Visiting France and Italy as an Asian American woman was a frustrating experience, not just because I got my passport stolen mid-trip. As I walked through Paris and Florence with two other female Asian friends, we attracted comments from a slew of men.
For example, a man riding his bicycle behind us on a sidewalk in Paris called out, “ni hao!” A topless man across the street from us in Florence smugly shouted, “CHING CHONG CHING CHONG!” and bowed at us.
After living through two decades in the Bay Area and two peaceful months studying abroad in Ireland, I was jarred by this onslaught of street harassment. After I noticed that only men were yelling at us, I realized that their taunts were a variation of catcalling. My analysis made sense, given that catcalling is so prevalent in France and Italy.
I tried different responses to these comments, but none of them seemed to bring justice against the commenters in a satisfying way. When three men on a French train platform called out “ni hao” while I was in a bad mood, I yelled at them sarcastically in Chinese. I only succeeded in amusing them with my attitude. Until the next train arrived to take them away, they made obscene gestures at me across the train tracks.
Yelling in Chinese was a dumb idea. If I wanted to shame them, I had to do it in English, a language I was more comfortable speaking. So when two men passed us on a mostly empty train compartment in Pisa at night and muttered, “Ni hao,” I replied, “We don’t speak Chinese.” The man demanded in English, “What do you speak, then?” I sensed danger in continuing the conversation, so I ignored him. He persisted in asking angrily, “What do you SPEAK?” When I didn’t reply, he walked away, muttering under his breath. It wasn’t the most successful encounter, but at least he didn’t attack us.
I spent some time in the hotel room Googling techniques for responding to catcallers. Some women respond aggressively. Some come up with hilarious jokes to catch catcallers off their guard: “I’m on the phone with my grandmother! Say hello!” But the best response I found was from a woman who said “What?” whenever a guy catcalled her. The man would be forced to repeat his offensive comment louder and louder, until he got too embarrassed to continue.
I shared this tip with my friends the next day as we stood in line for the Galleria dell’Accademia. A few minutes later, a nearby street vendor flashed us a grin and yelled, “Ni hao!” My friend turned towards him and called, “What?” He yelled “Ni hao!” louder, and my friend responded with another “what?” The street vendor hesitated, his grin frozen on his face. He switched to English and asked if we wanted to buy his paintings.
Success! We humbled him. Fortunately, we didn’t have another chance to try the “What?” technique on anyone else before we came home.
Although I can look back and dismiss these stories as a humorous traveling experience, catcalling is a serious issue everywhere. I’m thankful that my friends and I were never physically threatened during my trip to Europe, because catcalls can often escalate into violence. As women, we have to be wary of random men on the streets, even if they believe they’re “just being friendly.”
As Asian Americans, we were also uncomfortable hearing “ni haos” and “ching chongs” from the sneering lips of men who clearly didn’t care if we actually spoke Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or one of the many other Asian languages. We can sense the difference between those who are mocking our identities and those who are just trying to be friendly. But even the amiable security officer at the Museé d’Orsay didn’t bother asking if we were Chinese, so it was still awkward when he said “ni hao” to us.
Despite these annoyances, I still enjoyed my time in Europe. I’m merely disappointed to have blatantly encountered a dark side of European culture. I’m even more disappointed that rampant catcalling and gendered violence is not unique to Europe. But even in a patriarchal, xenophobic world where women live in perpetual fear that they might be at the mercy of leering strangers, I’m determined to find happiness. For right now, happiness is in the process of writing this story and leaving it in the past, all from the comfort of my warm home.