Who’s Looking at You: a Story about Staring

When we were in Taipei, one thing I noticed was that no one seemed to be staring at us. I expected some stares especially since we were often the only white people in the restaurant, on the subway car, etc. Also, I am sure we were doing culturally inappropriate things that would have garnered all kinds of stares in the United States.

Rand says that people did stare at us, but if they did it was subtle enough that I didn’t notice.

As soon as we got onto the train into the city in Singapore , I noticed people staring at us. Then I realized that the people looking at us were mostly Indian men.

It got me thinking about the cultural norm of staring. This kind of stuff fascinates me because I teach intercultural communication and we often discuss cultural norms in class and how they affect communication between cultures.

Is overt staring not appropriate in Taiwan and that is why I didn’t notice any staring there? I wondered.

I had heard that Indian men were known for staring. Was I just stereotyping or were they really staring?

Were they just looking or were they leering? Sometimes it felt like leering.

Again, was I being overly sensitive and still stereotyping?

I decided to just be curious instead of offended as I observed how people looked or didn’t look at us. It would be great material for my class after all.

One evening as we sat on a bench by the river in Meleka, Sierra and I noticed a man sitting on a bench about 20 meter away from us staring at us. We were just killing time before going to find some dinner, so we sat talking and looking around at the scenery. Every time I looked in the direction of the man, he was looking at us. Since I was observing staring patterns, I paid attention to his behavior. A couple of times, he looked me in the eye as I glanced his direction. I looked away quickly because as an American, while it is appropriate to look someone in the eye when talking to them, it is considered rude to be caught staring at a stranger. Eventually the guy got up and left. Sierra and I were both relieved because honestly, he was weirding us out.

A few minutes later, Rand announced that he needed to use the restroom. There was a public bathroom just across the river. The girls decided to go with him. I chose to stay behind because I didn’t really need to go and also my right hip and knee were giving me trouble after lots of walking and stairs with my heavy backpack followed by a two hour bus ride as we traveled from Singapore to Melaka (ack – I am old…) so I didn’t want to climb the stairs of the bridge crossing the river.

Left alone, I watched as the nearby restaurant set up its outdoor tables for dinner. One the workers asked where I was from and how long I was staying in Melaka. I answered politely and returned to looking at the river. Suddenly the staring man walked up and sat down next to me.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“America,” I said trying not to show the discomfort I felt.

I am generally not very comfortable talking to strangers and I was also concerned because he had been staring at us and I thought he had left.

“I am from Pakistan,” he said. “I work here. There are only a few countries I can go.”

I nodded and made some sort of unintelligible sound, not really knowing how to respond to this.

“How long have you been in Melaka?” he asked.

“A few days,” I said.

“Are you here on vacation?”

“Yes.”

“Where do you go next?”

“Kuala Lumpur.”

“Oh, that’s a very busy city.”

At this point Rand came out of the bathroom and saw me. He gave me the OK sign with a questioning look on his face to ask whether everything was all right. I waved and signaled OK to him. I didn’t feel in any immediate danger, maybe this guy was just being friendly. Although it did feel a bit odd and awkward.

“Is that your husband?” the man asked.

“Yes,” I said.

The girls came out of the bathroom and they all started back across the river.

“Three girls?” asked the man.

“Yes,” I answered.

“I have three girls also.”

“Oh,” I nodded.

“Are any of them married?”

“No,” I said, “They are still in school.”

Then he said a few more thing about his family that I didn’t understand because of his accent.

Rand and the girls had crossed the river and were heading towards me. When they were a few feet from me, the man got up and walked away.

The whole situation perplexed me. Why was the man staring at me in the first place? Was it just part of his culture or was he scoping me out? When I looked over and caught his eye, did he take that as an invitation to come talk to me? Or even a invitation for something more? Maybe he was just being social. But then why did he leave as soon as Rand approached?

I don’t know the answers. As we continue to travel I will have lots of opportunities to observe other people’s cultural norms. Next time though, I will try not to get caught staring.

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