How do you cope when it feels like every move you make is being watched and commented on in a language you don’t understand?
Some refer to this as the superstar factor. Some expats love it. They get to be the star of every situation, hamming it up for the cameras. Others hate every moment of the lingering stares and snapping camera phones. It can be disconcerting having a running commentary on your every move in a language you have only a basic understanding of. But, this can be a regular occurrence for expats living in a nation where you stick out from the crowd. As a fair-haired, freckled skinned family in Asia, we got our 10 minutes in the spotlight on every trip out the back door. There is nothing special about us; we are a normal family trying to lead a normal life in a foreign land. However, we have to accept we are unusual in the eyes of some. In a city of 14 million mostly Chinese citizens, we are certainly a minority.
How do we deal with this spotlight on our lives?
1. Understand most of the attention and stares are just caused by simple curiosity and are harmless. Yes, it does get annoying and sometimes a little embarrassing depending on what you are doing, but it is part of everyday life for many expats.
2. Ignore it. Easier said than done, I know. But let the comments flow over and around you. Just go about your business and don’t worry what the random lady in the 7-Eleven thinks of your purchases.
3. Learn the language. If you ever needed the motivation to learn a foreign language, this is it. If you really want to know what everyone thinks of your strange habit of letting the kids run on the grass in bare feet, then get into some serious study and find out for yourself.
4. Confront it. At times the spotlight can get a little too hot. Especially when it is pointed at our kids. After realizing my son’s discomfort at strangers taking his photo, I started to insist they asked his permission first. A hand over the lens translates in any language.
5. Focus on the positives. The local shop-keeper knows you, so does the guard at the gate and the gardener. At least no one is ignoring you!
6. Enjoy it. Sometimes sticking out so obviously can be used to your advantage. Random acts of kindness can often come your way. Shop owners will remember your preferences and produce them without having to ask and even offer to deliver them to your door.
7. Know your limit. If the attention is getting uncomfortable, make a scene. Especially if the attention is unwelcome leaning towards threatening. Speak loudly and clearly in any language and ask for some space. If you feel unsafe, remove yourself from the situation. Head to a crowed, well-lit area. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Finding ways to deal with the inevitable curiosity surrounding a stranger in a strange land is imperative to your happiness as an expat. It is a part of the package, but one that will get easier once you find the strategies that suit you.