Staring. One of the best ways to make a person feel a little uncomfortable, especially if they are a complete stranger.
When I was growing up, I was taught that it’s rude to stare at someone else.
But come to China and try telling someone on the street not to stare. You might as well tell them not to breathe! It’s one of those phenomenons that has its roots planted deep within the culture and it shows little signs of stopping.
Last week, I went swimming with a Caucasian expat family that has three kids. Within sixty seconds of entering the kiddy pool, we were swarmed by at least two dozen children (all of whom were Chinese) who were all staring and asking questions. They kept inching closer and closer until we literally had no room to move around.
We tried moving to another part of the pool, but the same thing happened again. Finally, we settled ourselves in a deeper part of the pool where there were mostly adults. I felt so bad for this family. All they wanted was to enjoy a nice swim to themselves. But because they were foreigners, they unfortunately attracted all this unsolicited attention.
I spoke with my tutor about why Chinese people stare so much and she said that it’s because Chinese people are naturally curious to see a foreigner. Many people here have never seen a foreigner in their entire lives (except perhaps on TV).
To the Chinese mind, foreigners don’t belong in China. Why should you leave your comfortable, wealthy nation to come to a more crowded and less wealthy country that many of its citizens are hoping to leave?
Staring is also a common thing between Chinese people. We once saw about 50-60 people circled around two men who were arguing about something. Another time we saw a motorbike get hit by a taxi in the middle of an intersection. (Thankfully, no one was seriously injured.) Within just a few minutes, there was a crowd of several dozen people standing on the side of the road just staring at the wreck.
Since Chinese people will also openly stare at other Chinese people, why should they treat you any differently? It might seem like they’re picking on you because you’re a foreigner, but the truth is that they’re just doing what they’ve always done.
Even though I’m Chinese-Canadian (and therefore look like everyone else here), I still get stared at. This time it’s not because of how I look, but because I’m speaking English. Whenever my wife and I are in the middle of a conversation at a local grocery story, for instance, we get lots of strange looks from people as we pass by them.
Truthfully, I still get a little annoyed by the staring sometimes. I feel like my personal privacy (a strongly-held value by many Westerners) is being invaded.
In responding to other people’s stares, I sometimes have to remind myself to put myself in their shoes. Curiosity is something that influences all of us. If I saw something that didn’t belong in my country, I would probably stop and stare for a little while, too.
It’s also important to remember that you are a guest to their country. As such, you cannot expect them to conform to your culture. What you might consider offensive in your culture just might be considered the norm in their culture.
If someone is giving me the blank expression kind of stare, then I’ll usually ignore them until they eventually quit staring on their own. If the person is close enough, sometimes I will start a conversation with them. Turning an awkward moment into an opportunity for relationship just might be the most rewarding thing you can do.
Have you ever been stared at? How do you respond when people stare at you?