It’s 1981, and my ship has pulled into Istanbul for a week. Being a stupid young sailor, I’m wandering around alone. I pass some old men sitting on a stoop drinking tea (a common pastime for old men in Turkey). One of the old men gets up, walks over to me, spits on a finger, and tries to rub one of my many tattoos off. When he can’t, he shakes his head in disgust and sits down again.
It’s 1981, and my ship has pulled into Istanbul for a week. Being a stupid young sailor, I’m wandering around alone. Going down a busy street, I suddenly find myself surrounded by a crowd of young men. One of the guys emerges from the crowd, and in broken English starts translating for the rest of the crowd, telling me everything that they have to say about how much they love my tattoos.
It’s 2016. I’m waiting in line at an art show in China. A guy walks up to me: excuse me, I can take picture of you with my children? Sure, why not? Smiles all around as pictures are snapped, and we all go back to waiting in line.
My job and my pastimes take me far and wide, and in some of the places that they take me, I look unlike anyone else. Japan, Guatemala, China, Mexico, Turkey–in all of them, I am a “white guy,” a light-skinned, blue-eyed guy in a country where everyone else is brown-skinned, with black hair and brown eyes. In some of those countries, I go places where I may be the only “white guy” that I see all day, and in those countries, I get stared at–a lot. It’s not just me–it’s the experience of any Westerner in those places.
What I’ve learnt in those countries: how good it can feel to be smiled at. This morning I took a walk along the riverfront in Hangzhou, China. Men (and a couple women) did tai chi alone. Women (and a couple men) did synchronized dancing to music. Grandmothers pushed strollers, and grandfathers jogged–often in business casual–occasionally omitting a loud yell or two. (I have no clue what the purpose of the yells is–native speakers, do you have any insight into this?) For 45 minutes, I was the only “white guy” that I saw.
It was unusual for people not to stare at me. Sometimes out of the corner of their eyes, and sometimes quite openly, but almost everyone stared. Some of them, though–some of them smiled at me, too. 你好, they might say. 你好, I would answer. I waved at little kids, and their grandmothers smiled–and made them wave back at me if they were too shy to do it on their own. Not big-deal interactions–but, it always felt so good. What it cost them: nothing. What it gave me: a lot, actually.
I maintain that at some point in their life, everyone should spend some time in a place where they’ll be stared at. It’ll teach you the value of a smile for someone who doesn’t seem to fit. Lots of people get stared at in today’s America–Muslim women in hijab. Black men in nice hotels/white neighborhoods/academic conferences. Any woman at all in a computer science department. A smile at someone else costs nothing–and can give a lot.
on being stared at: I include this one in the English notes because of the commonly-taught, commonly-believed old bullshit that there’s something wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. Is on being stared at English? Absolutely. Is there any other way to say it? Not that I know of.
their life: This is a good example of the use of a third-person plural pronoun to refer to a singular person. Since there is no reason to assume any particular gender here, some dialects of English use their gender-neutral pronoun, which looks like the plural pronoun, but in this context is not. You can read more about this phenomenon here.
stoop: Besides being a verb with a number of different meanings, stoop can also be a noun. Merriam-Webster defines it as a porch, platform, entrance stairway, or small veranda at a house door. How I used it in the post: I pass some old men sitting on a stoop drinking tea (a common pastime for old men in Turkey).