“No one stares anymore!”

“Some of the people have no color,” says one of the boys who has made it to the refugee camp. [referring to the aid workers at the camp]

“That’s because they were born without skin,” “There are people here with no skin!” [Giggles from the children erupt]

“No one stares anymore!” I said this through tears and the people surrounding me were clueless and confused. What is she talking about? What do you mean no one stares? Staring is a good thing? On what planet?

On planet TCK, third culture kid, global nomad. That’s what planet.

As little, white missionary kids – and then older, white missionary kids in Pakistan we were stared at. All the time. In the words above from the film The Good Lie – we looked like we had no color, we were born without skin.

Think about it. If you’ve never seen someone with a different color skin they are a novelty. Many places where we went in Pakistan, we were a novelty.

And many times the attention was unwelcome. There were times when we hated being stared at, times when more than anything we wanted to lash out at those who stared, when we mocked them. And as those of us who were girls grew to be young women, there was more attention. But sometimes it was welcome. Sometimes it made me feel special. Sometimes it made me feel like I was better than those around me. 

I was set apart as a little white girl in Pakistan.  But when on home leaves going to churches in the United States, I was also set apart. In fact churches were far worse then being in villages in Pakistan. For the missionary kid, going to strange youth groups in New England was like being paraded as a new animal in a zoo.

“Look at the missionary kid!” 

“Do they talk funny?” 

“Look at their clothes!”

At that time New England was an area of the United States that saw far less movement than other parts. People had lived here since the Mayflower – their ancestors came on “the boat” and they knew if you didn’t. The only thing that troubled them more was if you, like my dad, had relatives who came on the Mayflower and then dared to leave.

I had learned how to work with stares and attention in Pakistan. I learned how to discern when the stares were rude and demanded response, and when they were just curious. I knew what to say and how to live. I didn’t know how to respond to Christian youth groups in the United States.

And then I moved to my passport country to go to college. No one stared. No one bothered to look at me at all. I was one of the crowd. And I hated it. I hated that I looked like the majority population and anyone who saw me assumed that I had never left the country. I hated that no one knew my story. I hated that nothing set me apart. 

And so my tears that day were about several things. Firstly, they were about how I was used to being different, used to being stared at, but also used to being privileged. And I was no longer different. I was no longer stared at. I was having to realize my privilege. I was one of many nursing students, all working hard to become nurses, and all gaining weight through late-night snacks of trail mix loaded with chocolate and Chicago deep-dish pizza.

Second – I may have been stared at in parts of Pakistan, I may have been ‘different’, but I had my people. And in this new land I not only had no stares, I had no people. My people were gone. They were far away, accessible only by thin blue aerogrammes that didn’t fly over the seas quickly. So the tears fell hard and long.

It’s lonely to be different and assumed to be the same. As third culture kids in Pakistan we had each other and we had our parents. We had a small community that we belonged to and that made being different in the outside world okay.

As I have grown I have come to realize that most of this is about pride. I hate to admit that – no one wants to admit the pride that has learned how to hide itself so well, has learned how to dress in socially acceptable ways. But there’s the reality. Oh the loneliness was real, still is real at times. The struggle to belong is real and valid. But there has been an element of pride that I have had to recognize — and confess.

A group of verses in the New Testament book of Philippians say something about dealing with pride:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

I have had to commit these words to memory so they can become more a part of my being. Jesus made himself nothing. Jesus took the nature of a servant. Jesus, equal with God, gave up all the privilege his status warranted, did not use it to “his own advantage.”

And all I’m being asked to do is accept that there will be times when people don’t know my story? Don’t see me as ‘special?’  Wow. Makes me stop and pause, and maybe cringe a little inside.

Maybe cringe enough to confess and move forward.

How about you? Have you lived in a place where you have been stared at? Did you learn how to cope so that when there were no longer stares, it was hard? How about privilege? Do you live in a place where you are one of the privileged? I know I’ve got a couple different things going here, but would love to dialogue about this.

10 thoughts on ““No one stares anymore!”

  1. Sure, for any visible (non-white) minority in smaller North American cities and towns, being stared/noticed (too much) was all part of growing up.

    Blending in the bigger cities with large Asian populations in Toronto and Vancouver, is also convenient.

    I know my own privilege as soon I speak: My English reflects someone born in Canada which I am. And most likely this will be true if I get around to visiting China.

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  2. Thank you, Marilyn, for these thoughts. Your conclusions are some of the same thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head lately…In Whom is my identity.

    I remember the first time we were back in the US after living in Asia for almost 5 years. I felt surprised when the cash register at the grocery store didn’t goo and gaa over my three (adorable!) toddlers. I smiled to myself and realized that we just all looked “normal” to her.

