This is Normal Life as a Woman

I’ve been thinking about:

– that time I was walking with two friends down the street and a man walking by poked me in the breast. I was wearing a zippered hoodie and jeans.

– that time a stranger grabbed my butt in a club and by the time I turned around, he was gone. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans.

– that time the guy I was dating tried to pressure me into doing things I didn’t want to and then made me feel bad that he couldn’t sleep because I hadn’t given in. This is after I said I didn’t want to go over to his place and he insisted we would just sleep.

– that time a male classmate in grammar school made a thrusting gesture behind me with a broom.

– that time a stranger told me to smile.

– all those times I repeatedly dismissed advances from the same guy in a light-hearted manner so as not to hurt his feelings.

– that time I said I wanted to take it slow and he said that was fine and then didn’t respect it.

– that time he kept putting his hand on my knee even though I moved my leg away. And chose a table that literally put me in a corner. And played with my earring even though I leaned away from him. And then was confused about why I didn’t want a second date. And how I said I didn’t feel a connection because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

These are all things I’ve told my female friends. Scratch that—most of them are things I’ve told my friends. Others I haven’t, because they happened so long ago or they’re embarrassing or I didn’t think to—they things happen to us too often over the years to make a “big deal” about it every time.

When we tell each other these stories, we know they’re true. We have no reason to make them up. They’re part of our everyday lives.

And have any of the people committing the acts suffered any consequences? No.

These experiences, I’ve only recently realized, seem unbelievable to some people.

Why didn’t she just say no, some people ask.

My response is, I did. And, there are many times I wasn’t given the chance to say no. And, no isn’t taken seriously by some men.

She was drunk, some people say. She was wearing revealing clothing, some people say. My response is, I have been sober and worn modest clothing, and these things still happened to me.

I am thankful, of course, for friends and family who have heard and believed and shared these stories. More recently, as these conversations have come up more often with men I know, I am thankful for those who are equally horrified that other men do these things that they would not think of doing.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance who, without even a word from me defending Dr. Ford, launched into a defense of Kavanaugh and how many people have testified to what a great guy he is. He touched my shoulder and asked if I would report him thirty-eight years from now, as if I didn’t know the difference between an acquaintance tapping my shoulder and someone trying to rip my clothes off. Later, after my heart stopped pounding and my anger died down, I realized that this acquaintance was defending himself. Neither of us knows Ford or Kavanaugh. Neither of us was there. Why do we get so riled up about it?

Because we know ourselves. We know our values. We know how we perceive our experiences. This guy has offered to take me home. Has had the potential to make me feel uncomfortable with suggestive remarks if I weren’t so self-possessed around him and therefore comfortable brushing him off. I always laugh it off with him and chalk it up to him being an incorrigible flirt, which is true. But the truth? I can laugh and joke and talk with him, but I would never take him up on an offer to go out or be given a ride, whereas I wouldn’t hesitate with other men I know. This is based on instinct, not on anything he has done wrong—surely he and many other people would say he has done nothing wrong. And he hasn’t with me. But I sensed a long time ago to set boundaries with him because he wouldn’t respect them otherwise. And now, after this conversation, I know why I felt that way. The way he kept urging me to make my arguments about Ford vs. Kavanaugh after we had already discussed it a bit and I repeatedly said I didn’t want to talk about it anymore showed that a clear and direct “no” is not enough for him. He wanted to keep talking about it and he wanted to prove his point.

Before I go channel my anger in a productive manner, I am reminding myself of:

– that male friend who told me about how at a bar a male acquaintance of his wouldn’t leave a female acquaintance of theirs alone, and how he took that guy aside and told him not to go near her again.

– the man I once dated who, at his place, asked me if I wanted it to go any further.

– the male friends whom I have slept in the same room with and made me feel comfortable and safe.

– the man who told me he can’t believe some of the creeps his female colleagues have to deal with when online dating. How speaking with them has opened up his eyes to the differences in men and women’s experiences.

– the male bosses I’ve had who have always treated me with respect.

– the males in my family who have set a good example.

– the man who took my ‘no’ graciously and maturely.

– the man who, months after reacting poorly to my ‘no,’ apologized to me for treating me unfairly.

I don’t know any woman who wants to take out her anger on good men. Good men don’t have to worry. Good men are what give me a bit of faith.

What I want is for my word to be respected and taken seriously. For my body to not be viewed as something to be poked at or taken lightly.

I’m not going to speak for Ford or my female friends or family. They have their own stories, and I’ve heard and witnessed many of them. But I guarantee that in speaking for myself, my experiences resonate with them. This is our reality.

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In the Zone

Before moving to Paris, and right after coming back to the States, I used to seek out opportunities to speak French and attend French-related events. Now I’m at the point where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled in France; have done things in French from making friends to dating to taking Spanish classes; and know French events in New York and New Jersey to the extent that Francophiles ask me for recommendations. When I attend one of these gatherings, it’s likely I’ll know someone there.

