How to suck it up when people talk about you in front of your face
June 3, 2010 9:35 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with hearing negative evaluations about yourself in public? Often I hear people I don't know make idle comments about me, mostly negative. It's Inconvenient though to look overtly pissed off, when you're not in a position to say anything back. So how do you suck it up?

How do you deal with overhearing negative evaluations of yourself?

White female, mid twenties, working overseas, semi fluent. An Asian country, if it matters - though I suspect, it doesn't. I'm pretty sure that this could have played out the same way almost anywhere.

I ask this question because I feel absolutely miserable. I moved to the country hoping to improve on my Uni-level language skills, in a language that I was once very much in love with. A year into my oversea experience, I'm in at the most dire level of despair in my life.

The main cause of my misery is the constant assault on my ego. Wherever I go - if it involves me sitting in place for more than a few minutes, and usually when I'm alone, I seem to become the object of strangers’ unwelcome interest. Train, restaurant, standing in line at the supermarket, in a bar, wherever. I often hear peoples' idle evaluations of me. Note, that none of these are said directly to me. Comments on what I'm wearing, how I'm looking, my probable personality. Anything and everything. On foreigners in general. And then there is the usual everyday fare. Weird!Ugly! Man, foreigners are the worst don't you reckon. All that I thought I knew about the world - that people don't care much about others, that what you worry about is probably invisible to others, that people are generally kind and good, have gone out the window. Worse, the uneasy truce, that I’m an OK person, that although not a beauty, nobody cares much and that I have found people that care for me regardless, have crumbled under endless comments on my looks. I feel like maybe everything that people keep to themselves is now being voiced, and I just can’t take it.

I might be wrong, but honestly, I'm never doing anything in particular, apart from sitting on the train, and looking at my shoes, or talking with a friend in a restaurant. If anything, after several months in the country, I started to try and fit in as much as I can. I am acutely aware that I might be judged, so I always try to be quiet, never ever make a fuss about anything and try to pick up on any cues that I can. Young and old alike seem to be enthralled by my disgusting nature that is apparently readable from my mere countenance. I don't know how much this is a shared experience amongst foreigners in general- I'm too afraid to ask, because, frankly, I don't want to find out that I'm the only one, and well, it's wholly me that's the problem. I know though that up to a point many of my foreign friends experience being talked about, but either don't know what it is that is being said, or don't care. I seem singular in my sensitivity to it. As a side note, I have never experience anything like this in my country of origin.

Also, I know I am probably going to be dismissed as being sick, and in likelihood, I probably am quite depressed now. None of this is what I imagined it would be like. But, the things I hear definitely are real - unfortunately. I can understand the language well enough. Some people honestly, talk like they have no inhibition towards talking about someone in front of their face, probably believing that most foreigners don't understand so it is ok to just say whatever is on your mind. (I know that most people, 99.99 % are not as inconsiderate as this, and a tiny minority of people are what makes it uncomfortable for me). There are times of course, say, when I am in a busy restaurant that I can only hear, say, the pejorative term for foreigners being repeated over and over, and one or two negative adjectives thrown in the toss, but other times like today, when I had two chatty business men are sitting right next to me lamenting foreigners. I talk myself down from thinking negative thoughts, especially whenever I have any doubt about whether I have misheard, and whenever I can get away with it I listen to my iPod, so as not to hear anything in the first place. Of course though, I can't wear them all the time. Also as soon as I have the money to do so, I’m going to see a therapist.

I would like to hear mefi’s thoughts on how to deal with hearing other people’s negative evaluations of you when heard in public, and how to deal with the emotions that arise. After a while I've become a bit hardened to it, but still I find myself become extremely self-conscious, and ruminating over whether or not what they said is true or not, no matter how ridiculous. Or, how upset I am that people have lack the simple human decency not to talk about some right in front of their face, and how I feel like I am being treated as less than human. I’m almost always by myself in a situation where I can’t easily just up and leave. It’s not convenient to be pissed off or tearful, and I don’t want anyone to see that they have got to me. How do you deal with it, or what would you do?

tl;dr How do you suck it up when people say mean things about you right in front of your face? bawwwwww

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posted by anonymous to Human Relations (43 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I've had this happen to me in the US -- I have many Deaf friends and often communicate with them in public in sign language, though I am hearing myself. People will just assume we're all Deaf and talk about us on a regular basis.

I have never exactly confronted people, but I have on several occasions said something like "have a nice day" to these people, looking straight in their eyes with a full smile on my face, when I or they leave the area (this happens most often on the subway, so someone usually leaves pretty soon). The look of horror on their face -- just for a second -- as they realize I heard everything they said always gives me some sort of perverse satisfaction, plus, I assume they'll never make that assumption and do it again.

This doesn't help with self-esteem issues, of course, but it may help you feel better about a situation? It's worth a shot anyway.
posted by brainmouse at 9:50 PM on June 3, 2010 [21 favorites]

SAy something to them in the local language. I've had a couple of experiences where people were speking about me in Spanish, probably assuming that I was just some white girl who couldn't understand, so I said something to them in Spanish.

On preview, kind of what brainmouse is advocating.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:57 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh sweetie, my sympathies to you. And no, I don't think you are sick. I too was once a white female working overseas in an Asian country and am very, very familiar with this situation myself. It did get me down at first and then at some point, it just didn't anymore. I guess what changed for me was realising that while everyone is entitled to an opinion that doesn't mean I have to give a shit about what they think. These people don't know you or anything about you beyond their xenophobia and ignorance. Just as you don't really know anything about them, so why give them the benefit of taking their opinions seriously? Instead of thinking, "Maybe I am ugly and weird and horrible", try thinking " That person is is hilarious and also kind of sad, what a good story to tell my friends (who actually KNOW me)." Alternatively, confront these arseholes. Next time there's a conversation on the train about how foreigners ruin everything, ask them why they think so. And if they are commenting on your appearance then you should feel free to comment on theirs. How else will they learn that what they are doing is actually hurting a real person, not just a cartoon foreigner.
posted by Wantok at 10:07 PM on June 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Recognize that the comments are not about you personally but are about a wretched, foreign, stranger. You stand in for the whole world of "others" who are "not like us." I think the fear and dislike of strangers is a really basic human reaction. So, number one, it's not you; you're a symbol.

