It's November of 2010. I'm walking on the Lower East Side one night with my college girlfriends and feeling really cute and cool, ’cause it’s 11:30 and the club is jumpin’ jumpin’. We’re walking toward the club on Rivington Street and we’re so close we can feel the bass. The streets are packed, brightly lit and crowded -- typical for a weekend night on this strip.
We’re swimming upstream on a narrow sidewalk when a guy squeezes past me and grips my upper arm and yanks me toward him. He looks like Ronnie from "Jersey Shore" in his skin-tight black tee-shirt and has a whole bottle of gel in his hair.
“Where you going tonight ladies?”
I shake off his hand and walk away. I hate when strangers touch me, even just to tap me on my shoulder.
I’m about 10 feet away when he calls after me. “Go study for your SATs, you Chinese bitch,” he snarls.
Let me pause here to give you some background info: I am not Chinese. I am American and I was born in Wayne, New Jersey, and anyway, my parents are Korean. I don’t like being called Chinese. There’s nothing wrong with being Chinese -- I’ve studied Chinese and have lived in China -- but I hate that so many people think it’s okay to:
a. Point out that I’m “not American”
b. Assume they know my ethnicity
c. Project stereotypes onto me based on this incorrect label
Also, a lot of people seem to think China is interchangeable with all of Asia; in fact, China is a country in Asia. While we’re at it, my parents are from South Korea and not North Korea. North Koreans have not been permitted to leave their country since 1953.
Anyway, back to Rivington Street. I go from 0 to 60 in a split second and run to him and get up in his grill. “What did you just call me?” I ask.
“Get out of my fucking face, you bitch,” he says. “Don’t make me hit you.”
He may be ’roided out, judging from his Jose Canseco-like biceps. Every vein on his forehead is dancing. But somehow, 5’3”, pocket-sized me is too angry to care and we’re nose to nose, screaming at each other.
“I’ll break your fucking face,” he says over and over again with balled up fists.
“Go ahead,” I hiss. “Show everyone on this street what a gentleman you are.”
This back-and-forth continues for a few minutes and I see his fists clench tighter and tighter and then he starts shoving me with both hands. I stagger back in my 5-inch stacked heels. Finally he releases all of his pent-up fury -- and spits right in my eye. As I wipe the spit off with my hand, I see him running away with his friends. None of the bouncers in front of the nearby clubs and bars stop him or say anything.
I’m so humiliated that I pretend it’s no big deal.
“Ugh, let’s go,” I say, still wiping my eyes. “I don’t feel like staying out anymore.” They nod but don’t say anything and follow me into a cab.
On the way home, one of my friends gets hysterical.
“Andrea, ANDREA,” she says. “That guy -- he said he was going to break your face. And he was so -- SO big. And you’re so small! If he punched you, he would have broken your face. And then you’d have a broken face!”
She goes on like this for a while. My other friend stays totally silent. I live uptown, so I drop my friends off first.
The next day, I tell my mom what happened. “You are going to get killed one day,” she screams. “I keep telling you -- just walk away!”
It’s hard because I feel like I have the right to defend myself when people hurl racial and sexist epithets at me, but at the same time, my mom is usually right and her reaction doesn’t settle well with me.
I try to take ownership of the situation by posting on ihollaback.org, a website devoted to ending street harassment, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. How am I supposed to take ownership of something that happened to me by posting about it on a website devoted to people who visit solely to read about street harassment and comment, “You go girl!”
I feel stupid and unsatisfied, especially after sifting through the blog and seeing a few posts that say things like, “A man told me I have nice eyes today and now I feel so violated. I’ll never be able to look at myself in the mirror without seeing his leering face in my pupils again.”
Maybe posting helps some people feel better, but it is not for me. I stop going to the Lower East Side for a while.
Over the next couple of months, I replay the event over and over again in my head and decide Mom was right: I should have walked away. I’m pretty vain and not willing to get my face broken in the name of ending street harassment. I know I am entitled to fight back if someone wrongs me, but I don’t want to do it at the risk of my safety.
I eventually overcame my fear of the Lower East Side, in part because I dated someone who lived there and refused to meet me anywhere more than 10 minutes away from his apartment (I’ve grown a lot since then), but also because I didn’t want a bad experience to ruin a whole slice of New York City for me. Now, if a catcaller says, “Ni hao,” Charlie Rangel style, I just let it be. It’s not fair, but then again, neither is life.