Staring. One of the best ways to make a person feel uncomfortable.
As a child I was taught that staring is rude, but staring is truly an art form in China. It’s always blatant as well since the Chinese don’t believe in doing that thing where you stare at someone and quickly glance away, pretending like your eyes were just wandering around the room. No, here it’s straight on stares, making me feel as if I am a purple panda or another weird creature.
I have been in China for many years now, and while there was the occasional ‘starer’ during my years in Shanghai, the staring here in rural China is on a totally new level.
The ‘curious starer’
The first time I came to China I found it incredibly funny, and curious that people would stare at me. Walking across the town you could see people stop, nudge each other, point and stare open mouthed. When you are a first timer in China everything is a novelty and most people aren’t bothered by the staring and pointing. In the beginning it is easy to ignore.
I have always told myself it is usually curiosity. They don’t mean anything bad by it. Usually there isn’t much animosity, racism or negative feelings involved. I am constantly reminding myself that the only time most Chinese people are going to see a white face or a non-Chinese face is going to be on TV or in the movies. So, naturally, being able to see someone like that, up close and in person, is a really big deal for a lot of people.
But what if you have been living in China for many years? What if you have married into a Chinese family? What if you totally feel that you belong, have adapted to all local customs and even speak the local dialect fluently? And the only thing you wish for to complete your home would be acceptance from everyone around you? How then would you handle the constant staring and pointing out that you are a foreigner, a ‘laowai’ and in fact don’t belong here?
Usually, if someone is giving me the blank expression kind of stare, I ignore them until they stop staring. Also with children, if they stare or point and giggle, I would (depending on my mood) wave back or ignore them. Chinese women who stare are also easier to handle. Giving them a smile usually always works. Some would smile back and usually stop staring. In my early days I would even pick up a conversation with some of the starers.
With men, however, the story is different.
The ‘sexual starer’
I would never recommend a woman in China to smile back at a Chinese man who is staring at you. Unless of course, you are single and the staring man is a very handsome fellow in your age. Then, yes, go for it, smile back and maybe you can start a conversation.
But for me, a married woman, I refrain from smiling back at Chinese men, especially the older sneakier ones, with this disgusting face expression that some men put on when looking down on women…
In the smaller city next to the village we live you can find those types a lot. Most of them are migrant workers who come and go to build up our city.
I respect those workers. They are hardworking people who leave their families back home in a faraway city. But nevertheless, I still cannot stand their staring. Huge crowds of workers are a horror for me. I avoid them as good as I can. I don’t want to say ALL of them are the same, but some. All my experiences have been bad. They look at you with eyes that are undressing you and say inappropriate things. I put this staring under ‘sexual harrassment’, and I am repulsed by this form of staring.
And even my husband doesn’t let me walk home alone after dark because in our area are most construction sites and thus huge crowds of migrant workers. I think most people don’t trust migrant workers in general, because they come from another city, sometimes faraway, and they can do whatever they want and simply run away. No way to track them. No one is registered anyway.
However, I don’t want to give the impression of hating them or anything. My father-in-law is a migrant worker sometimes, and he would never do such things. Bad people exist in every where, it just so happened that migrant workers are less educated and maybe feel safer to do bad things with a group as backup or the anonymity of being a ‘stranger’ in a new city.
No matter if it’s pure curiosity, resentment or has underlying sexual reasons, being stared at makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel as if I am something weird, something unnatural. I am not a unicorn or a purple panda. Even though I might not have the same hair color, or eyes, or nose, that doesn’t mean it’s ok to blatantly stare at me, or worse start pointing and giggling. It is rude, no matter what some people (or Chinese friends) might say now.
I would ask them: Is it ok for a Chinese man to stare at a Chinese woman? Wouldn’t it be considered creepy? Or what about someone pointing and laughing at another Chinese person, or even taking out their phones and taking pictures without asking permission of that Chinese person? Wouldn’t that be considered rude? I am sure it would.
Sometimes I reach my limit of acceptance and tolerance and just scream at people staring and pointing and laughing. I know this way is only making it worse, but we are only humans, and like they cannot help themselves staring at me, I cannot help myself and get annoyed by them.
Of course, I will advise everyone to treat everyone with respect and resort to screaming at them if there is really no other way (or if it’s really deserved).
It seems for a majority of this city I will always be a purple panda. And who wouldn’t stare at a purple panda or take a picture of it, right?
How do you handle the staring in China? Do you think you could ever get used to it?
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