I’ll tell you a secret: for the past few years, I’ve developed an anxiety of wandering alone in large public spaces.
It’s not that I can’t pass through a market without having a breakdown. But any time I have to go out, I have to mentally prepare myself. I have to tell myself to function and appear like a normal human being. As a friend of mine so plainly said: “I don’t like being perceived by others.”
Part of this, I think, is a conditioned response to where I had been living previously. In many parts of West Africa, I had to cope with the fact that I would always be perceived and examined and observed every time I walked outside— often far more than I was used to in the States. And while I learned to adapt— to look forward, to ignore, to push aside— I never felt like myself as I passed through these spaces.
The other part is personality. Ever since I was a child, I was afraid of being perceived— especially if my actions could lead to any obvious mistakes. Without delving into root causes, my anxieties have often led to silly behaviors abroad. I’ve skipped meals because I didn’t want to order in a foreign language in front of others. I’ve created fake conversations to have with my phone in case I had to turn around because I went the wrong way. I’ve gone without water on long hot bus rides so I wouldn’t have to disturb the person sitting next to me on the aisle seat to get up and let me go to the bathroom. You get the idea.
Last week, I started a new chapter and moved to Taiwan. I visited the Ximen night market over the weekend all by myself, just to wander around. It was stuffy and hot, and there were a lot of people. I even debated whether I should just grab a 7-Eleven sandwich and just eat in my room.
But as I walked into the market, I snapped a few photos, stopped to watch some street performers, and practiced some new Chinese words to order street food. I remembered how it felt to wander. To walk around and just experience and be both anonymous and full of curiosity in this space and in this moment. This time around, I was the perceiver again.