On Friday morning there was an incident on the subway that left me really shaken. It had been a long and exhausting week at work and I was so glad to have made it to Friday. On the subway I took my backpack off and nestled it between my feet. I held onto a pole at the center of a long bench of seated passengers as the car filled with people. As usual, I opened up my NYT crossword app and started solving the mini. As the train pulled out of the station, I heard a loud and clear male voice halfway down the car telling a young woman to take her off backpack or move it or something like that. I shrugged because I knew better — seriously, take your backpacks off when you’re on a crowded train. I kept one ear trained on the ruckus because it seemed like this guy was trying to move through the packed train.
As he pushed through, he told people in a stern voice to move aside. The woman next to me shifted and I, trying to finish my crossword challenge, leaned forward forward without looking up. I pressed against the pole I was holding on to and hung over the people sitting on the bench. I hoped this would give him enough space to move past me quickly, though I wasn’t really sure where he was planning to go since the car was really full.
He stopped right behind me. Since I was still leaning heavily over the seated passengers, I eased up. I slowly moved into the space I had before, but he was right there. I pushed back a bit so that I could stand up straight. I’ve learned that if you don’t claim your space in the subway, people will take it from you. Being small and having been elbowed in the face and shoved aside too may times, I knew that I needed to hold my own so that I don’t spend the entire train ride with my head cocked to one side or trying to maintain a weird position in a moving subway car.
“Don’t bump me,” he boomed. I tensed up. “You bump me, I’ll bump you back!” He was leaning over so that his mouth was right by my ear but he was speaking loudly enough for the entire silent train to hear. “I’ll bump you right back into the window! I’ll do it! I’ll bump you into that window! Don’t bump me.” At this point I mumbled an “ok”, though who knows if he even heard it. My voice was a whisper. He kept going, “I’ll bump you onto the train! I see you! Sneaky. Don’t bump me!” I knew that if he shoved me my face would go straight into the metal pole only inches away, so I stood as still as I could.
Clenching the pole, it felt like the next stop would never arrive. The woman to my left moved so that I could have more space to get out of his way, or maybe she was trying to put more space between her and this unpredictable man. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone, too afraid to even turn my head. He angrily told someone else not to look at him, not to give him a side eye. He was menacing and probably something like six feet tall and over a hundred pounds heavier than me. I felt frozen, my mind was a million half-formed thoughts. A few times the subway turned, pushing him into me. I tensed up further in fear of some repercussion from his earlier threats, ready to respond to any sudden movements but not sure what I would even do.
As we were nearing the next stop, he piped up again to tell some people to move out of the way of a guy who was shifting to get off the train. That guy responded with a loud, “Thank you, sir. Thanks.” Full of gratitude over the quiet train.
I got off at the next stop and grabbed the train across the platform, grateful that I had an excuse to leave. I didn’t want him to think he won, that he made me leave. I ran through all of my options in my head. What if I hadn’t just shriveled up? Maybe a small, “excuse me, I moved out of the way to let you pass, I’m just trying to stand up straight.” My mind spun with the possibilities of a violent, aggressive response. What if he did throw me into the window? He could have slammed my head into the poles or walls. Shoved me onto the seated people. And what if he hit me? None of us had anywhere to go. It was so cramped I couldn’t have dodged or blocked anything, especially with my back to him. Even so much as a look from me could have set him off.
I was also angry that he had been nice to someone, and that someone had responded profusely. I wondered if the people around me thought that I had legitimately wronged him. I felt he was getting a pass because he was being “considerate” of someone else while I cowered in fear of any retribution for moving or looking the wrong way, any nudge or shift could be seen as retaliation. If I had stood up for myself, if the situation had escalated, would anyone have supported me? Would they all have just thought to themselves, “she should have just let it go”?
The rest of my way to work I thought about the last time I felt so weak and afraid. I honestly don’t remember. I thought about the girl he had yelled at before getting to me. She was also my height, young, maybe Asian as well. Did he feel like he could especially dominate women who looked like me? When he yelled at her, I had just averted my eyes. Should I have been ready to step in? Should I have paid more attention? When he had snarled the word “sneaky” I felt the years of racialization thrust at me. In popular media, Asians are not the big brutes. They are the sinister, wily ones. The backstabbers and the spies.