Realize that even if you were safe at home in the bosom of your loving family and dearest friends, you would have a time in life that you have to overcome insecurity and venture out into new places where someone might criticize you. Number two, even though this is not about you, you would still have to grow in self-confidence because it is part of life's journey.

Remember that Asian cultures do not have the melting-pot ideal of the USA or the democratic tolerance of strangers that prevails in much of Europe; they are much less accustomed to seeing difference as a good thing. So, number three, they are talking from and about their culture, not about you.

As you mentioned, they probably do not know that you understand their language so well. You could find a humorous possibility in this and murmur some outrageous reply in English, making an effort to sound very subdued and polite while saying something completely ridiculous. Maybe one day you will be rewarded with an amused double-take for your efforts. Focus on that.
posted by Anitanola at 10:09 PM on June 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think brainmouse and cmgonzalez offer great advice. And I'd like to add that I'm so sorry you are going through this difficult time. Your question is well-written and thoughtful, you come across as a truly kind, considerate and GOOD human being. Certainly not disgusting or unworthy of respect and common decency. I hope things get better for you :)
posted by bahama mama at 10:10 PM on June 3, 2010 [10 favorites]

You might not like what I'm going to say, but I've seen many, many people like you. Ultimately, my advice is for you to leave the country. Some people aren't cut out for expat life, not in every country, and especially not in Asian countries. Asian countries are more racist places than, say, the US (no one with actual experience would dispute this).

A few years ago I went to a small family-owned restaurant in Sokcho, which is itself a rural area on the East coast of Korea. I sat down to eat and ordered my food. There was one other woman in the restaurant, just sitting at a table, not eating. She was very old. I figured she was the owner/waitress's mother. This old woman said nothing until I got my food. In Korea, servers almost always say something like "enjoy your meal" when they give it to you. My server started to say this, but the old woman interrupted, saying, "No. Foreigner." I thought it was a bit strange because I ordered the food in native-like Korean. Anyway, even if I hadn't, Koreans tend to speak politely to foreigners.

By this time I was hungry, so I picked up my chopsticks and started to eat. The old woman started muttering to herself that foreigners like me didn't know how to use chopsticks. But I was using them--as well as any Korean I've come across. But I was using my left hand, and older Koreans are often full of prejudice against southpaws. So, realizing that this was the cause of her complaint, I switched hands. I looked directly into her eyes as I did it. I wanted her to know that I understood exactly what she was saying. Usually when I do this in front of Koreans, they're amazed that I can use them so well with both hands--it's quite a rare thing. I had became good at it because when you're sitting in a group, it's nice to be able to use your outside arm, whether someone is sitting to the left or the right of you. This woman just scoffed. She said something else under her breath, and remained silent for the rest of my meal. I finished up and left.

This is one example, and while it was the most overtly racist thing I experienced, there were many others. Granted, I was quite irritated after I left that restaurant. But I'm the sort of person who can shrug it off and... not forget, but not care about it quickly. Some people have this disposition. Others don't. In my experience, it's the former that live most successfully abroad. The latter get angrier and angrier, or they become more and more estranged from the surrounding culture, either of which causes them to become depressed about their living situation. A majority continue to live a sad life abroad; a sizeable minority go a bit--or a lot--wacky. All of them should go home when they realize it's happening to them.
posted by smorange at 10:10 PM on June 3, 2010 [8 favorites]

I was for a time a public figure in a small community. These are english speakers talking about me in english in front of me not recognizing me. Sort of like making fun of a radio host in front of him never knowing what he looked like. In the beginning it really bothered me. I wanted to argue with them all to straighten them out. If they only knew me and met me in person they would not think that way I thought. I finally came to realize that you cannot have a rational discussion with irrational people or stupid bigoted people. I was able to convince myself that I didn't WANT the approval of these idiots. These folks making comments are ignorant classless folks who should not bring you down; in fact you should be boosted by the fact that these type of folks are saying negative things. They are so insecure they are trying to boost their own ego. Take comfort in that fact.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:13 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Foreigners are always scapegoats for something, in every country.

How about spending more time with your native friends? On the occasions when I do feel a little weary of being one of only two white dudes in a square-mile radius, my tendency is to make plans for going out with some Korean friends or, alternatively and perhaps less productively, heading downtown to one of the foreigner/ex-pat bars for some down-time from the overall ex-pat adventure. (Although a lot of Koreans like hanging out at these places as well, which is more than fine with me.)

Maybe it's kind of a generational thing as well. I find younger Koreans a lot less judgmental of me than their parents and grand-parents. And really, all you can do with the older folks is smile and be gracious in the face of their bigotry. Even if you were fluent in their language and totally familiar with their culture, you'd still be a foreigner. For all of my problems with with my home country of the US, there are moments when I believe we got the ideal of the melting pot right-on, if not always the practical reality of it.
posted by bardic at 10:17 PM on June 3, 2010

You should let them know that you understand what they're saying about you. They will be embarrassed and immediately stop. Remember they're only saying those things because they think you don't understand.

And plus, don't even "try" to fit in, because by trying too hard you may be making yourself feel more different and alone. I moved to US alone when I was 17, and I had this problem, too. But then I realized that I was the one who was making the situation worse. Just let go and go with the flow...That's my suggestion!
posted by dustoff at 10:17 PM on June 3, 2010

Certainly let them know you can hear and understand them. They're really the ones who should feel bad, not you, maybe seeing the looks on their faces as they realize you can understand everything they're saying would help you feel a bit better and more assertive.

