Thursday, November 11, 2010
Staring is taboo
I marked the silver anniversary of my immigration this past summer. At this point I’ve lived in California more than half my life. People from here don’t ask me, “Where are you from?” as often as they did in the early years. What hasn’t changed is the way some Filipinos react when they see me for the first time: they stare. Openly and unrelentingly, as if they were seeing me in a line-up from behind a two-way mirror.
They want to know if I’m a fellow Filipino. Unable to conclude this from my accent or perhaps the lack thereof, and hesitant to ask me outright, they resort to sizing up my features. I’ve been greeted in Niponggo by the Japanese and optimistically proclaimed Korean by a Korean. The Vietnamese ladies at the nail salon usually ask if I’m Chinese. The Chinese are extra nice to me at their restaurants. I must remind them of their eccentric aunt.
But my countrymen and women, they stare. More so the women. That’s how I know they’re Filipino. In trying to identify me, they give themselves away. We’re not talking about the adoring gaze that your dog bestows upon you post-Kibbles. I am reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which pod people point and scream to “out” those unlike them.
Staring is taboo in most Western cultures except in Hollywood, which has its own culture the way the Vatican is a country within a city. If we lived in Hollywood, for which I thank God we do not, I am certain none of the attention would be wasted on me. Unless they were casting for the mother of Catherine Zeta-Jones, whom I somewhat resemble if my brother-in-law were to be believed.
A former colleague who expatriated to Japan encountered the opposite phenomenon: the natives’ aversion to looking him in the eye, even during conversation, rendered him an invisible, unwelcome stranger. He rationalized that in a society as compactly quartered and politely ordered as Japan’s, the last bastion of personal space is visual. Sardined in a bullet train, one must compensate for the pressing of flesh against flesh with sustained look-aways.
I feel it behooves us to retain identifying behaviors that would preserve our heritage in this diverse land. We can be mini versions of Vatican City. Thus, I am preparing to engage in staring, and not only dabble, but be downright adept at it.
A bit of googling yields the psychological preparation recommended by ehow.com for winning a staring contest. I must include a disclaimer that I am a nominal contributor to ehow.com, by which I mean I’ve been hired but am procrastinating about actually writing anything and submitting it for publication. The Filipino mañana (tomorrow) habit is well entrenched in me. I’m set in that area.
To be a blackbelt at staring, one must practice with diligence. Ehow suggests enlisting a sparring partner, namely your dog or cat. I happen to be the lucky housemate of a very large cat with very green eyes. Without meaning to, we have already gone a few rounds. He has the advantage of being able to constrict his pupils to mere slits, to great intimidating effect. But being part Chinese, I am able to narrow my lids without actually blinking, also to great effect. Kitty looks away first, more often than not. I sense a power within me that can be harnessed for good. I am a culture warrior in the making.
The other thing about Filipinos that my husband finds remarkable is the habit of pointing with lips. Pish-posh, I tell him, Nigerians do that, too. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof.