A fair-skinned, blue-eyed blonde does not stick out in the small city of Albany, NY.
She does not stick out in the Westchester community in which she went to school, the greater New York City area where she worked and where anything is acceptable, or in the homogenously white city in Australia in which she studied abroad.
She does, however, stick out in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I learned this very quickly because I was that girl.
I spent almost my entire life before Lanka as just another face in the crowd. I was not physically distinguishable from any other medium-build Caucasian girl.
I was not someone to be stared at by strangers for any reason other than a brightly-colored wardrobe choice or a flamboyant display of excitement. I didn’t exactly blend in with the wallpaper (frizzy hair, loud voice), but I didn’t exactly jump out at people, either.
All of that changed when I moved to Colombo.
Suddenly, I had so many eyes on me during my casual walks to the grocery store, that I often wondered if I left home without clothes on. For the first time in my life, I was a minority.
In Sri Lanka’s surprisingly untouristy capitol city, there would be entire days where I walked around seeing only locals, hearing only a language I could not understand. When I was in high school, a close friend of mine said to me,
Nearly any classroom I walk into, I’m hyperaware that I am the only black person in the class.
I heard this echoed many times during my tenure at university, where I took multiple classes regarding race and diversity. It wasn’t until living in Colombo, however, that I experienced this hyperawareness for myself.
My appearance was a blinking red light; a sign flashing, “FREAK SHOW”; an invitation I did not mean to send out to all others in the area saying, “Look. At. Me.”
Some people blatantly stared, and of those stares, many were out of curiosity. I wondered, perhaps, if I was the first white person any of them had seen in real life; although, strangely, many product advertisements featured people with the same skin tone and features as me.
I was on an overcrowded beach walking near the shore on one of my first days in town, and as I went along, I noticed the eyes of a child glued to me. She almost looked scared, like I was a bomb about to explode.
I smiled at her, and with that, she smiled the type of toothy grin that forced the corner of her eyes up, as well. She tugged on her mother’s skirt, and her mother looked at me with the same eye-brightening smile. Beautiful.
Kids were never afraid to stare; buses of school children would ride by, and 100 tiny hands would wave out the window at me. Grown men were also often not afraid to stare, but not always in the same innocent way the curious children would.
They would yell at me in groups, make kissy noises, roll up beside me in their cars or taxis and roll their windows down. I was offered money for sex by strangers driving by on multiple occasions.
There were people, however, who purposely diverted their eyes from me to avoid making me uncomfortable, and in an effort to avoid making it obvious that they noticed I was different.
On three separate occasions, people stopped me on the street and asked to take a photo with me. I caught people taking sneaky shots of me with their cameras and phones a handful of times, as well. I acclimated to the attention, but often silently begged for a reprieve.
Some days, I would walk around unperturbed by the eyes locked on me, comfortable with everyone’s curiosity. Other days, I would long to be back home in Albany, NY, where no one would give me a second glance.
For the first time in my life, I longed for the freedom of anonymity. It was almost an experience of celebrity, and in Sri Lanka, I realized that celebrity is not for everyone. Attention becomes grating.
Whereas, at first it might make you feel grand and important, eventually you feel like a small animal surrounded by others much larger and more accustomed to the forest than you.
Again, I flashback to what my friend in high school said; I was experiencing the hyperawareness of being different in a way that I had no control over, nor the ability to hide from.