    Another family funny story is when our youngest was about four and riding on the motorcycle with my husband. She told him, “When people stare at me, I stare back at them, and then they stop.” “Oh,” he answered. “Did you figure that out yourself?” “No,” she said. “Big brother (8 years old) told me.”

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  3. I think I agree with wileyjoanie’s comment, I am very happy not to be stared at, although I don’t consider myself very introverted. As a young MK, I remember playing in the sandbox, and Ethiopians standing around the low mud wall that defined our yard, staring, giggling, pointing…. We hated it! When we would drive into town and my dad stopped to go into a shop, people would crowd around the Land Rover, pressing their faces into the glass, making comments, etc. It is one thing I really enjoy about life in the USA–I can walk in the park, go into a store, ask a question, etc., and no one stares!

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  4. As a red headed kid who grew up in South America, and then later as a red headed adult who lived in Egypt I hear you! Stares galore! But I felt the same way in college, I was just a normal person and I hated both NOT really being different (on the outside) and also really being different (on the inside). Sometimes it felt ingenuine to not let people know what I was like, but I had [read: have] to come to grips with the fact that everyone has stories hidden inside them. I’m not so special that only my stories helped form me. Always a great reminder to drop that pride.

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    1. This has so been my journey – realizing that everyone has a story and the need to honor, and listen to that story is part of what we as TCKs can learn to do and do well. And then there’s the paradox that you describe so well – “both NOT really being different (on the outside) and also really being different (on the inside).” So good to connect with you Maia!

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  5. Becoming “book smart” in public school, I became aware of differences. There was the girl student named Esther, daughter of the “Friends” preacher, who played piano beautifully but seemed “affected” when she did not pronounce Ego (myself) as “ah” (the Texas and North Carolina way) but diphthong-like ah-yee. Also, when I graduated from university and went to live one full year in East Harlem, Southern cracker was definitely out of place. Once when my apartment was robbed and I was mugged, the police (Finest) had no sympathy and instead interrogated “What is someone like you doing living in a place like this?”

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  6. This is a hilarious and insightful topic! I felt it as a mother too. My babies were born where they were the center of attention…they were always easy to find in a crowd, they were always stared at. Beach vacations were interrupted by 100 people asking to photograph them! I remember the first time we went to a park after our return to North America. Our kids were wildly scrambling over the playground equipment. Other kids were playing too. There were chases going on, swing rides, someone was climbing up the slide. And No One was staring at my kids. I had this weird and sudden urge to point them out to people…to say, “Isn’t she adorable?”, “Look at my son!” —I resisted….but it was a moment for me!

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  7. Marilyn, my FB status photos today shows a lot of stares. Looking at those old photos I must say that we asked for those stares and created them just about everywhere we went. Two of our children could have passed for Pakistani. The other one was sometimes thought to be an Albino. Even in our diverse society where difference seems common, I catch myself looking (staring) whenever I spot someone different, whether in dress, color, or size. I have no idea what it meant but someone once told me that when I’m getting stares, look at the feet of the one staring and they’ll go away. I tried it and it worked. I’m afraid to ask what it meant!!

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  8. Yes I totally understand this. I grew up as a missionary kid in South America. We were constantly stared at. My sisters were very blond and blue eyed so they especially received a lot of attention and mostly unwanted attention. One of the things we used to do was to wave and smile. That would then usually stop whoever was staring.

    I get the part of feeling special because of being different. There really is something to that. The pride part is an interesting comment and I don’t think I ever realized that before today but I think you are right. I was proud to be different most of the time and many times the privileges that come with being different in a foreign country.

    My family and I recently returned from a trip to Europe. Our kids have never been to Europe and we all were looking forward to the new adventure with them along. My son, the first born, is generally uptight about new things and especially things beyond his control. As you know when you travel most things are beyond your control. So this trip really stretched him. One of the things that I noticed about myself on this trip was that I was perfectly ok with going up to a total stranger and asking them if they spoke Spanish or English and could they help me. This was so totally strange and awkward for my kids. You don’t know this person, how can you do this. Growing up overseas this was just something I always had to do. I always was in situations where I was lost, needed directions, or help of some kind. This whole thing was a stretching experience for them, sometimes very difficult, but very good and yes we had some very sweet times that only come when you are doing this kind of adventure.

    Thank you so much for your sharing.

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  9. I have to say I’d be very happy to not be stared at. I love it when I am able to achieve walking around without being noticed (which doesn’t happen very often). It’s so refreshing to go somewhere where no one notices me. Maybe some of it has to do with temperament? Do you think that introverts feel differently about wanting to be noticed?

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