The Night that Made Me a Feminist


Disclaimer: This post, contrary to my promise of posting part two of my adventures in Japanese bureaucracy, is about sexism and feminism. I see the topic as being slightly more important than my original intended one. (Though I will get to that one eventually.) This post is long, and probably not interesting to anyone other than me. But I’m writing it, and sharing it, as the first step in my personal journey as a feminist.

Background:

I grew up in a really nasty neighborhood. My house was literally right next to an elementary school, and yet on a nightly basis you could find prostitutes (both male and female) on the corner. Sometimes they’d get their customers to park in our driveway while they worked. We’d also get drug dealers, people lurking around our yard to look for anything worth stealing, and at one point a high-profile criminal taking a shortcut through our property to lose the police. Said man, who had been arrested for shooting an eight-year-old, had escaped his handcuffs. He then went on to gun down three officers, steal a car, lead a chase to a highway convenience store, and then shoot himself in the head. He’d been our neighbor for several years.

Okay, so I grew up in a world of crazy. That can be easily agreed on, right?

And yet somehow I remained totally ignorant to a much more common issue. Just because somehow it had never happened to me before.

That’s not to say I didn’t consider myself a feminist. At least once a week I look at posts about everything from subconscious female anti-feminism to blatant male misogyny, in the form of blogs, articles, comics, forum conversations, and Upworthy videos. I knew about things like male entitlement issues, objectification, and women only being “off limits” if they “belonged” to someone else — but I didn’t see it in my own environment. I felt angry, I wanted justice for the women involved. But the experiences I was reading and watching about were all second-hand. Though I didn’t deny that these things happened, I incorrectly assumed that because they had never happened to me, and because none of my female friends had ever confided such experiences to me, that they weren’t nearly so rampant as social media implied.

The Incidents:

Let me reiterate: in my 26 years of life, living in Miami, Korea, and Japan, even visiting places like Cambodia and Thailand, I had never run into any kind of sexism-fueled problem that actually scared me. Sure, I’d gotten looks when wearing anything remotely form-fitting, I’d had guys come up to tell me I was pretty, or to ask me out for drinks. And, okay, I had something like a stalker for a while, who liked to pretend he didn’t get that I wasn’t interested — but though he made me feel uncomfortable to be around, I was never scared of him. Now I see it for what it was, but I guess because the situation developed so differently, it didn’t really feel like objectification back then. For such a persistent person, he had more respect for me than either of the guys I ran into the other night.

I now live in Osaka, if you’re reading this as a first-time visiter. And compared to Miami, I’d always felt that Japan was infinitely safer, and full of people who actually respect others. As for fashion, the girls here always keep their shoulders covered, but love exposing their legs. You see thighs everywhere here, at all hours of the day. Sitting in Starbucks right now, I’m seeing as much girl-thigh as you might see at Miami Beach.

I usually don’t wear short dresses, though. In Miami, tank tops and “booty shorts” are the norm and don’t really get second looks, but I’ve always considered myself a modest dresser, even by Osaka standards.

But, since the night in question was a rare night off from work as well as my friend T’s birthday, I donned something a little longer than the typical Osaka chic and went out. My friend was dressed similarly.

The first incident was really minor in comparison. A Japanese guy came up and tried to invite us out for drinks, among other things. I was smart enough to say that we couldn’t speak Japanese, and T used what I’ve since learned is the ultimate line of defense against such things: “We have to meet our boyfriends now.”

He immediately backed off — can’t mess with another man’s girl, right?

Incident two happened after we’d joined up with two guy friends (neither of whom was actually my boyfriend). T was walking right next to me in a crowded junction, the guys up ahead. A stranger brushed past me — and I felt his hand more or less grab me in a place it had no business being.

I was in shock. I’d always imagined such situations on crowded trains, and pictured myself turning and punching the guy and screaming “Pervert!” But in real life I couldn’t move. In fact I almost laughed in denial that it had happened at all. And even though I could point out exactly who had been the culprit, he was already halfway down the crowded street by the time I turned around. There was no police officer in sight, and even if there had been, I understood right away that there was nothing to do. I was a foreigner (that alone would likely get me waved off) and wearing a dress that, though in line with Japanese standards, was short enough to be considered “asking for it.” Suddenly I understood a lot more of the feminism posts I’d been reading online.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

The Incident that could have gone seriously wrong:

That same night, I was lucky enough to catch the very last train from Tennouji to my home station. I was feeling really relieved, because while I live in a nice community, the area just around Tennouji has some dangerous territory (by Japanese standards) and I did not feel like trying to navigate through it for the first time at one in the morning. But from my station to my apartment, I had never felt even a twinge of suspicion that something might happen. 

