The Random Writings of Rachel: Being Stared At

Being Stared At

If you haven't ever experienced it, you've probably heard about it from others: If you're an expat in Asia, you're going to be stared at. Unless, of course, you are an expat of Asian descent in Asia and happen to blend in with the locals. If you're lighter or darker-skinned than those around you, expect to be the center of attention wherever you go.


 Outfit worn for an afternoon of playing Duck, Duck, Goose, Football, and other assorted games with preteens at the park while their parents (our coworkers) sat on a picnic blanket and laughed at our amusing antics.


Now, from what I heard, this bothers some people. The first time Angel walked down the sidewalk with my family in Malaysia, he was rather disconcerted by the reaction that the sight of our pasty skin elicits from the average passerby. He pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, "Um....everyone is staring at us..."

I hadn't noticed, not that time. I usually don't notice. After a while, staring simply became normal.

Some who visit countries where they are stared at find this behavior invasive and offensive--but I'd like to argue that it's not helpful to view it that way. The fact is, in a lot of non-Western cultures, staring itself is not rude. People stare at anything that they find interesting, and you might just happen to be one of those interesting things.

Here in China, the reactions tend to go a little beyond just staring. Angel and I will no sooner step outside the door of our apartment building when a little girl walking by, chattering away to her grandma, will stop mid-sentence, stare at us in open-mouthed awe, point, and shriek to her grandma, "Wai Guo Ren!" ("Foreigners!") 

It's awesome. It's at least partially due to my personality that I think it's way more fun to walk down a street where I hear a constant echo of "Wai Guo Ren!" from all sides (especially from children, who, as we all know, tend to say what they think) than to walk down a street in my own country where no one takes any notice of my mediocre presence .

In restaurants, we're often asked where we came from, why we're in China, and occasionally, how much our salary is. I carry on more random small-talk conversations with strangers in Mandarin than I ever did in my home country in my native language.

I don't mind the uncalled-for attention--most of the time people just want to say hi, ask where I'm from, ask if I can speak Chinese, tell me I'm pretty, or take a picture with me. After living where we have for this long, even I am startled when we suddenly come across foreigners on our home turf. Maybe a few years down the road, I'll be asking them if I can take their picture, too!

The place where we live is not diverse. I would not dare be offended by a few stares and open remarks about how I appear different than everyone around me, because it's nothing other than the truth. I do look different from everyone else in my neighborhood. I'm watched constantly, and talked about often. My home country and the color of my skin makes for a big conversation starter in this part of the world. I've had enough run-ins myself with rude, uptight, and entitled Westerners, both in my home country and abroad-- I choose to view the fact that I stand out as an opportunity to be a pleasant example of my own culture.
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p.s. Funny Story: A teacher that I hadn't previously met at our school was chatting with me, and mentioned, "All of the teachers talk about you and the boy teacher [Angel] often. We think you must be very good friends." Good friends, indeed.
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p.p.s. Bonus Funny Story: A few months ago, my curly-haired, blue-eyed, ivory-skinned baby sister told my parents, concerning her decision to start dancing in the middle of the mall to a favorite song that was playing, "You know, people are just going to stare at me anyways, so I might as well be dancing." I think we may share a few personality traits in common.

29 comments:

  1. I like your perspective and I'd have to say I don't think I would have thought of it that way but it definitely makes sense!

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  2. Your sister's idea is a good one! And I think you have a great attitude towards the whole staring thing!

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  3. That's an interesting perspective! I've never really thought about being stared at as a good thing. I like how positive you are about it, though. =)

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  4. OMG! I definitely got a lot of that when I went to china a while back. I completely hated. But I feel most cultures aren't sensitive to new things. Hope it gets better, thanks for sharing.

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  5. Sometimes we forget how that must feel especially when you live in such a diversified area.

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  6. It's 'gaijin' in Japanese. (My in laws were expats in Japan for 5 years.)

    When you've got 5 kids (which is not common where we live) you already get stared at like a parade float everywhere you go, so I'm kind of used to it.

