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All Eyes On Me

All Eyes On Me

September 16, 2012

EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT YOU RIGHT NOW. Deal with it.

I heard the noise of something tumbling down Willis St behind me - a hollow yet forceful sound, light enough to be carried along by the Wellington wind but with enough mass to crash continually to Earth as it did so. 

I turned around and saw an empty box, roughly a 50cm cube, whirling erratically in the wind. Expecting it to come to rest eventually, I carried on walking. Thump, thump. The noise followed me down the street and caught up with me. Just before it tumbled on past dozens of other people out walking the pavement this Sunday lunchtime, I grabbed it and picked it up.

Sauvignon blanc, said the box, and I looked back up the street from whence it came. Nobody was chasing after it yelling, “Stop that box!” So, after looking at it for another moment, I ripped the bottom open, flattened the cardboard, folded it into a third of its width and stuffed it into a rubbish bin. Then I continued on my way.

No big deal, maybe, but I would never have done this five years ago. Back then, I had a deep-set fear of being noticed by strangers, be it complimentary or judgmental. The simple idea of taking public responsibility for the disposal of a stray wine box would have straight-up freaked me out on account of the many pairs of eyes that would watch me do it. Whether or not it was potentially their box, thereby turning me into a destroyer of cherished private property, was never a concern. I just wanted to keep my head down.

India changed all that.

I know, I've written loads of times before about being stared at in India. I even coined a phrase to describe it: ‘saip shock’. However, I don't think I've ever written about how that staring made me stronger.

The reasoning is simple. In my home country, despite a now six-foot-five frame, I could blend in pretty easily. I could be unremarkable. So I was. Any scenario in which I became remarkable – be it a presentation to the rest of class or a prolonged moment of unusual public behaviour, like demolishing a box and putting it in the bin – was to be feared and, if possible, avoided.

In India, I was remarkable everywhere I went by virtue of my impossibly light skin. There was nothing I could do to become unremarkable, even among close friends. In public, pretty much everyone stared. A saip! How remarkable!

This was at first bemusing, then unsettling. Finally, it was liberating. I could do anything I wanted and people would already be staring. Their judgment of me would not likely change from ‘oh, so that is what a white man looks like’, though it might evolve in my uninhibited presence: Oh, so white men wear blue shirts and black pants with chappals. Oh, so white men have chapped skin under their beards. Oh, so white men clip their fingernails at the train station. Oh, so white men run up and down the train grinning wildly and screaming.

The last one is a slight exaggeration, of course, but the daily commuter train was the best example of my comfort with being stared at. I was the only white guy among a thousand, with most of the eyes in the vicinity trained on me. It seems totally counter-intuitive, but I still maintain that I did my best writing on the train. I’d clamber aboard as the train slowed, scramble my way to a rare open seat, open up my laptop, put Swan Lake on in my headphones and get writing. Once the considerable challenge of tuning out the staring was mastered, summoning the necessary focus to write an opinion piece about Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade was pretty easy.

I don’t know what any of the passers-by thought when they saw me fold that box and jam it into the bin. I didn’t look at their faces, as I once would have out of needlessly paranoid fear. I just did it and carried on -- and I’d do it all again if necessary. Thank you for that, India. 

15 Comments

  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    10.03.13 09:15 AM
    Neil,

    If I were running a commercial enterprise that designs and produces Indians to better please your expectations in India I would be very pleased to do so. As of now I am unable to provide you answers on why Indians behave the way they do to make you so unhappy.

    “Maybe you should travel with a foreign friend through India and hang back a little to see how your friend is treated”. -I don’t intend walking on fire.

    “I am a human being not a risible grinning fool.” -That makes you look so unfriendly facing the world.

    Unfortunately for you, Indians will never change to be the way you want them to be. In spite of all these problems with Indians the author of this article wanted to remain in India and loves to come back to live one day if possible.

    I lack the knowledge of many Indian languages and cultural issues to explain to you exactly what motivates Indians to behave the way they do. To me my cultural ignorance of an ethnicity could be of a great advantage if I was into some kind of research of such differences.

    On the other hand, most effective solutions to all conflicts around the world seen by America and many Americans are: Only the American way or No other way. A total refusal to understand the real cause of such religious, language, or even culture related conflicts have resulted in so much bang, bang theories in sorting out such differences.

    You may not be so free to indulge in your own curiosities in countries like Iran or North Korea. Putting your photographing skills into practice in those countries could mean espionage.

    Here is some news about America’s cultural ignorance.
    http://seoulbeats.com/2012/01/counterpoint-kids-react-and-cultural-ignorance-in-america/
  • Neil
    By
    Neil
    07.03.13 02:16 PM
    All I hear from you is denial of what I am saying Rajpriya, the very same lack of understanding which makes me so reluctant to contemplate sincere friendship in India. Maybe you should travel with a foreign friend through India and hang back a little to see how your friend is treated.
    I am a human being not a risible grinning fool.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    02.03.13 08:09 PM
    @Neil,
    Let me put it this way. There is no way a country can be recycled to suit those people who travel with their own different cultural backgrounds. Expecting a country to be all that perfect and the way you want its people to behave is wishful thinking. Ignorance is: as I know it: A state simply of not knowing about something, and there is no negativity attached to this word, while stupidity is the inability to understand or profit from experience.