Just looking at them and saying, "Excuse me." Or saying something to the cashier. Or making a comment about the weather. I think it could be pretty entertaining.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:39 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I spent some time in (former east) Germany after the wall fell, in an area that was less than familiar with seeing black people, and had almost no experience seeing black Americans (instead of say, black Africans), I did the following things:

I simply imagined it as an anthropological experience, and I was simply exploring how the local population existed. Their comments weren't accurate, but either the Germans believed their stereotypes were true, or just wanted to gossip, and had a topic in me. I don't know. But once I realized that I wasn't afraid for my safety, I just became fascinated about what the hell they were talking about. Since they assumed I couldn't speak the language, or didn't care if I did, they were quite candid. I was sexy, or sex crazed, or mentally deficient, or beautiful, or thieving, because that was what all black women were. I couldn't swim. I smelled bad, because of bone density or some silliness. It was like being on a date with a guy who thinks he knows all about women, but he knows *nothing* about women. It was also interesting that most seemed to have no interest in what I thought of them.

I also realized that there were actually a lot of cross cultural similarities about how people talk about 'the other'. I attended a historically black women's college in the states, and the conversations, assumptions and fears about 'the other', were almost mirrored. Caricatures, really. So in the US, I had people explain to me that I'd get beat up by nazis because Germans are evil, and in Germany, I heard detailed debates about why black people are so violent. I realized that ignorance, fear and/or hate have a similar flavor about them regardless of culture.

In the end, I found it helpful to realize that what they are talking about is more a reflection of their experience, or lack of it, than me. And that I was the one who was visiting their country, so perhaps I needed to stop putting my unenforceable rules on them (like you shouldn't talk about people when they are sitting 3 feet away from you). But then I'm a black woman, who went to school in the south. The concept of looking for and finding acceptance, approval and accolades externally (in the general community) isn't always the norm, so I don't expect it. So, I might have already been trained to be resilient in the face of smack talking about foreigners.

That said, there were times that I just engaged folks talking junk about me in front of me in conversation, depending on how I felt, and sometimes that was interesting, sometimes, not. There were also a number of people I did sit next to who didn't talk smack about me, and sometimes just talked to me. Sometimes people touched my hair. A lot of people just had no notable reaction to me at all (say 50 or 100, for every 1 or 2 who did say something). There were people sitting next to the people who were talking smack about me who rolled their eyes and shook their head sympathetically at me. I'd sometimes look at the people talking about 'how foreigners are' meaningfully, roll my eyes, and pull out a book or put on ear phones. There were people who rarely did ask me for my opinion, and forced me to question my assumptions. Sometimes people who I thought were about to talk smack about me would bust out into English and tell me about their trip to Texas. That was unexpected, and a gift.

Here's hoping you find the resiliency, compassion and support you need to literally face this situation, rather than shrink from it. As a former study abroad advisor, I can tell you that it's super, super common, particularly when people in country assume you can't speak the language (I'm looking at you, Japan). That's the odd thing about being abroad - like it or not, you tend to change. Like it or not, most of the people whose country you're visiting, do not. They don't have to. But you get to grow. In an odd way, that might be their unpleasant gift to you.
posted by anitanita at 10:39 PM on June 3, 2010 [66 favorites]

I'd like to tell you about my best friend. I talk about her a lot here in my answers, but I'd like to tell you her story.

My best friend is from China. She is stunningly beautiful. She could honestly be a model. She's tall and has a bone structure that people pay money to emulate. She is incredibly slim, even after having two kids. She never wears make up because her skin is flawless. If I could choose someone to look like it would be her. I'm not just saying that because she's my friend and I know her, it actually gives me kind of a complex being out in public with her.

In China her nickname was "Elephant". She has self esteem issues from being teased about her looks back home. Not just in school, but everywhere. Even strangers would make comments on a regular basis. I guess the standard of beauty there is exactly the opposite of what it is here. If they were that cruel to her, I can only imagine how awful it must be for you as a foreigner.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the standard for beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. You could be a knockout like my friend and you'd still be hearing these kinds of things. I am so sorry.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:43 PM on June 3, 2010 [8 favorites]

Sometimes you go half way around the world to meet the same type of jerks you could have met at home. It's important to remember that the ratio of good people to jerks to good people behaving like jerks is approximately the same no matter where you travel.

You're far from home and from your support system. If you ran across someone mean in your hometown, you'd have family and friends to validate you. Now, you've got to draw on your inner reserves and realize that you're fine. You're simply running into a common response that people have when someone is different. It's not about you; it's about different.

How do you suck it up? You don't. The judgments of a few dimwitted bigots simply cannot be allowed to penetrate your emotional state. You don't suck it up; you let it roll on by you.
posted by 26.2 at 10:45 PM on June 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

One thing that's very important to remember: every person out there is doing this to every other person out there. It's just that, generally, the conversations between people are whispered, or individuals think these things but do not voice them, because the object of their scrutiny would hear them otherwise and likely embarrass them.

This isn't happening because there's anything wrong with you, it's happening because the assumption you don't speak their language is granting you unique insight into their private, awful, racist thoughts. If you put the most beautiful, talented, smart and well-dressed person (of another race) in your place, these people would still say the same type of things. This has nothing whatsoever to do with you as the person you are.

Incidentally, this is what we're talking about: racism, straight up and simple. Whether it's people in a foreign country believing and putting voice to awful things about you for being a foreigner, or African-americans in the United States getting racially profiled, this sort of thing happens because you're not thought of as an actual person -- but you're taking their comments as if they were thinking of you that way. It's ugly, close-minded and hurtful, but in the same way a person in a car will flip you off for some car movement, even if they've never seen your face and know nothing (age, race, sex, whatever) of the person in the car -- it's still hard not to take it personally.

But that's what you're going to have to do if you want to keep this up, "go with the flow", as dustoff suggests. That won't make it any easier, though, and I'm not surprised you're so upset and depressed. It's a hard thing to deal with, and you haven't had the thick skin that comes from dealing with it your whole life.
posted by davejay at 10:50 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Quick clarification: I'm not suggesting every person is racist, but that every person makes judgements about other people on some level. When I start talking about racism, then I'm talking more specifically about the types of comments you're getting.
posted by davejay at 10:52 PM on June 3, 2010

There was a very similar question that was posted exactly one week ago - are you by chance the same person that posted that question?

If you did, I would honestly suggest that you re-evaluate your presence in the country. It's obviously causing you a great deal of distress, and it might be better for you to leave for awhile on a break and decide later if you wish to return.

I certainly don't want to be a patronizing asshole, but are you really sure that people are talking about you and mocking you? I used to have problems going out in public and I would think, "Oh shit - everyone is staring at me" and when people would laugh, I would think they were laughing at me - the reality was that no one was and I was looking for malice where none existed. Cognitive behavioral therapy really helped me in this regard.

I know I am probably going to be dismissed as being sick, and in likelihood, I probably am quite depressed now. None of this is what I imagined it would be like

I don't know if you're the same person as last week, but I suspect you might be - is this country Japan by chance? I can't really say that I've encountered widespread prejudice there, and I'm a visible outsider. There were a few cultural misunderstandings, but I never felt as if they were intentional, and the Japanese were always courteous to me. Could culture shock be a contributor to these thoughts?

Again, I'm not trying to say that what you're experiencing isn't happening, but you yourself admit that you're deeply depressed. I've gone through that - and it fucks with your mind. Leave the country and go home for a week or a month if you can, see a physician about your depression, and re-evaluate after you've had some time to think things over.

Best of luck.
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 11:35 PM on June 3, 2010

I am a foreigner in China and no, it's not just you. Also, you say you're miserable where you are and you deserve to be happy. If the thought of moving countries feels like a relief to you (and it sounds like it would), then maybe you should consider leaving. I know this has nothing to do with your question so enough of that.

How do you suck it up when people say mean things about you right in front of your face?

They're not saying mean things about you. They don't know you at all. It's not really that you are a foreigner either. It's that you represent the rare chance to gossip about someone openly to their face, with no consequences. The fact that you're a foreigner enables them to gossip freely and provides a conspicuous subject matter. They also talk about their neighbours and circle of family and friends. But they talk about you in public because they can. This has nothing to do with you and it's not anything you should learn to suck up.

I think you should take what they say at face value and respond to them in all seriousness. People don't expect honest, serious responses when they're coming up with all sorts of things just because they're bored and such responses can be disarming. Try it. Next time, someone starts talking about you just go up to them and tell them what you've told us. Or a version thereof.

Like so?
Hi stranger on bus. I couldn't help but overhear what you said and I don't understand why you would say [x]. I often hear comments like this when I'm out and about and it upsets me. I actually came to this country because I fell in love with your language and now I'm losing my interest because of the way people talk about me. Could you tell me more why you were saying this or explain to me why people feel free to talk about me in this way in public?
posted by mkdirusername at 12:15 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

(Sorry I did the TL;DNR version, but I think most expats know what you're talking about.)
Living in many Asian countries is simply brutal on most Caucasian women. They should put it in the guidebook.

I'm a white guy, so I never got it nearly bad as I would see foreign women treated, but occasionally people would be impossibly rude. My response is to be impossibly nice, and take their concerns seriously. Here are a few examples:

Once on a train a middle-aged business man sat down, looked up and saw me, and was not happy. He pulled out his handkerchief, which he put over his nose, narrowed his eyes at me and and muttered "Something stinks" in Japanese. I gave the air a dramatic sniff, then leaned closer to him and sniffed again, and then said, matching his tone and in the same language "Yeah, somethign is stinky. Wonder what it is?" And then hailed the stewardess and asked her if she could smell anything unpleasant, which of course she couldn't. I thanked her, looked at him and shrugged, picked up my Japanese book and started reading. The guy quietly fumed for about fifteen minutes before he got up and left. Never came back, and it was a nearly a two hour train ride.

Once I attempted to get a table at a bar/restaurant and when I approached the waiter to ask for a table the maître d’ or manager said loud to the waiter "Another stupid foreigner. Get rid of him". The waiter said, in English "Sorry, closed for private party" while waving his hands around indicating "no entry". So in Japanese I asked what time the party would be over, or what other day would be better to get a table. Perhaps I could make a reservation? The manager scowled while the waiter started sweating, trying to think up answers that would keep me out of there. Finally when I had tortured them enough I asked for a menu, read a few things off of it, and then said that I was sorry, this obviously not the kind of place I thought it was, and wished them luck with their 'party'. They were jerks, but seeing them try to keep it up almost made me laugh out loud.

I've even had it happen in America. Once I ran into a Japanese friend on the street. Since her English is perfect we started talking in English. After about 5 minutes her friend was getting annoyed and said to her, in Japanese, "This guy is boring. Let go." I replied in her language "If you're board you don't have to wait on us. Please, go on ahead.". She looked at me mortified for a few seconds and then stomped off.

If you can't think of anything, smile, look them in the eye, and say in the native language "Thank you for telling me!" Give them a big grin and go back to what you're doing. You get out of it with a grin and they get to feel like 10 kinds of idiot and maybe think twice next time.

