I had the pleasure of sitting in on Jie-jie’s school photos this afternoon. The reason I was able to be a part of the experience is simple: when brought for photos on Friday with the rest of her class, Jie-jie refused to cooperate. We did not know that pictures were being done, but were apprised of the situation and Jie-jie’s failure to participate when we picked her up on Friday afternoon. Thus, Jie-jie and a classmate who had been absent on Friday were rescheduled for this afternoon. Jie-jie said she was scared, I said I would come along to make sure everything was fine, but that I expected her to cooperate.
At this point in our time here in China, we have developed modicum of cultural exposure. The cultural knowledge I am developing often becomes most obvious to me in those times when I completely dismiss it and, instead, fall back on my own cultural notions and images. Jie-jie’s field trip is one example of this. School pictures are another.
I imagine that digital technology has changed school photos since my own childhood. Back then they took one shot (maybe 2) of you sitting in the sharp clothes your mother sent you in unless she forgot it was picture day. Your hair was already a bit messy but the photographer might have a black plastic comb in his pocket. The backdrop was blue, a blue sky with clouds, an American flag, or, if your folks opted to pay a little extra for the double view photo which featured a forward looking view with a detached profile shot hovering eerily overhead, a black background. You never saw the picture until your photo package arrived. You had to sign on the dotted line before even taking the photos. Based upon my own experience, I would say that the pictures were not terrible
approximately 11% of the time.
So, my own experience with school photos was what I had in mind when I walked up to the 4th floor of the kindergarten with Jie-jie and her classmate. The photographers were set up in one of the school’s dance studios/music rooms. There were about 6 staff people and small chairs lined up along one wall of the room. On the dance bar hung at least 30 outfits – ballerina and princess dress-up clothes, army fatigues, jeans, cheerleader and other sporty outfits. Mounds of hats, shoes, gloves, necklaces and other accessories were scattered about. Within seconds each of the children was seized by their fashion consultant and stylist. Jie-jie’s classmate was stripped down and put into a red and white polka dot dress, red patent leather shoes and minnie mouse ears. A stuffed animal Minnie Mouse was placed in her hands and she stood in front of a pink backdrop obediently following the photographer’s instructions to be cute.
Meanwhile Jie-jie was put into a lavender ballerina outfit and wore her own red patent leather shoes (which she wears every day, by the way). She stood obediently as they applied substantial holding gel to her hair, put it into a side ponytail with a poof on top, teased the ponytail up, and topped the whole gruesome mess with a 3-inch flat, round, white lace hat with purple flowers.
By this time Minnie was done and being changed into a red cheerleader outfit, red knit cap and red hightops, so Jie-jie took her place in the pink-ness, was handed a bouquet of fake white roses (to be followed by a teddy bear), and proceed to indulge the photographer in posing. I think I would not be exaggerating to say that, although she did not like her hair style, Jie-jie was enjoying herself immensely. The only thing that could have made the experience more special for her would have been if they applied make-up and nail polish (we do not allow out 4 year-old to have these things).
Once they finished with the first series of photos, it was time for a wardrobe change. This second outfit was designed to show the rocker/sporty Jie-jie that complemented her cute and girly side. They dressed her in cut-off jeans with a zebra stripe sash/belt, a t-shirt that said “I (heart) cute girl”, a denim vest, a brown checked hat, an I (heart) something arm-warmer (!), black and white high-tops and some dog-tags. This time they set her up in front of a backdrop that depicted a field of sunflowers, and placed a badminton racket in her hand. She smilingly indulged the photographer.
Tomorrow we get to preview the photos and decide what products to purchase. I cannot wait. Mei-mei will have her photos in the next day or so, too. I am considering booking a family photo shoot before our departure.
Quite a production, n’est-ce pas?
The thing is, I really should have known. We have seen countless photo albums showing just these types of photos – they are the pictures parents show of their children, the pictures that make up wedding albums (I love these – our friends in Milwaukee spent an entire day shooting theirs), etc. The particularly good shots get printed in 12X15 or larger, framed and hung in places of honor (such a photo hung in over our friend’s bed when we stayed at her house).
On top of that, there is so much photo-documenting that goes on in China. The Chinese are much more likely than Americans to be toting around huge cameras with tripods and multiple lenses – when we first arrived I mistook these people for professional photographers. Everything is extensively documented (trip to the sunflower garden, dessert at the haagen dazs shop, an afternoon around campus, the white kids you happened upon on the Sun Yat-Sen campus). One of the odd things about going to Hong Kong Disneyland is that the characters are not free to roam around there – they would be mobbed. Instead, they are set-up in set places at set times and they have handlers that make everyone line up to wait for a turn to meet the character and take pictures, but not too many. It is a bit of a drag if your child wants to see goofy but you have no interest in a photo.
Anyway, the point is, I should have known.