I must be. I know my face is frigged up, but wasn’t aware how bad. What else would cause the constant, blatant staring? Doesn’t matter where I go; walking, riding, eating out, I get gawked at like I’m a freak of nature. From little kids to geriatrics, they stare without a hint of timorousness.
The first time I went to the grocery store next to my apartment building, one of the workers stopped what he was doing and stared at me. He started following me through the aisles, just staring. He looked at me as if I just landed from the moon.
It’s easy for the peripheral vision to detect someone gaping at you. Sometimes I’ll turn to confirm what the corner of my eye senses and sure enough, I’ll see someone studying me. I’m tempted to yell “boo” to see if gawkers scare easily.
Most e-bikes are faster then I can peddle. Many turn their heads as they pass me, riding while looking backwards, ogling like they’ve never seen such a human.
This oddball sensation caused me to sift through a few past experiences for comparisons. When I lived in Medellin, which is full of foreigners in certain parts, I would visit the barrios where foreigners don’t go as a rule. When I walked through those neighborhoods most people would stop what they were doing, and stare. I was an oddball, someone strange invading their environment. The amount of eye grazing was conspicuous. They had seen westerners of course, but not in their hoods.
On a business trip to Jamaica years back, I arrived on a Sunday so I passed the afternoon going for a long walk inland. After a couple of hours, I ended up in a village where I was the only white boy among thousands of jet-black Jamaicans. Everywhere I looked, white eyes were beaming in my direction. No other white bodies around. I was approached more than a couple of times by those inquiring whether I was interested in ganja (which they smoked freely).
At a remote temple a few hours outside of Tokyo, a group of children became mesmerized by this oddball round-eye guy passing by on foot. And on long Sunday walks on the outskirts of Antananarivo, Madagascar, I’d find myself in areas where the locals seemed somewhat captivated by a non-indigenous traipsing through their territory.
The difference between those oddball experiences was that the gawkers seemed curious, whereas now, if there is curiosity, it’s masked behind a shroud of blankness.
Oddball experiences aren’t reserved for the out of way. We may avoid sections of cities for our own protection, where sticking out like a sore thumb might get us more than a sore thumb. I happened through Plains, Georgia, on a motorcycle when Jimmy Carter was president (his home town), which is a single traffic signal peanut of a village. I was traveling with friend who had a flat tire on his bike. We were at Billy Carter’s gas station but it was closed so we went hunting for someone who could fix the flat. As we walked down one of the side streets, some (not) nice folk started coming out of their homes and onto their porches shouting “hey white boy what ya’ll doing round here.” After the third “hey white boy” we retraced our steps out of there. Very quickly, we felt uncomfortable, and like oddballs out we got out.
Where I currently live does not feel uncomfortable. To the contrary. After more than two months the building porters wave as I come home, greet me with a smile and a ni hao or hello. At the park where I have an exercise date every morning (with myself), the regulars have gotten accustomed to me. They don’t stare (as much). A few wave or give me a thumbs up as we pass each other walking or jogging. And in the surrounding markets where I live and work people have recently stopped huddling and giggling when I pass by. I’m slowly becoming part of the landscape.
I could understand the oddball feeling if I were in a remote village or area in this country, or India, or Africa. But I’m in a new, modern industrialized city, a mere two hours by car from Shanghai. And therein lies the crux. This city is a newly planned city. There are dozens if not hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings in the process of being built and recently built. There are dozens of enormous manufacturing plants under construction. From where are all the people coming to fill those buildings? Answer: remote northern villages. I’m not in a
remote village, the remote village has been coming to where I happen to be. It’s part of a massive human migration on a scale the world hasn’t experienced, which explains quite a bit of the cultural idiosyncrasies.
I’ve heard there are quite a few foreigners in this city, perhaps thousands, so it’s curious where they hide. Since being here I’ve seen maybe two in passing on the streets, and I’m in the streets every day. Actually, the last time I saw one I found myself gawking. Maybe I should be concerned if the oddball feeling subsides and I’m no longer an anomaly. I’d better be content with the stares and blank gazes, knowing at least I haven’t scared anyone yet.