And yet that night, as I climbed the stairs to my room in a building that mostly housed retirees who conked out by 9pm, I knew someone was following me. Every time I paused to look down at the next level, he also paused — sometimes ducking out of sight, sometimes staring back up at me as though trying to convince me he wasn’t anyone suspicious.

When I stopped at my floor, a little out of sight, to catch him, he made his intentions clear by guiltily trying to hurry back downstairs.

In Japanese, I asked, “Do you live here?”

Now, I suppose I could give him points for honesty, because the closest translation of his reply would be, “No, it’s just that you caught my eye.”

But that comment made me angry before I could even understand why. And my friends all know, I don’t anger easily. Even my closest friends have seen me like that only once, and say they were terrified. So when I told this guy to go home, I could tell there was nothing else he’d rather do in that moment. He flashed me a nervous smile and a thumbs up, and then disappeared.

Now, he wasn’t a scrawny guy. If he’d wanted to, he could’ve easily overpowered me. But his personality, if I can judge from that short interaction, seemed to be gentle and even honest. Had we met on the street, I would have taken him for a regular, probably decent person.

So why did he think it was okay to follow me back to my room? Why did he see nothing wrong or even strange about it? What was he even hoping to achieve by doing so?

And his reason — because I caught his eye. Did my wearing a short dress actually make him think he had any right to carry out, or would benefit in any way from, his behavior?

Getting to the point:

When I told this story to a close male friend, the first thing he said was “Please don’t wear short dresses anymore.” He acknowledged that women shouldn’t have to take precautions against men, but also said that that wasn’t the point.

According to him, the point was that this is the kind of world we live in: a world in which men assume that women belong to men, that we dress up solely for the attention of men, and that wearing anything they find attractive is an invitation to do whatever they want, regardless of what we communicate through actual words or other actions.

So I should wear concealing clothes in the middle of summer to avoid looking attractive? I should dye my hair black so I don’t immediately stand out as a foreign woman (considered more “loose” than Asian women)? Should I just give up and start wearing a burka, or should I go so far as to get a sex change so I can stop being the assumed property of men?

I’ve now gone through a night in which a single instance of wearing a certain dress brought on three separate incidents of sexual harassment, which only worsened in scale. And in the aftermath I witnessed one of the most thoughtful and sensitive men I know cater to the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility for making sure she doesn’t get sexually harassed.

But that’s exactly the line of thinking I used to follow: “If you don’t wear revealing clothes, you shouldn’t have any problems. I never did.” After all, by a similar token isn’t it your own fault if you get stabbed walking through a dangerous neighborhood at night? (Red alert: This is a sarcastic question!)

Now I understand that that way of thinking is archaic. In Victorian times, it was considered scandalous for a woman to show ankle. We’ve moved past that, but just because the idea of what’s sexy has changed doesn’t mean that all men’s attitudes towards women have. Maybe in the future we’ll be able to run around in panties and bras and not be “asking for it,” — but not necessarily because that kind of man will be any more respectful; it will be because of a new extreme for them to latch onto. “She was wearing a strapless bra and all the girls around her were wearing straps. She was asking to be felt up!”

It makes me all the more grateful to men (and women) who are feminists — and who were feminists long before I ever saw the need to be one myself.

A Cultural Ambassador Story


Today, students in two separate classes stole entire bags of potato chips from me. In another class, some Trolli gummy hamburgers that I’d bought specially (and for a pretty penny) in Itaewon also disappeared before I’d even opened the snack bag. I was so angry and disappointed, I almost cried.

After class, a quiet/shy first grade girl came to my desk. She comes by often, but until now had always been dragged by her more talkative and outgoing friend. This time she came alone. “Teacher,” she said, “I heard you have American snacks. Can I try?”

I gave her a Combo from a pack that I’d bought in Itaewon. The saltiness was such a shock that her face transfigured, and for a moment I thought she was going to spit it out. When we’d finished laughing, she asked for another one — to give to a friend and get a reaction from her, as well. I gave her the saltiest one in the bag.

It was a short exchange and easily could have been buried under a landslide of other experiences I’ve had in Korea. But it was so, so important, because it’s the perfect example of why I came to this country: to make kids actually want to speak English and try new things.

This story is quite possibly the best reminder of something I’ve been telling myself through all the trials and tribulations my students put me through:

It’s worth it. It’s worth it even on the bad days.

My New Perspective on Transience


The trouble with having a blog that focuses largely on one’s wild adventures abroad is that the novelty wears off. All those things that were strange and exciting when you first arrived become mundane. You find yourself taking for granted just how different things actually are from home. And because nothing seems worth writing about, you stop writing.

