I’m a girl. That gets me singled out for some specific attention sometimes. I’m a girl that fits into some of the more widely accepted parameters of ‘beauty’. Sometimes that increases the specific attention I get. I’m 47, so the number of times this happens is not as great as it was when I was 17, but the number is not zero yet. (Maybe in another 40 years.)
My behavior, too, gets me noticed sometimes. I’m not shy, I’m sometimes overtly friendly. I smile. I offer to help people who are in a pickle. I laugh loudly.
I'm pretty accustomed to the amount of attention I receive daily in my regular place. I’m in the Midwest, in America, surrounded by a goodly number of other human beings who are similar to me. When I travel, depending on where I go, the characteristics that get me noticed for being out of the norm are different.
In New York City, I stand out like a sore thumb for being both a tourist and a Midwesterner. I look around, I smile at people, I am nice to strangers for no compelling reason. Down south, I stand out for inconsistent use of the phrase, “yes ma’am” and for my disinclination to drink sweet tea. Once, at a pub in Ireland, I hoisted my freak flag for requesting tea at 1:00 a.m. when any self-respecting woman would have simply continued drinking beer.
Nowhere did I stand out more obviously than when I lived in Japan, and traveled briefly to South Korea. Comparatively speaking, I was far too tall, blonde, and foreign to go unnoticed. Truth be told, I didn’t really anticipate that being a major issue. I thought, given my vast (two decades plus a couple years at the time) experience of living, that I was pretty prepared for standing out. Nope.
Here are some of the experiences I had.
To get to the store down the street, I had to pass by a middle school. Hundreds of 11-14 year olds would rush to the windows of the school and chatter and exclaim as I passed by. I couldn’t see inside, I assume their teachers would hush them and send them back to their seats, but I don’t know. It happened every time I passed by when school was in session. If it was after school, the kids would be out and about. Laughter, shock, and whispered cries of “gai-gin!” (foreigner!) were common.
That age group is relatively easy to forgive. Compassion, intelligence, sensitivity…none of those are characteristics attributed to middle schoolers with much regularity.
The experience was different with the young kids and the mothers I worked and taught with at a school run by a friend. Little kids, four, five, six-year-olds, those kids wanted to stare, but also to climb on me, to touch – especially my hair which was very long and blonde at that time. I didn’t mind so much, they were little kids after all, but there were definitely times I felt like a zoo animal.
Their moms were a little different, too. There was an expectation that I would play along with their many holiday celebrations, and that involved dressing up in some outfit or other that one of the moms had created. The Santa suit wasn’t too horrible. The Easter bunny getup (complete with ears and a pin-on tail) was tougher to accept gracefully – for reasons that are I’m sure apparent to any American reader, but were more or less lost on these Japanese mothers of little kids. Regardless of the symbolism, intended or otherwise, the feeling that I was there to put on a show, not for any skill at teaching or knowledge of English, was very strong.
That sense of being an object, not an individual, was even stronger in other situations. Public transportation could be particularly galling. When I was with a group of other expatriates, most often we would be approached for opportunities to practice English. But if I was on the subway alone, I presented a different sort of target.
The (one might think) less offensive sort of attention, was the constant staring. And truly, that can go unnoticed at times – and it’s possible to ignore it. What I didn’t realize, was that the constant effort to ignore something like that is exhausting. I only realized it, the way you might realize the sudden absence of a sharp spot in your shoe, that’s been there since you got that pair. It was a small thing. You ignored it for months. Then, one day, that spot wore down or fell out, and suddenly when you put on that shoe, your feet were light as air. Rainbows appeared out of nowhere. Angels sang.
I was riding in a subway car in Nagoya one afternoon, and something felt very different to me. There was a lightness, a freedom that I hadn’t felt in ages. It took me several minutes to figure out wtf was happening. I realized, finally, that it was because nobody was staring at me. I looked up, a rabbit popping its head out of the hole, to see what in the world was going on. Why was this blessed thing happening? As it turned out, there was a Sumo competition in town that week. Sumo wrestlers are like rock stars. They’re famous, they’re revered, they’re all that and a bag of chips. And there were two of them at the other end of my subway car that day, and because of that, everyone was staring at THEM and not at ME.
IT. FELT. AWESOME. I felt like I could fly.
There’s a much darker side to the attention, as well. American women, traveling abroad in many places in our world, are saddled with the label, “loose.” Our brilliant advertising schema (which we know here at home to be horrifically out of touch and over-sexualized) often translates abroad as a simple reality. American women are presented in the media as hyper-sexualized, outrageous, outlandish, forward creatures. It does us no favors at home, and it certainly does us no favors abroad.
Some men, in public places, felt free to try to compel my space, my attention, free to touch me without hesitation. This was, of course, not unique to my being foreign. Japanese women fight this battle daily on public transportation. Some train cars in large cities are restricted to women-only because the problem with being quietly assaulted is so large scale. It happens in any large city, in any relatively anonymous, crowded situation, right? Not a uniquely foreign problem, just a female one.
In bars, the problem is compounded by low light, alcohol consumption, and even more deliberately limited space. Once a complete stranger walked past me while I was seated at the bar, my back to him, flanked by my two male companions. He grabbed my ass. I reared back and shouted at him (a very American thing to do, by the way) and his response? “I thought you were my friend.”
The fact that it’s commonplace doesn’t mean it’s any less horrific. The intent of the brain attached to the hand on my leg, neck, ass or boob is less important than the fact that I was singled out. Singled out for something I had no control over, some accident of my birth, and I was made a victim for it.
That person is different. She’s female. She’s foreign. She’s exotic. She’s loud. She’s arrogant. Too much freedom. She’s power mad. She’s alone. She’s vulnerable. Somehow all that translates into, She’s less deserving than the next person of respect, and therefore I have every right to violate her.
All of those things happened to me, and more. They made me laugh, they made me annoyed, they made me furious. But the only one time that ever made me cry, was a tiny little girl. She was barely walking, couldn’t have been much more than a year old.
I came walking around a corner and came face to face with her and her mother. Me. Big, blonde, foreign, and to that little girl, utterly terrifying. She screamed. She wept. She clung to her mother.
That one floored me.
I guess it was just that much easier for me to accept being singled out in all those other ways – I could justify being too different, too sexual, too blatantly American – but to think that I might terrify a child? A little, baby girl. Just the sight of me made her sob.
I’m not that! I’m a good person! I’m kind! I’m me!
Not to her. To her, I was a monster.
The next time somebody tells you that you may not have sufficient empathy, that you may not really understand what it means to be singled out for being different, or foreign, for being a target, for being a monster, think about it.
Really think about it. Do you understand everything that entails?
Have you ever been a monster?