Don't Picture This

zara's picture

I hate Japanese tourists. I was trying to think of a way to write a piece about how I hate having my picture taken by someone other than myself but found myself stuck for an opener. Earlier this week, I got one.

I was in the favorite local Carl's Jr fast food joint that my group of 4 likes to visit. Noticing the sizable line at the front registers, the only thing that flashed through my mind in a quick glance was that the swarm of people in their dark little circle was too large for a Tuesday afternoon.

As I approached the unchecked queue, I filed behind two Mexican men with the deep reddish brown sun blistered skin that comes from working outdoors. They both wore paint splattered shoes and clothing. Each swiveled a little on their heels when they heard me speaking rudimentary Spanish to Gabby, asking her what she wanted to eat from the menu. I nodded at them, they allowed small curls at their lips and a return nod, this racial two-step that happens whenever I throw out my nearly flawless accent, perfected from many years of listening to the language, if not fully understanding it.

I instructed Gabby in Spanish again, as I do every afternoon when helping prepare her for ordering her lunch to get her wallet out of her purse. I turned to Andy, my tall scarecrow of a toddler in a grown man's body and reverted to my California girl English. Andy dutifully patted his hands together to indicate that he wanted a hamburger for lunch. He has a brain which works, trapped inside of a skull that doesn't allow full words or sentences to escape him properly. The sign language maneuver for "hamburger" is like shaping an invisible piece of meat into a patty between your palms.

I have a routine that I go through, so you have to understand that I remember these smaller details before I look up and out at the world around me and my group. There is the world of those with developmental disabilities and the people who truly understand them and there is the world where disabilities exist and clueless people fumble for the correct actions. These are the people who worry more about the term "retarded" being used in a non-politically correct manner. These are also the people who are first to use it when they want to belittle themselves for doing something stupid. (As in, "I'm such a retard right now...")

So it took me those few minutes to communicate with my non-communicators before I understood that the clog in the drain that funneled us to the front register was a group of Japanese tourists. The sound in the front entrance of the restaurant suddenly barreled down on me like an assault rifle on my ear drums. We had a Japanese exchange student stay with my family once when I was 16. I still have never gotten over what a clanging the language makes when it's high pitched female voices overlapping one another. I cringed. The two painters in front of me rocked back and forth in their work boots, muttering to each other "Pinche Chinitos" (a phrase which is basically "fucking" and then the slang equivalent of "nigger" for Asian people) and then glancing back at me to take in whether I'd overheard them. I smiled back and nodded. It was just a frustration thing. Standing in line when you're on a limited time frame for your lunch break shouldn't have to include people who have all the time in the world on their hands to dicker about the price of a milkshake.

There were 5 teenage females and 3 teenage males, along with 3 adults who varied in gender and age. The girls were giggling and clutching one another, holding up cameras and pressing their cheeks against one another. I wondered why they didn't have someone else in their group take their picture as they held up an empty drink cup to prove to their friends at home that they were eating American junk food.

They were loud, they were being unreasonable with the woman behind the counter who claimed English as her second language as well. I have noticed that most Asians who reside in our county have proudly learned English and use this with people other than their family whenever possible, saving their native tongue for private interludes. I have also noticed that they can be condescending to those Hispanics in our county who struggle with English. A strange form of racial hierarchy. One that, as a white woman in appearance, I cannot take part in without all sides caving down on me.

But fuck it. They were getting on my nerves.

Andy, with his duck beak of a mouth, beady eyes and gangly posture is a visual oddity. I marvel at how his face captures my attention in both the good and bad ways. I can stand next to him and wrap an arm around his narrow waist and stare straight up into his cavernous nostrils before he looks down at me and his expression softens into one of complete and utter trust, a look of love and caring before he drones out the sound of him trying to say Z. It is a long, soft "Eeeee" most of the time in this position. He looked at me with concern and confusion. He reached up into the air and unwound his long, spider leg like fingers and then glanced down again, questioning.

He let loose a long string of "Huh huh huh!"s after a burst of giggles came from the girls taking pictures. They turned at his noise like frightened rabbits at first, then began to giggle again. "Pitch-her?" one of the girls ventured, pointing at Andy whose hand remained aloft, fingers aimed in their direction.

This is where my job gets difficult. You see, there are privacy laws to protect the dignity of my group members. Technically, I'm not supposed to be writing about them on this website. But I needed to do it in order to demonstrate my long winded, I'm getting around to it, explanation of why I hate having other people take my picture.

