Seriously Though, How Do You Deal With The Stares When You’re Abroad?
October 22 I landed in Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. It was my first time in Asia and my first time in a foreign country where no one looked like me — for the most part I guess I should say.
See, before deplaning my Air China flight a woman who heard I was staying in Muntinlupa asked “are you visiting with family?” Well, this will be easy I said to myself — this being blending in with the natives — as I thought back to how welcoming everyone was to me in the Dominican Republic earlier this year because they thought I was Dominican too, and how I so did not want to stand out like an annoying tourist. The next morning that assumption was confirmed, at least in my mind, when I stepped out the door to the Airbnb condo where I was staying and a woman began speaking to me in Filipino and when I didn’t immediately respond continued speaking until my inability to communicate made her give me a funny look and she walked off. Even one of my cab drivers asked if I speak Tagalog, the second official language of the Philippines. That 1% Polynesian ancestry was coming through for me strong, kind of like it did one night in NYC a few years ago when a random guy came up to me and told me he and his friend had made a bet that I was either half Japanese and Black or some other random combo and he wanted to know who was right. Even the guy who told me I couldn’t tour the palace where the Vice President conducts business (even though their website said I could and I’d traveled an hour in insane traffic to get there) managed to remark how we were the same skin color before shutting me down. Shoot I was starting to believe I was Filipino at this point.
But within minutes, and the mere turn of a corner, my Blackness became quite evident. My first morning I had a tricycle taxi drop me off at Alabang, a shopping center a few people on my flight recommended. As soon as I stepped out of the cab, I became the target of everyone’s eyes. Damn, this dress really is too short, I naively thought to myself as I began pulling down the bottom of my dress, assuming everyone was looking at my thighs. I guess I was partially right; people were looking at my thighs, and my legs, my arms, my face, my hair — my skin. I arrived at the mall too early and stood on the sidewalk with everyone else as I waited for the doors to open. Every single person who passed by stared me up and down. Hmm, maybe you’re not allowed to wear all white here? I thought. Every single person standing on the perimeter of the two-story building that had yet to open was peering into my soul with their glances which lasted several seconds too long. Maybe you can’t wear all white on a Thursday. In the morning. If it’s not a Holiday? I started making up all sorts of ridiculous rules about the country that had no basis based on the research I’d done prior to my trip. But I just knew in this land of brown Asians people couldn’t be staring at me like this simply because I was Black.
But they were. And my experience at Alabang repeated itself every day, everywhere I went (which was mostly malls because that’s the only thing to see in Metro Manila). I even heard one woman snicker about my lipstick to her friend as she pointed at me and tried to get her attention so she could see before I walked by. Yes, that’s the sort of thing that sometimes happens when you wear purple lipstick, but the obvious I’m- gonna-talk-about-you-right-in-front-of-your-face-and-look-and-point-at-you-as-I-do-it-so-even-if-you-don’t-speak-my-language-you-know-I’m-talking-about-you thing is not. During my one day stay in Beijing a woman literally gasped when she saw my face and then turned to talk to her friends about me. Not cool.
I get that in such homogeneous countries, seeing anyone outside the norm is shocking. I expected looks here and there, even a few questions. Shoot, I probably would’ve let someone touch my hair if they asked because I would’ve at least had some sense of intention. But being on the receiving end of stone-cold stares in a place like the Philippines where you don’t know how people feel about Blacks was unnerving, especially when those stares were on the faces of gun-carrying Pulis inside every storefront. I don’t think I have to explain that one. I can’t speak to the cultural norms of Asian society when it comes to talking about people. Maybe they operate like Latin Americans who consider gorda (fat woman) a descriptive term of endearment. I do know, however, that everyone knows how it feels to be an outsider in some way and most of us wouldn’t want to make anyone else feel that way. Unfortunately, the people I encountered on my journey far east gave no f_cks about that. According to my co-worker who had the same gripe when she returned from Russia and Greece, neither do they.
Now one caveat I’d be remiss not to mention is every single person I had direct contact with in the Philippines was friendly, welcoming, and, truthfully, one of the most polite individuals I’d ever met. It was like a land of Chik-Fil-A workers saying “my pleasure ma’am” to everything. China? Not so much. But the stares of those who didn’t quite know what to do with me and my Blackness were chilling. And the request my sister received from a stranger in Hong Kong to take a picture with her, disturbing.
Being that this was my first time in such a foreign land perhaps in the future I’ll be better equipped to handle the looks and go on about my touristy business. But something tells me constantly being peered at while walking down the street, reading, or simply breathing, particularly in a country that’s not my home, isn’t something I can ever get used to.
How do you deal with the stares when you’re abroad?