I am sat on a bench in the park near my house, in front of a little pond, reading my friend’s thesis draft on my laptop.
A man walks past, turns to me briefly and bids me good morning. I glance up briefly and return the greeting before going back to my laptop.
A few seconds later the man turns back and starts talking to me. He’s dressed casually, wearing a magenta toque and holding a plastic shopping bag.
“Are you a medical student?” he asks in German, smiling. He has a friendly face. The park is right next to the university clinic, and I look like I’m studying, so I suppose it’s a fair question.
He then rattles off something about being a law student but I don’t care and am not paying attention. Until he asks, totally non sequitur:
“Shanghai oder Korea?”
Totally unsolicited, totally without context, from a total stranger. Also, not even a full sentence. I know what he’s asking, because he is hardly the first stranger to ask me this, but he could at least have the decency to form it in a full sentence. Shanghai or Korea what? Which is bigger? Which I like more?
Instead of asking him what he means – since I know exactly what he means – I look at him for a moment and answer,
“Weder Shanghai noch Korea.” Neither.
He recovers and says, “Right, you are German – ” – as if that was the only alternative – “Could I perhaps give you my mobile number?”
I dismiss him with a wave of my hand and turn back to my laptop.
But I can’t concentrate on my friend’s thesis draft any more. I can’t stop thinking about how this scenario played out.
On the one hand, relative to other similar experiences I’ve had, I’m not rattled or offended. I felt in control of the situation. The exchange at first glance was friendly and non-aggressive – he even seemed respectful.
On the other hand, his questions tell me something disturbing: He is interested in me – and he is interested because of my Asian looks. I know this because he doesn’t know anything else about me when he offered his phone number.
As if race-based or sex-based attention isn’t unsettling enough on its own, I have to be victim to racialised sexual harrassment? In my own neighbourhood park?
Even after he’s gone I am still thinking about this, and now writing about this. I can’t help but be bothered by it because it is yet another incident in a very pervasive pattern of similar incidents that I wish didn’t exist.