Classroom snap culture

It’s with slight sadness that I now don the threadbare Captain Cliche hat and reinforce one of the few stereotypes you probably think about Chinese people. They love taking photographs. (Disclaimer: my pool of knowledge for this piece extends to university campuses and public transport). Prior to living in China, the closest I’d gotten to Chinese Chinese people (as opposed to Chinese British/British Chinese people) has been groups of tourists in Chester. As tourists, they’re well within their rights to take photos to document their adventures. As someone afflicted with self-diognosed memory problems, I wholeheartedly support the taking and using of visual aids to capture the moment. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s something of a cliché that Chinese in particular like to take pictures when visiting Britain.

The phenomenon can be pinned down to a couple of obvious reasons:

  • The UK is basically a topic version of China. Neither dystopic nor utopic, and maybe both, whose history runs back millennia, on a separate course but in parallel with China. That the two countries have been separate for pretty much most of humanity, and yet we reach the 21st century and so many things are similar, it’s eerily doppelgangerish. So to be a tourist in this whole other world, where history took different turns and they speak different languages and relieve their bowels in different ways, and yet we all speak and all have bowels, it’s actually a bit of a novelty, so why not take pictures. It’s the same reason I take pictures.

  • Most Chinese aren’t rich. The ones that are rich can buy nice things. The ones that are very rich can buy nice things and travel to a country where a bus journey costs the same as a weekly grocery shop and get to use their nice things. So the tourists we see in the UK are very rich, they have spent some money on a nice camera not simply as a handy means of inducing early onset spinal problems with the weighty Canon swinging from their neck, but also in order to provide proof of their ability to enjoy a holiday in a rich* country.

*rich. My students are always shocked when I tell them that things are more expensive than the people are rich in the UK. I tell them that if you have a job, you can eat in a restaurant 2 or 3 times a month. If you’re a student, you’re on pasta, or, for the more culinarily adventurous amongst us, jacket potato, for three years.

With the invent of modern technologies that make photographers of us all, it’s no surprise to find that picture taking is as rampant with Chinese Chinese people in China as it is with Chinese Chinese people in Britain. I exaggerate not when I say that, unless I don’t leave my house, not a day goes by when I don’t have my picture taken. Please don’t think me boastful. I mean only to highlight the fact that picture-taking is as normal and obvious a part of life as brushing your hair. The new, the novelty, the weird, the edible and the mundane, everything is snapped. As a foreigner in a big city, I fall under almost all of these adjectives.

Most of my timetable right now is given to speaking in Freshman English classes, and so I meet and teach new students every day. In these classes, the less savvy students will forget to turn off the sound and the whole class will go silent when  the antiquated shutter noise goes off from somewhere in the crowd. I don’t even blink when this happens now. Those attempting to be more discreet still face the problem of how to angle a ridiculously large smartphone in order to take a sly pic. Add to that the rubber Spongebob covers that add 60% extra bulk, and it becomes impossible for me not to notice when a picture is being taken.

Not always, but at the end of most lessons, a couple of students will often wait behind shyly and ask to have their picture taken with me. They’ve usually set their cameras to a flattering ‘pale skin’ filter so I’m always happy to oblige. Selfie culture in China is rampant; there’s zero shame in it. A selfie in China is called 自拍 (zi pai – ‘self take picture’). However, whilst the all-forgiving filters are a wonder, the angle at which zi pai’s are taken sends me into a bit of a panic. As a child of the MySpace generation, it seems natural that all selfies are taken with the camera elevated to at least half an arm’s length higher than the face. Not so with zi pai’s. The chosen angle seems to be holding the camera collarbone level or lower. You can imagine the panic this incites within me. I’ve been brought up with the belief that selfies are only selfies if taken from above. Anything else is just a deep visual disturbance to both subject and audience. Ofcourse I’m here as an observer of this fine and ancient culture, and the last thing I want to do is march in with my imperial size 9’s and start telling them how to take a photograph. Instead, I’ll subtly try to either tilt my face downwards, or just crouch down to meet the camera and pretend I’m trying to become level with the student. It’s a struggle but I try not to worry about the pictures floating around QQ. Is this symptomatic of just one of many ways social media did and still does continue to destory the perceived reality of a generation of children? Or simply a sign of vanity? Who knows.

Of course, there is another use for the camera in the classroom. During one class, I had to ask a boy to put his camera down because it’d been fixed on me for at least 10 minutes. I don’t mind the odd action shot but a still image hides a multitude of sins that a continuous film clip can preserve. Looking mortified, he put the phone down. During the break, he came up to me and apologised profusely. He hadn’t been filming me at all; he’d left his apparently much needed glasses at home and was simply using the camera function so he could see what was going on. I’ve seen this before – when you set students a task, it’s not uncommon for them to take a picture of the board and study that at their desk. It’s ingenious really, in both efficiency and visual terms. It’s usually for visual purposes; I’ve been told that there are two types of students; those who wear glasses and those who contact lenses. There is no category of those who have 20/20 vision.

Last week I was out in Daowai, the old section of the city. We were wandering around and looking at the crumbling Russian style architecture. Poking into alleys, we saw very old houses crammed together with rickety staircases running around and wooden extensions hanging of the sides. I was forbidden to take photographs though – apparently in these older communities, it’s taboo to take pictures just for the sake of novelty. It’s said that when the picture is developed, the ghosts and ghouls and spirits become visible and haunt the picture forever more. As far as Hallowe’en tricks go, that’d be quite impressive. It only occurred to me now that it was actually Hallowe’en and so it might just have been a prank. But this is Ancient China we’re talking about, so forgive me for not chancing it.

In a hilarious twist of irony I chose to omit photographs from this post. I hope you enjoyed the bullet points which were substituted as a wacky way to break it up…


2 thoughts on “Classroom snap culture

  1. That’s such a good idea – to take a photo of the board if it’s hard to read it from a distance. I’m going to borrow that next time I’m struggling at a PowerPoint presentation without my glasses. 🙂

    I wonder if Chinese people use cameras differently because, in general, they joined the camera users of the world when smartphones or small, light digital cameras were the thing. My generation, here in the UK, only thought to take a camera out with us if we knew we were going to see something ‘special’ – a wedding, a birthday or a castle. The cameras were too heavy and the processing was too expensive to use them to record everyday details.

    Do the Chinese people that you meet take pictures of each other as much? Or are you always the most interesting subject? 🙂


    • Thanks for your email. Sorry my response is so late! Actually, I notice that pretty much anything can make good photo fodder. It’s a culture where technology and reality are more and more entertwined – food is ordered via an app, you can haggle with market vendors online, and so it’s a natural part of this culture that the world is viewed primarily through a camera lens rather than the naked eye. It’s true of British culture too, but I feel like it’s much stronger in China.


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