Even though you still feel like an outsider.

I have now been living in Korea for almost one full year, in which time I’ve tried to be a high school teacher, a writer, and a decent human being, at varying levels of success. I’ve traveled to big cities and rural islands, climbed mountains, gone spelunking, toured the DMZ, survived snow and half a year of winter. I’ve eaten octopus bits that were still moving, and taught my kids about Doctor Who, and been severely disappointed in Korean coffee. I’ve lost both parents. I’ve looked out my office window, seen sunlight on green mountains, and felt so lucky to be here. I’ve fought to hold on to someone I love, and wished desperately that I was with them instead.

In many ways, my life in Korea was always going to be a transient thing. One year ago, even before I arrived, I knew this was not going to be the country I settled down in. That knowledge led me to give up on learning Korean. It led me to brush off those little cultural tensions with my host mom. (I’m just a visitor here; she can’t expect me to know this little thing, and it’s okay if she doesn’t bother to explain it because I won’t be here long.)

It led me to feel, sometimes, that I wasn’t really living.

It’s only now that I feel I might have gotten the hang of this whole 우리나라 thing. Now I can tell host mom what time I’ll be home without mixing up the numbers. Now she knows not to feed me fish for any meal. Now I can intuit what clothes I can wear to school without giving my first graders “culture shock,” and when to pursue conversation with my kids versus when to stop at hello, and what flavor of candy they want from my reward box.

Now, when I’m only two weeks away from never seeing them again.

This is a reminder to myself, and a word of advice for anyone about to embark on an extended journey abroad; for anyone who’s already living a life in a foreign country, and who didn’t expect it to pan out quite how it is; for anyone, anywhere in the world, who feels like they’re just passing through, and that it doesn’t matter:

STOP. Look up from the screen. Look at the knick knacks you’ve collected on your desk, or on your shelves, and remember where they came from. Look at the people around you and remember their small gestures of kindness. Look out the nearest window and put yourself in the shoes of a random person on the street.

Everything is transient, but we shouldn’t go through life alienating ourselves, or letting ourselves feel alienated by our environments. The world is strange, and people are strange, and everyone is a stranger to someone else. Don’t let the little things discourage you from living your life where you’ve chosen, at least for a while, to live it. Don’t even let the big things discourage you.

This is your LIFE, that thing you only get one shot at. Stop thinking “it’s just one year, I can get through it” and start thinking “this is a whole year of my life, and I don’t have time for blah attitudes.”

Inspiration, Slice-of-Life Style


I have not posted in three months.

I began several posts, but the motivation for them just petered out each time. And I know why: life honestly sucked for a while. The odd thing is, people who knew my situation had preconceived notions of the suckiness, and of what sucked the most. They were full of feelings for me. And I, for a while, just felt nothing, or felt sad about other things. The way I was supposed to feel about my sucky life was nowhere near the reality.

And that’s something that’s still the case. Because of this fact, other people have taken me to be a strong person. I’m not entirely sure I agree, but it’s nice to entertain the thought.

***

I’ve always wanted to be strong. Not beautiful, not a genius, not even kind. Strength was always the most valuable thing to me, maybe because I felt that the people around me lacked it. I grew up with super heroes and not-super heroes and war stories and history books and movies and literature and manga and always there was one simple message: be strong, fight back, succeed.

Some people think I’m pretty. Test scores and a Master’s degree say that I’m smart. And apparently I’ve been kind enough to make an impact on others. But those things all seem so easy to assess. Strength? Who even knows what strength is, really? Who has a right to define it? Is it even something you can have and keep, or does it ebb and flow with the situation?

Can someone tell me that I’m strong, and actually be right? Or is that something I determine for myself?

***

You can spend your entire life hearing the words “be strong.” People say it like a magic spell. You make it your incantation, hoping the words themselves will make you unshakable. And you never really realize what you’re saying.

“Be strong.” Sometimes it’s actually quite a simple thing to do. It means don’t run away; just plant your feet and let the world come at you. Sometimes you don’t even have to move forward, you just have to not be pushed down.

Sometimes you have to fight gravity itself.

***

A few weeks ago I got fed up with having no motivation to write. I had a novel on submission, it’s sequel with a couple of chapters done, and an older project that I’d put on hold upon conceiving the former. I tried working on all three of these for months with no success. It wasn’t even that I hated the words I put down — it was that the words would not come out for anything. Like they didn’t even exist inside of me anymore.

And then I had a dream. I woke up with characters and a situation and a setting all right there on a silver platter, and wrote it all down as fast as I could.