I’ve made a little place in the French world for about ten years. I realized that I’ve accomplished what I pursued. Perhaps because I entered my third decade last year, I’ve been ruminating on what my next (metaphorical) move will be.

That’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with French, nor was it my only passion as a young adult. As people do, I’ve always had varied interests. But French has been a big part of my life and touched all aspects of it. Just ask my close group of American college friends here how many Frenchies and Francophones I’ve tacked on to our get-togethers in the past couple of years… at this point they’re probably as used to hearing the French accent as often as I am. They’ve met my friends visiting from France and people I know from French language activities, and they’ve joined me to an outdoor Vianney concert, having no idea who he was.

Speaking French with strangers (or anybody) and doing everyday activities in French used to be outside of my comfort zone, and each push was a victory. I remember the first time I convinced a shopkeeper in Paris to give me a refund for a battery charger that I had opened but that didn’t work. The first time I had a job interview in French. The first time I gave condolences to a French friend whose father had died—I realized I didn’t have the preset vocabulary and so really thought and formulated my own phrases.

While I speak French regularly, I’m certainly not at a native-speaker’s level—just last week, I had a work meeting in French for the first time in a long time, and I felt a little self-conscious—it was almost a surprise to feel that way again. And improving my ease and fluidity in the language will be a lifelong journey. But somehow, with my consistent efforts, French has become part of my comfort zone, and I feel a yen to push myself again. I’m still exploring and figuring out in what direction that will be.

Dealing

Inevitably, life is not always peachy. I think the key is finding coping strategies that work for us. I’m not sure it’s something I ever learned in school.

I have a few go-tos, in no particular order:
– volunteering
– friends
– my gratitude journal
– nature

A story about volunteering: When I was in Paris, there was period where I hated my job. I wasn’t the only one—the company had such high turnover that after a year you could be the senior person in your department. We were understaffed and overworked with no overtime pay and underappreciated by management At the time, I volunteered at an outdoor soup kitchen one evening a week. At the end of the workday, I felt tired and just felt like going home, but one thing I am is consistent, so I would eat my packed dinner at my desk and take the metro to the soup kitchen without fail. Once there, I moved into fast-paced prepping and serving mode—there were a lot of people and they were hungry. Then, clean-up and shooting the breeze with some bénéficiares. I always felt energized from volunteering, plucked out of my own world of problems and placed in a totally different world, where a fight might break out (not that we wanted that) and where I honed an ability to scoop cooked fish out of a tray without splashing the sauce. Now, in the States, I still volunteer, and each time reminds me that there are tons of people around me living different realities from my own. It’s different knowing and seeing.

A story about friends: Often, I’ll talk with friends when I’m going through a tough time, but I remember one particular weekend almost a year ago that I simply lay on two friends’ couch for an afternoon while they went about doing their things in their apartment. Before that, we had sat around their kitchen table for what must have been a few hours chatting. I think I didn’t say that much, but they’re the types of friends that I feel comfortable not talking a lot if I don’t feel like it. I was so grateful to be in the company of people with whom I could just be.

Speaking of gratitude: It must have been at least five or so years ago that my friend and mentor Donna told me that she kept a gratitude journal. I noted it somewhere in my mind but didn’t have an impulse to start the practice. Two and a half years ago, my good college friend gave me a beautiful Petit Prince Moleskine planner for Christmas. While a planner is essential for me, my requirements are rather specific. This planner, medium-sized and hardback, was good quality but too heavy for me to carry around. I thought about what I could do with it—it couldn’t be used as a regular notebook, and it was so nice, and obviously my friend chose it specifically for me given its lovely quote in French on the cover. And that’s how I started writing in a gratitude journal.

About nature: I remember reading in Anne Frank’s diary years ago that she looked to nature to feel better. If she, who lived in such a difficult time, found solace in nature, then I thought it must be a good idea. Ten years ago, my family was going through a hard time, and I remember walking to the park and just lying on a bench or a swing and looking up at the sky. It didn’t erase the problems, but it helped me get through them.

This isn’t comprehensive, but knocking out a few more: There’s family, if you want to count them as a separate category from friends. And music: a few months ago during a highly stressful week, I was sick but dragged myself to a Jessie Ware concert in Brooklyn, where I was indeed transported to a wonderful place and danced and sang in liberation And exercise: I once dated someone who when not at his full-time job, ran like a fiend. In the park multiple times a week, marathons on weekends, alone, with groups. He had experienced a family tragedy not long before and gone through a low period himself. Running lifted him.

And oh, reading: a longtime love that I’m glad my parents nurtured. Reading stories of human experiences makes me realize that my experiences are exactly that. It’s amazing how novels across cultures and times resonate with my own thoughts, emotions, and situations.

