Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Eye Contact Game, or Why Midwestern Values Don't Matter Half Way Around the World

Mood: ON.
Listening to: Mama I’m Coming Home – Ozzy Osbourne

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been pretty much immersed in all things Indian for the past 12 years. It comes along with being obsessed with a certain somebody. And no Akshay Kumar, I wasn’t talking about you, well, this time anyway, but if you want to come over for tea some day and discuss it…I make some kick ass chai. I promise to try my best to not lock you in one of the closets and keep you. Johnny Depp doesn’t really need company in there anyhow. 

Ahem. Even with my current living situation placing me smack dab in the epicenter of everything Indian and my comfort level with Indian-ness being at an all time high, there will always be some things about India that slightly unnerve me. “But B, I thought you weren’t scared of anything!” You protest in a scandalized voice. Hold up there Buddy. I am indeed pretty much not scared of anything. This is more of a vague unease and difficulty adjusting. I was raised in the Midwestern part of the United States. We good Christian folks (ha!) value politeness (well, we did when I was growing up anyway. Now a days there is a rude asshole epidemic running rampant) above all else. You meet people’s eyes (without a shifty, shady intent), you say please and thank you, and you generally carry on in a pleasant naïve bubble. 

My Midwestern naïve bubble was popped long ago, I’m happy to say. New York had the honor. Ridiculous, useless, and dangerous thing that it was. What I am meandering around to say here is that some things are fundamentally different. Yes, that was a cry for captain obvious to spring into action and point out that yes dumbass, if you move half way around the world, things will be different. Aha! I haven’t even reached my point yet. This happens to me when I have too much energy, I tend to wander around the point. Ahem. 

Anyhow. Eye contact is what I’m trying to get at. I did not come to India the second time around the same wide eyed idiot who stared at everything with fascination. I learned my lesson last time that most of the time, it’s ok to watch what’s going on around you, but don’t stare and for the love of the Spaghetti Monster, don’t make eye contact with the men. They will either try to sell you something or look at you like they wished they were alone with you in a bedroom. I’ve become very, very adroit at ignoring certain types of people who are trying their level best to get me to meet their eyes. A bored, cynical look is an excellent defense here. The more interested/doe eyed/naïve you look, the better target you make. I’m not trying to lump everyone in one category. Obviously, there will be those who are just curious as to what a firangi (foreigner, and not the band) is doing wandering around a dirt paved village that has been swallowed by Bangalore. It’s rather superbly ironic. The people who you desperately wish would catch your eye simply will not. Apparently they have been taught this lesson from birth – best to keep your eyes to yourself. So making friends is difficult because it’s hard to smile at your neighbor when she won’t meet your gaze. Not to mention the fact that unsolicited smiles are met with a confused unease here, but I’ll get to that in another post. I also wish that shopkeepers would meet my eye so that I can just get what I need and move on too. The guy who runs the bakery refuses to look me in the eye, which makes it ridiculously awkward for me. I’m not used to just telling what I want without making sure the other person is listening. This is not the case here. They are listening, and she who waits for recognition will never be waited on. Gimme my dil pasand.

The guards at our compound get quite a kick out of saying either Good Morning or Good Evening to me and getting me to look them in the eye and possibly smile. For the most part, these types of shenanigans are harmless. These guys are north Indians who I think in spite of being old enough to know better, still get a kick out of saying hi to the white girl. I’m not saying I trust them completely, but for the most part, harmless fun on their part. They are not making asses of themselves and making me feel uncomfortable. For the most part they are professionals. This is totally not what I’m talking about. The people who you really don’t want to make eye contact will be the ones who are running into signs and falling off sidewalks trying to stare you into making eye contact are exactly the ones that you need to avoid eye contact all together. I’ll give you a few examples. 

  1. A group of teen – 30 year old guys walking down the street. The group part is what’s important here. Unless he is a totally shameless degenerate, a woman can stare down almost any solo guy. I’ve done it many times. It’s fun to stare until someone meets your eyes and challenges you to stop being an asshole. Most guys will be decent and look away. Boys in a group (and yes, they are for the most part acting like little boys) are best not confronted. They seem to think that it’s much more acceptable to act like fools when there are a whole bunch of them doing it. They will all stare directly at you in something that is just under a leer. If you’re quick enough with Hindi or the local language, you’ll probably catch at best a what is she doing/wearing, at worst it will be a crude comment.
  2. Anybody at an intersection, especially if you’re in a car. It’s hard enough to shoo junk sellers away if you haven’t shown any interest in the first place. The last thing you want to do is invite them over and take a good long look. Not only is this a bad idea as the people in the lane behind you will curse you to Afghanistan and back, the seller will not ever leave without selling you something you probably really didn’t want for a price that would make shaitan blush. If you want to check it out, learn to look without meeting anyone’s eye or looking like you are at all interested. Trust me, you will learn eventually. This is especially true for fruit sellers. Not from being a pest perspective, but just that they’re trying to hustle through the cars and make as much money as possible before the next set of cars comes through. If you’re dawdling over looking at the guava’s, or fumbling with change, the seller can’t move on. Again, if you make eye contact, that means come here, I want some guava’s.
I’ve gotten to the point where I just keep my eyes on the road ahead, even if someone is just curious. When you look different (and for the most part dress differently) than the people around you, it gets tiresome to feel like a circus act and constantly send out the message that you’re not to be messed with. It just gets old. My eyes aren’t on the ground because anyone has intimidated me or because I feel dirty because a man doesn’t know how to act. It’s just easier that way. Whew. I think I need some more time thinking about Akshay. Much more pleasant to think about.


No comments:

Post a Comment