Madhuranthakam: The Enigmatic Stare

Student Indu Mithra Madhuranthakam discusses cultural differences and the enigmatic stare. - Photo via

The stare that haunts me at night. That enigmatic stare. Do you hate me? I am only trying to help. Do you find it hard to understand my accent? I am trying my best. Are you going to lash out at me? Is this where I run away and hide for my life? 

Okay, I am not going to beat around the bush anymore. I am going to set the bush on fire and get this straight– I am not an American.

I am from the land of wobble heads. You guessed it right; I am from India. We in India nod our heads in all possible directions. We nod as we talk, we nod as we listen, we nod when we are happy, we nod when we are angry, and we nod as a way of expressing ourselves, for which we are often made fun of. I am okay with being made fun of, but I have a sincere question for my American friends and acquaintances: how do I know when I am talking to an American that they don’t hate me, that they are not going to hurt me or that they understand me? Because, honestly, I find it hard to read faces here. 

I understand that there are cultural differences and that invincible language barrier, but expression is something I thought we all had in common.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know Americans are very expressive with their words. They never fail to say thank you or sorry. In fact, I love the way Americans appreciate tiny things. We don’t do that in India. We are very shy when it comes to expressing things with our words. Instead of thank you, we say, “you didn’t have to do it.” Instead of sorry, we say, “let’s forget about it,” and instead of I love you, we say, “…my bad!” I love you is definitely the hardest thing to say in India. 

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I am not here to depict the cultural disparities or to divide people in terms of culture or language. I know we are all humans. We are all people struggling with our own insecurities and self-doubt. I am here genuinely curious and wondering if there are others out there who are grappling with the same dilemmas as I am because I often just need to know that my concerns are valid as an international student and that I am not alone in this. 

As a research fellow and lab instructor at Rowan, I interact with a lot of students every single day. When I am at the podium teaching, I see a great deal of mysterious stares threatening me with what I fear is incomprehension of the material. As I teach and speak, my words often seem to go over their heads to a hollow space, where all the unperceived stimuli end up.

In the beginning, I thought it was the masks hiding everyone’s expressions. To my surprise, when the mandatory mask mandate on campus was called off, I still saw numerous blank stares. I could be missing the subtle hints of comprehension– that they are understanding me, that they are only focused and not holding some sort of grudge against me. To be fair, it took me 23 years to understand what each nod in India meant, so I guess it’s too early to understand the subtleties of human interactions in the United States.

There are many books about the evolution of cultural differences and human interactions, so I am not concluding this conversation by stating all the facts. The reason I took to this platform– had this conversation– is to ask for those reading to smile, nod, or give a gesture to make the international students, like myself, feel understood and comfortable enough to strike up a conversation with more ease and less apprehension.

However, if there are readers willing to help me understand this enigmatic stare, I am ready to have a conversation.

Don’t forget to nod during that conversation. 

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