Dealing with the dips: it’s a life skill in constant development.

Pas de panique

In the past month:

– I was on the subway on the way to work, and when I got on, it smelled like smoke. I only had four stops to go, and at every stop I wondered if something was wrong. At the third station, with only one station to my destination, we finally stopped for longer than usual. I stepped out of the train, and upon standing further back, I saw that it was smoking out the top. None of the other cars were. Eventually, a subway employee announced that the train wouldn’t be running further and that all passengers should get off and take another train. There was no urgency to the announcement. I checked the local news and the subway web site later but didn’t find anything of note.

– I was walking outside after work, and I suddenly heard a ‘boom’ and halfway down the block, then saw a big burst of flames. I stopped where I was, unsure what had happened, if anyone was hurt, and if I should go around the other block in order to get to the subway. I observed the people who were across the street from the fire was in order to observe whether they were moving away or continuing on their way. At first, people had stopped, but then I saw that they were continuing on, which told me that they didn’t deem that there was danger. So I crossed over to that side, and as I passed where the flames had been, I saw a work truck. The small explosion must have happened on that truck, but what was odd is that the workers didn’t seem panicked. I don’t know whether they had quickly extinguished the fire or if something else had happened. Anyone walking by at that moment wouldn’t have known that there had been a tall fire five minutes earlier. A few minutes later, from down in the subway station, I heard a siren and wondered if it was coming to check on the situation, but it could have been heading elsewhere.

– During my morning commute, my bus broke down on the highway. The driver was able to slowly drive it over to a middle strip of grass. He radioed out to his fellow buses, and within ten minutes another bus pulled up to accept the passengers it could, i.e. the first nine in the front seats of the bus, which included me. I’m sure the rest were picked up by other express buses soon after. It was amazing how little the incident affected our commute.

It’s weird how much goes on around us and how quickly we can move on if we’re lucky.

A Waste of Time

Recently I heard a conversation that made me think, Aaggghhhh.

Man to woman as they both came out of the subway station: “Tests are set up for you to fail. That’s why studying for it is a waste of time.”

Woman: “Not if it’s something I want to do.”

She changed the subject and said she was tired, and he tried to get her to go to Starbucks with him.

I thought, at least she sounded resolute. But I hope she has other people around her who encourage her and motivate her. Who is this guy, and why is she spending time with him?

I had written down their conversation on a scrap of paper, as I sometimes do when I see or hear something that strikes me. I realized that while my parents would not have made all the choices I’ve made, they never told me I couldn’t do something. People around me didn’t actively discourage from pursuing my goals (or if they did, I didn’t hear them).

A few days later, I came across my note, which I happened to be using as a bookmark in the latest book I was reading, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

How easy it is to believe certain false ideas if it’s all you hear. People who care about you should want you to succeed.

Maybe the guy I overheard puts down everyone around him, not only women. In any case, clearly he’s not someone who strives or works hard to go farther and thus belittled this woman’s efforts instead of being motivated by her ambition. I hope she finds better company.

Staying Sweet

Today I was thinking about how easy it could be to become cynical. I think I tend towards a positive outlook here, but that doesn’t mean I see the world as rosy. I see that people around me are in pain, and I think about it. People have experienced struggles and somehow continue.

In the past few days I heard and saw on the subway:

– 3 young gay guys, maybe teenagers, talking about their past drug use and how they started. Two of them said that their boyfriends at the time, who were seven to nine years older than them, introduced them to cocaine. The three friends agreed that they might have been offered drugs, but it was their choice to take it, and they could have said no. One of them referenced the “Shame on you, shame on me” quote, saying that the first time, shame on the other person, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth times, shame on you. I was struck by how young they were and yet how they had been through things and come out the other side already. Kind of heartening. I also thought about how great it was that they could talk about their experiences with each other and reflect on them. They may have had bad influences, but they are good influences on each other.

– An adult man telling a woman who was a bit older than him that his first memory of his dad was his dad throwing his mom on the kitchen floor. As their conversation continued, the woman told him about how her brother was committed to the state. I just thought, geez, everyone has something! We just don’t talk about it with everyone.

– Heavily armed police with black helmets in the station, and not far from them, a young Asian man singing and playing peaceful songs on his guitar with a handwritten sign in front of him that read, “Music is my passion.” He is there often, and I find his presence encouraging for multiple reasons—he is a young person pursuing his dream; he is an Asian person performing in public, a public that is not exposed to enough Asian artists; and his music is nice. As for the police, there are usually police in this main subway and bus station, but not outfitted in such gear. I wondered if it had to do with…

– A white powder scare in the bus station the other day. I arrived at the station in the morning, and a large area leading to the main exit was blocked off with yellow caution tape and four military men standing in a line. (Military personnel are usually present, but they always stand on the side.) I later learned that an unknown substance found in the station was the reason for the investigation. The powder was a cleaning agent, non-hazardous.