I thought about him. He was a large black man, likely with some mental instability. How could I have engaged him? Was there any way to confront the fear he had forced on me and deescalate the situation? If the situation escalated, if the police were called in for a “disturbance on the train”, how would we be treated differently? Granted, he was acting aggressively. Granted, I was just trying to survive my commute.
I thought about how dehumanized I felt. How humiliated that he could get the last word about me to a car full of strangers. And I thought about people who experience this fear, weakness, and humiliation more frequently — sometimes on a daily basis — and in more extreme ways. Of Palestinians going through checkpoints to get to work and home, getting interrogated by soldiers carrying semi-automatic rifles. Of how they must comply with any whim of the person in charge or risk death, arrest, and abuse. And if the situation does escalate, those reporting the situation will say, “She did not cooperate with authorities” or “He gave us reason for suspicion.”
I thought about Muslims in America, or anyone who looks Muslim, Middle Eastern, Arabic, or South Asian and how they must respond, but often cannot, to sudden attacks and suspicions. I thought of this young Muslim woman riding the train in London who was verbally assaulted by another passenger while she was trying to meet up with friends. I felt her fear on Friday, but I luckily do not have to go through life with that same fear, especially in the wake of so much tragedy in Paris and San Bernardino. There was also this Sikh mother on a Delta flight who was interrogated and shamed as she tried to board with a breast pump in a carry-on bag. I read about how this man had called her out in front of her fellow passengers — accused her and then refused to let her respond. And I imagined the fear that any response besides showing her breast pump to the attendant could have been misconstrued, of how suddenly her fellow passengers were also suspicious of her. What could she do but try to smile? Could even that smile be misconstrued?
I thought of this man who had left me shaken and afraid. I wondered how many times he had felt this fear and powerlessness. Has he been stopped and frisked or questioned by police when he was minding his own business, going about his way? I thought about Eric Garner, who was tired of being harassed by the police, so he spoke up. I wonder how many times he had run through his options in his head. How he felt when the police targeted him and if other people had turned away, trying not to attract attention. How he was made into a spectacle each time. I wanted so badly to say something today, but I did not. But if this was something that happened more regularly I probably would have.
I thought of my friend who, almost a year ago, was taking the subway to the airport. Like me, he is from California and we have both made the trip many times. This time he was stopped and frisked just outside of the Airtrain station. I can only try to imagine how dehumanizing that felt — to be targeted, suspected, to have to expose yourself for the supposed safety of others, to have to comply or risk arrest or worse. To be the one stopped as others are streaming past you, trying to make their flights. You too are trying to catch a flight. All you are trying to do is go home to your mom for Christmas.
There are so many others — Trans folk who are harassed or assaulted because someone finds them so offensive that they feel the need to retaliate against another person. Refugees who are fleeing home because home is not safe, only to be met with more hostility, aggression, and disdain.
My Friday morning was shitty. This man had yelled at me, put me on the spot, and had made me afraid for my own safety. While I was surrounded by people, their unresponsiveness made me feel cornered, alone, and powerless. I felt that he could have hurt me if I had so much as flinched. I felt there was nothing to do but escape as quickly as I could. And I wonder how many others had a shitty Friday morning. For how many others is my shitty Friday morning a more regular occurrence? How many others don’t have the opportunity to flee their shitty Friday morning at the next stop? How many have to endure it, and then return for more just to get through life? How that must weigh on the psyche. How it would make me so mad every day. And how awful it would be if it wasn’t just one individual, but an entire state. A system that consistently removes my humanity day by day. I feel it in part as an Asian American woman, but I cannot say that I feel it all, in its many forms and its many intensities. In some ways it helps me understand the pains of others. In many ways I am so damn lucky.
I don’t blame others for their silence on the train last Friday, but I do wonder if a better world is possible, and how.