Thursday, November 11, 2010

Staring is taboo

Omniscient, originally uploaded by scrollwork.
The longer I live in the United States, the more foreign I feel around Filipinos.

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.