Will you take our picture?

My backyard is, of course, a basketball court. Since last fall the hoops have been removed and it serves only as a lecture field for PE classes or as a place for oxen to cross on their way to greener pastures.

This is my immediate backyard. Farther on is a mass of demolished bricks where the school is clearing the way for a new road. The road will eventually connect to the two new buildings and the building which will be finished sometime next year. Old women spend their days chipping sediment off the bricks so that they can be resold. Walking toward the back of campus there is a new gate. It is small, but it is made of iron and locked so I have to trouble the security guard to open it. As I step through the gate I enter a completely different place. Terraced fields of Chinese Cabbage and Rice fill the landscape. People push carts and students tote worn bags and everyone stares at me when I pass.

I enter a hidden city that is filled with alleys leading to homes and vegetable markets. I pass by oxen, wild dogs, families cooking dinner, people sleeping on couches, tarps covered with rapeseed, children walking home.

"May I take your picture? You and your grandchild?" I ask.
"Hmm..." she thinks, with the proper Chinese hesitation.
"Please? I think it would be a really good picture."
"OK," she says, obviously wanting to be photographed.

I show her the digital camera and turn to leave when I hear another, older woman: "How about me, will you take my picture?"
"Of course!"

Walking home I keep my camera out, prepared for more opportunities. In China these chances come so often that I always kick myself when leaving the camera at home.

Three children pass by and the bravest one asks, "Will you take our picture?"
"OK - all three of you together."

I ask where they live, they tell me, and we go our separate ways. Tonight they will tell their family that they saw and actually talked with a foreigner. Their parents will ask, skeptically, where I was from and they will not know. But they will continue to talk, telling their parents what I said and did. How I walked and talked.

And me? I went home and wrote about it. My night is writing and sharing this cross-cultural experience. So we all went our own ways and told the stories of this small event. And tomorrow, when I return with prints of the pictures, I will probably talk with their families. We will share tea and we will struggle to communicate. We will talk about everything - and nothing, really.


Aniya K. said...

Hi there, just wanted to let you know much much I enjoy your stories and photos.
Could you tell me what you said to the granny with the child - in Chinese? I've been studying Chinese for a while, but this kind of simple, communicative language just doesn't sound "natural" coming from me. Perhaps you know how to express this kind of stuff in an authentic way - I mean, it obviously worked, she agreed to have her picture taken! If you have any more phrases concerning photography, I'd be immensely grateful if you told me, because I work in China next year, so I will have to get the cooperation of the people to be portrayed.


Dustin said...


Honestly I cannot remember. Typically it depends on the person. Usually I am very forceful and often I don't even ask - but this picture she wanted me to take.