I am a 29-year old Asian American female. I am engaged to a sweet, intelligent man from Bangladesh. He is out of town for a friend’s bachelor weekend, so I decided to take the day off after Bra Theory (I work on Saturdays for my ladies) and go to Washington Square Park with a tote bag and yoga blanket.
I wore an Objective-C related T-shirt from the band “Breakpoints”, white shorts, and flip flops. I brought my yoga blanket, and carried it by wrapping it around my shoulders, so that I did not have to stuff it in my over-small tote bag.
“Ha, this makes me look a little odd,” I thought. “Let them think what they think.”
You see, I have been feeling “open” lately – open to be who I want to be, open to be expressive with my face and body, and sensitive to all the sounds, smells, and delights. Today, I intended to relax in the sun.
I thought of texting a friend on my way, so I paused by a lamppost. I opened my app and saw a notification for something else, and forgot what I meant to text. A man interrupts my thoughts. “Are you lost?” he says.
I was feeling guarded. He was standing very close to me, but he is a white-haired white man, and white people stand closer to me than Asian people do.
“No, I’m just texting a friend!”
“Ha, can’t live without the iPhone, huh? Can you live without one?”
I was a little annoyed. I thought he was making fun of my status as a Millenial. “I think you may be projecting onto me.”
“Oh no,” he said, taken aback. “I mean, I’m addicted too!” I realized I had been projecting onto him what I thought he was projecting onto me, and relaxed. I was always so uptight about these things, with all my biases. I let myself open to the possibility that this white-haired white man was simply trying to help what he perceived of as a lost stranger in NYC. We chatted about art, retirement, and Trump, and parted ways.
I walked through the park, noticing the freshly planted lavender and the joy of the pink flower that neighbored it, whose name I do not know. For a moment, I sensed a whiff of an indescribable perfume that I wish I had for myself, and the moment passed as quickly as it came, for it disappeared in the wake of its wearer on the wind. I sat on the grass for a little while to eat, noticing a chihuahua eye my picnic lunch. I moved to sit next to a tree, leaning against it to close my eyes, enjoying the peace of the afternoon. I would open my eyes, every so often, due to the rain of pollen from above, which reaches a high velocity after falling from a very tall tree.
This June afternoon, I went where I wanted, I relaxed where I wanted, I smiled when I felt the call to smile.
You see, I do not always relax. I am learning how to move in this world, of my own will and not that of others. I am learning how to be less uptight. I am learning how to be me in this world, not a rigid, uptight, defensive young woman.
As I laid on my yoga blanket, I turned to stretch, and I moved my belongings to the side where I could see them at all times. I thought, ruefully, that my parents have taught me to be over-safe in an America that is already safe. Others have been taking naps next to their belongings, 2-3 feet away from them.
I smile at the laxness of the afternoon, remembering an auntie in Shanghai. She visited me at my dorm in Fudan University, where all the students like to place their shoes outside their dorm rooms. “I should steal those shoes to teach them a lesson,” she said. She didn’t, but I thought of her now, as I saw the young people with their belongings, scattered, ready to be picked up by chihuahuas if they were edible.
I heard a noise on my right. I whipped my head to the side to see who it was, instantly alert. Again, I am sensitive to sounds, and I am generally uptight and on alert. It was simply a child, babbling to his father. I smiled.
Look at my nervous system, always on for no reason. I got tired of lying down, and found myself drawn to the Hare Krishna exhibit, the story of the Bhagavad Gita. I began to read it in wonder, with an open mind, to try to soak in the insights of peoples different from me.
An electric guitar ripped through the air in the distance. My ears perked up, as I have recently started a band and picked up the bass. I allowed a full smile of joy to run through my face, and allowed a little bob to my head.
A man, 4 feet away, looked at me.
I noticed it. I am “open” lately – my sensitivity is at an all-time high, and I notice things. I chose to not think anything of it.
He was probably surprised by my reaction, just like I had been surprised by the guitar.
He looked at me again. Down, and then up.
Again, I noticed it.
