I sent her an email blithely telling her not to worry. I assured her that Asia is a perfectly safe place for solo female travelers. I told her that I hadn’t really had any trouble at all since moving here over five years ago and that I was sure she’d be fine, too.And then, a few weeks ago I found myself in Hangzhou where I was, as you may recall, propositioned like a hooker.
On my second night in town, while at a night market, gorging myself on grilled meat and beer, the meat seller whom I’d just bought dinner from sat down across from me. He first asked me where I was from. Then, having gotten the pleasantries out of the way, he asked me if I wouldn’t mind going to have sex with him. You know, because that approach works so well with the ladies.
Of course, in the beginning, I had no idea what he was saying as he was saying it all in Chinese. It wasn’t until he switched into gestures that I understood what he was getting at because, as it just so happens, I am totally fluent in Gesture.
I’d love to say I responded in some suitably indignant manner. But because of my limited grasp of Mandarin I couldn’t even muster up an appropriate response. Probably the best I could have managed would have been something along the lines of, “I am American. No thank you. You are not correct. Goodbye.”
Instead, I quickly paid my bill and scuttled off in the direction of dumplings and cake. Because, really, if there’s anything that’s going to help a lady get over being mistaken for a hooker, it’s dumplings and cake.
Oh, right, I should probably mention here that the young woman who emailed me was planning on moving to Hangzhou.
I think this is the part in the blog post where I cue the Alanis Morissette music.After this incident happened to me, it really made me think.
Okay, admittedly, the first thing it made me think was, “Wow. I can’t wait to write a blog post about this!” (I’d like to think this is my glass-half-full way of looking at the crappy things that happen to me. Either that, or I have absolutely no self respect.)
Then it made me think about other stuff – deep, thinky, dark stuff — stuff I, frankly, haven’t thought much about since my Women’s Studies classes in college.
It also made me think about all the other times something equally sleazy has happened to me while in Asia.
There was the time last year while I was on Tioman Island, when the owner of the guesthouse next to mine invited me to stay at his guesthouse for free if I would “be his friend.” And, of course, just like with the meat seller, it took me about twenty minutes to figure out what this man was getting at, even though he was speaking in perfect English. I was like, “Wow, what a nice guy! He’s going to let me… Wait. What?”
There was the time in Nepal when our tour guide decided he should hug both my friend and I – vigorously and repeatedly – until I “accidentally” hit him in the nose.
Then there was the time, quite recently, when a Chinese friend-of-a-friend bid me farewell by attacking my neck with his tongue (which, I’m pretty sure, is not the customary way people say goodbye in this country).
And, of course, there’s been the odd leery glance or creepy taxi cab driver, who spends more time watching my chest in the rearview mirror than he does watching the road.The incident with the meat seller also made me think about how I tend to overlook the sleazy things when they happen to me. Or I make light of them and think about how they will make good blog fodder.
I had forgotten about these incidents when I wrote my blithe email to the young woman bound for Hangzhou. I had also failed to mention these incidents in a comment I left on a fellow travel blogger’s post about the times she’s been similarly propositioned while living in Korea.
Instead, I prattle on about how safe it is to travel alone. And how people are all really nice to me. And how I must be super lucky to never have had any bad stuff happen to me here.
Don’t get me wrong. I do feel safe here. People have been really nice to me. And I have been so ridiculously lucky that it doesn’t even make sense. Because, you know, sometimes I do some stupid stuff.
But crappy things still happen.
Traveling alone as a foreign female is bound to get you some attention – and some of that attention is bound to be the creepy kind of attention.
So what to do when it happens to you?
1. Don’t take it personallyUnfortunately, Western women kind of have a reputation for being hussies in most parts of the world.
I don’t know what on Earth would give people that idea.
I’m pretty sure the meat-seller in Hangzhou did not think that I personally looked like a prostitute.
After all, I wasn’t exactly dressed for that line of work.
It was ninety-five degrees out, and I was wearing long pants, flip-flops, a t-shirt and a scarf. (Yes, I said a scarf. Sometimes I like to pretend I’m European and I wear scarves in the summer. It’s just something I do, okay? Stop giving me such a hard time about it.)
He probably just thought all Western women were hookers.
Mind you, I’m not saying this to justify his behavior. Even if I were dressed like a cast member from Baywatch, this would not have given him reason enough to sit down and ask me to go have sex with him.
But it wasn’t my fault I was being treated like a hussy. It was his fault. And it’s the fault of the media, which has the tendency to portray Western women as hussies. So, while I may look in the mirror and see a tastefully dressed woman, this man looked at me and saw Pamela Anderson.
I think we can all agree that this is just ridiculous.
Besides, Pamela Anderson would never wear a scarf in the summer.
2. See no creepers
I think one of the reasons I tend to overlook the attention I receive in Asia is because, well, I fail to even see it — that is unless someone’s propositioning me over meat-on-a-stick and beer. (And, even then, it takes me a good twenty minutes to figure out what’s going on.)
In lots of other places I’ve been to the unwanted attention was pretty hard to ignore. In Morocco, I had to put up with catcalls, wolf whistles and vulgar comments uttered in twelve different languages. In Lisbon, I had to listen to men hissing behind me like a herd of wild snakes. And Brazil… Well, Brazil is Brazil. In Brazil, if a guy likes what he sees, he’s not too afraid to tell you.
