Safety Is an Illusion---KC Washington
It is a mad, dangerous world but a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do. So, if that means dinner for one or flying solo on trips to far reaches of the world so be it. But just because a gal must go it alone doesn’t mean she’s necessarily lonely or unsafe. Or at least not completely.
In the last twenty-four years, I’ve been to seventeen countries and counting. There have been fewer than five times that I’ve felt imperiled. One time, while traveling south from Naples to Sorrento, I was accosted by a man who followed me onto the train. As he came closer and closer muttering in indecipherable Italian, I used my limited language skills to say I didn’t understand. I grew increasingly more nervous, uncertain as to whether he wanted to rob me or was hitting on me. The crowded train watched curiously but with no offer of help. Backed into a corner, my over-sized, unwieldy suitcase the only thing between me and the Napoletano as he bore down, the Brooklyn feminist finally rose up and I yelled, “Basta! Non parlo Italiano!” He got off at the next stop.
That was 8 years ago and I’m sure my bravery and lack of general travel fear was due in part to traveling to mostly “safe” countries, in part because I’m a New Yorker and as such, walk like a New Yorker, and pure luck. Oh, and the sweet oblivion of youth.
We all know that the universe watches over fools, drunks, and babies. But apparently, it also keeps an eye peeled for twenty and thirty somethings who think they’re invincible. Until very recently, I really didn’t worry that much about my safety in or out of the States, but this has changed.
Sadly, it began in my beloved NYC, long before I took my show on the road. Walking to my apartment from the 155th Street subway stop, drinking a little too much and nodding off in a cab on the way home, and closing up my Kips Bay bar at three in the morning on a Saturday night, I started to notice a niggling sense of wariness, the need for vigilance. News stories about women being attacked, people being robbed, homeless people going rogue, gang activity, and “bad apple” cops seemed to leap out at me and linger in my subconscious. New York had started to make me nervous. Bartending during a rowdy happy hour, my fear of a random jerk or newly released Bellevue patient who I would have to subdue and remove made me space my bourbons. Trapped on a slow-moving subway train suddenly invaded by a loud, braying pack of boys had my back up before I booked my one-way ticket for Asia.
I joked to myself that my heightened sense of threat was because I wasn’t as fleet of foot as I used to be, as willing to battle grown ass men like the punk rock badass I used to be when I could hold my own at the front of a stage or in a Fishbone mosh pit. As a woman who has rarely experienced the luxury of male protection---which can be both affirming and crippling---in my punk rock youth, I wielded my ability to hold my own in and out of the mosh pit as a badge of honor. Uncaring of how I was perceived, I enjoyed myself and did what needed to be done to protect myself. But as every aging punk rocker knows, at some point, even if you don’t leave the party, you have to climb out of the pit. And when that day comes you must reckon with your body and the Doc Martin boot prints life has left on it.
So, I am not as fast or as agile as I used to be. I am also an adult, a vain adult woman who doesn’t think physically going toe to toe with men after a certain age is a good look! But honestly, I think it’s more than vanity and my not being as limber as I used to be. I think the world has gotten scary. I know. I know. It has always been scary, but I used to believe I could fight it---alone if need be---and now I don’t. It’s a mortifying admission and not entirely true but the sense of vulnerability is real.
There is something profoundly disturbing about feeling menaced only to return home, close and lock the door behind you and yet find no comfort. When there is no one to share the fear with, it can metastasize, consume, making one even more fearful.
I took my sense of vulnerability with me when I moved, fully prepared for it to permeate my new life but to my surprise I found the opposite. As I settled in, exploring my new home and the surrounding environs---despite being in a culture and a language utterly foreign to me, I found myself with a niggling sense of safety. It came as something of a shock yet continued to build week by week. I knew I felt a little scared, a little under siege back home, but I didn’t realize how much until I was away from the scene of the crime as it were. And before you say of course NYC is dangerous. It wasn’t just NYC. I felt the same whether I was in Brooklyn or Chicago, or Ferndale, Michigan. And sadly, it was both a race thing and a gender thing. I never knew where the danger was coming from.
Now, a year in, I leave a bar in sleepy Sacheon after a bottle or two of Soju and walk home through dark alleyways with one flickering light and I don’t fear for my physical safety nor my possessions. My relief is palpable. Walking home from the last showing of a movie, unable to sleep and deciding spontaneously to go for a walk, I literally say thank you out loud. Finally, a place where a single woman doesn’t take her life into her own hands simply to experience the liberty that most men enjoy without a second thought (unless you’re a man of color, of course).
But before you pack your bags and head east, here is the crazy thing: there are CCTV cameras EVERYWHERE! South Korea seems to be the original Big Brother, a country straight out of Orwell’s “1984” or the underrated Will Smith/Gene Hackman movie “Enemy of the State”.
Unlike my mother and aunt, and most Black people, Big Brother doesn’t particularly bother me. I soothe myself with the idea that if I’m doing something super embarrassing, with millions of people to surveil way more interesting than myself, I’m not likely to make the evening news or become a YouTube sensation. Sadly, with not much of a past or present, I am an open, boring book. My search engine doesn’t even have to be wiped when mom comes to visit. I’m old school. I prefer books and mags!
So, what gives in the land of Confucian politeness? What’s really going on in my oasis of security? After blissfully going on and on for months about how safe I felt, it occurred to me to ask native Korean women how they felt, and which came first: the chicken or the egg i.e. crime or the CCTVs? The Korean women I spoke to in big city Seoul and in the countryside seemed confused by the question. I mentioned how free I felt here, how safe and how I didn’t understand why there was so much surveillance. One of my friends casually replied, “Because of the rapes.”
I was floored. I twisted between “Of course!” and “What the fuck, Korea!”
I follow Korean current events somewhat---I’m rabidly obsessed with American politics right now and can barely tear myself away from MSNBS on YouTube, but I know there is a #metoo movement here and have read the stories in Facebook forums warning women about this creepy guy or that bad Tinder date and to be aware, but it has yet to impact me. I have yet to witness shocking, scary, attacks here that were near daily occurrences in America. In Busan and Tongyeong---bigger cities---I’ve had men approach and whisper but since I only just started basic Korean lessons I was able to smile politely, mutter a quick 죄송합니다 (sorry) and keep it moving. I have yet to encounter blatant racism or sexual aggression.
Alright, time for some more painful honesty. As a Black woman of ample curves and medium- toned skin, I am not exactly the fare du jour in Korea. But then again, as we know, sexual assault, rape is not about attraction. It’s about power and dominance. But perhaps because as a foreigner I am not a power threat and because I am not viewed as “feminine” so therefore not on their sexual radar, to Korean men I am a simple curiosity, and as such invisible. I am not a part of their desire warped or otherwise, so I am free. Free to roam the streets at any time of day or night without worry.
And although my naive, rose-colored glasses have been removed to the real dangers here and I fret for my sisters, I welcome my release. I am free, albeit, it’s a strange sort of freedom. I’m like a mink whose hind leg is caught in a trap. I’m alive, I have all my other limbs and my beautiful pelt, but what will become of me? Am I destined to wither away far from my marsh or…
Editors Note: Minks usually live alone and are with their partner only during breeding seasons. (Who knew!)
Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back soon and
in the meantime, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being
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