Every morning on my walk to work I pass a woman selling glass bottles of diesel petrol. She funnels the piss-coloured liquid expertly into the bowels of waiting motorbikes, never spilling a drop. Every day she wears a slash of orange lipstick and her hair pulled back into a tight, neat bun. She is not proud. Her lips are permanently pursed with worry, and a furrow cuts into her brow. Her eyes are glazed blank as she stares past the meek smile I offer her, avoiding my gaze.

I get stared at in this city. Jakarta, a heaving metropolis bursting with nine million something inhabitants from Indonesia and overseas, is still a place where bules (foreigners) are a source of curiosity and uninhibited staring. The staring is sometimes sly, with eyes that surreptitiously slide around to trace my path, but more often is brazen: heads that turn to watch as I pass, sometimes followed by a hello, a hiss or the occasional catcall. It’s not a stare of desire and neither is it entirely disapproving. Mostly it’s almost clinical, the way one might study a new but seemingly familiar insect under a microscope. While women sometimes stare with a look of bemusement, it is the unsolicited gaze of men that I find ways to avoid.

I walk through Jakarta’s backstreets. I take narrow streets that wind through kampung (villages) to avoid busy roads, where the footpaths are non-existent and pedestrians compete with a constant stream of cars and motorbikes, trucks and kaki limas (food carts). The narrow backstreets are the living rooms of these neighbourhoods, where tempeh and chicken is fried, chilli and garlic ground for sambal, water is lugged for washing, children chalk sideways, and football-length rats dart between the garbage piles waiting to be collected by barefoot men pulling carts. Rib-thin dogs, fur matted with mud and noses patched with disease, wander looking for food and shade.

I cross a muddy river canal choked with plastic debris and fetid sewage, its bamboo bridge a totem of washed-up left foot thongs. A couple of bent-over banyan trees hold the banks together. If I squint and breathe through my mouth, this neighbourhood could almost be a village in sleepy rural Indonesia, instead of the centre of one of the world’s most populous cities.

Not everyone stares: some look away, while others gaze in a proprietorial manner that is teeth-grittingly unnerving. There are layers to the way people stare here, drawn across socio-economic levels. Women peep at me from doorways, watching with one eye on their cooking. The most brazen starers seem to be men with the security of paid work.

On the walk from my sharehouse I pass several building sites before turning onto these back streets. Three houses – or more accurately, opulent mansions – are being built on my street in the space of a block. Once a modest neighbourhood, new housing developments are changing this fast. The rich are moving in.

The largest house has three stories with huge Roman pillars over an enormous entryway, all finished with ornate gold gilding. The labourers building this extravagant mansion live on-site. A line of hand-wrung washing, the t-shirts worn paper thin, hangs in the space that will soon be a bedroom. This may be the only time these men live in a home like this, before it is furnished with marble kitchen tops, carpets and chandeliers. Three labourers stick jags of broken glass into the top of the drying cement wall that closes the house from the world; a final flourish to remind people just like them that they are not invited.

They watch me as I pass by, a mixture of blank grins and purse-mouthed stares, passing comments amongst themselves. Bules, especially ones who walk, are still a novelty here: these men watch me as they would a television.

There are men poorer still than these labourers, who struggle to secure even the most rudimentary form of security – some paid work, a place to sleep. They are the men and women who sift through waste to collect bottles, scrape the labels off and sell the plastic for twenty cents a kilogram. They are hungry each day, tight in poverty’s grip. They work from waking and fall asleep anywhere, exhausted, with no time for anything aside. They push rubbish carts to collect the waste others discard, their bare feet slapping the ground, flat footed and thick skinned. They don’t stare at anyone. Their precarious existence keeps them hidden, their gaze running off into the places where they disappear.

Despite the huge houses they live in, the rich in this city are largely absent from view. They stay behind their concrete gates and tinted car windows, serviced by drivers and maids from the poorer parts of Java.

“I don’t think the poverty in Jakarta is that bad, I’ve never really seen it,” I once overheard a wealthy Indonesian woman say in a restaurant. She tasks her staff with being attentive so that she can look away from her surrounds. Power here is maintained by those who don’t need to look.

The gaze performs a function of maintaining social cohesion. The petrol seller, not meeting my eyes, introduced to me the unspoken hierarchy of eye contact in Jakarta. Eye contact at its most basic function works to reinforce social standing and status. Studies have shown that people lower in status tend to look at others more than people of a higher status do. We give more attention to and make greater eye contact with people we consider our superiors, and less to those we feel are inferior to us, according to a report in Psychology Today.

The direction of the gaze in a social context is often towards the most dominant member of the group, an attention hierarchy that leads to social cohesion. The upper middle class don’t stare as frequently – indifference to foreigners is an indicator of status here too. The poor look at the rich or more powerful, who look away or at one another, or at themselves documenting and reinforcing their identity in a constant social media status update. But there seems to be a lower level again: the poor whose economic precariousness places them outside of eye contact completely. Not meeting a gaze, and not looking either.

It took me a while to figure out that staring is not considered impolite in Indonesia. A foreigner friend described the stares as ‘sticky eyes’ glued to her every movement. My first reaction to the stares was to glare back scornfully, my eyes slivers of rage, eyebrows a disapproving furrow. This communicates ‘fuck off’ where I come from, and is generally quite effective. This frown didn’t seem to communicate the same thing in Indonesia – disconcertingly it seemed to suggest reciprocated interest.

Where I’d been going wrong can be summed up by a phenomena called ‘projected similarities’: the assumption that people across all cultures communicate non-verbally in the same way. That a glare in Jakarta means the same as it does in my hometown, Melbourne. I’d learnt some Indonesian in a windowless classroom back home, but I hadn’t learnt something equally as important. Non-verbal communication is different between all cultures, but none so distinctly and crucially as eye contact.

There are layers to the way people stare here, drawn across socio-economic levels. Women peep at me from doorways, watching with one eye on their cooking. The most brazen starers seem to be men with the security of paid work.

Young Indonesian women, I began to observe, defer their gaze, casting their eyes downwards at a self-blinkering angle one step ahead. When I did the same, taking up a mask of cold indifference, I found it to be surprisingly effective at rendering men inanimate. I now sometimes spend so long behind this mask of detachment that I forget how to let it go, my face frozen into perpetual withdrawn blankness. I have become so frequent a participant of this ritualised subordination that I worry my features have rearranged themselves. I’ve taken up the armour of the petrol seller woman.

My first true cross-cultural communication experience came some years earlier when I’d first arrived in Indonesia, sitting face-to-face with an Indonesian language teacher: a kind-faced, very devout Muslim man who fixed his gaze on an area of my face that wasn’t my eyes and wasn’t my mouth. When I’d learnt enough Indonesian to ask him what exactly he was looking at, he explained that in teaching he’d found a way to negotiate the cultural complexities of eye contact and adhere to both his religion’s rules – Islam discourages looking into the eyes of those of the opposite gender – and Western norms for which attentiveness and respect is measured through eye contact. He looked at people’s cheeks when teaching, having found that cheeks are a universal gaze safe zone.

Wandering Jakarta’s streets, I learnt to renegotiate non-verbal cues and examine my own values and assumptions – deciding which ones to hang onto and which ones needed to be loosened a little. I learnt to appreciate the simple freedom of looking a stranger in the eye, and have it mean what I want it to mean.

Tessa Toumbourou is a writer and researcher from Melbourne, currently based in Jakarta. Her writing has been published in Inside Indonesia, Crikey, Voiceworks and other places.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Azlan DuPree