But in Asia the majority of the attention is the staring kind of attention, and it’s usually not even the creepy kind of staring. It’s just the staring kind of staring.
The thing is to notice the staring, you have to actually make eye contact with people. And, frankly, I kind of gave up on eye contact about five years ago.
One reason for this is because I lived in Japan, where making eye contact with a perfect stranger is considered, well, a bit forward.
Another reason for this is because sometimes I like to play this game with myself where I pretend I’m a normal person leading a normal person’s life and doing normal person things like grocery shopping and riding the bus and eating meat-on-a-stick. But it’s kind of hard to play this game with myself if everyone’s staring at me like I’m a freak (which they are because this is China and that’s just what people do). So I just stopped making eye contact with people. If I don’t see the staring, I can keep on pretending I’m normal, and they can keep on staring at me like I’m a circus freak.
My no-eye-contact policy also means I miss out on most of the leery glances and taxi cab driving creepers checking out my chest. (That is until they swerve off the road because I happen to be wearing a v-neck… and I forgot to put on my scarf.)
3. Be careful with your personal informationNow, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against getting a little male attention.
I’m pleased as punch when someone actually tries to flirt with me – well, that is, after I catch on to the fact that they are, indeed, flirting with me.
Prior to leaving for my trip to Hangzhou, I was at the Wuxi train station waiting for my train when a cute guy came up to me and started chatting with me in English. He asked me where I was from and where I was going. I asked him where he was from and where he was going. We talked a little bit about his hometown of Nanjing. Then before he ran off to catch his train, he nervously blurted out, “You have beautiful eyes,” and asked me for my phone number.
And that’s when I realized he had been flirting with me.
Or at least I think he was flirting with me. I mean, telling someone they’re pretty and then asking them for their phone number is flirting, right? (Forgive me. You see, I don’t really have a good grasp on this kind of thing. I have a physical condition which makes it impossible for me to flirt while I’m sober. And, let’s just say, things don’t get much better after I’ve been drinking.)
As cute as he was and as flattered as I was, I didn’t give him my phone number. I’ve learned my lesson about handing out my phone number to random strangers. (And, let’s just say, that lesson was delivered to me at three o’clock in the morning by some random stranger’s jealous girlfriend.)
But I did give him my email address as I have yet to learn my lesson about handing out my email address to random strangers. (So if you’re reading this, Cute Dude, call… err, email me!)
4. Use your imaginationOkay, so let’s say the guy who’s laying the moves on you is, well, not someone you want laying the moves on you. Then, you may have to call in the big guns – the imaginary boyfriend.
Luckily for me, I’ve had a long history of imaginary boyfriends. In fact, I’d say most of my successful relationships have existed solely in my head. There was the lacrosse captain in high school, the newspaper editor in college, the film director I met in DC and that guy who would always shop for groceries at the same time I did while I was living in Buffalo. Sure, none of these guys knew I existed, but we were very much in love… if only in my head.
Given my long history of imaginary relationships, I really have no problem making up a boyfriend who doesn’t exist should the situation warrant one.
Once while I was hanging out in the lounge area at my guesthouse in Vang Vieng, a young man sat down next to me and started chatting with me. When he found out I was American, he began quizzing me on how one goes about getting a green card to America. When I responded that I didn’t really know much about that sort of thing, he inched closer and told me I had a “beautiful smile.” Now, I don’t usually have any problem with men complimenting me on my smile, but I have to say I was a bit suspicious of his intentions. (Just a hint, boys, if you’re interested in a lady, you might want to lay off the talk of green cards until after you’ve told her how lovely she is.)
I thanked him and then told him I had to go. When he asked me if he could come up to my room with me, I informed him that I had boyfriend, who was upstairs in the room taking a little rest. Because, you know, it can be really tiresome basking under the glow of my beautiful smile all day.
While my new friend looked doubtful, he also, thankfully, didn’t follow me up to my room. (Which is a good thing because my imaginary boyfriend can be a tad bit possessive. That’s why I don’t tend to date much in real life. Don’t want to make the imaginary boyf jealous, you know!)
5. Remember there are jerks everywhere.The incident with the meat seller in Hangzhou was kind of a wake-up call for me. I realized that I was not as safe as I thought I had been. But I also realized how ridiculously lucky I’ve been over the past five years.
But not everyone I know has been this lucky.
I have friends who’ve been groped in public. I have other friends who’ve been harassed and threatened and stalked. Another woman had someone repeatedly try to break into her apartment. One of my friends was physically assaulted while she was living in Thailand. Not only did she have to endure the attack, but also a long, painful police investigation. Afterwards, her attacker was let off with little more than a slap on the wrist.
If the same thing had happened to me, I probably would have gone back to the States and locked myself away in a small dark room for the rest of my life. She, on the other hand, went home, but then returned to Thailand a year later. When I asked her why, she told me, “There are jerks everywhere. What happened to me could have happened to me anywhere. I’m not going to let one jerk in Thailand ruin Thailand for me.”
She was right.
If I could rewrite my email to the young woman moving to Hangzhou, I would.
I would tell her that she might meet some jerks in China, but that she’d also meet plenty of good people here.
I would tell her she should have a good time and not let the jerks ruin her experience.
And I would tell he to go punch a certain meat seller in the nose for me.