I’m trying to remember how young I was when I first realized that, as a girl, I was more likely to be a target than boys were.
It might have been when I joined an inner-city Pittsburgh school for 5th grade. I had problems fitting in there. I was already a weird, traumatized kid, just returned to the US due to my parents’ divorce after being raised in Thailand. It’s not surprising that I was teased a lot in school. Many kids were (and still are, only now it’s called bullying.) But there’s always specific content to teasing. Let’s examine the taunts that were leveled at me.
One of the things I was teased about was my butt, which stuck out, or at least people told me it did (perhaps I was a bit sway-backed). A pop song that had been popular before I returned to the US in 1971 had a line about “Bertha Butt, one of the Butt sisters”. I had never heard the song, and was baffled (and hurt) when one of the boys in my class sang that line at me. Over and over again.
Another excuse for teasing was my clothing. In Thailand, I had not owned any clothing suitable for the Pittsburgh climate, and, my dad having left his job to go to grad school, we couldn’t afford to buy much. So I kept what clothing I had, even if it didn’t fit very well. In 1971, fashionable jeans were bell-bottoms with cuffs that swept the ground. Mine were too short, and flapped around my ankles. “High-water jeans!” the kids yelled. “Where’s the flood?” It was so bad that, even in later years as fashions came and went, I cannot bear to wear trousers that don’t reach my shoe-tops.
I was given a tooled leather headband to wear, to keep my long, straight, hippie-fashionable blonde hair out of my eyes, in a hippie-fashionable fashion. I loved it – until I wore it to school. “Dog collar!” the kids all shrieked (which was illogical, I thought in one corner of my mind – it wasn’t around my neck). I took it off and never wore it to school again, maybe never wore it again at all. At least that was an optional accessory, not something I needed to wear every day, like the jeans.
It is perhaps telling that these 5th-grade insults were about my body and how I dressed it. I was different from my peers in Pittsburgh in far more fundamental ways, and we all knew it, but this was the easiest line of attack. And it worked.
Another girl in my class was already reaching puberty and sprouting breasts. This was uncommon for 11 year olds in 1972. I don’t recall her being teased directly – the boys in our class were a bit too young to be anything more than puzzled – but the girls muttered in shocked whispers that she already had her period! As if this was somehow her fault, and made her indefinably dirty. Again, it was all about her body.
Then there was the incident in the alley. We lived in an old brick apartment building on Ellsworth Avenue. My dad used to send me the two or three blocks up to the drugstore on Walnut Street to buy his cigarettes (yes, they sold them to me). The shortest route was through the parking lots and alleys between and behind the apartment buildings, a route which, while not cramped or dark, was usually deserted.
One day I was almost home from a cigarette expedition when two boys a bit younger and smaller than myself accosted me in a parking lot behind our building. I didn’t know them, though they probably went to the same school as me. They didn’t seem to want anything specific, but they flanked me and began taunting me in a definitely threatening way. As I took a few hurried steps to try to escape, they grabbed my arms, and one of them attempted a punch that landed as a glancing blow on my cheek – not that painful, but shocking. I had never been hit before. I took the only defensive measure I could think of: I yelled “Get the fuck away from me!” This shocked them; 11 year olds didn’t use the word “fuck” in those days, even in the seedier parts of Pittsburgh. They hesitated long enough that I was able to break free and sprint up the fire escape to the window of our third-floor apartment. I was terrified that they were following me, and arrived crying.
When my dad heard my story, he rushed downstairs, but the boys had disappeared. He called the police, who came, heard me out, and nodded wearily: these two young boys were already familiar to them. The police escorted me and my dad to the home of one of the boys, where we met the mother and told her what had happened. I don’t remember what she said, nor do I know what punishment the boys may have received. I never saw them again. But I never walked in that alley again, either.
That attack was not sexual in nature. I’m not even sure what their intent was, and maybe neither were they. But it probably would not have happened to a boy. As a girl, even a slightly bigger and older one, I was perceived by these boys to be vulnerable.
