Making People Uncomfortable By Staring At Them: Germany vs China

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I lived in Berlin for a month this past summer. Sorry for the inconsistency, but being organized is for squares. Just ask any square-shaped object whose intended purpose is to help humans be organized. Since there are no squares in my brain, please bear with me, I’ll get to the point soon. Probably.

After studying in China, I noticed some discrepancies between these three cultures (the three cultures being American, German, and Chinese. BAM! Organized). I could go on forever about my experiences with each one and how they compare to each other (and if the human race doesn’t ban me from blogging, I probably will), but for brevity’s sake I’ll try to stick to one topic: Staring.

I’ve only lived in Texas and New Mexico, so I can’t speak for all of America, but in my experience Americans do not like to be stared at. As children we are told that staring is rude, and too much eye contact can make us feel very uncomfortable. In our minds, people only stare if something is wrong or if they’re attracted to you. If someone stares at us, our first impulse is to do a quick check of our appearance. Is there something in my teeth? Are my pants zipped? Did I spill something on my shirt? Should I blow my nose? Oh God, have I been walking around with food on my face this whole time? …No? In that case, WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!

This doesn’t seem to be a problem in Germany or China, but the people in these countries go about it in different ways. From what I saw, both in Germany and from Germans I’ve met in the States, German people will stoically observe you if you happen to be in their line of sight. They will stare at you if you’re seated across from them at a table, for example. It isn’t to be rude or perverse; it just so happens that you are the most interesting thing their face is pointed at, and since there is no logical reason for them to look anywhere else, they might as well contemplate the thing that sits before them. Although it can feel a bit condescending (that blank, piercing gaze made me feel certain I had done something wrong), German staring seems to be more inquisitive than anything else. At first I found it very unsettling, but after a while I turned it into a game. If I noticed someone staring, I would do my best to stare back at them without blinking or turning away. The person who displays the least amount of emotion wins!

In China, I got more of a “Holy crap, what is THAT?!” sort of vibe. People will double take and change positions to get a better look at you. Sometimes they’ll nudge their friends and point at you, and then they’ll all shift positions so they can see you better. They’ll turn their heads and watch you as you scurry away. Some people might walk by you again, just to get a better look. A few times while trying to exit a subway train, I had people stop right in front of me and stare openly before moving aside. And of course, the entire time they’ll be talking about you without making any effort to hide it.

Once on the subway in Shanghai, I approached a seat at the same time as a family of four did. There was a little boy, a mother, a father, and an old man who was probably the grandfather. There was only one seat and I gestured for the old man to sit down, but they all shook their heads and told me to take the seat. We politely argued like this until the train began to move, at which point I assumed that they were all getting off soon and sat down. A few seconds later the old man and the little boy squeezed in next to me (and I mean squeezed. I had thought there was only room for one person on this seat, but, boy, did they prove me wrong) and the entire family proceeded to stare at me for the duration of the ride. The train was really crowded, so all four of them were probably within six inches of my face for a good ten minutes. This made me so uncomfortable that I was positive I had offended them somehow, but later when I told my Chinese friend about it, he laughed and said that I had probably impressed them with my good manners and they just wanted to remember the warm-hearted foreign girl.

Another thing about staring: I think I confuse people. Since I’m a mix of Chinese, Mexican, and something European, people seem to have a hard time figuring out where I’m from. I’m not too short, but I’m not tall either. My skin is kinda brown, but also kinda yellowish. My eyes look a bit Chinesey, but are they Chinesey enough for people to comment on it without being racist? If I talk about my heritage anywhere outside the States people will exclaim, “How did that happen?”

This led to another game. After I got sick of telling people that yes, really, I’m from the United States, no, really, I’m not joking, I started telling people to guess whenever they asked where I’m from. The answers I’ve gotten so far:

  • Korea
  • Japan
  • South America
  • I don’t want to guess
  • China
  • Singapore
  • some kind of Native American
  • something Asian
  • Chile
  • Canada
  • Venezuela
  • Based on your accent, I’d say you’re American or Canadian, but based on the way you look, I’ve got no fucking clue
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This entry was posted in Living in China, Living in Germany and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Making People Uncomfortable By Staring At Them: Germany vs China

  1. Pingback: When the Joy of Learning Makes Other People Uncomfortable | Spiny Adventures

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