I’ve been walking to work lately. Three days a week, I walk home, too. It’s an enjoyable mile and a half each way, straight down the street. I could take the bus, but I prefer walking. I also routinely (at least once a day) walk through downtown to get to meetings and work sessions, since my department is headquartered on the university campus, but my office is in a building on Mill Avenue. One by-product of all this walking is that some people on the street – some “regulars,” likely homeless, and some random – pay a lot of attention to me.
For instance, the other day, a guy passing me coming from the opposite direction called out: “You’re as beautiful as ever!”
And I’ve been kind of perplexed ever since, because did I feel offended, demeaned, or dehumanized in any way as a result of this attention? No, I did not. I was not offended, and I was keenly aware of my indifference because according to the entire internet, I should have been offended. There’s a lot of discussion about cat-calling circulating around social media at the moment, and it all simmers down to: “Any type of attention a guy pays a woman in public is negative, even if it sounds like a sincere compliment, and everyone should be outraged by it.” So, perversely, the main thing I felt as a result of being cat-called that particular day was a tinge of weird guilt for not being offended, much less outraged.
Does that make any sense?
The truth is, sure, there are times when I actually am offended by guys on the street whistling and calling out to me… and there are other times, like the other day, that I’m not. It just depends. It depends on what is said, and how it’s said, and it depends on my mood, and maybe even on what I had for lunch that day. I don’t know. It just depends. For me, there’s no hard-and-fast rule regarding taking offense at cat-calling. Not all cat-calling bothers me. It is what it is, and it’s odd to feel like I have to be apologetic about it.
Let me share an experience I had when I was a kid. This is an example of a case in which I did feel dehumanized by strangers, and it illustrates one of many variations on an incident I’ve experienced over and over throughout my life.
My family vacationed on the east coast the summer I was 14. When we were in Washington D.C., we visited the Smithsonian Institute. One day, toward the late afternoon, I decided to go outside to sit and wait while my parents and brother were still in the museum (I don’t remember which museum).
There was a reason for this, but I don’t remember what. My feet hurt? I had a headache? I needed some alone-time? Whatever the case, I was contentedly occupying a bench on the lovely, park-like grounds of the museum when a couple meandered over my way. They were obviously tourists, too, and older, maybe in their late 50’s or early 60’s.
First, they stopped in front of me from a short distance and looked at me quizzically with smiles on their bright faces as they murmured to each other. I glanced around. No one else was there. It looked like they were examining me and talking about me because… they were!
It was a surreal moment of feeling like I was still in the Smithsonian, but enclosed inside a glass case.
Then the pair came closer, and sure enough:
“Hello,” said the man.
“Hi,” I responded, guardedly.
Then the woman:
“What are you?”
Emphasis on the “are,” as if the “what” was no big deal. Smiling, eyes twinkling, the gentle tone and lilt at the end of the interrogative… there was genuine interest and wonderment in their voices. They were fascinated.
I didn’t say anything for a few seconds as my brain processed the question. “What are you” is a question I’d been asked before by random strangers, and it always made me feel scrutinized, alienated, and just plain uncomfortable.
I knew from past experience what they wanted to know. I mentally shrugged my shoulders in resignation and answered simply that I’m half-Japanese, half-English, and waited for the predictable follow-up, which the woman provided on cue: “OH… that’s such a beautiful combination! You’re so beautiful!” And the gushing began, the effusive admiration of my looks, along with the picking apart and analyzing of my features, which ones were Asian, which ones were not, etcetera, ad nauseam. Looking back on it, I still don’t understand the reason for their interest and excitement, exactly. I was just a tired kid sitting on a bench. I remember thinking that their accents sounded mid-western.
Now, here’s the thing… as a female of mixed color, incidents like this with (white) strangers are far more offensive to me than any guy on the street simply telling me that I’m beautiful and continuing on his way.
Both the guy on the street the other day and the pair of tourists on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institute over 30 years ago trespassed into my personal space to comment on my looks, but the guy told me that I was beautiful in passing. The couple at the Smithsonian, on the other hand, approached me while I was sitting on a bench (I felt pinned down), carefully examined me (I felt naked), talked about me (I felt like I wasn’t there), asked me what I was (I felt inhuman), and then told me that I was beautiful, after which they waxed euphoric on the aesthetic merits of being of mixed heritage (I felt objectified).
So, let me get this straight: It’s inherently dehumanizing to be asked what you are, but it happens all the time, anyway, to the concern of no one… and I’m supposed to be offended and feel dehumanized when a dude walking by tells me that I’m beautiful? Really?
To be clear, I’m not defending these guys. I’m not making light of street harassment. I’m not saying that it’s okay to cat-call or wolf-whistle at women on the street, I’m not denying that such behavior has potential to escalate into something more sinister, and I’m certainly not implying that women “overreact” to this kind of unwanted attention. I’m just saying that in the broader context of the dehumanizing things people can say to other people, and in my lifelong experience of being approached by strangers in public, I didn’t feel dehumanized in the case of the scrappy white kid in downtown Tempe, Arizona, whereas I did feel dehumanized by the nice, retired white couple in front of a museum at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
As I’ve already stated, there are some instances of cat-calling that do annoy me, and I also admit that I now try to avoid walking by certain spots at certain times because I know that some of my “regular” street fans will be there, and I’m tired of them. But even then, those guys merely annoy me. They don’t give me the heebie-jeebies like the people who prefaced their “compliment” with What are you? (“I’m human” is always the first answer that comes to mind.)
I’ve tried to laugh off these incidents, and this is a part of the bigger reason why I named this blog “That Asian-Looking Chick.” Sometimes, all you can do is laugh at stuff like that, especially since no one is addressing this shockingly common occurrence that people of mixed color have to deal with.
It’s hard being a mixed-color kid, in general. You don’t fit in anywhere. Growing up, I was too Asian to avoid racist teasing by white kids in California, and too haole (white) to avoid racist teasing by Asian kids during our summers in Hawaii (my family is from there). Then you go to Washington D.C., and a pair of white tourists studies you like you’re a curiosity on display and asks what you are.
It’s just confusing to feel like I’m obligated to take offense every time a random guy says anything in my direction… and if I don’t, then I’m somehow betraying my entire gender.
And in case anyone is wondering, this is how I dress these days as I’m doing all this walking around town:
If a stranger is going to tell me that I’m beautiful, I’d rather they cut to the chase and just say it. Asking me “What are you?” first is NOT cool.
[NOTE: If we know each other and you ask me what I am, I wouldn’t be offended. This rant only applies to complete strangers, since that’s what we’re talking about in this unwieldy conversation about cat-calling.]