Looking different. It’s not something I have very much experience in dealing with, coming from an all or mostly white town in Upstate New York. My curly hair, pale skin, brown eyes, they have always been, if not ‘normal’ at least something people have seen before. Part of the typical and wide spectrum of caucasian attributes. Take off the ‘cauc’- however, and I am most certainly not the definition of the remaining half of the word, ‘asian.’ This is, I suppose, what leads to the fishbowl that so many of us foreigners experience when abroad.
Walking down the street incites stares even in America. People are naturally curious and are therefore prone to look. The fishbowl occurs when the tame passing glance turns into a blatant stare-down or even a comment. Their eyes will follow and their head will turn. They will whisper, call out to you ‘Hey! American! Hello!’ Here in Taiwan, people on scooters will pay more attention to you than to the road, making for lots of honking and traffic confusion. (No one here follows the rules here anyway, but that’s for a different post) The babies will not return your smile, finding your face unfamiliar. Little children will certainly stare, eyes wide, with whispers of awe, or complete dumb struck expressions. They may follow you at a distance, or gingerly approach you saying, ‘Wo xihuan ni! 我喜欢你!’ (I like you!) and scamper away soon afterwards. I have heard whispers of ‘Waiguoren 外国人’ (foreigner) or ‘hello’ to a stranger who just wants to speak English with me, or shake my hand, in the case of the vegetable stand man who sold me two ball shaped red kuri squash this morning.
People will be curious about you. In my three visits to Taiwan, I have had gifts offered (or foisted, if you will), free trinkets given, people asking for my signature, autograph, photographs with me, and locks of my hair. I have been gifted with free chocolate waffles, large jade eggs, and key chains off the random backpack in the MRT. ‘You are so beautiful’ they will say, ‘oh you look so young!’ If they ask, you should mumble, ‘oh nail nail!’ an expression of modesty. It is up to you to decide whether they speak the truth.
The moment you enter a store and hear the store clerks welcome you, their umpteenth customer with their pre scripted greeting, you cannot wait for the glances of curiosity after your not being who they thought you would be. You will not have black hair (although you might) but you also will refuse the fork they give you to accompany your lunch, telling them, ‘wo bu yong, wo yao kuaizi!’ (I don’t need that, I want chopsticks). Buying things will be a mishmosh of English and Chinese, both parties eager to use the opposite language and communicate easily with others. Perhaps you will end up buying three tubes of toothpaste with a forth free instead of three for the price of one, like you’d thought.
Despite this feeling of constantly being watched, I go outside and I explore the city. Let the stares happen. I am ready to learn a culture and let them learn me. First, by exposing them to people who look a little different. I want to let people know that not all Americans look the same way, act the same way, are not all from big cities (yes, I’m from New York, no, not the city!) When it comes down to it, you may relish or hate the stares, but they will still happen. Make up an interesting story. It’s all in good fun.