My mother and I stand in an elevator with a young Japanese woman, her partner, and their baby. The couple whispers excitedly in Japanese and doesn’t pay me or my mother any attention. As the young pair chats in hushed tones, I look over and see my mother giggling. “What’s so funny?” I ask her. My mother points her finger to the inside of the stroller. An adorable baby stares back, bright-eyed and curious. As we ride down fifty floors in the elevator, the baby never breaks eye contact with my mother. Halfway through the journey, the young woman looks over to us and apologizes for the baby, explaining that her child has not learned any manners yet. Unsure of what to say in response, I look towards my mother. She nods her head at the young woman and smiles. We reach the ground floor. The young couple and my mother and I go our separate ways.
A few hours later, my mother and I are sitting on the subway, making our way back to her hotel. It’s rush hour. People hurriedly rush in and out of our train car, bumping into one another and avoiding eye contact. However, one little pair of eyes stays focused on my mother throughout our entire trip. Amid the rushing bodies, a toddler, sitting across from us, stares intently at my mother. His little eyes are penetrating and it seems as though he’s never seen anyone who looks like my mother before. The woman holding the toddler briefly glances in our direction, blushes, and turns her head away. I look at my mother. She flicks me a quick side-eye and smirks.
Interactions like the aforementioned have happened several times throughout my mother’s brief trip to Tokyo. All the babies and young children that we encounter tend to stare at her, as their embarrassed parents try to apologize or excuse their child’s curiosity. My mother explained to me that babies have no filter. Babies will continue to look at something if they’re interested regardless of the possible awkwardness. Young children and babies have not yet learned that society dictates that staring is rude or taboo. My mother hypothesized that the babies were staring because they’d never seen anyone who looks like her before. Perhaps, she’s right.
But, perhaps she isn’t…. I would argue that this type of intensive observation isn’t limited to young children and babies. In one of my previous blog posts, I talked about my experience with “The Stare” and how it can stem from something as innocent as genuine curiosity to something as sinister as prejudice. Although I agree with my mother that young children haven’t learned the social taboos of staring, I believe that this learning process is never fully actualized. I notice that although most young children and babies stare, many adults follow the same pattern. For example, my mother didn’t seem to notice the older man sitting diagonally from her on the train staring at her or the woman on the platform, eyeballing her through the glass.
During her trip to Tokyo, my mother saw what she wanted to. She came to a conclusion that babies and young children stared at her because they haven’t learned not to. It seems to me, like we as humans, never really learn not to stare at people. I’ve wondered about my mother’s inability to notice the adults staring at her and I haven’t been able to come up with an answer to her behavior. This inability of my mother’s made me feel a bit wary and protective over her during our time together in Tokyo.