Eye Contact and Other Misdemeanors

What is the line between a glimpse and a full on stare? Does it creep you out? Staring? What about reading something over the shoulder of someone? Or slurping?

I’m presently on the metro (where I seem to do much of my writing these days; my phone autocorrects metro to meteor which makes for a much better sentence, but alas, I am destined not to be an astronaut). In Hong Kong I’m a 鬼佬, or gweilo, or foreign devil (though, literally ‘ghost man’); on the mainland, as we well-travelled folk refer to it, I was a 老外, or laowai, which has lots of different meanings to different people, but the most common would be ‘old foreigner’ (though this is said to be incorrect by some), or just ‘foreigner’. In Hong Kong where Cantonese is the respected tongue, calling someone a gweilo is kind of offensive. On the mainland however, where Mandarin is the lingua franca calling someone a laowai, can be offensive or not, depending on who is saying it, and who is hearing it. Personally, I don’t mind, but I know people who do. I have been called 洋鬼子 (yangguizi, literally ‘ocean devil’) on one occasion, but I was in an argument already, which was escalating. I point these terms out for the reason that I am a foreigner in a strange land. And that’s really where we can begin this story.

I mentioned I was sitting on the metro because I want you to recognise my commitment to my craft. No. Because it is one of those places where you can people watch, but only very slyly. Making eye contact leads to hastily refocused glances unless you want to give off that stalker/serial killer vibe. Each to their own. But sitting here as a foreigner, nobody could care less, I wouldn’t be given a second glance. It’s nice to not be a spectacle. Because, boy, on the mainland, staring is the name of the game. But not just on the metro… I’m talking about everywhere. It isn’t a big deal. I know people that have been to some places and it’s not gone down well, but it is part and parcel of rocking up on someone else’s doorstep. They may shit in a hole in the floor, but you’re the weird hairy outsider with such strange ideas about the world.

My fiancee and I went on a trip to a place called Xijiang in Guizhou, south west China. It’s a fairly famous place (in China it is). The province, Guizhou, has the highest number of ethnic minorities in China (no, they don’t all look the same…) and Xijiang is famous for the Miao minority, also known as the Hmong in other parts of the world. So anyway, we go to this village and it’s nice and we are sitting there having an afternoon drink, and Chinese tourists start taking pictures. Of us. Having a drink. It’s funny. I don’t mind. The same thing happened to us on a beach in Sanya, on Hainan. It’s common. I first moved to China when I was four, in the 1980s, I grew up being stared at. The funny thing is you are treated like a spectacle, an attraction. It’s a bit weird but you get used to it.

There’s always a joke said about public transport, particularly in the UK, that you can’t make eye contact and have a chat with people.

It’s funny but sad at the same time. Public transport is off limits to social interaction. At least in London it is. I have never been ‘up north’. But London, according to its detractors, is too busy and soulless and everyone is a scum sucking rat in a big race. Or something of equal over reaction. Supermagicland, it is not. In most places in the world it’s pretty much the same in terms of interaction. Except the mainland. I have had some excellent conversations on the Shanghai underground. And I got stared at and there was no shame in it. People have taken pictures of me leaning against a lamp post smoking very randomly. And it certainly wasn’t because of my dashing good looks. I guess you block out the bad and remember the good. But as a foreigner I know I will be stared at. Not so much in some places and fucktonne in others.

I’m not saying I’ve never had a bad time, but these are the places I live. I have made them my home. I have no intention of returning to England to bore people with photos of the oddities in the east. I did not come to find myself. This is not a jaunt I have made that will end with a return ‘home’.

People travel for a lot of reasons, but turning your visits to other parts of the world to an opportunity to rag on how differently ‘that lot over there’ do things, shows that little is learned. What’s the point in cheap air travel if you are going to go home and not realise your corner of the world is remarkably different, yet can be so similar, but also that where you live, and your habits, and your social customs are probably pretty damn weird to someone else… Social norms are not universal.

This is my love letter to internationalism. Please leave your ego at the airport.

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