"No." I said this firmly and shook my head swiftly. "No picture."

The girls were giggling and advancing towards us like a Harajuku street gang. (I don't know if this exists or is racially proper and I really don't give a fuck.) Andy was continuing to laugh at their laughter, innocent to intention.

"PIT-CHER?" The lead girl asked me this again, resounding harder on the syllables, acting as if I didn't understand what she meant and that the camera in her hand wasn't something I could recognize if I was feeling around in the dark for it. Her eyes went wide with false innocence. She stared at Andy up and down and then back at the group of girls behind her. The chittered in Japanese to one another and giggled some more.

I held my hand up, my palm flat in her face. "NO." I was even more stern. "NO PICTURE."

As if the timing gods had noticed this bubble in my lifespan, the elders of their group called to the girls and waved their arms wide in a grand motion, gesturing to go sit down at the tables in the main part of the restaurant. The lead girl shrugged and walked away with a flourish, her stick straight black hair wisping past us. I grabbed Andy's wrist and pulled his hand down. He snapped out of the happy place in his mind that I like to think of as the open front yard that a big dog gets to sniff about and roll around in the grass on.

The painters in front of us ordered their meals to go, sharing in Spanish their distaste for the foreign visitors with the cashier. She was Maria, one of the employees who regularly rings our orders and she greeted me warmly, speaking in Spanish to me as well, reassuring me that my grasp of the language was just fine, that I spoke it well. There's a chipper tone that comes into the voice of a native Spanish speaker who praises someone like me, a person who can inflect the accent and respects the cultural intricacies of being Mexican. Sure, I've got my own gripes about every race, but in the moments where I speak just enough Spanish well enough to cause alarm that the white girl knows what they're saying then excuse myself as being a poor speaker, not fluent, where I find the understanding in our body language towards each other a fun dance.

I directed my group to sit as far from the group of visitors as we could get away with, considering booth size to ratio of group members plus myself. We waited for the employee to deliver our trays of steaming artery clogging food and I delved back into that part of the world where we were separate from everyone else.

I always take longer to eat than my group of four. Where they inhale, I absently pick at fries or take a bite of burger between turning pages in a book. I always carry one in my purse, it doesn't matter which one I'm reading. I don't get a traditional lunch break like most do. I eat while I work, technically. I can remind Andy to wipe his mouth without looking up from a page. I can instruct Gabby to stop fidgeting her legs under the table and kicking Sarah, her boothmate, who shrieks if even accidentally grazed. I remind Sarah to chill out.

I heard giggling as background noise as I ate. Figuring that they were preoccupied with their own food, I forgot the confrontation at the queue. I was too complacent in that moment to fully register the sneak attack about to occur. As I turned a page and gave a quick scanning look up, I spotted the lead girl on the opposite side of the barrier between the booth Andy was sharing with Bill and the empty one she was kneeling on.

"Smile!" she crackled in her Japanese accent, snapping a picture of Andy with her camera before laughing full-bore and darting away.

Now, here's the even harder part of my job. Where I would like to have gone up to the miscreant in question and snatched her camera from her, smashing it to the floor, I instead had to calmly put down my book and walk to the front of the restaurant to talk to the manager. I walked with a sidways gait, keeping an eye on everyone as best as I could, capturing the lead chick sticking out her tongue at me. I can't get mad. I can't yell. I can't just inflict my own justice. I can't because it would be inappropriate and set a bad example for the group of people I am supposed to be teaching practical life skills through my own behaviour.

The manager on duty was someone I didn't recognize. I'd seen different shift managers before, but on that Tuesday, a broad shouldered blonde man with a thick mustache standing a foot taller than me looked down as I calmly explained my predicament. He nodded without saying so much as, "OK, I got it," in return.

He then walked over to the visiting group of tourists and seemed to delight in the silence that fell over them as he stood and placed his fists on his hips. He pointed to the girl with the camera, then spread that accusatory finger at everyone with her. "You...." he let that linger so as to infer that it was a collective sense of the word. His finger pointed to the sunny day outside. "OUT."

The tourists sat in silence, their faces reading understanding but quickly trying to mask it under the guise of miscommunication. The little squeaks started to rumble from them. The manager looked at them again and pointed to the world outside the window. "You understand me," he warned. "OUT!"

