“I pick you” shouts a tattered, stranger man from across the street. I look up to see his scraggly finger pointing in my direction. He stepped off the opposite curb and began moving towards me. “But I don’t pick you,” I shouted back. My friend grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to her. She said jokingly “sorry, but she’s mine.” In my blue dress, I continued to walk down the sidewalk with five other girls by my side. To him, I was nothing more than a body. The body of a woman he felt justified to sexualize and objectify.
I arrived back to our hostel. I looked in the mirror and saw my exposed arms and legs in my short, blue dress. I changed quickly into joggers and a long sleeve tee, an outfit that covered my skin and my feminine curves. Now, looking back, I hate that I did that. I hate that I let the sleazy man affect my mind and my behaviors. Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of a woman. Nothing more, nothing less.
“So where are you from?” asked my tour guide. “The United States,” I responded. His face said it all. My answer was not adequate. Where was my light skin, my pointy nose, my wide eyes? “No but where…”, before he could finish I cut in. “I was adopted from China”. This answer was satisfactory. He only stopped when his ethnocentric ideals were proven. I fit the stereotypical mold of an Asian. I, however, did not fit the stereotypical mold of an American. Despite me living in the United States and holding an American passport, he would not accept me as an American. The tour guide proceeded to take out his phone and show me pictures of himself with Asians. “This is my brother’s girlfriend from Taiwan. Isn’t she pretty?”. In my head, I was taking out my phone and showing him all my photos with white people. But on the outside I humored the bigot’s microaggression and smiled like the passive woman of color I was expected to be. Now, looking back, I hate that I didn’t speak up for myself, for Asians, for people of color. I hate that I let the ignorant man affect my mind and my behaviors. Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of an Asian. Nothing more, nothing less.
In these instances, I felt like the only thing I had to offer the world was my body. My body that just so happened to be female and Asian. My mind was of no importance. My personality was of little interest. And my opinions, perspectives, and experiences — all irrelevant.
It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to travel across countries all with the binding construct of a social hierarchy. The amount of respect, dignity, and humanity you receive is based on your placement on this hierarchy. You have no control. You have no influence. Society has the final judgement, labeling you as a superior, equal, or inferior. Why is this the accepted norm? Why is this okay to nations, communities, individuals? I share my stories to demonstrate how rude acts of ignorance, even if small, perpetuate dehumanization.
There’s growing popularity of the false notion that the way you dress can, will, and should affect the way you are treated. As I walked down the streets of Cape Town, my blue dress caught a particular man’s eye. My blue dress caused distraction and attraction. My dress allowed him to label me as property. Property that could be easily chosen and then discarded. I should be obedient and honored that he would “pick” me. My dress demoted my human status to object status. If I hadn’t worn such a “revealing” outfit, I would have been treated as a proper woman. I wouldn’t have been catcalled. I wouldn’t have been objectified. As the woman, I am the one to accept the blame. It is my job to behave within the standards of appropriateness and sophistication. This idea is ridiculous. Clothing is not the perpetrator. My actions, as a woman, should not be dictated by the limited self-control of a man. Patriarchy and misogyny is excused while women are blamed — while I am blamed.
My program, thankfully, is not short on feminist women and their allies. I have ample support from intelligent, creative, beautiful women with different perspectives across limitless topics. Nonetheless, my support falls short in the area of race. In a group of 25 students, over half of them are people of color. Nonetheless, I am the only one who identifies as Asian. I did not understand how much comfort and support my Asian friends provided until they were no longer there. Within the group, I have sympathizers but no empathizers. On days when the world seems to grab at my feet, pulling me backward, situations like these make me feel like a blank canvas, an empty body. My self-confidence diminishes and my accomplishments are forgotten. These seem to slip my mind but, thankfully, are fully appreciated and vocalized by my peers. Those days do inevitably come but seem to be few and far in-between.
The past 12 weeks of my life have been hard, but they have also been so full of joy and growth. I would not trade a single moment of my abroad experience. It’s been a main contributor to the development of the individual I am today. I am a woman. I am Asian. And I am proud to say that I am both. However, I am also a daring adventurer who flew over the coast of South Africa, ziplined over waterfalls, and snorkeled with seals. I am also a vulnerable and compassionate individual who studies with the hope of promoting and progressing health as a human right. I am also a sarcastic ass who will not pass up an opportunity to make a joke. These are all things my body cannot show alone. These are all things society cannot come to understand when they limit me to a spot on a hierarchy. But I have come to understand, societal constructs are not my loss — it’s theirs.