There is, as they say, a time and place for everything. And sometimes, ladies, that occurs when you’re traveling. I encourage anyone who travels to a foreign country to learn a few key phrases and learn a bit about the place, in order to avoid cultural faux pas. Even something as innocuous as patting a child on the head in Thailand is considered a grievous offense, because the head is considered the the highest (and thus most sacred) part of the body.
It’s also bad form to lose your temper in Asia and other parts of the world, because it goes against cultural mores. But what to do when your safety is threatened, or if you’re being relentlessly hit upon?
It’s for this reason that I’ve developed what I like to call “safety vernacular” in a variety of languages. While I speak Spanish, I only know the aforementioned key phrases in other tongues: “please,” “thank you,” “what’s your name,” “where’s the bathroom?” But I also know how to swear like a banshee, and employ the varying degrees of “Get lost” that range from polite to, “If you don’t get out of my face now, you’re going to lose your testicles.”Now, you’re probably asking, “Is that really necessary?” Yes, it is. And it just may save your life.
What you say, and how you say it — as well as how you physically react — depends upon where you’re traveling. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore your harasser and move on. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse by responding aggressively in a country where women simply don’t act that way/where it could further encourage or antagonize your would-be attacker or paramour. And please, follow your guidebook’s advice on appropriate dress — not only will it help you blend in (inasmuch as that’s possible); it’s also a matter of cultural respect. Leave the Daisy Dukes at home, and pack a bra. While it doesn’t help in the vernacular department, a great book for cultural advice is Behave Yourself! The essential guide to international etiquette, by Michael Powell.
From chikan to “Eve-teasing”
Let’s take Tokyo’s Metro. It’s infamous for acts of chikan, or frotteurism, and foreigners aren’t exempt. Please note this doesn’t mean all Japanese men are evil perverts, or that riding the subway in Japan means you’re going to get felt up. But put it this way: it’s become such an issue that some railway companies in Japan designate women-only cars during peak hours.
Anyway. Japan is a country where it’s imperative not to “lose face.” Screaming at a frotteur and smacking him across the face, while perhaps the appropriate response, isn’t going to fly. Instead, find a guidebook that will tell you how best to deal with the situation, as well as provide you with a handy phrase to thwart it. “Eve-teasing” is a similar form of public harassment prevalent in India, as are open, leering stares. The best way to handle it is to ignore the stares, seek the company of other (local) women on public transit, or to call out your harasser in a crowd — public humiliation is very effective in India.
On how phrasebooks can help
It is for these situations that I swear by Lonely Planet Phrasebooks. They’re published in just about every language a traveler would require: Swahili to Southeast Asian hill tribe dialects; Basque to Mongolian. Not only do these little books offer cultural tidbits, but they’re packed with appropriate emergency phrases ranging from “Help!” “I’ve been raped,” and “How do I find the ____ embassy?” to sections on “Dating and Romance,” “Cultural Differences,” and “Specific Needs” travel. The various authors also have a great sense of (albeit dark) humor.
For example: the Spanish Phrasebook (Spain/Basque) offers these two gems: Por favor, deje de molestarme (Please stop hassling me), and Estoy aqui con mi esposo (I’m here with my husband). There are also phrases for “Do you have a condom?” and, “I might be in a wheelchair, but I’m not stupid!” See, very handy. The Portuguese Phrasebook also contains, in the “Making Love/Afterwards” section, “Would you like a cigarette?” and, “I think you should leave now.”
And some real-world examples…
But we’re talking safety here, and not the kind a condom can protect you from (although do take some with you; you really don’t want to be purchasing them in developing nations with less-regulated testing standards). In Italy and Latin America, the local women have no problem telling annoying men where to get off, and you should follow suit. I always make a point of saying I have a husband (it’s somewhat more effective than “boyfriend,” and I learned my lesson the one time I said I was a lesbian to a pesky Italian in a bar. “Aah!” he cried with delight, “Leccamento il fico! (“licking the fig”).”)
Anyhoo. I’ve found that said pesky Italians are best met with a loud, “Vaffanculo, stronzo (“Fu*k off, di*khead!)!” Once, in a dodgy situation in Mexico, I screamed, “ Largate! O patear las bolas!” According to the Mexican friend who taught me all the bad (and safety) words I know en espanol, if said forcefully, this slang translates as, “Fu*k off! Or I’ll kick you in the balls!” Whatever; it worked. So did the use of “Get lost!” in Arabic to two sketchy boys who stalked me while I was lost in a Marrakesh souk.
So there you have it. Don’t go looking for trouble, but don’t invite trouble by looking (and acting) like a victim. A little pre-trip research, and keeping your wits about you on the road will go a long way toward ensuring you come home with nothing more than great memories and all of your valuables.