I have a bit of paranoia such that being among large crowds makes me anxious. I have this irrational sense that people are looking at me and judging me.
Spending the morning at my school’s fair didn’t help. I had to go to the combined junior high and high school campus of my school and “supervise” my 5th and 6th grade students while they sold snacks and drinks at a booth. But in reality, I was unnecessary. Tired from a late dinner party the night before, I mostly just stood or sat around saying “hi” to my students who came to have fun at the fair.
When I got hungry, I walked around looking for a snack from a plethora of food stalls: fried chicken or squid, quail eggs on a stick, tea, soda, corndogs.
Walking around, I could feel eyes on me. And unlike, at say, Disney World, where if I felt anxious I could look around and see no one’s actually looking at me, maybe they glance for a second, but they’re not staring, they look at me and look away because I’m nothing special, whereas here…
You stop at a booth and wait for the students to grill a chicken kebab for you. You notice people looking at you longer than usual, but you’re “used to it now,” so whatever. There’s a group of girls with a camera. They’re looking at you and giggle whispering amongst themselves. Then one of them – either the most outgoing or the worst at rock-paper-scissors – comes over and asks for a picture. You oblige and take a selfie with them. “Thank you,” they say.
Several other individuals who saw your amicability now decide to ask for pictures as well. It’s exhausting being “special.” Perhaps an individual who has never had to be the only “other” – in race, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, body-ability, gender, religion – in a room full of people – I’m looking at you cis, straight, white males – will find this experience pleasant. An ego boost at first: people are interested in me because I’m different. But I’ve been an “other” my whole life, and thus over time different has been distorted to weird.
Because what I feel isn’t just being different. My blue cup is different from my red cup, but I don’t treat them differently. I don’t take a photo of my red cup. I take a photo of the artisanal, glass-blown, Mobius strip cup that I find at a boutique. The thing is so outside the standard deviation of “average drink containers” that it need be documented by photograph.
You’re thinking that means I’m special! But wait! No! Far from it! Cups have no sense of self nor understanding of the larger world of cups. When someone asks for my picture, maybe a tiny sliver of myself thinks: I’m special! But then the reality settles in. No I’m not. I am not outside the standard deviation of “average human.” In the U.S., no one would ask me to take a selfie. In this local frame of reference, I am special, but universally, I’m not, so internally, my identity becomes weird, strange.
I get why, if you rarely see someone who looks me in real life, you would be very interested in looking at me. During the fair, I saw one junior high school student who looked Taiwanese but had blue eyes that were no contacts. I wanted to keep looking to try and assess how this was possible. But I didn’t stare, I scanned. And I didn’t go up and ask her about it. Because – like microaggressions – these instances on their own are not a big deal, but piled up, when you experience them several times a day, they can eat away at your sense of self and belonging.
One time during the fair, when I was sitting on a step, exhausted, just wishing I had a couch to lay down on, one girl came up to me with camera in hand. I knew the drill. Timidly, she asked: “can I have a picture with you?”
“Yes,” I said, forcing a smile.
“You’re very beautiful.”
That caught me off-guard. She took the selfie and said thank you, to which I replied: “Thank you.” What she said made me feel good for about two minutes. Then I went back to feeling normal. Or, I guess, weird.