    Do all intelligent people succeed in life and be happy? Some very intelligent guys who made tons of money are sitting in prisons today because the law was smarter than their intelligence.

    I was born in India and brought up and had my primary and secondary education in the neighboring Sri Lanka, had my professional education in UK and in New York’s Rochester. For four and half decades I live in Germany. I had to take lots of time to understand the Indian people during my visits even my own uncles and aunts..

    Even Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries all have their own positives and peculiarities. However, today I am a much wiser and more tolerant man than I was four and a half decades ago.

    Not knowing a word of Chinese, China seemed look a whole different planet on my first visit. I just kept a permanent smile and waved my hands around to communicate and I have even managed make quite a number of friends.

    I have been to several of Beijing's Hutongs had tea with people over there and I like them and want them to remain just as they are.

    All Indians like to be photographed and move in position without being asked. I don’t know what your business in India could be, but if you take your time to spot the right people they could really be very sincere friends. Trust me.

    Look at India with a different perspective and you will begin to be enlightened.
  • Neil
    By
    Neil
    02.03.13 02:41 PM
    Putting aside speculations as to the cause, let me say as a traveler in India that I am upset by all the staring and interest in my business, I do not have energy to engage all these people and I am by nature a private person. The attention I get is simply unwelcome to me, whatever the cause. I travel in India in spite of this treatment, not for the pleasure of sharing my personal business.
    I deal with it partly by keeping away from people on the streets in towns and villages, which is a loss.
    Having said that, there is a plus side - I am free to indulge my own curiosity in India since the natives do so with such freedom, which means I can photograph just about anyone I like!
  • Neil
    By
    Neil
    02.03.13 01:52 PM
    Indians are anything but stupid, I never even suggested that. I was clearly talking about ignorance, which is a cultural product and not related to intelligence.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    02.03.13 01:53 AM
    That guy who said "You are looking good" is certainly not a straight guy.

    He must have been really very serious.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    02.03.13 12:20 AM
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    02.03.13 12:09 AM
    "you get to see the world in all its mind boggling diversity. Indian villagers couldn’t even locate their own country on a globe!"

    With all your ability to see the world in all its mind boggling diversity you do not seem to have the wisdom to understand why the Indian villagers can not locate their own country on a Globe.

    That's because they have never seen or know what a Globe is. Why don’t you smart guys come and educate them?

    Stupid people equate ignorance with stupidity; all others are willing to help someone ignorant.
  • Neil
    By
    Neil
    01.03.13 07:01 PM
    Sometimes it's nasty and belittling for sure ("stupid foreigner"), sometimes it's clearly venal and sometimes it is actually complimentary. In the villages that don't understand that there are other ways of doing things than their own ways (simple lack of exposure to other cultures) so they find our habits and methods farcical. They openly laugh at you as if your were plain stupid. If only I could instantly transport them say into Times Square in New York, the shock they would suffer would be my revenge.
    They stay in one place all their lives, but you get to see the world in all its mind boggling diversity. Indian villagers couldn't even locate their own country on a globe!
  • Jack
    By
    Jack
    01.03.13 06:48 PM
    Sometimes I wonder if my head is on backwards or if there is a volcano spouting from my scalp - these are the things which would make people stare so much in my country. An Indian told me he was staring once because I looked so good "It makes my day so fine to be talking to you" he said "you are looking so good". Perhaps it's related to their obsession with skin lightening.
  • Neil
    By
    Neil
    01.03.13 06:42 PM
    They stare in part to try and discover the secret of your wealth. They know westerners are much wealthier than they are and they think there is a secret. Look at what they talk about when they do pluck up the courage to talk to you "how much was that" "how much is a xxxxx in your country". They would eat you if they could.
  • Fabia Postel
    By
    Fabia Postel
    28.09.12 07:17 PM
    nice topic and article Barnaby... as an Indian who has been living in London for the last 7 years I have found that I have become overly conscious of every single move I make in this city - which becomes terrifying and my comfort zone lies on chewing my lip/nails 24/7... after my holidays spent in Mumbai and on return to London I notice how my body language is a drastic change - so much more relaxed about the environment, 'bindass' as we like to call it. unfortunately the gloomy London attitude to life and the way one needs to act on it's streets swallows me back into the routine after about only 2 weeks unfortunately !
  • Deepa Duraisamy
    By
    Deepa Duraisamy
    28.09.12 10:48 AM
    LOL. Thanks Barnaby for that perspective. I have found extreme acts of staring completely overwhelming myself, and sometimes I get so pissed I'll lock eyes with that person daring him/her to continue staring and there will be some who would avert their eyes immediately but there are shameless ones too. But I'll take your cue. If people are already staring, I can hardly do myself any more harm.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    16.09.12 11:11 AM
    The roughly 50cm cube? Is quite an unusually huge size for a wine box? This size of box can hold 36 bottles of wine more or less: if one Sauvignon Blanc wine bottle is 49.9cm tall and the bottle’ base is roughly 8.33cm in diameter.

    Was the box made of corrugated board?
  • Rickie Khosla
    By
    Rickie Khosla
    16.09.12 09:34 AM
    Interesting point of view! I take it that you are an eternal optimist. The kind who always sees the glass half full! :)

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