Foreigners in demand for photos

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 May, 2010, 12:00am

'Mei nu [beauty], shall we take a photo together?' a male visitor near the Mexico pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai asked a young, Putonghua-speaking female host who was wearing a colourful sombrero. Many other visitors then queued up for a photo opportunity with her.

Such scenes, with mainland visitors desperately grabbing foreign pavilion staff and even ordinary overseas visitors to take pictures, are seen all the time in every corner of the massive expo site. The big show is offering mainlanders, barely 5 per cent of whom have been abroad, a rare chance to interact with people from other parts of the world.

Last year, 47 million of the mainland's 1.4 billion people travelled abroad, continuing a steady build-up since outbound tours started less than a decade ago. Foreigners working or studying in China number only in the hundreds of thousands, and they are mostly concentrated in major cities.

It is no wonder, therefore, that mainlanders, especially those from hinterland regions, get so excited when they are photographed with foreigners.

When watching performances from other countries at the expo site, mainland visitors whisper about the colours of the artists' hair, eyes and skin, as well as their body size.

Alde Cabrera, a host at the Mexico pavilion, said he had some 40 photos taken with visitors every hour.

Inside the Qatar pavilion, a staff member dressed in an Arabic tunic, known as a thobe, and a head cloth was seated in front of a wall map of Qatar, with visitors free to include him in their pictures. However, Zhang Guo, a high school student from Shanghai, broke through a tape barrier into a staff zone to ask two traditionally clad pavilion staff if he could have a photograph taken with them.

He said that at another corner of the expo site he had a picture taken with a visitor from Britain. 'I can also practise my English,' he said.

But most visitors do not speak English and turn instead to body language - pointing to their cameras and then themselves.

Kjersti Granum, visiting from Norway with her daughter, said that during their three-hour stay at the expo site they had been asked twice to pose for photos.

She said she had experienced the same thing in central Shanghai and scenic spots in Beijing before.

'It is not special to China and I knew about this before I came here,' she said, adding that she had once been surrounded by a dozen members of one family while in India.

Yao Kunyi, a tourism researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade, said most of the mainlanders had little contact with foreign countries and their people and so were curious about the world outside China and delighted to see 'such a high density' of foreigners at the expo site.

Foreigners at the expo, on the other hand, said they wanted to deepen their knowledge of China.

Christoph Bonig, a host at the Germany pavilion, said he wanted to use the job to continue his study of Chinese and learn more about the country's culture and society.

'I chat with them in Mandarin on things, like where I learned to speak Chinese. And I connect them with the exhibit to help them understand our pavilion,' he said.