Staring

Lily Daniels, Caboose Editor

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One day as myself and two other students sat stuck in traffic in the back of a van, we were flanked on our left by the front of a tuktuk. Because driver’s sit in the right side of the car in India, he was quite close to us and his stares seemed strong enough to shatter the car window. Over and over, one of us would glance at him to see if he was still staring to find that his eyes had remained unmoved from our car. Laughing we decided it might scare him off if we all looked back. We counted to three and all whipped our heads to the left at the same time. He stared and we stared and then he smiled. We broke the eye contact but he continued, a smile on his face but his stare still ice cold. Later, looking back at him (it was an exceptionally long traffic jam) he mouthed “what?” at one of us as if to ask why we were so disturbed by his constant staring. To us, it seemed that he couldn’t even fathom why we weren’t enjoying his looks.

In my return from Urban’s 2017-2018 India trip a lot has stuck with me. From the polluted air to the different types of transportation, India was a whirlwind of everything that seemed different from my San Francisco existence. And this extends to staring.

Now when I say staring I don’t mean a quick glance at someone out of interest, no I mean an extended and intense eyes-popping-out stare from a man, women or child at me, my clothing, my eyes and our quite large group of outsiders.

It’s not to say that we were exactly blending in, and though we had tried by not wearing shorts and tank tops and shying away from tight clothing, we still stuck out. So it’s not so strange that we would provoke a bit of interest. But throughout our trip, we were met with constant staring of varying intensities, most way longer and intenser than in the US. At times it was intimidating, others scary, but mostly annoying. As our guides or teachers spoke, kids, women and men would surround our group like an outer circle, looking at us and trying to understand maybe what the hell these majority white people were doing in India. Sometimes they’d throw their babies into our arms asking for pictures which some of us were happy to oblige and others ignored. Other times they’d just ask “Selfie?” provoking us to wonder what they would even do with such a photo… show off that they had met someone who looks different than them? It was too strange to believe. Some of us got more offers and questions than others, young men generally asked for young women or those of us who looked especially pale or blond and it was rare that the adults got a picture requested. Overtime, it became a regularity and felt less intimidating, but it still felt awkward and quiet embarrassing.

Staring means very different things in different communities. In American culture, prolonged staring is generally considered rude and uncomfortable. As I walk down the street at home, I typically avoid eye contact with people I don’t know and go along my way minding my own business. My mom explained that from her time teaching in Japan, she found out the opposite of what I had experienced in India. In Japanese culture staring was rare and considered extremely rude. In many asian countries, where certain ideals of respect and hierarchy are more clear, staring is considered unnecessary and eye contact is not required in social situations. But in India, it seemed perfectly acceptable that everyone was so interested in what we were doing or looked like.

Again, the stares were not the most awkward thing that we experienced on the trip, nor were the photo requests. But they stuck out as it was hard to imagine seeing tourist at pier 49, and asking for a selfie of our own.