I’ve been in America for almost a month now, spending time in Eugene where my sister lives, travelling around Oregon with my family, visiting New York and exploring New Orleans.
The west coast has been amazing, stunning scenery, fresh air, good food and really nice people. The east coast, not so much.
New York was a giant clusterfuck in my opinion. It was loud and smelly and actually trashy, something I never saw on Sex and the City. That said, Brooklyn does live up to its hype. While it’s painfully overpriced, it is a lovely place to be in.
On my last day in the city, Sash and I met up with a friend just after lunch and we headed towards the subway together. As I turned my body to walk down the underpass, a medium height white man walked straight into Sash and me, not bothering to step aside or apologise. His body walked straight into Sash and me.
The first and only other time this happened to me was on a broad sidewalk in Melbourne when a tall white male walked into both Sash and me, despite there only being three of us. When I say walk into me, I really mean hit me as hard as he could with his giant shoulder.
In shock and rage, I yelled out to no one in particular,
“Well, you’re a fucking asshole aren’t you?”
then carried on my way. Immediately, I heard him yell “What did you say to me? Say it to my face!” as runs back, looking for me.
In a split second, I decided to face the man rather than disappear into the crowded subway. I decided to turn around and tell him that he’s an asshole.
“Say it to my face! Say it!”
“You’re an asshole!”
He’s really close to me, he could hit me.
“Say it to my face! Say it again!”
“You’re an asshole!”
He could really hit me.
“What did you say to me? Say it to my face!”
“You’re an asshole!”
God, how will this end?
Two ladies from heaven stopped in their tracks and one told him in the sternest voice, like that of the strictest, no BS teacher you’ve ever met, to “leave her alone and walk away”. And he did. Like that, the incredibly tense situation dissipated and people continued with their days like nothing happened.
It dawned on us later on that he knew who he had walked into since he knew to come straight for me when I had yelled out the first time.
New Orleans was lovely. Bustling, noisy with music of all sorts, humid, hot, exciting. I loved the hostel we stayed in and found people to explore Frenchmen Street with every evening.
On our second night out, a Sunday night, Sash and I wanted to check out some music venues along the street. It was fantastic. Streetside performers blaring out tunes, poets for hire who would write about anything, happy drunk people dancing.
As we exited the last bar and started walking home, we heard
“Move aside you Chinese motherfuckers, this is Frenchmen Street.”
What the flyingfuck did he just say, painted my face as I turned to look at the man who had spewed out those words.
“Just ignore him and walk,” Sash said.
But it was too late, I had already glared at a slightly drunk, middle-aged black man and he had noticed it, which only aggravated him more.
I walked as fast as I could, with Sash closely behind me. We were on an empty stretch of the sidewalk, with only one or two people outside smoking. Tonnes of people gathered at the top of the street and tonnes of people gathered behind us, far away enough for the both of us to feel vulnerable and scared.
In the meantime, a man from heaven steps in between us and the man, saying “Why are you being so rude to these girls?” He walked behind us for a while and I was thankful for a temporary human shield.
“These Chinese motherfuckers man,” the angry man replied.
We walked quickly till we reached the top of the street where a crowd was gathered listening and dancing to street music. We stopped and found refuge in the crowd as the drunk man continued towards us.
As he passed us, he hissed “Fucking Chinese motherfuckers” and I couldn’t help but hiss back “Fucker” as he glared at me one last time, successfully intimidating me before walking away.
I burst into tears.
Tears of shock and rage, the same feelings I had only a few days ago in New York, but conjured under totally different circumstances. Tears flowed down my contorted face as I tried to compose myself. Tears from feeling truly vulnerable and scared. Tears of frustration and helplessness.
In that moment, I hated that I couldn’t stand up for myself and my sister despite being picked on first, in fear that I might get physically hurt by a man on the streets.
By now, you might have realised that I specified the genders and races of my aggressors, as well as the context both instances occurred in.
One was a white male, yelling at me in daylight, on a busy street, and our friend was male. We were headed into the subway, filled with lots of people.
The other was a black male, it was past midnight, cursing at us on a busy street with drunk people. It was just the two of us and we were headed home, having to walk through quiet streets to get back. The last thing we wanted was for this guy to follow us down a quiet street.
In the first situation, I was empowered. Not a single cell in my body was scared. I had so much adrenaline in me I could lift a car. In the second situation, I was scared. The first man attacked me, the second attacked me and pointed out my race.
It made both our races salient at that moment. All the negative stereotypes of black people came flooding into my mind in a split second, I didn’t stand a chance. It inflated his power, and deflated mine. Chinese people are meek, Chinese people only study hard and are good at math, Chinese people are submissive.
He also made it clear that I was foreign, and this was his turf. It was Frenchman Street. I was an intruder, I didn’t belong here. What business did I have listening to jazz music on a Sunday night?
After I had calmed down, I asked Sash if she had done anything to provoke him. I wanted to assess the situation as objectively as I could.
Did you stop in the middle of the sidewalk to get your phone out? No.
Were you walking slowly? Not any slower than anyone else.
Were you hogging the sidewalk? No.
As we recounted this story to other people in the following days, “Maybe he was just drunk” came up as a possible reason for his behaviour. It dawned on me how often we use drunkenness as an excuse for bad behaviour.
I will not give this man a free pass just because he was drunk.
“Oi, give me some of that Chinese!” was the first one I heard as a student in Exeter. I love being yelled at by drunk middle-aged men from across the street.
“You’re an exotic oriental” was the second one I heard from a fellow student. It didn’t feel like a compliment.
Racial slurs and comments are part and parcel of travelling. Having spent a large chunk of my time in tiny ol’ Interlaken that gets a lot of Chinese tourists and their tourist money, I encounter it there too.
Frequently getting “Ni hao”, “An young ha say yo” and even “Fuck you Chinese” in Interlaken, especially when I walk past teenagers.
I get annoyed looks from supermarket staff despite having been in the same supermarket day after day to pick up lunch or groceries. They use a tone when they tell me that the plastic bags aren’t free, despite me already scanning the damn bag at the self-service counters. They use a tone I don’t hear when they speak to my European colleagues.
You know what the funny thing is? I’m not Chinese.
My skin might be yellow but my mind is filled with ideas, thoughts and feelings from a multi-racial upbringing. One where seven-year-old me wears a baju melayu, a bindi on my forehead, bangles from Ipoh’s night market and a milk bottle in my hand dancing to Play That Funky Music White Boy by Wild Cherry.
My belly is full of spices from China, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia, made into curries that can only be found in Malaysia. It longs for Nyonya flavours influenced by the Portuguese and the Dutch, of pong teh, belacan, buah keluak.
My tongue speaks to people from the East and West, even if my pronunciation in Mandarin or Malay makes them laugh or messes up my food order. My English words educate and nourish people from all parts of the world.
My being is a messy concoction of all these things. My Malaysian blood is thick and red.
As I was crying on the street corner, a lady who witnessed our last interaction with the drunk man looked at me with concern before asking “Are you ok, honey?”
I nodded my head while Sash recounted what happened.
“People are assholes,” the lady said.
“Some more than others,” I added.