What’s In Your Eye?

One autumn morning, I was standing at a bus stop when a couple with brown complexion like mine approached. I greeted, and I got back a weak nod from the gentleman. I searched the lady’s eyes to make contact but nothing came of it. The bus came before I could make an attempt at small talk, and we all hopped in and went our separate ways.

There is nothing unusual with this kind of communication, which basically means I’ve accepted it as the norm. When I first moved to Finland, I used to be so excited when I encountered another African, because we are a minority here. Most times my excitement was met with a quick glance or complete avoidance.

Eye Illustration by MagicLoveCrow

This behaviour confused me at first, and I wondered “Why do we Africans behave differently, when we are in white spaces?” Because back home, when we greet “Sawubona” we actually mean I see you. I see you as a fellow human being and we journey this life together; we coexist.

It was when I started working with fellow immigrants, and hearing their stories, that I started to understand what’s in the eye. The pain, loss, displacement and the sheer act of trying to survive in a new place with its own set of values and traditions. By looking each other in the eye, we risk an outburst of emotions.

So, I pose a different question to you, dear reader. What’s in your eye, when you encounter another fellow human; fear, mistrust, kindness, acknowledgment, etc? And does it require a change of perspective?

note: This short essay is written for Telling Tales with Magaly Guerrero. The question, “Why do we Africans behave differently, when we are in white spaces?” has inspired a number of my poems. In any case, I know I’m not the only one pondering this behaviour. The first paragraph of this essay (though it explores a different subject) vividly captures what I’m talking about.

Khaya Ronkainen

38 Comments

  1. Such a wonderful piece of prose and afterword..as someone with facial disfigurement i too get uneasy stares..perhaps it is human not to look to much…though sad that we miss out on meeting some interesting people

  2. Clearly and beautifully written. A dilemma quite foreign to many of us, in the specifics, so it’s good that you educate us. But then – your question: ‘What is in your eye…?’ Yes, quite right, it’s something we ALL need to consider.

  3. Thank you Jae for your encouraging comment. I understand about uneasy stares, they can be uncomfortable for the receiver and oblivious by the giver. But making eye contact (not the staring) is a form of communication. And when we choose to avoid or not engage, I believe we miss out as you’ve put it.

  4. Khaya, Sawubona! 😀 What a beautiful word and I’ve tried to articulate it and am sure I’ve not got it right! I love its meaning, about truly seeing one another, looking one another in the eye, acknowledging eahc other’s existence, humanity, the gates open to conversation.

    Alas, the scene you describe at the bus stop is one I am familiar with here in the U.K.! It’s the standard norm alas. When the rare time of conversation occurs it’s like a blessing, release and uplifting.

    In your touching essay I’m saddened how the norm for so many immigrants when meeting fellow people with this beautiful greeting has been lost, and that people cannot acknowledge the loss, or even the loss itself for fear of opening up the emotions. The sense of dislocation must be intense.

    Personally, I try to meet people with a look in the eye, hopefully friendly. One thing I’ve noticed is that since moving to where I live now I feel more of a ‘foreigner’ than ever before. Where I grew up I was part and parcel of society, the area, friends … my Swedish origins of no matter. Ever since I moved to the south east it’s so often commented on that I got fed up and embraced my Swedish heritage more than ever! It’s belonging yet not quite … but then sometimes the same feeling in Sweden! Very odd. My son is very much for the global … I love his attitude and think that is the way forward!

    Sorry for this essay comment … your post touched me deeply. May the next person you meet at the bus stop, pause and greet you with a gentle ‘Sawubona’! Hugs xx😀❤️

  5. I know it’s a dilemma quite foreign to some. My husband, for instance, doesn’t always understand what the “fuss”, (my issue with this behaviour) is all about. I guess, culture plays a huge role in communication. Thanks you for reading Rosemary, and considering the question!

  6. Sawubona Annika! The greeting comes from the Zulu language, which is much easier on pronunciation than Xhosa. So, I’m sure you got it right. 🙂

    It is sad, indeed, that the bus stop scene is to be accepted as the standard norm. Because as you put it, when the conversation occurs it’s like a blessing, release and uplifting. And we might even find out that we have more things in common than not.

    In the essay, I use “sawubona” to capture the concept of seeing one another and to demonstrate the point. But I’m referring to Africans at large, who are here for different reasons; employment, studies, refugee status, etc. It’s a gross generalisation, of course, as this behaviour depends on the said “space” and reasons we are here, to begin with. Nonetheless, it’s disturbing.

    “…where I live now I feel more of a ‘foreigner’ than ever before.” I would say, this is more common than not. Even moving cities within one’s own country can make one feel like an outsider, at least, until strong social interactions are established. With embracing one’s heritage, I see no other option and we need not be apologetic for doing so.

