Being looked at, being seen

People look at me here. Everywhere I go. I went to a local tourist attraction deep in Bao’an where only locals go (and where I live), far from the Shekou foreigner bubble, a mock ancient village in the only decades-old city of Shenzhen. I walked the village, taking pictures. It’s winter now, and the village sits half abandoned, doors chained and locked. The other is half scenes of everyday life in China, Meituan drivers zipping through on their scooters, a yellow share bike parked outside a squat house made to look old, surrounded by brand new and mostly empty buildings all around, the signs to rent office space still hanging on their facades. I sat down to open my notebook and drink some water and an elderly man walked by me, openly staring. I gave him my biggest, warmest smile, wondering what a culturally Chinese person, especially a woman, would do in this situation, wondering if my smile was communicating what I intended.

People stare everywhere I go. My ear has become exquisitely attuned to the sound of the word 外国人, waiguoren, foreigner. Children whisper it, adults speak it aloud to each other. There hasn’t been a single elevator in which I haven’t heard it spoken. In parks children come up to me, talk to me, play near me. I am a curiosity to them. One child ran back to his picnic and returned with two clementines for me. A gift. I wonder for how many children I am their first sight of a foreigner. I am so used to being from a place with multiple ethnicities all around me, it’s a shock to be in a place where there is so little.

But it’s the 外国人, not me, that people are seeing. They are seeing what they think they are seeing. Maybe one day, when my Chinese is better and I can talk to someone about it, I might have a closer approximation of myself through their eyes. For now though, it’s a two-way mirror, a cultural wall. I cannot know what I look like or what I mean to their eyes. This is being looked at. This is not being seen.

So, when the heavy gaze grows too heavy, I remind myself: they aren’t seeing me. I am safe inside myself, identity and self protected, held. They see my 外套, my waitou, my outer covering. They can judge what they see but they are not judging me. They are seeing and judging their own ideas and beliefs (about cultures, about foreigners, about curly hair, about women, about single women out and about alone, about clothing, about behavior, etc…) reflected back to them. So, in a way, they are seeing and evaluating themselves through their own eyes, through this figure that looks like me.

I learned that in dreams, you are the main character, you are you, but you are also everyone else in the dream. Perhaps we are all living out some measure of this dream reality, the mirrors of ourselves to each other.

Being seen, on the other hand, is different. A few days ago I went to a Korean spa. Entering the ladie’s area, I was given a towel and a key for my locker. I stripped, bare chest under my shirt, bare under my pants (I have a distaste for undergarments), and the 阿姨, ayi, working there, like most Chinese people seeing me, once again forgot how to use her neck. It honestly didn’t bother me, I just figured they had never seen a naked foreigner, and were curious. I, too, was curious about them. I showered and walked towards the baths, where several women stood and sat naked. One mother and young child sat on the edge of the bath. I slipped in, commenting about the temperature, breaking the ice.

I noticed the bodies. Living here for a few months now, watching the media, seeing people around me, buying clothes, I’ve felt sharp stabs of comparison. Someone once said comparison is an act of violence against yourself. I know this, but we don’t act on our knowledge, we act on our beliefs, and though I know better, I believe what the culture says when it says my body should look a certain way, and that belief is emphasized heavily in Asia. While I am a size S in America, here I am an XL or XXL. It’s taken my mind to some dark places.

In the spa, though, I saw normal human bodies. Average breasts, regular arms, incredibly normal stomach shapes. My heart relaxed, validated that even in Asia, human bodies look and act in average human body ways. Well, except that if you grow up in Asia you never lose the ability to squat deeply and comfortably. I stay highkey jealous of this at all times, with a side eye at my bad knee.

It took me a few minutes to look down and realize that I am decently heavily tattooed. I laughed internally. Ah, so this is why I am being stared at here. The human brain is stunning in its capacity to attenuate to stimuli. You can forget your own tattoos. I couldn’t blame them. I’d stare at a tatooed foreigner too.

I made small talk with the mother and child in the steam room, the mom referring to me as 姐姐, jiejie, older sister. I appreciated that I looked young enough to be called this.

I had come to the spa with a date, a Korean guy who has lived in China for a lot longer than me and speaks far better Chinese. I much prefer the company of monolingual Chinese speakers for my own language development, finding myself shy to use my emerging language with someone who can speak English, and also finding myself lazily defaulting to English.

In the steam room, I was blissfully left to my own devices. The conversation flowed while I navigated simple topics: where are you from, how long have you been here, what do you do, things I like and don’t like, the temperature of the room, how environment of the spa, areas around Shenzhen. Whenever I say how long I’ve been here and how long I’ve been studying (three months, five or six months, respectively), I get lots of compliments on my Chinese. I take these, because I know how far I have yet to go, and I appreciate any encouragement along the way.

Finally, everyone left the steam room, and I was left alone with one woman who hadn’t said anything yet. After a moment, she turned and asked if I was a foreigner. I am, I said. Me too, she said. I was shocked. “I’m Korean”, she explained, “I’ve been here for a year and a half, because my husband is Chinese”. We started to talk. I was fascinated by her, and relished our conversation. Every time I talk to someone, their Chinese is fluent or nearly fluent and mine is emerging. With her, for the very first time, I spoke to someone who’s Chinese is also emerging, but she is coming to it from an entirely different direction, from Korean rather than English. My linguist brain buzzed as I watched her haltingly piece together Chinese sentences, speaking slowly with each other. I felt more connected to her than I had to anyone, another learner, and not someone I can default to English with. I honestly wish I had gotten her number.

I haven’t got much to say about the date, unfortunately. It felt stiff and formal, a performance of ego and control more than a genuine connection, though there were moments where that veil dropped and we were able to laugh and create a shared meaningful experience with each other.

This is the difference between being looked at and being seen. Being seen, being known, requires two people building a third thing between them, both contributing to it, both taking care of it. It’s exciting because we are creating something new, and I am growing into it as I create it. It changes me. Do I like who I am when I’m with you? Do I feel like we’re both contributing to our mutual process? If you can’t raise a conversation, how can you raise something bigger, like a relationship, or a baby? I guess this is what dating is about, finding out if you can both walk and carry a bucket between you at the same time, and how heavy or light that bucket feels.

In some ways, as being looked at is a mirror for each other to ourselves, being seen is a bridge for each other to ourselves. Not a mirror that we can glance at and see our own 外套, waitou, but a bridge we can walk to return to the inner reaches of our being. I always learn best by teaching, and in a similar fashion, I see best by showing. Such is the life of an external processor, taking each feeling and idea on a small hero’s journey outside myself so that I can turn it over in my hands, recognize it, understand it, and put it back in where it belongs.

I went to the dentist recently and had my teeth cleaned (it had been almost two years and I needed it). After the appointment was over, I stood at the desk while my payment was being processed. The hygienist typed out a translation on her phone. Holding the phone to me, I read “Everything is finished here. Have a nice life.” I know that in Chinese wishing someone a happy life must be the equivalent of “have a nice day” in English, but I couldn’t help but laugh.

The Korean guy? It’s a no. I’m dating around to meet people and see the city, not so much looking for anything serious. If he wanted to be friends, I would see him again. If not, I hope he, and you, have a nice life.

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Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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Anna Ka

Anna Ka

Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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