I’m walking on the Bangkok Skywalk, with my headphones in tow, head deep in thought about the podcast I’m digesting, when I notice the eyes and attention of a white caucasian male radiating my way.
It’s quite normal for me to garner the subtle stares of strangers when I’m in public places given my height, so I’m used to being aware of it and letting it slide.
However, the said male approached me and said something inaudible, so I slipped off my headphones to listen to him.
Him: “You’re really tall, how tall are you?”
Me, used to answering this because people always ask me this: “Close to six feet.”
Him, noticing my accent: “You speak good English, why do you speak better English than me?”
Me, not knowing how to answer this dreaded question because it has roots in subtle racism and stereotyping: “Uhh, I spent a lot of time in the States.”
Him, clearly intrigued: “Oh yeah, where?”
Me: “California… Philly…”
Him, cutting me off: “Cali’s terrible, why Cali? I’m from New Orleans. What are you doing here in Bangkok?”
Me: “Oh, I’m in transition.”
Him: “Pfft, that sounds so Cali. What are you processing?”
At this point, I’m eager to make it to my destination because this conversation has taken enough of an accusatory and degrading tone.
I’m increasingly uncomfortable fending all these probing questions.
We keep walking, and as we’re about to part ways, the question that was brewing emerges.
Him: “Why don’t you have a man?
Me, very caught off guard: “How do you know I don’t have one?”
Him, confidently: “Because of the way you walk”
Me: *feigns nervous laughter, very offended, and unsure how to respond because I mean, how do you respond to that?*
Him: “So can I get your Line handle?”
Me, not wanting to divulge any more of myself: “I don’t have Line”
Him, not giving up: “What about your number?”
Me, not really wanting to give him my number, but also wanting to end this belittling interaction: *gives him my number*
At this point, he calls to make sure I’m not giving him a bogus number, and after the call comes through, he bids his goodbye.
I quickly scamper away to my destination, relieved to get away from this tense and disrespectful encounter.
I immediately replay the conversation in my head and wish I was able to stand my ground, not take his BS, and come up with wittier, better responses.
I should have said:
You shouldn’t be surprised when non-white people have good English because that’s ignorant and racist. And yes, my English is better than yours.
I should have said:
I don’t appreciate you deprecating a place (California) I used to call home, especially when I don’t know who you are and we’ve just met.
I should have said:
It’s none of your business whether I’m with someone or not, and no, I don’t want to give you my contact information because frankly, this conversation has been insinuating and insulting.
My lessons learned
Ladies, I hope you never have to go through an incident like this, but if you’re ever in a similar position, here’s what I’ve learned from this:
Don’t apologize for who you are, you don’t need to justify anything for anyone. You don’t owe anyone any explanations, especially someone who is demeaning, any explanations.
Do not tolerate derogatory comments. That’s never okay. You can walk away from the conversation at any given time, there is no obligation to stay in that conversation. You can say, for example, “what you’re saying is disrespectful, I didn’t like that comment, I want you to move away from me, I don’t appreciate that, etc.” and end the interaction.
You can NOT give someone your number. I contemplated saying, I’m already with someone, you can’t have my number, but at the end of the day, I didn’t need an excuse to do that. I should have stood firm. Don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.
Of course, your safety comes first. Assess your safety, your surroundings, and the situation you’re in. My encounter happened in the afternoon in broad daylight, so these are things I wish I did, but you may be in a different situation. Look for bystanders, see if you can call out for help, if necessary.
I understand that it can be difficult to speak up in these situations (as shown by how I responded), as we’re conditioned by the cards of society to be nice, say yes, please, and thank you, and to keep our opinions to ourselves.
We live in a society where words like “bitchy” and “high-maintenance” exist to abase women, where confidence is seen as being bossy, and where silence and submission are rewarded.
But we cannot continue to fall into the table place setting that society has laid out for us.
While it is not our fault when public harassment occurs, whether in the form of catcalling or derogatory pick-up lines, the fact is, it does occur. And when it does, we need to clap back when we can.
We need to hold men accountable for their actions, call out when they’ve crossed a line, and demand they do better and treat everyone with respect.
This doesn’t mean we have to assume the (emotional) burden of educating them, but we have a duty to speak up, not just for ourselves, but for other women, and generations of women to come.
I hope that sharing my story can help move the needle closer towards a more respectful society where women can feel safe being who we are, taking up our rightful space in the world, and living life to the fullest expression.
I want our future daughters to one day live in a world where they can confidently show up in the world exactly as they are without ever needing to clap back.