2019 Spring Carter Wynne Temple Japan Temple Semester

Problematizing People Watching

I don’t know whether or not it’s taboo to admit this, but I have a true love for people watching. I adore sitting on the train and watching the families, couples, and loners pour into the car. I enjoy moseying down a busy street and pinpointing my focus on one thing about each person I pass…their shoes, their hair, the way they hold their bags…it doesn’t matter. To me, its addictive — humans are fascinating. I like guessing their age, where they’re from, and what stories they conceal behind their eyes. Sometimes, as bizarre as it may sound, I make up little narratives to match an individual that I’ve been watching for a few minutes. I’ll give them a name and create a chronology of their life up until the moment I laid eyes on them. There isn’t one specific type of person that I like to watch. They come from every kind of circumstance and look tremendously different from one another. Although people watching is one of my favorite distractions, I hadn’t really considered how I may be the object of other people’s gaze in this capacity. Previously, I was only thinking about this type of “looking” as one motivated by something, not simply for the pleasure of people-watching. 

For the past four days, I’ve been traveling around Kyoto and Osaka, visiting the numerous historical wonders, eating the best homemade food I’ve had so far in Japan, and exploring Japanese culture outside of Tokyo. I took this trip with a group of friends that I met in my dorm. Over the course of the past month, we’ve grown fond of each other and have become comfortable with our own unique brand of banter and our distinct aesthetic. Before this trip, oddly enough, I hadn’t given much thought to the demographic makeup of our friend group and how we must look to those watching us…those in the midst of people-watching. 

About three days into our trip, we snapped a quick selfie – five black women and one white man smiling back at the camera. After we took the selfie, all six of us crowded around the photo to see how it came out. My friend Dana began laughing hysterically, pointing out how strange we must look to the Kyoto locals as a group of five black women and one soft-spoken white man. Once we heard this, our entire group started howling with laughter – suddenly realizing what we must have looked like. On our cab ride to our Airbnb, the driver seemed very tickled by our group. The driver asked our male friend “are you happy to be surrounded by such women?”, “can I come back to the U.S. in your suitcase” and then proceeded to say “it’s not that good for men in Japan.” In the moment, my friends and I found these problematic comments hilarious, giggling the whole ride to our accommodation. However, upon reflection, I tried to complicate the practice of people-watching. What does it mean that my friends and I found our own representation comical? What does it mean that our cab driver also noticed the same thing? To piggyback off my last post about “the stare”, I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to distinguish between the types of “looks” one receives. I’m not entirely sure if I have an answer. 

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