(I've done this in English to other English speakers who were just rude idiots and it never fails to shut them up too.)
posted by Ookseer at 12:21 AM on June 4, 2010 [19 favorites]

You're referring to people who build conversations out of comments on the looks of the people they meet in public places. There's a huge probability that their taste isn't bulletproof and that their intentions are not to find beauty wherever it is, but rather to throw mud at whoever they encounter in order to improve their self-esteem. That's a universal mechanism, and you're in a situation that allows you to look at something that's usually concealed. I'd recommend to write down what they say, but also to write down everything that strikes you in people's conversations around you, even when you're not the target. These people are the stuff books and plays are made of.
posted by nicolin at 2:12 AM on June 4, 2010

I find the thought "if I don't respect someone's opinion, that opinion can't hurt me" to be very liberating.

These people's opinions are meaningless, until you apply some meaning to them. You are in full control of how much this affects you. Try reminding yourself that these people don't know you well enough AT ALL to make any kind of judgement call about you. They aren't basing their opinion on anything other than a few seconds looking at you. Ergo, their opinions are worthless.

I'd spend a little time wondering why you care so much about the opinions of other people who don't even know you. I mean that in a nice way. I found it helpful.
posted by Solomon at 3:01 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

When you really don't feel like dealing with it, headphones.

posted by Joe Chip at 4:31 AM on June 4, 2010

know though that up to a point many of my foreign friends experience being talked about, but either don't know what it is that is being said, or don't care. I seem singular in my sensitivity to it.

They may not want to look like it bothers them or appear whiny. Ask some of them about it. They may not be bothered by it because they've developed effective coping strategies.
posted by edbles at 5:58 AM on June 4, 2010

I've had very similar experiences to Ookseer in Japan, i.e. getting thrown out of restaurants because the staff thought foreigners would be too loud, etc. I also recall lots of comments on my appearance, good, bad, and disgusting. I changed how I dressed, and changed my posture and mannerisms to try and fit in, but I was still a caucasian lady in a city where they were rare and subject to comment.

After a while, I started carrying two books, one in English that I pulled out it I wanted to be left alone (people constantly wanted to talk to me on public transportation), and one in Japanese, with a big Japanese title on the cover that was basically a sign that said "I CAN HEAR YOU. I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE SAYING". Usually, I would get a double take and then the perpetrator would shut up.
posted by Alison at 6:22 AM on June 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

idle evaluations

Overseas or no, this is really the key here. Don't care more about what people are saying than the actual people saying it. In fact, generally I think you should care a good deal less.

When you're back at home, stewing about this, try to remember, those people are back at home and I guarantee they have completely forgotten about it; wouldn't even remember you if they saw you the next day or a week later. It's just idle, unfiltered pap - pap that we all tend to produce in one way or another.

Don't let someone's idle, inane, careless thoughts ruin your lunch, your life, your living etc. You're not gonna be friends with these people, you're not related to them, you will probably never see them again - and if you do see them again, you can become friends with them, and, when it actually matters, they will change their minds about you because that's how people have friends. And you know, even if a very few don't, who cares? Some people are just assholes, as long as your interactions with them remain based around seconds rather than days, it shouldn't be a big deal.

Best of luck, it's tough when you feel on the outs like this.
posted by smoke at 6:42 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Something tells me you might be describing a provincial part of Japan. Colleges do not at all prepare people for the reality of living there or using the language as it is used in everyday life.

People never said rude things in my presence, or if they did I was too spaced out to notice. I had a Japanese boyfriend who didn't speak English, so I suspect that cut down on the idle commentary.

People did say and do rude things in front of my white, South Asian and black friends all the time. The ones who knew the language well enough would answer back rudely in Japanese, in dialect if appropriate. That immediately put a stop to the rudeness.

What I dealt with was staring. I often got mistaken as a prostitute even though I dressed very conservatively. I'd just stare and stare at the assholes who stared at or followed me. Staring is a good strategy for dealing with jerks talking about you.

When the staring got too much for me, I'd wear sunglasses, day and night. There's something comforting about hiding one's eyes in the face of constant scrutiny. I get why celebrities do it.

I was fluent, so if the mood struck, I'd start chatting with the offending party. That really embarrassed people and they'd stop what they were doing. Sometimes I discovered the staring on their part was just bad manners and that they wanted to talk with me but didn't know how to begin a conversation-- not only with a foreigner, but with any stranger, including Japanese people. It's just not very common for two strangers to strike up a conversation.

For trains, waiting rooms and other public places, I'd carry a dense, academic book about some part of Japanese history everyone was ashamed of, like colonialism in Korea, comfort women, something like that. Specific books I'd carry: ultra-right wing Kobayashi Yoshinori's Sensoron manga, which paints a really proud picture of Japanese aggression in World War II, Prostitution magazines Parakin and Yukai Life, which advertise and solicit sex workers, respectively. With any of these visible, people realize you know a lot about the country and parts of it they aren't proud of, and they leave you alone, at least it seemed to me.

So, staring, sunglasses, chatting, carrying books likely to embarrass people about their country's past. These are the ignoble ways I dealt with the tag of foreigner in Japan. It got too much eventually. Although I had a serious boyfriend and had completely adapted to the rhythms of Japanese life, I left and didn't look back.

Of course people are the same everywhere, therapy might help and all that, but sometimes enough is enough. The things you describe aren't going to change, and unless you can adjust your attitude in a healthy way the only option is to leave. There's nothing wrong with that.

I don't know if it is all relevant to your situation, but perhaps you should explore dating people native to the country you're in. It changes your experiences and most of all, you wouldn't feel so alone and isolated. You can memail me if you'd like. Good luck.
posted by vincele at 6:43 AM on June 4, 2010 [5 favorites]

Ookseer has it right. When I lived in Japan, I used to entertain myself by coming up with clever ways to let them know I was onto them. I rarely actually followed through with them, but just coming up with what to say to the guy sitting next to me, etc., would still help even after I'd left the train/car. Just thinking about it was enough to blow off steam.

I would also kind of take the opportunity to reciprocate their staring (when people gawk at you, gawk at them back, you get a totally awkward staring contest. It's kind of fun!)

My other American friend though had a similar experience to you - she was very upset by all the attention. I don't know what your hair color is, but she was blonde when she arrived. After about six months, she got fed up and dyed her hair very dark brown, so it was roughly the same color as everyone else. This completely solved her problem. Of course she still looked caucasian, but she would not turn heads across the train car anymore - most people farther than a few feet away wouldn't even notice. I kind of thought this was silly before she did it, but seeing how much her mood improved and her not feeling like a freak anymore convinced me that it was a very good move on her part.

Really though, it does kinda suck being a white female in Asia. You don't need to accept it, but you have to learn how to cope with the sexism and the xenophobia, or you need to get out of the country. If you have major problems with the society that you can't reconcile, it's probably not your thing, no matter how much you planned on it being your thing before you got there. That said, I was miserable for several months in Japan (for different reasons) before things started to take a turn for the better. People acclimate and go through culture shock at their own pace.
posted by mokudekiru at 6:45 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

On public transit once there were some local boys who overheard me ask a question of my friend (something along the lines of, "which stop are we getting off at again?"), and deduced correctly from our accents that we were Americans. They started in on how all Americans were stupid, and ugly, and violent, and the country was full of racist ignoramuses, and they only could speak English so they didn't even know that everyone hated them, and on and on, and got louder and louder, and eventually started making increasingly vulgar sexual comments about us. At which point, during a brief lull in the noise, I said, in the local language, "Not all Americans speak only one language, you know." They turned bright red, fled to the far end of the car, and got off at the next stop.

If you can find a way to use the native language -- whether in direct reply to them as some has suggested above, or by commenting on what a lovely view it is or asking directions or some other indirect reply, as others have suggested -- you will head off a great deal of this rudeness and make people think twice before doing it again.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:54 AM on June 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

One of my fondest traveling memories is an instance where I had gone to Puerto Rico after hurricane Georges for a work trip. We were working very long days and were all grumpy and tired. Stopped in to get water for the day at a convenience store where two idle guys were talking all kinds of shit about me and my coworkers in Español. I let it go until they started making disparaging remarks about the only woman that was there with us. Having graduated high school with a good working knowledge and continuing my Spanish language education in college I knew textbook Spanish. Having had a childhood friend that was a native speaker I knew quite a bit of... real world Spanish. When I cussed them out in their native tongue they just stood there agape. They apologized to our female compatriot. I hope that there are now two people in the world that will better represent their people in mixed culture social settings.

Call people out. The embarrassment they feel when they realize that they are the ones worthy of being looked down upon for their prejudice is a great education in my opinion.
posted by Gainesvillain at 7:42 AM on June 4, 2010

Bugger sucking it up. Call them out on it. Call them ignorant and rude.

You are never going to melt into the background, so your choice is to educate or leave. Because if you let it get to you this much you'll find yourself unable to leave the house.

I say this as a white girl who has lived in Japan for over 13 years. Yeah it's tedious and it gets you down and there are times I just can't be bothered dealing with that kind of crap. But if you don't make a stand you'll cave.

(If you think it's bad now wait until you have a baby and gets all sorts of tutting and comments about you from ignorant nosy old biddies.)
posted by gomichild at 8:42 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm female, 6 foot tall, white, with reddish hair, and I've spent quite a bit of time in both China and Taiwan. China was worse than Taiwan for this, but in both cases I was able to more or less tune it out. I tried going through all the steps in the beginning - including staring back at them when I caught men ogling me, or taitais sneering at me, but they just stared right back. I've always had a thick skin though, and so I managed to just ignore it after a while. After a year living there, my brother came to visit me and was astounded that men would stare so openly at my chest - I had stopped noticing months earlier (though I did start covering up more, too).

But I was there to learn the language, and really immerse myself in the culture - I wasn't about to let that sort of thing get me down. Instead, I became proactive - I didn't just chastise them when they spoke about me (no matter how fluent you might be, it's hard to come up with fantastic, native-sounding put-downs when you're all stressed about sounding local), I spoke all the time, to everyone. This gets you bonus language practice, and also lets everyone know that you understand what they're saying. Plus, you start to build connections with local shopkeepers, restaurant owners, etc - who, after they get to know you, will not tolerate anti-foreigner slagging in their establishments.

But it's always fun to let random strangers know, in innocuous ways, that they can never assume people don't understand what they're saying. This can also be a lot of fun! Once in a supermarket in Canada, a woman was standing next to me picking chowders - over and over again in Chinese she said "clams or seafood... clams or seafood..." and after about 30 seconds, the tall, white, red-headed foreigner next to her said, perfectly "aren't clams seafood?" By god, she'd never seen anything like that before in her life. She gasped, and said "right, yes!" and as she stared at me with her mouth wide open, I walked away, immensely pleased that at least one woman would tell her family that foreigners everywhere potentially understood Chinese.

Don't concentrate on the negative. It's always easy to find the the bad parts in any situation. It's difficult at times, but it's always worth it to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, as much as you can. And if you can do this by being kind, curious, and genuine - well, you can't go wrong.

*having said that, I agree completely with smorange, some people are just not suited to living in these circumstances. If you can't be happy, don't put up with misery. Leave if you think you really can't deal with it anymore.
posted by Curiosity Delay at 10:03 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The main cause of my misery is the constant assault on my ego.

I think a lot of people have done a great job in this thread of explaining that this is really, really common treatment for single western females in some cultures. Your ego is specific to you, though, and this behaviour is not about you. They are reacting to your whiteness, your blondness, your height, your westerness... in these encounters, you are an archetype, or a character. None of this is actually about you as an individual.