    Your son could be on that right path, perhaps a global view is what we need. Thank for reading and your comment. I appreciate your input! Hugs <3

  7. I can understand the displacement and pain that might close in a person’s emotions. There have been times in my life where i have walked the world that way. Now i live in a village with a large First Nations presence. I love it here, and walk around smiling and greeting people and people smile back.

  8. You are correct, pain can close a person’s emotion. I respect that. Yet eye contact or a smile is not asking for an autobiography, it’s simply acknowledgement. But, I’m really happy to hear you live in such a friendly neighbourhood, where you walk around smiling and greeting. 🙂 That’s truly wonderful, and the saying goes “Nothing is more beautiful than a smile that has struggled through tears.”

  9. “Sawubona,” my dearest friend! ❤️ This is such a heart-stirring write. There are a few kind and compassionate people left in the world. Nowadays when I make eye contact with another person… I usually encounter indifference… moreover I see attitude and a certain amount of arrogance which repels me instantly… if only we as a species could understand that we are stronger together.

  10. Sawubona, dearest Sanaa! <3
    I hear you, the world needs more kindness and compassion. Yeah, seeing indifference in one's eye scares, because monsters feed on (and grow bigger from) indifference.

  11. I’ve been a brown immigrant in a white country, briefly. It’s interesting because you encounter people from your own part of the world who react to you in different ways, depending on where they are in the immigrant pecking order! But the hesitation that comes from difference is something you can see everywhere, sadly. I used to work with a disability non-profit and know that if people can get over what they think are differences and reach out, they will see how it makes a difference to their own lives and the lives of others. It does require a change of perspective – more knowledge, awareness and sensitivity.

  12. Sawubona, my dearest Khaya! I will say that you are not alone in getting excited at the sight of other seeing other people that remind you of you. I greet everyone and smile like the world is my dentist. And when I hear a Dominican accent, I go practically wild with delight. These behaviors inspire people to look at me with curiosity every now and again, but… the most common reaction is another smile.

    In NYC, I seem to scare the homeless, when I say hello and smile to them. Quite often, they look behind them to see if I was talking to someone else. When they look back at me, and I’m still smiling, most of them smile back. When I get lucky, they say hello back. Other times, they walk away from me quickly, their face a mixture of confusion and mistrust… and the pain and despair your piece speaks of.

    May we reach the time when we all see each other… and feel that we are here, too.

  13. Sawubona, being male and white (in a white place) I have almost never felt displaced, but I do remember when first moving to Stockholm I noted how rarely you met the gaze of a fellow traveler… I was used to saying hello and making small talk when meeting others… but I think since then I have ceased trying.

  14. I know Africa is a big continent, we have different cultures within but some things, like greeting strangers, are common. So, it’s a very interesting experience, for sure. But you make a good point, it does require more knowledge, awareness and sensitivity.

  15. Sawubona, dearest Maga! 😀 You made me laugh out loud with your smile “like the world is [your] dentist.” But I can imagine the excitement at hearing your native accent. It’s the same with me, when I hear a South African accent. Sadly not many South Africans come this way but thankfully the few of us here, get to hangout together; rugby is one of our uniting activities.

    The NYC scene you mention with the homeless is so heartening, more especially at this time of the year. The pain and displacement can be acute. Keep brightening their days with that beautiful smile of yours. It’s one of the best gifts really. And may we reach that time where we all we each other, indeed.

  16. What a stark temperature change Finland must have been from Africa. I find that no matter who, what color of skin, eyes, etc. that a smile and a nod go a long way. I tell myself it is their loss if it is not returned. I can only change myself. I visited Helsinki this past August and loved Finland. Winter must be another matter though. In Upstate NY, we get a lot of snow but I don’t think I would travel in winter to Finland. You are brave. Thank you for the lovely post.

  17. Khaya this is such a deep thought provoking post, especially in a time when we are so consumed with ourselves. Do we see one another should be a question we all ask ourselves on a daily basis. The discussion here is equally interesting and it’s so good to see so many people ‘feel’ exactly what you mean. Sometimes I think empathy is dying and yet when I see writing like yours that truly engages us and causes us to think on a deeper level, I am encouraged. Thank you so much for your beautiful and timely words dear Khaya.💗

  18. Sadly a white persons upbringing may affect them for life if their own parents were uncomfortable with closeness to different coloured people and passed that trait on. Luckily my own parents were quite relaxed about the difference so that acceptance was passed on to me. However what is worse is the apparent hate that is felt which is totally unjustified. Here in Australia this can be seen with some people’s attitude to the native aboriginal people whose country it was. This is totally unacceptable.

