Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm Huge in Singapore

In the U.S., I'm a pretty average girl. Guys hit on me from time to time, and I politely reject them, feeling somewhat flattered. When I walk down the street, I generally don't draw much attention, especially when I'm decked out in my daily uniform of jeans and a t-shirt. And that's OK with me- if I wanted attention, I'd wear clothes that were ironed and spotless rather than rumpled and pulled from the top of my hamper- maybe I'd even put on some makeup.

In Singapore, it is a different story entirely. I feel like a minor celebrity when I walk down the streets. Heads turn, jaws drop, and men approach me to flirt shamelessly. I once received applause from a group of construction workers. I've never felt very flattered by this behavior, because I think I'm being noticed just for being different rather than for being stunningly beautiful. I do my best to be inconspicuous, but it seems that no matter what I do, I end up drawing unwanted attention. A few examples:

One day I was walking home from the grocery store. I had my iPod cranked with my headphones in and I was overladen with groceries, including a super jumbo pack of toilet paper. I was moving quickly, just wanting to get home, when a man stepped into my path, waved at me and motioned for me to remove my headphones. I reluctantly did so, hoping that he just wanted directions or something. Wrong. He began flirting relentlessly (did I mention that I was carrying a super jumbo pack of TP?). I kept walking while declining him repeatedly, each rebuke sharper than the last- "I have a boyfriend," "I'm not interested," "Please leave me alone!" Of course he followed, and even offered to carry the toilet paper! I put my headphones back in, and he trailed along behind me, asking invasive questions like "Where do you live?" as if I would be foolish enough to answer. He kept it up until I started saying "!!!!" My yelling started to draw some attention, and much to my relief he turned around and walked off dejectedly.

A few weeks later, I was again carrying groceries home when a man came up to me on the street and said "Hey sweetheart, where are you from?" Now I abhor being called sweetheart by men that are hitting on me- I think it's condescending and presumptuous. I was irritated by his question and fed up with guys like him, and I dished out what I believe to be my harshest rejection yet- no words, just a disgusted sound and an eye roll. That didn't stop him from shamelessly saying "LOOKIN' GOOD!" before going on his way. I am now convinced that men find something alluring in a woman carrying groceries.

Waiting on the MRT one day, I had my nose buried in a book when someone said "Excuse me!" and I looked up. I was immediately sorry when I saw the eager expression on the guy's face. I put a finger on the line I was on and coldly said "Can I help you?" He proceeded to chat incessantly without any encouragement from me until I told him that I really needed to get some reading done, and went back to my book. When the MRT came and I had to pause in my reading, Alex (he had told me his name several times) started up again, and said- "Oh, there are two seats over there!" I ignored him and sat down on a seat with people on either side of it. Undaunted, he stood in front of me and kept up a steady monologue aimed in my direction. Just before his stop, he asked me for my number. I said no, and he said he just wanted to be friends. I told him I didn't have a phone, or an email address, and I was virtually impossible to get ahold of. The guy that I had sat next to (in an attempt to escape my unwanted suitor) was shaking with suppressed laughter. I breathed a sigh of relief when overeager Alex finally exited the train.

The worst experience I ever had with a guy was when we first arrived in Singapore and Bryan was working and I still had my days free. I decided to go check out Japanese Garden on my own, and I took along a book, expecting a peaceful afternoon. I couldn't have been more wrong. As I walked into the garden, I saw someone off to the side of the path, and I gave a courteous smile (I have long since learned not to smile at strange men in Singapore. Perhaps I should have known this before, but what can I say? I'm a happy person; it comes naturally). This guy took my smile as an open invitation to stalk me relentlessly. As I walked onto a bridge to feed the fish below, I sensed that I was being followed. Sure enough, when I stopped he was there, asking me a lot of questions. After attempting to kindly reject him several times, I resorted to pretending I didn't understand what he was saying- a technique I have employed many times with varying degrees of success. It didn't work on him, so I just turned and walked away. He followed, and I called Bryan, hoping that my phone conversation would bore him. No luck- he walked away and waited for me to hang up, and then approached me again. I ignored him and walked to a crowded area where I sat down on a bench and began pointedly reading my book. He stood nearby, irritating me with his presence, until coming and sitting in front of me. I told him I was waiting for my boyfriend, who would be here soon. He didn't take the hint, and was so bold as to reach out and touch my red-polished toenail and say "I like this." I freaked out, jumped up and walked away, making a beeline for the nearest bathroom. Once inside, I peeked out and saw him waiting there. I waited a very long time until he wandered off, appearing to look for me (he must have assumed I had sneaked out somehow), and when he was turned around, I ran across the park to the MRT station. It was an unpleasant and somewhat frightening experience, and nothing nearly so bad has happened since. Although it made me angry, I think it also taught me a valuable lesson about how to deal with persistent men in Singapore.

I've learned a few tricks to help me avoid unwanted confrontations. I've found that eye contact, whether intentional or unintentional, can be perceived as encouragement. I often wear big sunglasses that make my gaze direction ambiguous, and sometimes I wear a ring on my left-hand ring finger, and start playing with it when I see men eyeballing me.

I don't want to give Singapore's men a bad name- for the most part, the men here are very courteous and have been helpful with things like directions. Older Chinese men are always genuinely kind to me, and are interested in what I'm doing here and what I think of Singapore. The men that hit on me tend to fit a stereotype- young, unskilled laborers with nothing better to do. And with the exception of the extra-creepy guy at Japanese Garden, they're generally harmless- whenever I've been hit on, it's been in a crowded place in broad daylight, and they don't try to touch me or violate my personal space. They're really more of an annoyance than a threat.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on these guys. After all, who can resist a face like this?

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