Whilst yes, these people are being spectacularly rude, the fact that you are taking it so much (and so sadly) to heart is probably more about your constitution than the validity of their comments. You need to toughen up and realise that because a bunch of people are telling you that you're weird and ugly and ignorant and smelly, that doesn't make those assertions valid because they are NOT REALLY ABOUT YOU.

when you're not in a position to say anything back

I don't understand this. Why do you feel you cannot say anything? I have no idea how you say "I speak Japanese. Do you speak anything other than stupid?" in Japanese but I suggest your learn.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:12 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also - you cannot fit in. You will never, ever, ever, blend.

Do not become meek and mild in hopes that strangers won't notice you - of course they will. And they will stare at you, and make comments. This can't be stopped.

I tried to be the "good American" when I lived abroad - I engaged people in conversation, I was courteous according to local custom, and I didn't act in big, brash, American ways (I don't here either, like the majority of Americans I know).

But I did use my outsider-ness as shield as well. Instead of conforming to local ideas of femininity, I told them "oh, I'm a foreigner, I do things like this" - no matter if it was some American custom or just a personal quirk. They won't see you as "one of us" - so go ahead and own your foreigness. Use chopsticks, by all means - I'm not saying don't participate in the culture. But you will never be "of" the culture - so if that's your goal, recalibrate.
posted by Curiosity Delay at 10:28 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think at least partially it may be unavoidable because you're a woman. People feel more of a need to comment on the appearance of a woman, and feel more bold doing so, especially in some countries that have more insular cultures or have little experience with foreigners living among them. I have experienced occasional unfriendliness, sullen silence, pretending not to see you and the like, though nothing even close to like what you describe. If I may venture a suggestion, is that perhaps it has to do with how you comport yourself? Shrinking violet is not the way to go, IMHO. By disposition I'm a very friendly person, but when I'd encounter the sullen or silently resentful lot, I usually amp it up in the other direction - I don't shrink, I play act (and it is only an act) "I'm the fucking King, what's up with you funny little people?" - look 'em up and down, look around as if you're amused to be in the hamlet/shack/country inn, when you sit down, take your space expansively (I spread my knees and plant my feet and look around like I own the stupid place) - more often than not, they'll suddenly become self-conscious about their appearance, clothes, surroundings etc. - for some reason, this works particularly well in Asian countries, at least in my experience. It's really an amazing transformation (as if a colonial "The Old Master is Calling!"). People feel free to talk smack about you, but when you take ownership of the room or situation, it's as if you turned the tables on them. It throws them off balance, because they see you as the weaker party and when you suddenly whip around and put the pressure on them, they're not ready, have no strategy and revert to what's actually driving them - fear and insecurity and even inferiority feelings for which they overcompensate with hostility. Always feel and act confident - but don't do the "I am the King" act I described above, unless you see that they're clearly hostile - because in one case it's you being arrogant, in the other it's simply fucking with their heads when they deserve the said fucking.

But really? Don't be quick to see or presume hostility. It's incredibly rare. The vast majority of the time people are friendly, and even the occasionally standoffish ones are simply shy or uncertain about how to approach you, yet insanely curious nonetheless - and that translates into some clumsy bluster that may seem like hostility... but it's merely insecurity. My best advice is to get some steel in your spine, look straight ahead and set your jaw - but be ready with a quick smile if (99%) people are friendly. Look like you love life and the world is your oyster (cause really, it is, isn't it?) - why spend your time being miserable? Love everybody, and put the occasional asshole in his place.
posted by VikingSword at 10:37 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

ok, i have a confession to make. i've done the foreigner thing in japan before, but i'm chinese/taiwanese and can pass as japanese and spoke the language well enough.

BUT when i'm home in taiwan, if i see a white person on the train or just walking around, it ALWAYS turns my head and catches my attention. it's rare, and even as an american and extremely well traveled person my curiousity is peaked. imagine how much more curious and discombobulated a native taiwanese who has never left the country must be! i lived in a very rural area of japan and the one other foreigner in my town was a boisterous australian white guy i became good friends with. we never had trouble because while his japanese wasn't great he was outgoing and friendly to the locals and always trying to speak japanese to them. we used to play a game when we went out for food because the servers would always turn to me and start speaking japanese (assuming i was the japanese girlfriend of this weird white guy) and he'd reply in japanese. always freaked them out! great fun.

the point being: you attract attention, and in many places, unfortunately attention manifests itself in a negative way. many of my friends in japan were foreigners who had to deal with crazy shit (a tall blonde friend was often solicited on the train for sex despite dressing conservatively). my observation is that the negative attention is defused by reaching out to people and talking to them in their native language, not "trying to fit in". you are who you are, and your nationality is your nationality. people tend to be won over by the fact that you are interested in their country and making an effort to get by in their language. they have this stereotype of foreigners coming in and bumbling around with english and being disrespectful. speaking with them respectfully pops the bubble of that stereotype. also they are SCARED OF YOU (trust me) because you are an unknown entity which i think contributes to the negative comments. talking to them also defuses that fear.

as for the appearance thing, ASIANS ARE MUCH MORE HYPERCRITICAL THAN ANY OTHER COUNTRY WHEN IT COMES TO LOOKS!!!! seriously, nothing is ever good enough. i am a size EXTRA SMALL in america but a size ELEPHANT OBESE PERSON in taiwan/japan. don't let it bother you. it's an unfortunate cultural thing.
posted by raw sugar at 11:04 AM on June 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

oh another thing about the appearances thing: if asian mothers lambast their OWN cute attractive daughters about how fat/ugly they are to their friends, what chance do YOU have lol. i've been told it's really unusual that my mom never put down my looks or my sister's looks to friends and relatives. it's a pretty normal thing to talk about how people are ugly/fat/have bad skin/etc even if they aren't. again, a weird cultural thing. don't let it get to you!!!!!
posted by raw sugar at 11:16 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have a great answer for your question, but if this question from last week is any indication, you're certainly not alone.
posted by Vorteks at 1:01 PM on June 4, 2010