Soon after the start of 6th grade, I changed schools because the bullying progressed beyond verbal. Then a bunch of other stuff happened, so that, after repeating 6th grade, I ended up doing 7th grade in a school in Norwalk, CT. I was still a weirdo, and the teasing continued, no longer physical, but now focused on my relationships.
There was a boy in my class, John Stumpf. With that name, he of course was teased. He was also a kind and serious boy, at an age when most boys, as far as I could tell, were mean and acted like they were stupid, even if they weren’t.
We liked each other. The other kids noticed. “Put your head on his sho-o-o-oulder…” they would croon, referencing yet another pop song I wasn’t familiar with. “Hold him in your arms, Deer-dee!” (They delighted in getting my name wrong, too – how dare I have a weird name that was hard to pronounce?)
No one in our class was “going together”, though we were certainly aware of the possibility. The girls were all well into puberty, and the boys were now old enough to notice. Budding breasts are tender – that’s why you so often see pubescent girls clutching binders and books protectively to their chests when walking through crowded school hallways. The boys knew this, and some took special delight in slamming into us. They knew that it hurt (a lot!), but also knew that we were too embarrassed by the cause of the hurt to say so or complain about it.
John and I actually defied our classmates, at first. We hung out together at his house after school. I helped him with his paper route. We talked. Cleaned the Habitrails of his pet hamsters. I don’t know whether we really felt romantic or not; maybe we were both just lonely, and happened to be compatible as friends. John’s mother was thrilled that John “had a girlfriend”, and she drove us to our first “date”: a Hitchcock movie (“Family Plot”) followed by pizza.
But after a while we couldn’t take the teasing at school anymore. We “broke up”, avoided each other in shame, and never spoke again.
My best friend was Amy, another lonely weirdo, in my grade but a different class. Neither of us had many other friends (maybe none, at school), so we hung out together at recess and lunch, and visited each others’ homes after school and for weekend sleepovers, listening to Barry Manilow and trading stickers.
My classmates couldn’t leave this one alone, either. They’d walk by as we sat together in the playground, and shout: “Lesbie friends!” At least, because we did not have classes together, the barrage was not constant, and our friendship survived it.
Soon after the start of my 8th grade year, in 1976, my family moved to Bangladesh, where my dad was the local head of Save the Children. I turned 13 that November, and had been growing breasts for a while. Now that they weren’t hurting anymore, I didn’t think much about them, and neither my dad nor my stepmother Nancy noticed that I didn’t own any bras. Nancy was small-breasted and, as a matter of feminism and fashion, rarely wore a bra at all, so it may not have occurred to her that I might grow breasts big enough to need support.
In 1977, after it had been decided that I would go to boarding school in the Indian Himalayas, it was difficult to put together a wardrobe fit for that climate, that would fit me. Again, no one thought of bras. Until, as recounted earlier, “I took a dip in a cold river (wearing a T-shirt) during our 9th grade class hike, exciting much comment [among my classmates]. Then my family had to scramble to get hold of some bras somehow.” I had transgressed a norm that I didn’t even know existed.
However, in both Bangladesh and India, I was learning to be cautious about how I was perceived by the male gaze.
There were school rules intended both to protect us and to “not offend” local sensibilities. Girls couldn’t wear “revealing” clothing; shorts were only allowed for sports. “Public displays of affection” between girls and boys were forbidden. Boys could go on overnight hikes in groups of three or more. This option to take off on a whim on just about any weekend was a great freedom that some of the boys took full advantage of. Girls could not go on overnight hikes except with adult chaperones; such trips were far harder to organize, and did not occur often.
We girls had few problems during Saturday excursions in our “hometown” of Mussoorie, because most of the people we saw in the bazaar knew the school and had known us individually for years: they were the shopkeepers and restaurant owners who sold us food, the tailors who made our clothing, the mochis who made our shoes, and often they were related to people who worked at the school as bearers (food servers), cleaners, etc. We were more or less family to them, and therefore treated with respect. Most of the time.
Except that time that I went to the local hospital for a chest x-ray, which required me to strip to the waist, put on a hospital gown, and stand up against a cold metal plate. The male x-ray technician was the only other person in the room. He came up behind me and grabbed both my breasts, moving and squeezing them, on the pretext of positioning me correctly for the x-ray. It took me a few long seconds to realize that this handling probably wasn’t actually necessary. He stepped away before I summoned the courage to say anything, and, after the fact, I was too confused and embarrassed to complain. No doubt he counted on this, and I probably wasn’t the only one he did it to.