But it wasn’t until later, when I started consciously developing the main character, that I realized the story was more than just a story. There was an idea behind it. One central, humanizing theme, what John Scalzi would call the Big Idea: strength. Strength lost, battered, bullied, trapped behind dark memories and fear. Strength and the girl who needs it. Strength and the boy who doubts it.

***

Through everything, I am a writer. And through being a writer, I become more of a human being. I live other lives, I see other perspectives. I learn by doing, even if I only ever act in a fictional world. It’s not an escape; it’s a translation.

Writing is a translation of life.

Stories are the lives in them.

Every main character in a story has a sucky life, or they’d have nothing to tell you; nothing to change their perspective and make them grow. And how else do they grow, except by being strong?

日本語第3章:お帰り


私が信じることは、いつでも日本に帰れるのだ。

2007、初回の来遊が終わったとき、そう思った。「どうしても、京都に帰るよ。」

二年振りになったけど、やっと帰って、半年京都で勉強して嬉しかった。たくさんよさこいを踊った。富士山に登って危うく死ぬところだった。そして、人間に成人することができた。

fuji_2013

Mt. Fuji — January 20, 2013

三回目は、この世界で一番愛してる人に会うために行った。それが去年の1月だった。

今年、韓国に住んでて大阪まで飛行機で2時間しかかからないからまた行った。しないとはバカだろう?

そして、毎回行くと同じ気がくる。それが、この世界では私の帰るところはアメリカじゃなくて、断然韓国じゃなくて、日本だ。でも、なんども行ってこれを思い出すも、出るとだんだん忘れちゃう。

今度、忘れたくない。今年、フルブライトの一年契約が終わったらすぐに日本で契約を作るつもり。日本語能力試験2級を受ける。そして、私の夢を結局実現にする。

kinkakuji_2013

Kinkakuji — January 12, 2013

A Floridian’s First Snowfall


Many people (Koreans especially) tend not to believe me when I tell them that I’d never seen snow before coming to Korea. The concept seems just as foreign to them as that of stepping foot outside in anything less than 50 degree weather once was to me.

And to be fair, the above is something I’m still fighting to get over. “What is winter like in Naju?” I used to ask people. They would always release the same heavy sigh.

“Ah. So much snow.”

I’m a Floridian with poor blood circulation and the apt title of Miss Tropical. Getting this as a consistent response terrified me. December loomed closer and every day the sun shone weaker. The warmth around me dwindled, pulling closer and closer like light around a dying candle flame even as I wrapped myself in more and more layers. Meanwhile, my friends from Maine, Michigan, and the other freezing M state laughed. #Floridianproblems became the new hashtag trend.

Then, on Wednesday, I stepped into the chilly corridor outside my office at school, and white diamonds were glistening in the sunshine as they drifted past the window. My friend and I watched. She explained that people tend to feel warmer when it snows, even though the temperature might be the same as a snowless day. I thought about how easily things can be taken for granted; for all that my fingers were turning blue, I felt it a fair tradeoff for the serenity I took with me afterward. I was experiencing snow for the first time in my life, and my friend’s amazement made it all the more potent that life has so much to offer.

I was later to be told that this first encounter “barely counted as snow.” The thunderstorm I walked home in afterwards, with its confusion of pouring rain and gentle snowflakes, didn’t seem to count either. But overnight that storm became a true snowfall. Thursday morning I awoke to a world of white.

IMG_3842

This is the pedestrian bridge I cross in order to get to school. I fear it on a typical rainy day because it’s made of metal. Add ice to that, and it becomes a promise for a bruised tailbone.

IMG_3843

And this is Geumseong Mountain. My school sits at the base of this.

So now that I have experienced “real” snow for the first time, as my Maine friend has finally conceded, I feel it may be worth sharing my thoughts on it as a Floridian.

1) Falling snow is beautiful.

2) Iced-up snow on hills and pedestrian bridges is not.

3) Flowers can live through snow. WHAT. I can barely do that!

4) Wow, real snow looks just like the fake stuff they put in the shop windows!

5) Fresh snow is SOFT. I was not expecting to put my finger through it and immediately compare it to a cloud, but I did. I also took the opportunity to write “English rocks” on the hill outside my school.

6) The lifecycle of snow would seem to be: fall, compact, melt, refreeze into ice, melt, evaporate, and fall again. This should have been obvious considering we all learned about precipitation in first grade, but being Floridian I’ve never had cause to appreciate it before. This stuff spends a lot of time on the ground.

7) I wonder if snow ever piles up on telephone lines, then melts into icicles and spears people through the head.

My northerner friends find my naiveté endearing. But I feel I’ve come a long way since asking whether one could bicycle in the snow.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: