I am used to being stared at. Being a lone female traveling in Asia solicits stares like you wouldn’t believe. There is no way for me to not stand out. I look different. Or when you are negotiating a busy street in Kathmandu with your friend and you are both carrying big backpacks. You get stared at. Or when you are the only white person, not to mention woman, on a bus in a rural area in India. You get stared at.
I am pretty used to it at this point.
At first it bothered me. Made me feel self-conscious and very aware of my actions. But then I started to smile when they stared. Or I said hello (or whatever the culturally appropriate greeting was). But mostly I started to smile at the stare-ers. And usually, it caught them off guard. But, for the most part, I got a smile back. Sometimes that smile started a conversation, sometimes it got me offers for food, got me a cup of chai, sometimes it got me invites to join their family. But most frequently, I got a smile back.
South America is different. Here, I get stared at, though I don’t think I look all that different (especially when I get asked if I am Argentine or Spanish). Here, I get stared at, though I dress fairly conservatively (especially compared to the teenage girls). Here, I get stared at, and I don’t get a smile in return.
I have been surprised. I do not find the people here (so far in Bolivia and Argentina) to be all that warm and friendly. They do not return smiles, instead, quickly averting their eyes (‘what, me? No, I wasn’t looking at you. no, not me.’). Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, my smiles fall on cold faces.
And it is hard. It is hard to not take it personally. It is hard to still feel open. It is hard to feel compassionate and warmth towards the people here. It is hard to keep smiling.
One of my goals on this journey was to open myself up to the world – to not let fear stop me from new experiences and new people. To build bridges and not walls, something I sometimes struggle with. I have been forced to build bridges along the way – to trust strangers and new friends. To make allies where I can and to smile at strangers. To laugh at myself and believe in the inherent goodness of others.
South America is testing me. It is hard to remain open, to want to build bridges, to keep my guard down (and not build walls) and not cocoon myself. The looks I get sometimes, the unfriendly, cold stares — sometimes I feel myself retreating back in — and I want to fight it, but at the same time, I want to protect myself. Sometimes all I want is to go back to where I look different from everyone else – because at least there I got smiles.
and that is not to say that there were not cold looks in asia and there are people here who smile….
So, perhaps this is my test – to learn to stay open to the world, even if they are not open to me…. to remember that it is about me and how I present myself to the world – not about how others react to me.