The group gathered up their trash and hastily tossed it in the receptacles as they formed a misshapen line for the door. The manager stood there for a minute to make sure they were leaving and then came over to talk to me. I was in utter amazement. I could barely register his apology to me, of not being able to request that she delete the picture, of having a sister who had a child with Downs. He grinned at me. He hoped for our return business. He wished everyone a nice day and then disappeared.

Well... that was a long-ass fucking intro, wouldn't you say?

I hate pictures because it feels as if something is being taken from me. I can't explain it greater than that or compare it to the intrusive moment in the Carl's Jr where Andy had his picture taken without permission. I can tell you that when people have asked to take my picture, even from the time that I was much younger, although more in the years where I was becoming self-aware of my looks, the hairs on the back of my neck would bristle up.

I look back at the pictures of me from junior high school and high school and see a strange face. I would smile wide and goofy, tilt my head at odd angles, never quite sit still. I would hug a friend close or pick them up to get the image taken to be a candid expression of their face in that final moment. I did my damnedest to not be the focal point of most pictures. You had to catch me on a really good day to get me to take a picture.

I preferred to take the pictures instead. I crept up on friends and caught them being natural. In essence, I've always been more of the thief than the victim in photography. And with the advent of digital cameras, I have become positively obsessive that I have a dictator's control over the pictures taken of me.

The only person that I would sit still for was Chris Perry. I doubt he'll Google his name and find himself here on my blog, so I feel comfortable in mentioning his full name. Chris was in classes with me from 5th grade off and on. He developed a crush on me then that I found unbearable. (I wasn't a late bloomer, but my blossom came out fast and hard when I finally decided that I would accept a boy's attention and affection.) This crush lasted years and bridged over time spent miles apart. He moved out of state at one point and then back, recapturing the affection he had for me when he would leave me not-so-secret admirer notes on my desk when he was 11.

I would still get the tingles that almost caused me to physically tremble, but I allowed Chris to draw pictures of me on several different occasions. Some were rudimentary caricatures swiped down blank white art paper with a thick tipped Sharpie marker. Others were intricate with pencils, charcoals, smudging, judging, erasing, tracing. He never trashed any of his mistakes. He would simply flip the page of the book and start over. I sense that he's around somewhere in the world today and still has that sketch book.

Recently, one of the clients from my work who is in another group asked if I would like an Anime picture drawn of myself. Sebastian is talk and talkative for a young man with Aspberger's Autism. Those in our program with autism are drawn to me and me to them like magnets. They are never left in my care for fear I will get too attached (yet another problem with my job) save for random days when their regular coach needs the day off or attendance is low and someone chooses to go home early. Sebastian approached me with gusto and a price of 5 dollars, which I accepted. I asked if I needed to sit for him in order for him to do the drawing.

He focused on my face for a moment and was quiet. "No," he said finally. "I've got it."

And sure enough, later in the week he produced a hand drawn picture of me looking like a cartoon character, a hair band securing my hair in a low ponytail like I had worn that day, the two drawstrings from my hoodie under my chin, shading for proper curve on my full lower lip.

It's a damn neato picture. I think I might like it better than the ones of me that Chris Perry did with more accuracy to my face. Because it was a simple reflection from the eyes of a young man who wants nothing from me, save for a few bucks. Whereas I know there's a part of my youth tucked away in a sketch book somewhere in Chris' possession, for very different reasons.

Yeah, I hate having my picture taken by other people. I could have written about my preference for just living in the moment and enjoying the day firsthand, but then how would I explain away the hundreds of pictures I've taken of my daughter without feeling like a complete ass? Or, perhaps more pointedly, without feeling like an evil little Japanese tourist?


RoQStar's picture

Really cool thing that the

Really cool thing that the manager did. Girl knew she was wrong that's why she sneaked over to take the picture. Get your food & gtfo..

Anyone who speaks another language and looks at someone else in a funny manner for being able to do so, too, is asinine in a way.

I try not to pose for photos anymore since most people walk with cameras for Myspace or Facebook purposes. Just live.
Sunday I tried to take her picture. She posed for one. Asked why I wanted another. Made me think of this piece you wrote. ( :
I realize in a moment such as the time I bent my head for her to see/touch my hair and she leaned over and hugged my neck, that the heart takes some of the best pictures we'll ever need to remember.

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