Sunday, March 23, 2008

On Cat Calls

I have just returned from a summer vacation to South East China, a town called Hangzhou about two hours south of Shanghai. The town was pronounced "paradise" by Marco Polo the first time he set foot there, and it truly is gorgeous. Hangzhou is dominated by a huge lake that comes complete with shoreline pagodas, a gentle mist, and lotus gardens. It's the epitome of every stereotype Westerners have of Zen peace -- and my hotel sat right on the lake.

It was ten days into the trip before I realized this beautiful lake was not the reason I found the whole trip so peaceful. The real reason, it turns out, was that not once, not a single time, did any man stare at, whistle at, or approach me.

Let me rephrase that because, boy, did people stare. But they stared because I am a Westerner -- and occasionally a conspicuous one as I tried to blend in with the groups of Chinese elderly performing Tai Chi at 6 AM by the side of the lake. They stared, men and women alike, out of mere curiosity. Occasionally I got a smile or an accented hello: but this was a far different thing than men circling like sharks with toothy leers.

I've never known for sure if some perverse part or my brain might actually miss those cat calls. But now I knew: the silence was glorious.

If you are female you know what I mean. Those cat calls, the guys ogling, the "Quick! Talk to me so that man doesn't come over here" is a constant backdrop to life. I don't think it has anything to do with the looks of the female in question -- we get as many comments when we haven't showered and are wearing ripped jeans as when we're dressed up -- it's just a part of Western society. One you don't even question after awhile. Doesn't even bother you that much actually.

Except sometimes. Sometimes it's downright spooky. Right before I left for China, I encountered a man out with his teenage daughter shopping. I was trying on different outfits, and every time I stepped out from the changing room to look at the mirror, he would fix his eyes on me and . . . "stare" isn't even the right word. . . . he was like a missile locking onto a target. I'm not a supermodel, trust me; this was a function of his obvious obsession with the female form, not of how stupendous I look in Gap jeans.

His head swiveled from side to side as he kept me in the cross-hairs; he was so brazen he didn't drop his eyes even when I looked back at him. This guy actually craned his neck around any obstacle like a mannequin which might block his view. He completely ignored his daughter, who either didn't notice or was so used to it she didn't care. I tried to convince myself it was just my imagination and disregard it -- hey, maybe I just reminded him of his sister, right? -- but had to gave up that idea when my girlfriend came up to me of her own accord saying she was totally creeped out about the guy and that we should leave the store. Definitely not my imagination. My girlfriend dragged us out of there as I spouted venom about why men couldn't keep their lascivious thoughts to themselves.

So, sometimes it's a problem.

But at the heart of the issue has always been one fear -- the fear that too many guys have sneeringly suggested: "Oh, you know you like it."

And I've never been sure. Do I like being complimented? Sure. More than that. I need it. If a guy I'm dating doesn't tell me how much he likes me on a pretty regular basis, I start to worry. (It's just a hazard of being female, I suppose.) But do I want it from any guy who walks down the street? I don't know. Half the time it's intrusive, obnoxious. But every once in awhile someone says something randomly, something non-aggressive, just some nice comment, and it perks up your day.

So I've always wondered whether I'd like to live without any of it -- to lose the bad but to lose the good too. And there I was in China having my first taste of it. Not a single person checked me out, called to me, came on to me.

And I found it peaceful.

The day I arrived back at Boston, I was standing on the curb at the airport, waiting for my bus. A guy several feet away from me gathered his belongings as his bus showed up. I hadn't spoken a word to him, barely even looked at him, but he walked towards me.

"You're cute," he said. "Have a great day."

Before I knew it, I'd broken into a huge smile -- clearly I haven't quite gotten my position on this approaching business sorted out.

"Thanks," I said.

Maybe the U.S. isn't so bad.

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