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  7. Haha, I'm just imagining you walking down the street to calls of "Wai Guo Ren!" like you're a gunfighter riding into a town in the Old West. Obviously, I escaped the staring and it was cool to blend in. I love your perspective on it. It often annoyed me how a lot of my American friends would frame the situation as "Chinese people are racist" instead of "Well, this is my first time living as a highly visible minority in a place with different ideas of diversity." And the staring! When I studied abroad in Italy, I learned that Italians stare like crazy.

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  8. Ha...fun post! I have never been abroad, but I would like to...I teach reading..would be fun to overseas!
    kewl Blog!

    Valerie

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  9. Haha! I haven't really traveled anywhere, so I haven't experienced this.
    But I think it would be hard for me, mostly because I am self-conscious about my weight, so I would always feel like the staring was because of that (even though I know that is ridiculous. lol).

    Kristin // The Peculiar Treasure
    athisfeetdaily.blogspot.com

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  10. Yes!! I've been in various countries where I looked painfully out of place and got stared at... totally normal. I'm so glad you have a positive attitude towards it. Americans are especially intolerant of staring, but in other cultures it seems to not be such a big deal!

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  11. Well that is a great attitude to have. I don't know that I would be so generous. It would and has gotten on my nerves when I've travelled before to be constantly singled out. I makes me uncomfortable.

    bisous
    Suzanne

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  12. I thought it was funny hearing "Wai Guo Ren!" when I lived in Chengdu for a year :) Like you said, usually it's meant with excitement and curiosity!

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  13. Haha...oh I *LOVE* your little sisters attitude and reasoning! Great post, Rachel!

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  14. It's definitely interesting how other cultures differ from what we're using to in the US. I've never been to the Asian countries, but I've experienced staring in Paris every time I've been there and I just try not to pay attention. Different cultures do different things, but that's what makes it so interesting to travel and experience other areas of the world! I love hearing your perspective from your adventures living abroad!

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  15. How crazy! Your sisters attitude is absolutely perfect! =D

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  16. That would be so difficult to be the center of attention like that!

    Kaitlyn

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  17. I think you have a great attitude about it. I've never experienced that in travel but I get what you mean about children being curious. I have a disability with my leg so when I go to a place like Target I use the motorized carts and kids always just stare or I hear them say something to their parents. They are just curious.

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  18. I people stare all the time and imagine who they are, where they're going, and where they've been. I wish it was more accepted in the West.

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  19. Love your post, Rachel (it's an issue I've often had to face - and we've often had to face as a family - and so I've thought about this often). I've kind of adopted your sister's stance recently, as much as we can - people will be staring anyway so, as long as we're polite and good representations of our home culture (as you so astutely point out), then why not express ourselves as we wish, whilst we're out and about?

    A bit of context: I live in a country that's 'dangerous for foreigners' (shall we politely say) and it can be stifling (to say the least) to always be thinking about how you appear and always trying not to draw any further attention to oneself. As you know, I'm a single Mum with two obviously foreign small children in tow, which brings its own security issues, and so I'm constantly having to navigate 'security' issues - where to go/when/what mode of transport/possible problems and what to do if anything happened to me etc. I got so paralysed by fears at one point that we literally didn't go out, as a family of three, for many many months (we draw so much attention, being a single lady (who - plain fact of the matter, however much I wish it weren't the case - turns heads) and two blonde haired/blue eyed children). But being literally corralled is (obviously) no way to live, so I made the decision that I'd have to face my fears and accept, as a way of life, the fact that a) we need to be able to go out as a family because what sort of weird childhood would the children be having if we don't (?!) and b) we'll be stared at/whistled at/talked to wherever we go (as a matter of fact).

    It took a very conscious decision, and a lot of bravery (if I'm honest) to get to this stage (the responsibility if anything happens to one of us would, after all, be solely mine - that's a terrifying reality for a mother who’s living in a place where she *absolutely* doesn't want to be living).