Perhaps he was astounded by my legs. Let him be astounded by my legs. Perhaps he thought it was weird that I was wearing a yoga blanket shawl around my shoulders. People in Washington Square Park are weird, let him think so. Perhaps there was something on my feet. I looked down. Nothing in particular, I was wearing flip flops.Perhaps he thought me an oddball. Let him think that. I don’t care.
Once more, he looked at me again. Down, and then up.
Listen. I like to believe in the good of the world. I like to think, maybe his heart is good and he thinks I have nice legs and all he does is want to talk to me, and doesn’t know how to approach me.
That was not the feeling I had in that moment.
My gut was saying, no. My gut was not always right, but my gut was saying no.
In that moment, I did not care what he was thinking.
All I knew was that he had an intention, and he had not stated it. I did not know or care to know his intention. I began to walk away.
Twenty steps away later, someone asked me from behind, “Do you have the time?”
It was the same man.
He looked again at me, but did not meet my eye, looking instead somewhere near my left abdomen. God knows why.
“No, I do not have the time,” I said. I began to walk away.
“Oh, okay,” he said. I hoped that was the last of it.
He asked the next person walking by if they had the time. They said, “Sorry man.” Is he really asking for the time? I wondered. Fine, so be it. He moved on.
I was walking away. Then, after some consideration, I abruptly changed the direction I was intending to walk.
I walked faster and faster.
I was in a crowded, sunny park. Everyone around me was making music and dancing, praising cows and munching on Trader Joe’s snacks on their picnic blankets. I am now weaving through everyone in this park, going South, where I could find my way home to end this day early.
I hear keys jangling faster and faster. They are not my keys.
I am almost out of runway. I do not want to reach the South Gate of Washington Square Park, only to see that he is right behind me. That would mean I am on the sidewalk where there are fewer people.
I make a decision.
I whirl around.
This is happening in the middle of a crowded, sunny park. People are laughing and smiling on the benches, and I hear none of it, now. All I see is the person behind me. The man is right behind me, 3-4 feet away.
“You,” I say, in a voice that is grounded and leveled. “Are you following me?”
I have never been alone like this. I have never been followed like this. I have never felt so sure of myself, in this moment, that I do not care what this man’s intentions are. I just want to know an answer to this question, or for this man to get out of my sight.
I make a choice to speak, loudly, assertively. “ARE. YOU. FOLLOWING. ME?”
I have never been this loud or assertive in my entire life. I have never been so sure of myself in my life. I know that this is not the time to be as I always am, smiling, pleasant, joking.
The man does not meet my eyes. Then again, I barely want to look at him. All I know is that I feel unsafe.
He looks down and keeps walking, as fast as he can, south.
I am not furious. I am not sad. That will come later.
I was in shock.
I noticed another man, walking north across the crowded path to the fountain, looking up, confused by the remnants of my shout on the air. He was wearing a blue shirt.
I said, shaking, but still grounded,
“He was following me,” I said to the blue-shirt man.
I remembered something that I had read on the Internet. Identify one person in a crowd and call them out directly.
I repeat to this man, who is still confused, “He followed me through the park. He looked me up and down and I started walking away, and he followed me.”
I sat down on a bench, next to warm bodies. I felt safer, but not safe. I felt anger and sadness rise, now that the moment has passed, and it was safe to feel emotions.
I wanted someone to walk home with me.
I knew it was irrational. I knew that the man was unlikely to be interested to watch which entrance I left from so that he could follow me somewhere else, but my Ravenclaw mind burrowed into the tree of worst-case scenarios. I was on high alert, and wanted to keep open to the possibilities.
I was sitting on the bench, and racking through my head which friends live near Washington Square Park. New York City is a big city, and the dearest of friends will whirl into your life every quarter or so for a brunch, never to be seen in the day-to-day. What were the chances my friends could come to the neighborhood? This was not college anymore. This was New York City.
I looked at the grass, again, where the picnickers sat and played tarot cards and smoked weed. Everyone was so happy. I allowed my tears to flow. I saw two young women sitting on a blanket, and I thought to myself, I will ask them this.
“Will you walk with me 10 minutes so I can get home?” I asked, and I told them the story. I felt silly. I knew it was irrational. I wasn’t far, and it was broad daylight, and there were so many people around us.
But I felt unsafe. I wanted warm bodies near me.
