I’ve always found a bit of comfort in writing. When my ESL students ask me how to improve their English vocabulary, I tell them to read and write as much as possible. But there are so many more benefits to writing. You can work through issues or confusion in your mind. It gives you a distracting focus. You can get bottled-up emotion out. I don’t usually tell students this. They don’t seem to care about that stuff.
Anyhow, it is a bad day. I made the mistake of leaving my apartment at 7:30 this morning to go to the market to buy vegetables. Why was this a mistake, you might ask? Seems like a pretty routine, innocuous thing to do. Yeah, it is perhaps. But for me, it is frequently dangerous. Leaving my apartment is anxiety-provoking to me. It often takes some time to psych myself up, and I only go out when it is absolutely necessary.
Do I live in a war zone? Well, in a sense, I’ve come to see it as such. In the traditional sense of the word, it isn’t. But I’m frequently physically assaulted, especially in my own neighbourhood. Sometimes, I’m sexually assaulted. Frequently, intimidated or given the Chinese version of sexual harassment. I’ve requested a transfer to another of our university campuses several times, now, and I am always denied despite declines in my health and increased frequency of assault over the last 4 years.
Today, walking back from the market, I was hit. I was hit, and when I protested, I was tripped, and a few more people joined in to yell at me. Everything was my fault. I hurried back to the safety of my cage (apartment) in hysterics, completely terrorized, clutching my bag of carrots and green beans. I hadn’t cried in several months, despite several assaults having taken place, and my fear and rage and depression had built up and I couldn’t stop for a long time. I have no easily accessible adult people in my life to talk to anymore , so I decided to write.
The worst part of it was that it was a woman who did it. Most of the physical assaults on my body are committed by Chinese women. Men seldom hit me. Men do almost all the sexual stuff to me, and only occasionally hit me – only the last serious sexual assault I experienced was done by a Chinese woman with a lot of power over non-Chinese, and she did it publicly in front of about 100 Chinese people, perhaps to make an example of me. But the violent ones, the ones who knock me over; the ones who see me and deliberately cross the empty road in order to smash into me; the ones who trip me; the ones who call me ‘strange’, who criticize my appearance; who whisper and point and laugh at me; the ones who push me out of the way so they can steal the bus seat I’m lowering myself into – they are all women. It hurts me. Sometimes it is physical hurt in addition to the psychological hurt. But it always hurts. It really hurts because I constantly help Chinese women, even many I don’t know, with all sorts of stuff. I help Chinese women more than Chinese women help Chinese women (relationships between women in a traditional culture is a post for another time) I feel terrified. I feel betrayed. My depression deepens.
The second worst part of it is that every time I am assaulted because of my sex and race, I am reminded that no one will believe me or support me. I am alone in so many senses. I read so many feminists who screech that white women don’t experience racism. It’s an incorrect belief based on a pro-male agenda. White women are gaslighted and shamed and driven off and out of communities if we try to talk about our experiences, and assaults, and rapes, and abuse by non-white women and men. I firmly believe that all women experience racism in addition to misogyny. They often go together. Many people fail to understand that racism is not a dichotomy, not so easy to describe as misogyny. Many people also fail to understand that racism is borne of woman-hate. Without woman hate, you don’t have racism. Further, racism wasn’t created by white people, it was created by men – and much longer ago than people think – before white people even existed in their current manifestation. The first time a tribe encountered another tribe with different skin colouring, culture, beliefs and customs, the males ‘othered’ them so as to protect the cunts and uteri of ‘their’ women. Men determined (still do) who got to use women’s bodies. To keep the bloodlines pure and to keep firm control over women. As time has gone on, and as the world has become more populated and races come into contact with one another on a more regular basis, the original intentions remain true. The manifestations become more varied and complex. But all races are racist, all men seek to protect the cunts of their group, even if they don’t realize that that is what they are doing. That is how it started and how it continues to be fuelled. And owned women have followed the men doing their part to maintain approval and fail to bond with ‘other’ women who actually have more in common with them than any man does. Monocultures are still much more racist than multicultures because the ‘others’ who do exist in them don’t have a voice or legal rights or often don’t exist in the numbers necessary to gain attention. No one is required to take responsibility. And no one is culpable (except the other). In monocultures, the majority is free to do what they wish. And like in my experience today (and every time, for that matter), locals support the violent abuser instead of the victim because it is easier. When people talk about how racist Western countries are, they really have no idea about what goes on anywhere else or even outside their small circles. Many of the loudest dismiss or ignore data from real live people that demand that pet theories be questioned. They often nestle these theories in decades or centuries long gone by and try to use them to explain situations that don’t really exist anymore. These days, nobody in the West gets hit and abused almost every time they go to the shops because of their race. Most people will protect and fight for victims of racism (unless the victims are white). They may experience other constant threats (i.e., living in the middle of gangland, or a domestic abuse situation, or trapped in the prostitution downward spiral), but that is not racism (though they are not necessarily mutually exclusive).
I really want to escape China. I live in a constant state of holding my emotions in check, and bottling up my fear in order to eat and go to my workplace, and wondering whether I’m going to end up dying here because of racist, misogynist brutality. But it is not so easy to leave when you’ve been gone from your home for so long that you have no safety net, no one to help you, no where to go. No family, few friends or connections. Very little money. No job prospects.
Unfortunately, I have to go out again today, and I’m dreading it. I never know what is going to happen to me – only that something will happen.