Outside Mussoorie – or when outsiders came in, during the hot weather tourist season – it almost didn’t matter how we dressed or behaved: as foreign females, we were assumed to be “easy”, and many Indian men treated us accordingly. Staring, cat-calling, groping on crowded buses and trains – most of us experienced all of this, some worse. As far as I know, no one from our school was ever raped in India, but… I might just not know about it.
We were all trained to be extremely cautious. Don’t go out alone. Even in a group, if it’s made up of only girls, don’t get into situations where you’re trapped and outnumbered. Don’t look lost. Don’t ask for directions. Don’t show your legs or any portion of your chest. Don’t go out at night. Ignore the stares and comments, don’t answer back. Don’t look men in the eye. Don’t trust strange men, in any situation. (Don’t drink or do drugs went without saying: we were teenagers at a Christian school.)
All these rules became so deeply ingrained in my habits and psyche that I stopped noticing or thinking about them, and probably still don’t most of the time. Wherever I am in the world, I unconsciously censor my own behavior, dress, and movements, to stay safe. I now enjoy the novel (to me) sensation of feeling attractive, but… not too much. If a man looks at me too long, or in the “wrong” way, I get nervous, and wonder if I should be dressed differently.
Perhaps the worst part is: forty years on, the world isn’t any safer for women. My daughter grew up in Italy, a “civilized” country (Italians are offended to be compared with Indians), but I had to teach her the same lessons that I learned, to help her stay safe. And this shit still happened to her.
I visited the Taj Mahal two or three times on school trips, between 1978 and 1981. Although by far the most famous site in India, it wasn’t terribly crowded in those days (except with that scourge of all Indian tourist sites: hawkers trying to sell you things). Visitors could wander at will all over the main building and grounds, and the guides would take you down into the lower mausoleum and point out the scar where a gigantic gem that originally decorated the small marble tomb had been stolen by the British.
My best memory of the Taj was an unusual one. On one of these school trips, though our group had already visited during day, two or three of us, on a whim, jumped into a cycle rickshaw and asked to be taken back that same evening. It was dark and raining and no one else was there – just us and three guards, carrying lathis and wrapped in shawls over their khaki uniforms. I don’t remember whether the site was even technically open to the public that night, but they let us in and gave us a special tour, showing off their own considerable knowledge of the Taj. Among other things, they demonstrated that one person could sing a chord inside the dome, thanks to the timing of the echoes. (You couldn’t have done that during normal hours – too many people inside to hear one voice over the din.)
Although I began to travel to India again regularly from 1996, I somehow never went back to the Taj, perhaps because I did not want to sully memories like these. When I was setting up the trip I took with Brendan in 2011, I didn’t originally plan to include the Taj – it wasn’t very convenient to our other stops. But he wanted to see it, so I rearranged things and made it fit into our schedule. And I ended up being glad I did.
We hired a car and driver to take us from Kesroli, in Rajasthan, to Agra: only 150 km by car, but… everything takes longer in India. We left early in the morning and arrived in mid-afternoon, with a brief stop at Fatehpur Sikri. The tour company had insisted on providing a guide, which we hadn’t really wanted, but he turned out to be useful.
The Taj is still the most popular tourist destination in India, but it’s now also one of the best-managed. To reduce pollution damage to the delicate white marble, all automobile traffic is stopped some distance away. You park your car, buy tickets, and then are taken in electric buses to the entrance of the grounds. The broad street leading up to the gate is lined with shops and eating places, but there are no more pushy tourist touts – a pleasant change!
As foreigners, we were “high value” – we’d paid ten times as much as Indians (still only about $50). At least we got our own security line (but none of the lines were long when we arrived). Before entering the grounds, everyone goes through metal detectors and is frisked, bags are inspected and all food, drink, and chewing gum are confiscated.
Inside the gate, we found the place stunningly crowded, far beyond my (possibly faulty) memories.