It turned out that one of these young women works in Women’s Sexual Harassment and Abuse. Her name is Jeanine, who grew up in New York City, and who they call the Queen of the Lower East Side. Jeanine and her friend, Emily, were kind enough to take 10 minutes out of their day to walk with me through the streets.
On the way, Jeanine told me what I needed to hear.
“You felt unsafe. You did what you had to do to make the best possible decision, given the context. You did nothing wrong.”
They walked me home. I laughed a little with them, and smiled, but I did not shake the feelings of the moment.
I still have not shaken off these feelings, nor do I want to.
Now, here I am, a keyboard warrior, processing the fury and overwhelming sadness that this is happening in 2019, with the medium I can: words.
“I don’t know, maybe this always happens in Washington Square Park.” That is what many say. Strange people are in Washington Square Park. This is true, but rarely do they chase me across the Square.
“Maybe I wasn’t protecting myself enough. Maybe I should have done something differently, laughed less, smiled less, stayed indoors.”
But I’m done being closed off. I’m done hiding. I’m done walking around with an expression-less face because it might entice someone to chase me a couple of blocks down a street.
I’m done blaming myself, and I am furious, because I don’t know a good answer to this question:
Why, in the United States 2019, did I feel so unsafe on a sunny day in Washington Square Park?
Jeanine, the woman who walked me home, said this to me: “You deserve to be here. You deserve to feel safe. You deserve to feel that your boundaries are not invaded by a stranger.”
I remember a verse from the exhibit. “The body is only flesh,” from the Bhagavad Gita.
Yes, the body is only flesh. But it is still flesh, and I am still a human being, and I do not deserve to be stalked as if I am a gazelle.
I do not know the lesson here.
I did what I needed to do, to get myself out of a situation I did not want to be in. Looking back, I wished I had watched that man leave the park. I wish I had watched him speed-walk away, around the corner, far, far away. I wish I had yelled, “Do you see that? You, in the blue shirt? This man was following me.”
I wish I had verified he would not come back, and that he would not do this again. Now I know for next time. I hope there is no next time, but I know that there will continue to be next times for others.
Looking back, I am proud of myself. In those critical moments as I realized the man was following me, I knew what to do, and executed it clearly, unshrinkingly.
This is my story, today, on this June evening of a sunny day with wonderful weather. Perhaps, in the best case scenario, I was simply overreacting to a creepy dude.
I fully admit this could be a possibility, though my gut said no. I’ll never know, unless I let myself be chased. I don’t plan on doing so.
I like to think the best of the world. Sometimes, I imagine all of us as animals in the field, or small children on the playground. Beneath all the sociology, culture, and everything else, what is happening here?
Maybe a little boy is just chasing a little girl because he likes her and he doesn’t know how to talk to her.
Well, little boy, let me tell you now:
Do not physically chase unfamiliar little girls around just because you like them. You don’t know them, they don’t know you, and we’re not children here.
This message is for all of you dudes who speed-walk after women who are speed-walking away from you.
If you are interested in a girl who is a stranger, please don’t look at her three times, head to toe and toe to head, then follow her, asking her the time, then speed-walk after her as she speed-walks away, and then run away when she confronts you.
Have you ever tried to chase down a squirrel? They run away, and for good reason.
Do not chase women like they are butterflies or squirrels or something to catch.
We are people, just like you, and we do not like being chased across Washington Square Park by a stranger. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone should be chasing anyone down the street unless in jest because you know them or because they stole something from you.
I want to be open-hearted. I do not want to wear my Resting Bitch Face in public.
I am not prey. Stop being a predator.
I turn this case over in my head, since it is hours fresh. Was it the diamond ring on my finger? Did he look at feet to ascertain if I was wearing flip flops, to ensure that I would not be able to run very far if he chased me? It’s not like there were any alleyways nearby that I knew of, what were the real dangers in that situation? Was I just overreacting? How can I ascertain his intentions more fiercely and quickly? Did I misalign this person? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone just chased me, and it wasn’t right. My feelings are not done on this, but I am done with this. Women of NYC – watch out for each other. Men who are allies – watch out for the women.
That is all. Thank you. Please be safe.