Although our goals may be similar, there are two significant differences between serious feminists and superheroines. First, feminists wear comfortable, woman-friendly clothes. And second, unlike superheroines, feminists don’t usually have a clear, specific origin story. Rather, we have moments of clarity or realization. Moments that accumulate. Moments that may not become significant or actionable until later, sometimes in combination with other moments. Sometimes, it is a seemingly small event or moment that puts a lifetime of horror into perspective. You meet someone, you read something, you see or experience something that just makes you say ‘I see what is going on, and I’ve had enough’. It is a matter of right time, right place, and readiness/openness. Although it may happen, I think it is a rare woman who, like Athena, is born clad in full warrior gear.
In this vein, if asked when I became a feminist, I don’t think I could tell you. There have been many significant events that have made me what I am. And I’m still developing. I still make typical mistakes. That is gender programming. It takes a lifetime to siphon the poison from one’s personal psychology and behaviour.
I still remember an early formative moment. It’s something I think about 30 years later, and it still guides me. It’s not the most important formative event, but rather, one of many.
I was 13. It was a winter evening at about 9:30 pm. It was freezing, dark, snow everywhere. I had attended my father’s university lecture in psychology. We were driving home. I was sitting in the passenger seat in the front of the car, looking out the window.
And I saw her.
A woman being dragged by her hair across the snow into a bush. She was fighting, but not winning. The man who had her was bigger and determined. And it was late on a weeknight in the winter. There was no one around.
I shouted to stop the car. Startled, my father pulled over. I pointed and insisted. We intervened. The man ran off. We hustled the woman into our car and drove her home. She was mostly silent, but we learned her attacker was her ex-husband. I was also silent, emotions confused. I was learning something important. I realized that had I not seen her and done something, something BAD would have happened. But my understanding wasn’t nuanced.
And afterwards, my father, the brilliant psychologist, never spoke a word about it. I was not debriefed. Not counselled. I was left to draw my own conclusions. Possibly, he remembered having to intervene when his father beat his mother. No excuse though. When I look back at that child from the perspective of an adult, I’m shocked, saddened, and I wish I could go back to do damage control. But would I be what I am and do what I do if I’d not worked through that business alone?
A girl is exposed to explicit, real life violence – a stranger’s near rape/beating/murder. She plays a significant role in ending that violence, shares a space with the stranger for a few minutes, the significant connection between them left unarticulated, the silence controlled by another man, and then, and the child is left to wonder, to analyze, to worry, to fear. To build a schema.
It was only years later after many, many object lessons on what men were, thought about and did to women, after intervening in other near-rapes and beatings, that I realized that the woman I had saved years before was only temporarily safe. Temporarily safe from this specific man in her life, and generally, from all men no matter where or when. There is no beginning and end to violence for women. There are episodes in a lifetime of fear. And there are many lifetimes. This woman was one of millions and millions and millions through time. We are all that woman at some point. And to not be a feminist – to not want female freedom from male violence and control – is just not an option. For me.
I kicked off a new topic last month: conversations with men (first post in that category). These posts will consist of interactions I’ve had willingly and unwillingly with men. These are the interactions that have cumulatively led to me gradually pulling away from dubious friendships, support of, and even chance encounters in public with men. I’ve become much more selective and self-protective in deciding who stays in my life and with whom I’m willing to cross paths. Women are not always so lucky in being able to select. We often find ourselves in horrible, damaging or life-threatening situations with men who want us to know where we stand with them. Often we have no control over what happens to us.
The conversations I will recount will be both verbal and non-verbal. A lot of the time, men convey very important and dangerous messages through their non-verbal conversations with us. Words don’t need to be exchanged for information to be delivered in a loud and clear way, you see.
Rewind to 1996: Pre-9/11 Belgium. Pre-hysterical-Islamophobia-obsession. But not pre-gynophobia among Muslim men – they’ve hated women for millennia, and they have a special, violent hatred for Western/Westernized women.
I had taken a short trip to Europe prior to starting graduate school in the US. I tend to travel alone, and often meet interesting people as a result. I’d met a few travelling German women, and together, clothed conservatively in jeans, t-shirts, and our hiking boots, like most budget-travelling women, we went out to enjoy some music.
It was a lot of fun for me. Until I was unwillingly entered into a frightening conversation.
One minute, I was dancing in the crowd, and the next, I was lifted backwards off the ground by the neck. I couldn’t breathe.
After struggling for my life – no one had noticed or helped me – I managed to break free. Or had I been released…? A group of Muslim men had gotten it into their heads to engage a white whore in conversation and remind her that her life was in their hands and that she was garbage. Disposable. The ring leader had taken his belt off and put it around my neck, and jerked me backwards off the ground, dragged me over into his group in the corner – a thoroughly effective way to bring me into their conversation on male dominance, Islamic superiority, and Western whoredom. I screamed at them afterwards, once I was able to breathe again. They laughed. A good joke.
I don’t know if they had intended to kill me or whether being in public had stopped them short, and the conversation was enough for them. If I had encountered them in the street while alone, would they have raped me? Beaten me? Killed me? Like in the club, they would have gotten away with it. Especially now, they’d be home free in our post-9/11 world where associating Islam with violence is a no-no – especially violence against women.
I am terrified of men. I am terrified of religious men. I am especially terrified of Muslim men (although apparently, I subconsciously hate Christianity more). According to many liberals, me writing about this true event in my life is likely to be seen as hate speech. But what those men did to me wasn’t hate, wasn’t crime. Still isn’t. Racially-motivated crimes against women are not hate crimes.
There is a reason I stopped going to clubs after that. I realized that I had done nothing wrong. I existed. In public. I was a woman. I was white. Apparently, that is enough to sentence me to death. And the message from that conversation came through loud and clear. There is nothing I can do about it save avoid going out.
And I have complied. And I still remember the feel of that belt around my neck nearly 20 years later.