...and I somehow managed to paste the wrong URL. Sorry. Let me try that again:

I don'y have a great answer for your question, but if this question from last week (which is not this question but is a completely different question) is any indication, you're certainly not alone.
posted by Vorteks at 1:04 PM on June 4, 2010

I really felt for you when I read this for some's just mean and hurtful. And so sad that the world is still so full of that kind of nastiness. But you know what? life is for learning. I really believe that as souls that is what we are here to do. To grow beyond whatever things are challenging for us. And that these situations are presented to us for the opportunity to grow. I think your lesson in this situation is to learn to love yourself unconditionally. That means regardless of what anyone thinks of you or says about you. It is not to allow anyone to ever affect your opinion of yourself. There is clearly something about you that triggers their insecurity about themselves..there has to be otherwise they wouldn't even comment. But the reality is that their reaction to you is not even about you it's about them. Because the world is our mirror. Maybe you could try practicising some energy techniques where you use white light to surround yourself so as not to feel it so much and really make an extra effort to celebrate the beauty of who you are now. To remember and never forget for one second that you are a beautiful soul inside and out. And never forget that peoples reaction to you is never ever about you it's about them!Don't waste anytime analyzing what they say don't give it your attention..energetically this just attracts more of the same. Become immune by knowing that this is just a space for growth and it will pass. Don't give too much energy to it.. and never ever let it get you down.
posted by lavender9 at 3:12 PM on June 4, 2010

The most helpful thing for me would also be to realize how ridiculous it is, even if I have to be really deliberate about that realization at first. (You are eventually who you imagine yourself to be.) And then laugh. "Seriously? ... me, ugly and bad-hearted? Wow, they're really off track... Someone must have misinformed them... hahahaha." Recognizing it in this way lets you get some distance, puts you in reality again rather than the fantasy of wrongness that they're creating, and can also leave room for them to be human (in your mind) rather than the malicious other. The best way to respond to being dehumanized is to refuse to do it to someone else -- but this can be so challenging.

I would also get in touch with people who I know adore me. I would ask them outright to just spend some time telling me how awesome I am and helping me laugh at the incorrect things people are saying. It's important to have voices to counteract the negative ones.

Recognize that the comments are not about you personally but are about a wretched, foreign, stranger. You stand in for the whole world of "others" who are "not like us." I think the fear and dislike of strangers is a really basic human reaction. So, number one, it's not you; you're a symbol. I think this is right. In the best case scenario, these situations would be an opportunity to let someone get to know the person beyond the symbol, and you could both be enriched by the experience -- you would have achieved a goal of connecting with a local person and practicing the language, and they would have a real person to imagine, instead of a stereotype, the next time someone mentions "America" or "foreigners." What a wonderful opportunity.

If that isn't possible I think it is good to call them out, if there is a socially and culturally appropriate way to do so and if you can do it in a way that isn't hostile but is genuinely based in a desire to explore and learn. how upset I am that people have lack the simple human decency not to talk about some right in front of their face, and how I feel like I am being treated as less than human -- can you say that last part to someone without breaking a rule?

Everyone deals with different things in a new culture as a result of how they look, carry themselves, speak, where they live or walk, etc. In a given group of girls some get a lot of crap and others get so little that it's easy to misunderstand what the others are going through; and everyone responds differently because they all bring a different history to the table. Your experience is absolutely valid even if no one else in your circle is having the same experience.

You sound so earnest and dedicated. If only these people could see past their lack of experience and have the opportunity to know who you are.
posted by ramenopres at 3:26 PM on June 4, 2010

My experience with the Chinese people I know is that they are far more blunt commenting anyone's looks and see nothing wrong with, for instance, comparing a 14 year old's boobs to those of her cousin in her presence.
I don't know if other Asian people are similar, but it might help to comsider. Makes it less personal.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:53 PM on June 4, 2010

A friend told me that he travelled for a while in Japan with a tall, blonde, American supermodel type who spoke fluent Japanese. What the guys on the train were saying about her was almost always some variation on what they would do to her in bed, or speculation on what she'd be willing to do with THEM in bed. She'd sit there and look oblivious for the entire train ride and then, as she was getting off the train, tell them they were fucking disgusting and ought to be ashamed of themselves for talking that way about a stranger.

It sounds like a really, really satisfying thing to do once in awhile.
posted by little light-giver at 12:01 AM on June 5, 2010

Can you get a button for your jacket or backpack that says, in the relevant language, "I understand [language]"? That might stop some people.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:14 AM on June 5, 2010

My father loved telling the story of some university friends of his who were visiting England. They (Pakistani/Indian) found themselves alone on the Tube with a white girl/woman and an elderly white gentleman. This was in the 60s. The uni students had fun discussing the white woman in Urdu. When the elderly gentleman's stop came, he got up to leave and just before exiting, said to them in beautiful Urdu: "It does not behoove men of good breeding to speak in this manner." (For those who are familiar with Urdu: Sahibzaade, shareefzaadon ko aisi guftugu zeb nahin daiti." That was the last time THOSE guys or any of their buddies ever assumed their conversation was not being understood.

My understanding from conversations with others is that South Asia is a lot easier on foreigners than East Asia can be. Even there, however, some people will be rude about a foreigner in Urdu, because they feel they can get away with it.

tl;dr Find a way to let them know you speak the language. Recognize that your physical appearance precludes your ever blending in. Learn to be comfortable enough in your own skin that being different doesn't bother you. Or remove yourself from the situation.
posted by bardophile at 1:40 AM on June 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

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