I am sitting alone in the corner of the restaurant, eating greasy vegetables and a fried egg with rice. I keep my head down, mindlessly playing Temple Run on my iPhone with my left hand while my right hand moves chopsticks from bowl to mouth and back again. I am trying to avoid eye contact with the couple at the next table. This is difficult, because I can feel their gaze on the left side of my head like a magnet, pulling my eyes towards theirs if I dare to relax my effort for an instant. I steal a glance and their four dark eyes are unblinkingly focused on me. My Temple Run guy gets beheaded by a tree branch, and I spill some rice onto my lap.

I am trying desperately not to listen to their conversation, but one word leaps from the woman’s mouth and slaps me on the face like my own name, forcing me to pay attention. Laowai. Foreigner. Yes, they are talking about me. I consider putting down my chopsticks, looking them in the eye, and whipping out an eloquent comeback. Hello, excuse me, are you really Chinese? Wow, I never realized I was a foreigner before, thank you!

At the very least, I could tell them that yes, I am a foreigner, and by the way I can also understand what you are saying.

But as their conversation continues, I lose my nerve. The couple is speaking in the Nanjing dialect, which sounds sort of like Standard Mandarin except with different tones, different vowels, different consonants, and mostly different words. To me, their conversation sounds like blablablaFOREIGNERblablaUSING CHOPSTICKSblablabla and so forth. If I say something to them, I might not understand the response. If I look them straight in the eye, they might laugh. What do they want, anyway? Can’t I eat in peace? I fix my eyes firmly to my cell phone screen, and continue to shovel food in my mouth as fast as I can, trying to emulate the way some young Chinese guys can inhale an entire bowl of rice without closing their mouths once or taking a single breath, like a vacuum cleaner or a yellow lab. At last, my food is gone. I put down my chopsticks, and I let the Temple Run guy get trampled by demons. Crumpling my receipt into my pocket, I stand up and push in my chair—and my eyes lock onto theirs. Now normally, when one discovers that the object of one’s loud and rude conversation has made eye contact, one might choose to look away out of politeness. Not so with these two. Their eyes are wide, unblinking, and unabashed. I smile and look at them questioningly—do they want to talk to me? I give a raised-eyebrow smile, trying my best to communicate through that single gesture that If there is something you want to say you better say it now because I am not a zoo animal and I am leaving now. I wait a moment. Their eyes haven’t blinked, and they haven’t said a word. Finally I roll my eyes conspicuously and leave the restaurant, hearing their murmured laughter and feeling their eyes never leaving the back of my head.

Outside on the street, I am protected somewhat by the heat, the noise, and crowds. People are dodging motorbikes, huddling under parasols, buying goldfish from the fish tank lady on the curb, and drinking plastic milk tea from plastic cups wrapped in three layers of plastic bags. If their eyes glance in my direction, there are too many of them for me to notice. Their magnetic stares pull my head from so many directions at once that they cancel each other out. I stare straight ahead as my feet carry me across the street, dodge a bicycle, then turn towards my office.

Suddenly a new magnet pulls my head around, and I see something unusual. Another foreigner. He is taller than me and larger than me and black. Next to him, I am as invisible as the Chinese beggar children who try to sell you flowers at two o’clock in the morning. I feel an instant kinship, and try to catch his eye—but he just keeps walking, eyes on the ground, hands in his pockets in forced nonchalance. I realize with a start that my eyes are only two of the thousands pushing and pulling into his consciousness. I have become the starer, and he the target. And so I turn my eyes to the ground and continue on my way, blissfully anonymous.

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