I studied abroad in Holland and loved almost every second of my semester in the country of gouda, tulips and tall, tall men. Almost. It’s sad that I’ve grown to accept the fact that verbal street harassment will forever be a part of my transit. I reluctantly came to terms with their format – usually verbal and often racial. I learned that the word “ni hao” meant “hello” in Mandarin, not through a book or friend, but because from an early age, it was so often shouted at me in passing. Of course, I no longer expect any of these men to suspect that they actually coexist with a diverse range of Asian Americans, but that never prevents me from responding with an forceful, “I’m not Chinese!” or keeping it sweet and simple with a flip-off.
It’s true that aggressively responding to such harassments can be reckless and lead to escalated incidents, but I’ve never been able to shut up the voice inside my head, which tells me that no man should be allowed to make a woman uncomfortable in her own city and not at least have his stupidity met with clear resentment. This is weird, but I seriously think about my nonexistent/hypothetical daughter during each catcall and refuse to think about her growing up in an environment where these actions aren’t met with some consequence. I don’t want her constantly on guard and uncomfortable in her own world when the only thing she should be thinking about is getting from point A to point B.
So, I might have not been fine with the state of street harassment, but for the most part, I felt physically safe when confronted in public areas and city streets. Unfortunately, my perceptions were skewed when my mom and sister came to stay in Amsterdam and my sister and I were making our way back to the hotel. We were taking a very crowded tram when I noticed that a man was staring at me from across the car. I glared back at him as he continued peering around people to continue smiling at me, raising his eyebrows up and down, etc. When it got to the point where I felt the need to mouth something obscene to him, his smile faded and he became noticeably irate. My sister and I exited the tram on one of the busiest tourist spots in the city and were immediately followed by our new friend, who began shouting obscenities and things like: “What’d you say to me, China?!” He followed us down the street until we took refuge in a theater venue. We made the decision to ask for security when we saw him pacing back and forth outside the box office and were directed to a back door exit. We made our way back to the hotel with our eyes darting around faster than our feet and never relayed the message to our mom.
I may not be proud of my gut reactions and the situation wasn’t all that bad in retrospect, but what if my sister wasn’t there to back me down or what if we had chosen a more desolate tram stop? Words cannot describe how disparaged I feel when faced with the harsh reality of what my gender so often deals with on a day-to-day basis. Much of my frustration is rooted in the simple fact that we cannot retaliate without taking at least some physical risk. I hope websites like Hollaback! continue to act as a channel for women who want to retaliate with a cell phone photo or simply share their story. I remain optimistic that more people, both women and men will empathize and understand the need to shed serious light on the issue. After all, I’m not the only one with a nonexistent/hypothetical daughter in mind, right?
Submitted by Melanie