People stare. This is nothing new to anyone.
This morning I stood at yet another check-out line with my husband and my baby, waiting to pay for a few groceries in our cart plus a fresh warm baguette I was holding in my hands. And there was an old man, staring down at my little Noah in his stroller. Just staring first at Noah then at me and Davy, and back and forth between my family of three, for far too long for it not to be rude.
When I lived in New York, I assumed people stared at me because I was devastatingly beautiful (sarcasm alert). Or because they were wondering where my pants were. I abhor pants and often wear dresses meant to be shirts because pants and I just don’t get along. This especially applies when I’m on vacation somewhere.
Now that I’m living as an expat in Ghent, I assume people are staring at me because I’M NOT WHITE. Sure I am convinced that it’s also my fashionable devastating beauty, and the whole pants-less thing. But with a population not much bigger than that of New York, Belgium is 23% non-Belgian and that’s not based on skin color. Most of that 23% reside in the capital of Brussels, where 70% of the population is tagged “foreign”.
But I don’t live in Brussels, I live in Ghent (spelled “Gent” in Dutch). Specifically in Evergem, that is mostly once farmland, where I can easily go days and sometimes weeks without seeing skin that is anything but white. I married a white man and into his family of white people. I love white people. But I love all people. But that doesn’t matter when I’m standing on line at the supermarket or getting cough syrup at the “apotheek” (pharmacy) or chewing on chicken at some restaurant here. I just get stared at.
And I don’t know if I’m noticing it more now because I have a baby of mixed Belgian and Korean-American love, or if people are just staring more now that I’m prancing around with a little mixed baby. It’s ignorance and lack of tact that causes my discomfort and feelings of offense. I’m sometimes tempted to carry a few family photos around so I can hand them out to those who stare too long. And charge them a euro or two for it.
I don’t mind so much being stared at, as long as when I meet a stare there is a softness in their eyes telling me they mean no harm and merely lack social skills. Sometimes we can exchange smiles and there’s even small talk. But if and when I am eye to eye and confronted with cold cobwebs of muted racism, I will still smile and nod while cursing them under my breath and carry on with my day. I’ve never lived anywhere where Asians were the majority in number, but I know I’m not going anywhere and so I’d better get better at dealing with the stares.
But I do believe every once in a while, before I can even help it, I’ll be guilty of beating someone over the head with a perfectly lovely baguette I was waiting to pay for. Because I do love living here.