This is life. This is a normal day.

“J’ai tant d’admiration pour ceux qui se relèvent. …la plupart des hommes et des femmes que je croisais dans la rue me semblaient admirables… je ne les connaissais pas mais je devinais en eux des blessures, une fatigue, des failles qui me bouleversaient. Leur capacité de résistance m’épatait… »
– Olivier Adam, Le cœur régulier

This morning I was thinking about how in spite of all this, I am glad I am not cynical. I hope it never happens. You get older, you get hurt, you see how awful people can act. It will happen again and again. Yet I believe most people are good and are trying their best. They’re also utterly surprising in the best way.

“Norm!”

Recently a friend in New York City told me that for ten years, almost every Friday night she would have mussels, raw oysters, strawberries, and champagne at the same restaurant. That was thirty years ago.

It sounded like the kind of ritual the word ‘fabulous’ was invented for.

I’ve always liked the idea of being a regular at a place, but there are only a couple of times I’ve had that experience, usually associated with activity groups that meet at the same bar weekly. Food-wise, I love variety and so don’t frequent the same place every week. Same goes for ambiance—during lunch I sit at different spots in the park.

But I remember, one evening, walking into the bar in Paris that my fellow volunteers and I gathered at every week after serving meals outside, and the bartender said to me, “Thé au vert?” It felt like I had arrived.

We just want to be known, don’t we?

Happy ______ Day

I am a big fan of ceremony and tradition—this is what happens when you have a Catholic and Chinese upbringing—they are so steeped in both that even if you don’t observe all practices or hold all beliefs, you end up absorbing some of their essence.

I don’t speak for everyone; some people reject or simply aren’t interested in the faith or the culture they were brought up with. I know people who would say that that aspect, though ingrained in them as children, no longer has a place within them. I perhaps have just come to my roots as a reason for why I gain fulfillment from celebrating every holiday, observing birthdays and anniversaries, and continuing traditions universal, familial, and individual. That is an age-old aspect of humanity as a whole, but I know a number of people who don’t value any of that.

I think I just love an excuse to celebrate. Sure, we should give thanks outside of Thanksgiving, express our love outside of Valentine’s Day, and renew outside of New Year’s. But there are a lot of things we should do every day. Humans are always trying to simultaneously balance difference priorities and aspects of life.

Holidays and anniversaries serve as reminders to focus on one of these things.

It also adds novelty to a day. I remember hearing about someone who liked to dress in the theme of the movie he was going to watch in the theater. I am that way with holidays. A few years ago I wore bunny ears to a picnic with friends during Easter weekend in Paris. Yes, I am a grown woman who acts seriously at work and pays her taxes on time.

Holidays and events have the value that we assign to them. I choose to value a number of them. Two birthdays, two New Years. Christmas, Halloween. And if a person in my life celebrates a holiday that I do not and invites me to their gathering, all the better to observe someone else’s traditions. Passover, Galentine’s Day, Armenian Easter. I say oui.

Note: I wrote the first half of this post a full two years ago. It sat patiently in my drafts until the day I’d be “unblocked” and find the rest. It must have flowed out today because it’s Valentine’s Day, a holiday beloved, reviled, and dismissed. You can guess where I stand on this.

It’s a Process

“I’d never understood abstract art but [my art teacher] is slowly introducing me to it and I really like my latest painting it’s freeing to not plan things out and to layer and destroy some old in order to open up new possibilities.”

I was 18, a freshman in college, when I wrote this.

I was taking a studio art class called “Art as Process.” Our assignments included creating a piece of art about a chosen song and obtaining an old book in which we were to do something to a page a day.  We weren’t learning about perspective or shadow or mixing colors. It was different from the art classes on technique that I had taken in the past. Challenging and “out there,” it was about ways of thinking in making art. I must have written this after we had made a painting and then were instructed to paint a new one on top of it.

The next year, I would take a modern art class that would really bring me over to abstract art. I wasn’t there yet but clearly was open to the possibility of changing my mind about whether a blank canvas on a wall could be more than scoffed at.

What I wrote at 18 isn’t just about art, is it?

When I go back and read my writing, I am sometimes surprised by what I thought and wrote. Over ten years later, I have something valuable to learn from my less-experienced self.

Do your past selves speak to your present self, too?

Salve

I was stressed and I was worried, and that hung over me during my walk to meet two good friends for dinner.

I came upon this community garden and made a detour to walk through it.

Then, the first to arrive, I sat outside the restaurant and looked down this alley for the first time.

And those things made all the difference.

And I wished that everyone with something weighing on them could feel this wonder to lighten it from time to time.

When I take a walk, I can’t predict where the relief will come from, and that is part of the beauty of it.

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