Maybe they were kinky and into that sort of thing? Nah, they seemed too business casual. Maybe they asked everyone for their photo? No, Hong Kong is overpopulated and that would require alot of hard drive space. I know, maybe at last someone has read my blog and discovered me! This could be my opportunity for international publishing fame! Before we could talk about royalty rights, I figured it was only fair to ask if I could take his picture too. After all, maybe he was a blogger before he started his famous publishing house! I handed his wife my iPhone, she giggled and then, we all waved goodbye – an intimate moment captured forever through beach-littered technology. 

But they say all strange events happen in threes.

I rolled out my bamboo straw beach mat and applied my Zinc-based SPF. After all, no likes a burnt Shexpat and the sun had finally come out here in the wonderland of Hong Kong. After 8 days of strutting around the millionaire playhouse that this city is, I was exhausted. I’d had enough perfectly spun martinis to last me a lifetime. I had bought fake fur from the Night Market at Temple Street, 3 dollar knock-off sunglasses from the Ladies Market, and eaten street food from a one-eyed corn griller. Now it was time for some real nature. After all, Hong Kong was an island — there must be beaches somewhere. A few quick trains and a few local buses away, the South China Sea rolled itself out before me, a glimmering refuge of shark-netted water. Amidst the funky skyscrapers, there was even real sand and public toilets with seats and actual toilet paper. (Granted, the toilet paper stools were outside the stalls, half-way between the sinks and the public showers, all for your hygienic convenience — but at least I didn’t have to drip dry. I was moving up in the world. No hole-in-the-ground squatting or the post pee wiggle shake for me.

Stunned at the luck of such bathrooms, I made my way to the sand. Even though I’d only brought a trashy mag, I wasn’t lost for intellectual reading material. The beach had an English swimming guidepost, which told me to not swim after eating fat, to not snorkel with sharks at night, and even threw in a few parenting tips for my future children, such as: Always kindly look after your kids. Next to the “how to parent and swim” signs were the lifeguard stands. A far cry from the badly painted ladders that lifeguards used to perch on, these Babewatchers sat in their own Jetson-like citadel, with silver plated instructions telling me not to block their view with my umbrella. I doubt I, nor any Chinese person, could hoist an umbrella up the 25 feet it would take to block the lifeguards view, but at least the rules were straightforward. 

And, if I got bored of reading the signs, I could always sing along with the blaring soundsystems of the off-short yachts, booming such hits as “I’ve got moves like Jagger” and “Don’t Stop Believing: The House Re-mix.” 

But they say all strange events happen in threes. No sooner did the off-shore techno music lure me to sleep did I feel a shadow on back. I looked up to see an older man, again in business casual attire at the 80 degree beach, hovering only inches over my bamboo mat. He nodded at me and pointed at a nearby woman holding a flamingo pink umbrella. She yelled at us in Mandarin and starting shooting madly before I could even say ciao.

At least both Mr. Business casual shirts had the decency to ask photos, in their own hovering sort of way. And I politely asked for photos back, although the obliging wives didn’t seem to understand why I wanted a picture of their husbands. 

The single women, on the other hand, were complete photographic spies. They didn’t ask. They lingered in the distance with their zoom lenses and looked very conspicuous as they pointed their wide angle lens straight toward my recently acquired muffintop waistline, thank you very much, oh too much oily fried rice. 

Then a whole family came — three generations of women and remember, women don’t ask. They all took turns standing in front of me, passing off the camera. The oldest woman didn’t know how to push the shutter release properly, which gave chance for five other women to notice I was on the beach. Soon, I was surrounded by not-so subtle women with zoom lenses, all posing to take pictures of me. 

the moment just before the rest of Asia spotted the American weirdo

From every angle, including my not-super-cute rear view, the females circled me like sharks surround prey and no poorly built buoyed nets could stop them. I had become an object of interest, like those freakshow circus acts you pass when roadtripping across middle America.

But I am not the three-legged cow from Kansas nor a field of Cadillacs in Texas. I am not half as curvy as the St. Louis Arches and I’m not as interesting as the world’s smallest singing midget in Vegas. Really, I’m just a girl blogging on beach. 

“Don’t worry,” a Russian girl lying next to me said. “It’s because you are blond.”

But I’m not even naturally blond. Really, they are only 30 dollar highlights from the Eric Hair Salon in Suzhou. And they’ve begun to go brassy.

After the 6th or 12th or 18th or 21st group came (all multiples of threes) to photograph me, I figured it was time to stop playing coy and actually embrace my newly found freakshow fame. And if the ladies weren’t going to ask permission, I should at least invite them over. That way I wouldn’t look constipated in their vacation album, scowling at them from behind my laptop. With my amazing Mandarin skills of “Nin hao,” I sequestered some more spying women closer. Their faces beamed with delight. But the women did not come closer. They stared and then pointed.

From beyond the sands, out came a herd of Chinese husbands, who promptly stampeded to squat next to me. They lined up in their business casual suits on the sand and one by one, their wives took our photo together. One older Chinese man even stripped shirtless for the pose. Another man kept a respectable distance from me for the shot, but got yelled at for his wife for it. In a fury of Mandarin, she came and placed his hand on my shoulder, pushing us closer together for the prom-esque portrait.

And I don’t even have a proper corsage.

I’m beginning to think it’s the women behind all of these ventures. Chinese men could care less about me — it’s the Chinese women who are mad for pictures of their husbands with a badly highlighted foreigner. I’ve become my own portable trashy magazine!

Yet soon, the sun faded and the crowds spread. But I learned a good lesson today. Even bad dye jobs can aid in international peace, the universal symbol of friendship in nearly ever Asian photo. Just spread your two fingers wide and smile pretty, Hong Kong. Yes, I will be your American freak show because you have become my decadent blitzkrieg of glamour.

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