There is a collection of eyes in every country, in every culture, on every block of every city around the world. How do they look at you?
Walking along the streets of Guangzhou, China as a white, trans, lesbian, and far too masculine for heteronormative standards, I got used to an array of looks, stares, and furtive glances.
When I took to the countryside eyeballs slapped on me like bumper stickers. It made sense and I got used to it after a while. In many cases, I was quite literally the first non-Chinese person they had ever seen. I was at least a relatively approachable foreigner for many, which helped. Mothers and fathers would urge their children to practice their English with me. Babies would be terrified until about 10 minutes later at which point I became unceasingly interesting to them. Older generations would often give me the evil eye, at least until I started speaking some Chinese with them. Then they were full of smiles and offers for tea and dinner.
In the city I was a little more commonplace which meant I got eyes, but more out of friendly curiosity. There I got “Hello’s” yelled from passing bicycles, “I give you good price’s” from shop stalls in my periphery, or often being outright ignored.
After a while, I started getting Chinese locals asking me for directions in Chinese (my ultimate “local pride”). I guess I started to move through crowds with the same ambivalent urgency, started to dress like an annoyed business person struggling to make a living in the big city, or just started to stop staring at all the people staring at me.
Expats though were another matter. In the small towns, they were a life preserver in stormy waters. You did not let go of another foreign face when you met one there. But the larger the city and the longer the foreigner’s time locally the more that desperation for connection faded to friendly nods to outright aversion. In Guangzhou if they had been there long enough to blend like me, they did not want to associate with foreigners that made them stand out. I could understand – I was often the same.
I have to say it made things easier, though. After 10 years, I approached and got approached by exactly who I wanted - local or foreign - and I got the best of both worlds. Locals would mostly dismiss me as an ignorant, spoiled American that is until I found it worthwhile to strike a conversation in Mandarin or broken Cantonese about politics, demographics, economics, or family. Then I made friends quickly and my new friends were extremely appreciative of my unique role and background. Foreigners would largely see in me one of their own, which suited me well when I wanted it. However, I could easily assert myself as a Third Culture Kid by talking about anything in Guangzhou more than 5 years old. It didn’t take long to get to know who was a backpacker passing through and who had found roots for better or worse in this place.
I had a platter full of diverse and rich relationships with most everyone I met. I have to admit, I got used to the rock star lifestyle so many foreigners experience (and often complain about in East Asia). But it all came crashing down when I went back home.
Suddenly most people looked like me and I was the only one staring. What was curious or unusual about me? More, what was curious or unusual about anyone? My city, Minneapolis, is home to one of the largest populations of refugee immigrants in the country with a huge number hailing from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Hmong communities in Vietnam. Others were simply well settled 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th generation immigrants from around the world who all spoke English like a local and experienced foreign cultures only at home.
I was struggling with immense culture shock and I wanted so badly to find someone to speak some Zhongguohua with about politics, implicit bias, or how crazy Americans were. Sadly for me, Minneapolis doesn’t have a large Chinese community and more to the point those who were up for commiserating about the land of the red, white, and blue would scarcely seek me out to do so. No one knew where I’d just hopped off the plane from, and no one assumed anything other than that I was yet another privileged, white, American. Not that I was not or am not, but I was at least someone who felt an acute sense of otherness unreflected back at me.
I’d grown comfortable with that otherness. It gave me a sense of identity, purpose, and community. Now the only community I could be welcomed into could find little more interesting to discuss than the latest TV shows and their sex life. I’d watched democratic revolutions quashed in Bangkok, squeezed on and off suffocating sardine trains in Sri Lanka, gotten rescued at sea in the Philippines, uncovered temples in absolute ruin in Cambodia jungles, and seen the full force of the Chinese military push anti-Japanese propaganda outside my place of work. I had gotten to know more cultures than anyone I knew here had ever met, and I wanted to talk about it. There were people who knew what I was talking about around me too. They just talked about it all with their immigrant friends.
Now I’m learning a different set of interactions with a different set of norms. Back in China, the first question anyone would ask regardless of just how local or foreign you were was, “Where are you from?” Expats could connect quickly on what style of culture shock they were experiencing, and I could reciprocate with locals who were very rarely local Guangzhou people. It was polite, expected, and from my experience led to a broad range of fascinating conversations with strangers everywhere.
Now the question is unspeakably offensive. If I ask someone white, I’d get, “Why?” If I asked someone non-white born American I’d get a look that said, “Oh no, we all the same to you, don’t we?” If I asked someone who was truly an out of towner I’d get with a little too much forcefulness, “I’m from here.” I get it, I do. In a culture now spewing hatred and vitriol at all types of “immigrant-looking” folk, why wouldn’t the question paint me as a hate filled, ignorant Trump supporter. Still, it didn’t make it easier. Here I’d stand, freaking out at the implosion of my once familiar now terrifyingly alien culture looking for someone to catch my frantic eyes, but they’d lost their stickiness.
Every culture and region has a different collection of eyes, and they need to be learned like any dance. Now, I gauge my audience carefully often starting a conversation with some sort of excuse for why I would want to ask someone where they were from. “Hey, I spent a long time in southern China and found this awesome expat community of people from all over. Can I ask where you’re from?” It’s awkward, but awkward is still better than xenophobe. I can deal with the social ramifications of being called xenophilic.
None of this changes the fact that I find local Americans baffling to understand much as I did for the Chinese people around me when I first arrived in Guangzhou. But at least one major benefit of being semi-homeless in a global community is the foreknowledge that people change and I’ll figure out my way in here again. My eyes have become cautious, curious, and eager for the rare light of recognition that can shout from across the room, “I see you.”
Do you feel at home in your culture? Do you find it easier to connect with some more than others? When do you feel like an outsider?
Let me know by leaving a comment below.