  19. It’s very complicated to simultaneously understand where someone else’s response is coming from and feel the disappointment and isolation of it at the same time. My experience is different from that of immigrants far from home, however, I think there is an experience in some ways similar growing among humans in general over here in North America. Kind deeds and attempts at friendly connection with strangers are met with indifference or even rudeness or rebuke. Perhaps there is so much pain, anger, fear and distrust circulating in North American society that connection feels risky.

  20. Sawubona Björn😊 Your experience as a white male in a white space sounds familiar. I’ve heard of, from close associations. And to some extent it always comforts me to hear that this gaze can be elusive for all of us. Thank you for popping by, I appreciate.

  21. Hi Maryann, I couldn’t agree with you more. A smile and a nod go a long way, indeed, no matter the colour.

    It’s also good to hear you enjoyed your recent visit to Helsinki. I encourage you to visit Finland in winter as well; it’s the most beautiful season in my opinion. With right clothing you can survive it.😀

    And oh yes, a move from South Africa to Finland came with a huge culture shock. But I don’t see myself as brave just in love.

  22. Khaya, loved your comment. What motivated you to move to Finland in the first place? I live in a very snowy Upstate NY city so I am familiar with winters. I fell in love with the sea buckthorn juice and lingonberry juice I had at breakfast at the hotel. Enjoy your winter in Finland!

  23. What motivated you to move to Finland in the first place? I fell in love with a Finn. 🙂 Thanks for reading Maryann, you have a wonderful winter too!

  24. Hi Steph, thank you for taking time to read. I’m touched by comment as it’s always great to hear that all this writing is not in vain.

    You are correct, we live in age where we’re so consumed with ourselves that we fail to notice one another. As one of the readers has commented, a smile and nod is all it takes really.

    May we always try to reach out to one another, especially at this time of the year. For some, holiday celebrations can be a lonely time!

  25. True that Robin, our upbringing places a huge role too on how we communication with one another, and with the world at large. Don’t even mention the apparent hate that is so unjustified, nowadays! I’ve worked and lived in Australia for a short while, I’ve witnessed what you’re talking about. It’s not only unacceptable, it’s also sad.

  26. It can be shocking, when one’s kindness or friendliness is met with indifference or rudeness. I guess, when we encounter such behaviour we have to understand it’s not about us, and let it go.

    With the political climate you have in your part of the world, it’s understandable that a connection can feel risky. But it’s still sad, nonetheless.

  27. This is interesting Khaya! I thought for sure all black people knew the unwritten, universal rule to acknowledge each other, especially in white spaces. Your perspective of why interactions are different there seems like a valid one. A lot of times we’re hiding our emotions. It reminds me of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask.

  28. Indeed this time of year is challenging to many. I just heard for the first time about Blue Christmas Services for those who are hurting and am doing research on it as it sounds like a great idea to me.

  29. It looks like not everyone got the memo, Kathy. Seriously though, it’s something I’ve even thought of writing a book about. But then again, I’ve got other stories I want to tell that have nothing to do with being an immigrant. Btw I checked Dunbar’s poem, and it says it all.

  30. Aw, so sorry you’re often met with avoidance like that. Communication can be unnecessarily complicated sometimes, unfortunately. And heh, eye contact is something I’ve always failed at, I must admit, to the point where I’ve been ridiculed for it. (I don’t avoid eye contact on purpose, though. It’s just not an instinct I was born with, which has probably ruined potential connections for me.) Also, “sawubona” is such a beautiful word–thanks for introducing it to me!

  31. Sawubona Heather, lovely to see you around. You are so correct, communication can be unnecessarily complicated. Yet it’s an important aspect of our daily interactions. I guess, it’s a matter of taking into consideration different communication styles and accept them for what they are.

  32. I love the eye illustration from Stacy at Magic Love Crow blog.

    Many find eye contact difficult.
    Many find acknowledging another human being difficult.

    What I have found the older I get the more people are willing to acknowledge a smile or even a hello!
    People seem far more wary these days … it’s sad but true!

    All the best Jan

  33. Oh dear, I hit the publish button and nothing seemed to happen.

    I enjoyed reading your post, it seems that in these present times people are so much more wary and unsure of each other … it’s a shame but true!

    I love the illustration by Stacy at MLC.

    All the best Jan

  34. Thank you so much Jan for reading. You make a good point about “the older I get the more people are willing to acknowledge a smile or even a hello!” My observation is that older folks don’t seem to have qualms with eye contact and a smile. Makes one think…

    p.s. Apologies about disappearing comments. First-time commentors or comments coming from unknown sources are held for me to manually approve. Your previous comment didn’t have your trademark Gravatar. I appreciate you taking time to leave the comment again. 🙂

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