Sunday, June 18, 2006

Tribute to My Dad

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

And What Are YOU Staring At?

I turned around and there were 16 pair of eyes on me. Conversation stopped, all were turned in my direction and gazing unabashedly.

I had stopped by the office of a particular foreign consulate and to my surprise, there were no lines at the service windows. The room was full of people waiting for their documents, however, and officials were busy in the back offices.

Eventually, an official came to the window and gave me his attention. I showed him my passport and began talking through the speaker. My explanation was in Russian, of course, but after two sentences he interrupted and said in English, "WHAT do you want."

He meant it as a question but I wasn’t sure what to think. His words sounded abrupt because of his emphasizing the WHAT and not raising the pitch of his voice at the end of the sentence. Nevertheless, I followed his lead and switched to English. Shortly he interrupted again and told me that I would need to speak with another official later. I doubt that he understood much of what I was saying.

Then when I turned from the window, every person in the waiting room was staring. They had overheard our conversation through the speaker, of course, and found it quite interesting. Just between you and me, I don’t relish being an object of curiosity, particularly when I’m trying to take care of personal business. But, welcome to Russia!

* * * * *

I had a similar experience recently at the bank when picking up funds. The teller was giving me instructions, all in Russian of course, about where to sign the various documents. She was speaking loudly enough that the entire room could overhear and then when she announced the grand cash total, I felt my mouth go dry.

“It wasn’t necessary to broadcast that to everyone.”

I looked around and other tellers had paused mid-task, customers had turned to look and even the security guard was staring in my direction.

* * * * *

And so you see, staring happens and it ranges from gawking at passersby on the street to curiosity about private transactions. I find it unnerving to be stared when I’m conducting personal business. The staring is only momentary, of course; gazes shift to another person or perhaps to a fly buzzing in the window. But after several uncomfortable staring incidents recently, I decided to that I must address this issue of staring. How to deal with it? Through understanding and through humor. As though that were easy. First, a Google search: staring and culture.

First, there were tips for a person from an Okay-to-stare culture being transplanted into the Australian culture:

“. . .it is extremely rude to openly and curiously look at someone you don’t know. . . Some Australians interpret this kind of looking behaviour, no matter how harmless it is intended to be, as an aggressive assault on their privacy and may even challenge you to a fight. When dealing with strangers, Australians try very hard to only glance and perhaps smile briefly at the stranger and then carefully avert their eyes.”

And then I found insight for the person from a Don’t Stare culture who finds herself unnerved in, say, Italy, Indonesia or. . .Russia.

“Remember, you are quite an unusual creature in this setting. Many people on the streets will have had little contact with foreigners. What you look like, what you do, and how you behave will generate intense interest. Don't get angry or try to "educate" people on the idea that staring is rude. It will only increase curiosity, and frustrate you. Relax. Let people look. After all, you are doing your own exploration of the people and places here. What you are reacting to is not so much the staring, but your cultural interpretation of the action”

Okay. I'm understanding staring a bit more. Now for some humor. How about I burst into song with “The Eyes of Russia Are upon You” to the tune of “The Eyes of Texas…,” and add a little soft-shoe shuffle. That would be sensational, especially when I pass a hat for contributions.

Sources: Website of the Indonesia Australia Language Foundation ( Different Pond, Different Fish. (March 2004.); India Web Site.Travel India: An Insider’s View. Cultural Pointers. (2005).

Friday, June 02, 2006

Sunny the Multi-lingual Canary