Last updated on November 15, 2021
Tucked away into a small corner of a local coffee shop, I’m watching you and you don’t even realize it. The curiously strong coffee clutched in my fist makes me look just like you, but instead I’m listening, assessing, judging, and filing away my observations.
You’re telling a story, and I’m watching the way you fling your hands into the air to emphasize your point. Then the quietly demure nod of the server when your Western sentimentalities embarrass her; she takes your order and scuttles away, now ensconced behind the safety of the service counter.
I watch from park benches and coffee shops, sidewalk stoops and crowded markets.
Dense crowds make my heart seize (there’s just something unnerving about being so tightly packed that I’m breathing a stranger’s warm and moist exhaled breath) so instead I escape behind the crowds. I squeeze between the market tables and perch on small stool behind the market stalls. The vendors smile; they understand.
Then I watch and take note.
Behavior changes when you have no perception of being observed. That’s my favorite part. The vendors and tourists know they’re in a market surrounded by people, but they hide behind their language differences and perceived anonymity.
Locals assume the tourists won’t cotton on to the teasing if it’s done in Thai, and conversely, rapid exchanges in Swedish only go so far when I can obviously tell the couple is arguing over which person is about to take the role of “bad cop” in the pending price negotitations for a tacky souvenir (that they will regret. Trust me; it’s funny, but not a keeper).
The thing is, none of those overcome the body language. The cultural cues are written on our bodies and that’s what I’m watching.
In India, husband and wives rarely hold hands, but yet it’s a cultural norm for male friends to handhold and touch, and for women to hold hands with other women.
The French touch and gesture openly.
Young Japanese tourists are easily spotted by a face full of carefully applied makeup and a sense of style I’ve resigned myself to never actually possessing no matter how many copies of In Style I sift through.
And the Thai women like to giggle and gossip. They talk more crap about you while you’re getting your massage than you could possibly imagine.
You know how common knowledge says “you’re imaging things, people aren’t that interested in talking about you?”
Not quite true. Traveling and being intrigued by culture is a two way street – I’m here in Thailand learning about their culture, and they are staring right back at me, making assumptions and observations about Americans. The night markets in Chiang Mai are a breeding ground for gossip and trained ears pick up on the buzz of farang, farang, farang (Westerner, Westerner, Westerner) from the lips of locals as they gossip.
My people-watching props vary from city to city. Sometimes it’s an ice cream cone; other times a notebook and a shady tree. I’m unobtrusive and everyone is subject to scrutiny, tourists and locals alike, it’s fascinating to see not only a window into the local culture, but also how other people digest the culture.
I find myself wondering: Has anyone else noticed the women scootering around the city on impossibly high heels? Or the forgotten street dogs, mangy and sad with tattered, dingy sweaters indicating … ? I’m not sure. Perhaps that someone does care. Or maybe it’s a single crazy old lady in town knitting sweaters, chasing down dogs and swathing them in clothes?!
I don’t people watch for answers, but instead for the endless streams of questions and perpetual food-for-thought.