    So, we go out. Do things we'd normally do in England (even trips to shopping centres can be dangerous here, unfortunately). I'll never get used to having to be constantly vigilant when I'm out with the two of them but it's a bullet I've had to bite. They don't see the 'deeper layer' that I do, obviously, as they're children, and it is kind of nice to see them interacting with everyone who takes an interest in us, but I'm always but always one step ahead of any situation – knowing where the exits are/who's around us and are they behaving weirdly/not letting the children accept anything from strangers/mobile phone in hand with the mobile police unit on speed dial etc - just in case any situation does arise. It's *stressful*, mostly *not enjoyable* for me (I breathe an almost audible sigh of relief every time we arrive home safely after a trip out).

    It's a horrid way to live but, if the children are going to be able to have any semblance of a normal life at all, I've got to be brave and do it. The stares are kind of the least worst part of it all, to be honest. [And my daughter - quite the little extrovert/exhibitionist (totally the opposite of her mother!) - loves the attention she gets].

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  20. reading this makes me miss the time i spent living in italy and mexico. i embraced the 'foreign girl' stare, and i welcomed all the small-talk and banter that it inspired :)

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  21. When I went to India I was literally followed around a zoo by locals. They took pictures of me wanted to touch me - no joke. One of them asked a friend of mine if he was Will Smith! It was a bit crazy but after a couple of days i just got used to it - or ignored it. lol

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  22. Haha yes, I feel like you are bound to get started at or asked to get your picture taken. I tried not to get to overwelemed my the whole thing and just tried to think it was funny.
    Melanie @ meandmr.com

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  23. The teacher saying you and Angel must be good friends is too cute!

    I'd be reveling in all of the attention haha. My husband says that if we ever went to the Philippines (where his extended family resides), I'd be doted on because of my light skin. That if I went outside into the sunlight unprotected, family members would rush to hold an umbrella over my head as to not let the sun darken my light skin. I'm like, "Man! How can I get that kind of treatment here?" Ha!

    I think it's funny that many cultures admire ivory skin, yet here we are in America with our tanning beds and sun tan lotion.

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  24. You look outstanding!
    Have a nice day!
    Angela Donava
    http://www.lookbooks.fr/

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  25. Love it. Here in India I also get stares, though there are lots of foreigners in our city, so it's less than it could be in other areas. But I'm also here not working, so I'm living in very Indian neighborhoods and many of my friends live in very Indian neighborhoods, not the upscale neighborhoods of most expats. My favorite story about staring is when I was with my (Indian) husband's friends walking in one of their neighborhoods and cars were slowing down to rubberneck at me and I grumbled I'd never get used to the staring. One of the friends says innocently "If we were in America, they'd stare at us" and I started hysterically laughing and then explained that no, no one would stare at them... they'd probably mistake them for Mexicans, but they wouldn't stare.

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  26. I love the way your sister thinks! Europeans have no problem staring. They stare at each other, they stare at Americans. I thought we were special at first. Nope. And making eye contact doesn't scare them either. It's kind of awesome and kind of creepy.

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  27. that is the most brilliant response from you sister ever! i did experience my first constant staring from almost everyone we passed while we were in zhuhai, china last year. my husband is 6'4 and i'm 5'9 so we are sort of giants anyways and i think my curly hair and exposed legs while it 68 degrees F threw some people off.

    i didn't take offense to it either but it did make me feel more self-conscious. at first i thought my dress was caught in my underwear or something!

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  28. Haha, I love it! I think from the kids and older people it was cute and funny, it was just when middle aged people wanted to take pictures of me without speaking to me first that bothered me. If anyone asked me to take a picture with them first, I'd be happy to do so. But I do wonder how many photo albums my American friends and I are in with random Chinese who wanted pictures with us. haha

    Literally laughing over here about the other teacher saying you must be "very good friends." hahaha

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  29. In Rwanda, their word is "muzungu" and pretty much anywhere you go, even driving down the road, you hear "A MUZUNGU" from children (often times the adults won't scream it). Children will start chasing your vehicle and all they want to do is practice their English. I've heard of other missionaries who feel like this is generalizing them but I couldn't help but crack a smile every time I heard those words.

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