I don’t like crowds, but, as we got further in I became fascinated by the composition of this one. The tourists thronging the Taj today showed a far higher proportion of Indians than I remembered. Our guide said that this was because we were there in the afternoon – the foreigners tend to go to the Taj in the morning, the Indians in the afternoon. “You were smart to come in the afternoon,” he added. “In the mornings this time of year there is often fog, so you can’t take good photos.”
I was smugly pleased by my own foresight: I had in fact planned the trip so as to arrive in the afternoon, because I love photographing in the long, golden evening light:
The interesting thing about the Indian crowd was its diversity. People from all of India’s regions, religions and social classes were represented, all enjoying a holiday trip (it was Diwali, a major Hindu festival) to one of their country’s great monuments. Clearly, such travel is within reach of many more Indians these days, a happy sign of economic progress.
Sadly, bigger crowds mean more restrictions. We had to stand in a long line to go up the stairs and into the main mausoleum. You then get rushed through and are not allowed to photograph inside. Even the bad photo at the top of this page, taken on a compact camera around 1980, would not be possible today.
But the Taj is still beautiful, and even standing in line was interesting: it gave me more insight into changes in Indian society. The line snaked across a plaza at ground level, organized by security guards. When the guards’ backs were turned, people would try to cut from one turn of the line to another. Our tour guide took it upon himself to behave as line monitor, barking at them to get back to their places, with others loudly seconding him. A Brahmin (identifiable by his dhoti, sacred string, top-knot of hair, and forehead mark), casually walked into the middle of the line – and everyone yelled at him until he went back to his starting place. I found this telling and amusing; Brahmins no longer have the privileges their forefathers enjoyed.
Later, when we were up at the tomb entrance level, the line below deteriorated and nearly became a riot:
but the guards moved in quickly to restore order.
Once we’d got through the interior, we were free to stay and enjoy the beautiful evening.
Brendan helped me recreate a picture that had been taken of me at the Taj in 1980:
Note the cloth booties, which we were required to wear over our shoes. I should have chosen the alternative – checking our shoes at the racks on the way in (you used to just leave them piled up on the stairs and tip somebody to keep an eye on them). The feel of sun-warmed alabaster under your feet is a sensual treat that I’m sorry I missed this time.
On the way out, we posed for the classic Taj tourist shots:
I’m not much of a shopper on my home territory, but love shopping in India, especially Delhi, which is well supplied with everything from roadside stalls to glitzy shopping malls, plus a good selection of handicrafts from all over India. The oldest and largest place to buy handicrafts (probably in all of India) is the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Jan Path. It was there when I was in high school in the 1970s and 80s – already seeming to have been in existence for decades – and hasn’t changed much since.
It’s an unusual building (wish I could find out who designed it), a labyrinthine series of mezzanines build around an open interior. Though better lit now that it used to be, it still feels cavernous, musty, and strangely underpopulated. (This last is reason enough to spend some time there on a hot day in Delhi – away from the crowds of people on the streets, many of whom, in this part of town, are trying to sell you something.)
Many of the goods here are items that have been sold to tourists in India for decades, if not centuries. There are innovative twists on handicraft tradition available in India nowadays, but you won’t find them here. However, for the usual stuff, you’ll get a large selection, decent quality, fair prices, and no shopkeeper at your elbow, constantly urging you to buy.
^ Gold-plated dishes as tourist tat was actually new to me, I can only guess that it’s aimed at the Middle Eastern market.
CCIE has a nice, though relatively limited, supply of textiles – silk, cotton, wool; printed, dyed, batik, embroidered; for clothing, curtains, and upholstery. If you love fabric (I do!), this is a good introduction to the breadth of traditional cloth available in India. Note the remnants bin – great for finding decorative pieces suitable for framing.
More in the photos below, and there was much more that we didn’t photograph – books, clothing, toys, tea, perfume, jewelry, bedding, cushion covers, furniture, even architectural pieces like carved doorways and columns. (I assume they will ship that sort of thing, no idea what it would cost.) There’s also a cool, quiet coffee shop on the top floor.
