Sometimes I have an issue with feeling like I was always being stared at and finding eye contact excruciating. It used to be constant, but isn’t often much more than a niggle nowadays. Most of it tends to be imagined. In Beijing it was real, because I actually was getting looks and stares all the time. However, it became so normal that I just got used to it and acclimatized.
Knowing that the reason for this was probably just unfamiliarity helped. Because it’s not a very multicultural place, it was just natural that, being white, I got a lot stares. The ones that stared the most blatantly I found, were usually older men. Sometimes when I was texting on my phone, and once when I was filming an oldish guy next to me would be craning his neck to see what was going down on my screen. I speculated over whether it was something to do with my typing English (very different from the standard Mandarin), but whatever it was it was definitely because I looked unfamiliar.
Once I had adjusted to only ever seeing Chinese faces in public, I found I almost became one of the starers myself if I saw the occasional white person in the subway!
By the last week, I barely even noticed all these people staring any more. I was with my English-speaking Chinese friend when she made an exclamation about three people going down the subway escalators gawping at me, but I hadn’t noticed because I had kind of learnt to switch it off.
There were also those precious instances where strangers would try to subtly take pictures of me or my other British/European friends who were there for summer; a lady in the corner with her granddaughter in a restaurant took a sneaky picture of us on her smartphone, the look on her face exuding pride in her secret agent skills; a teenage girl who took a picture as I was passing her on the pavement in central Beijing one evening after work, who gave me a guilty look when I smiled at her.
It sounds creepy to people back home when I tell the stories, but it was just normal to me, and I understood the main reason was harmless. I’m sure it’s the same in any place that’s not so multi-cultural; it would’ve been the same here less than a century ago!
General eye contact with strangers was more tricky, because I’m used to living in a culture where it’s normal and polite to smile at strangers if you make eye contact with them. In China, from what I’ve learnt, that’s considered strange. Well, the amount of times I just smiled at strangers there without thinking! Every time I remember doing it, it was reciprocated with a completely neutral look. By default, I interpret that as rejection, which, with the help of social anxiety, can then seem like a really big deal in my head. So I kicked myself every time it happened. Knowing it was cultural helped because it meant their response wasn’t personal, but it also made me kick myself even more because it meant I was doing something that was against the norm. Altogether, better not to think of it as a big deal!
It’s funny because at home (England), I dislike making eye contact with strangers and doing the whole smiling thing, generally, especially at times when my social anxiety is on a low. I prefer to dodge eye contact (generally) but I know that it’s considered rude here. But it seems like I would get by fine using these rules in Beijing!