Actually buying anything is a bit of a process. In each section of the store, hand over your selections to the waiting personnel – that they merely wait, and don’t hassle you, is a huge improvement on every other tourist shop in Delhi! The staff write you a receipt, your goods are whisked away, and you continue shopping. This is dangerous – you end up carrying a handful of paper, with no clear idea of how much you’re acquiring.
When you’re finally finished, you take your receipts downstairs to the “cash desk”, and pay for everything at once via cash or credit card. Each of your receipts is firmly thwacked with a “paid” stamp, and the whole pile given back to you. You trot over to the nearby pickup counter, and are handed a dozen or more recycled-paper bags in various sizes, one for each section of the store you bought from. It is permissible to consolidate these into fewer bags for easier carrying. Then you’re done, and step back into the heat and roar of Jan Path.
2011 was a rough year in many ways, but I did have a fantastic vacation in India! Here’s an outline, more detailed articles to follow (er, sometime…).
Saturday, Oct 15: Depart SFO
As his last piece of work before vacation, Brendan had to get that blog post out. We were actually standing in line at the gate when he finally posted it.
Sunday, Oct 16: En Route
We flew Emirates Airlines from San Francisco to Dubai to Delhi – polar route FTW! Emirates has a great seat-back entertainment system, including views from cameras mounted under the plane’s belly and on its nose – so we could see a lot even though we didn’t have a window seat. When the cabin lights were dimmed for sleep, constellations appeared in the ceiling panels – a nice touch.
Monday, Oct 17: Dubai, Delhi
- Cheeky Crows (video)
- Humayun’s Tomb (twilight video, photo gallery)
- Parrots at Humayun’s Tomb (video)
Tuesday, Oct 18: Delhi
- Jantr Mantr (photo gallery)
- Central Cottage Industries Emporium
- Dinner at the home of my Woodstock School classmate Sara, with classmates and others gathering to go the school reunion in Mussoorie
Wednesday, Oct 19: Delhi
Shopping with Denise.
Thursday, Oct 20: en route, Mussoorie
- Seen from an Indian Train (video)
- Arrived at school, began catching up with many old friends.
Friday, Oct 21: Mussoorie
Explored Landour bazaar.
Saturday, Oct 22: Mussoorie
- Got up to see the sunrise at Fairy Glen (video)
- Classmate Sanjay hosted a Diwali party for all the gathered alumni, staff and friends. Jeet sang a song he had composed for us: Thirty Years On (video)
Sunday, Oct 23: Mussoorie
Saw my first ever live cricket match between teams of alumni, spouses, offspring, and friends:
Monday, Oct 24: en route, Kesroli
We took a taxi from Mussoorie to Dehra Dun airport – a much longer journey than I had bargained for. Then, in the last kilometer, we ran into a roadblock:
After a short plane ride to Delhi, we were met by a car from Uday Tour, which drove us another three hours to the Hill Fort, Kesroli:
Tuesday, Oct 25: Kesroli
Wednesday, Oct 26: Kesroli
- Scooter Taxi Ride to Alwar (video)
- Diwali Market in Alwar (video)
- Urban Alwar (video)
- View from the Hill Fort, Kesroli (video)
- Diwali Celebrations (video, photos, text)
Thursday, Oct 27: en route, Agra
Another driver from Uday Tour came to take us to Agra. I had not travelled by road in India (other than Dehra Dun-Mussoorie and back) for some time; it gives a different perspective on Indian life. I was very surprised to see this example of Indian wildlife – a nilgai – just off the road:
We stopped en route at Fatehpur Sikri, then went on to the Taj Mahal – my first visit in thirty years.
Friday, Oct 28: Agra, en route, Bombay
On the way out of Agra we saw the Red Fort, where I got a video snip of a Chittering Chipmunk. We drove straight to Delhi airport (about five hours on the road), and flew to Bombay.
Saturday, Oct 29: Bombay
Shopping, seeing friends.
Sunday, Oct 30: Departure
Left for the airport around midnight Saturday for a 3 am flight. Connected through Dubai again, then on to one of the worst flights of my life – yelling kids whose parents seemed to have no notion of even attempting to calm or quiet them… Finally, back to SFO and “real life” – whatever that may be!