There are ugly sides to every place. Street harassment has been responsible for at least 50% of my misery here though my tolerance levels have already reached new heights. By now, the taxis that honk at me every few seconds are little more than buzzing flies. I can expertly disarm a pushy vendor or con man. I no longer bristle at people using “chinois” like it’s my name, and am even slightly happy to hear the alternative “toubab.”
It’s the other forms of harassment that strip me down. Like the men who will aggressively yell and harshly hiss at me until I’m half a block away, as if it’s their right to stop me in my tracks and get my phone number (and say we are in a serious relationship and ignore no because I am a woman and no means yes), and the (male) passerby who does stop me in my tracks to scold me “reponds-lui!” Or “ching chong ching chong,” from my own host brother in Mar Lodj. Or “chink chink,” hollered with derisive laughs, addressed to me like I’m an animal. It’s these taunts that crawl under my skin like cutaneous larva migrans.
These are not isolated incidents; they occur every few minutes every single day, and over a few months, they’ve begun to grate on my sanity. I know I should strive to be the better person; that instead of getting angry, I should find it within myself to pity the harasser for lacking the opportunity to know anything but ignorance. But my reaction has slipped from a friendly half-wave, to a wary look, to walking deafly past. Finally, on Friday I found myself heatedly yelling back “ñuul ñuul” (ñuul is Wolof for black) as my harasser laughed, shouting “chink chink” again and again.
I stormed past until I couldn’t hear him anymore and realized I didn’t feel any better. Perhaps I should have gone with a classic middle finger and curse-out combination. I fantasized whipping the two out for my next encounter. All-out hostility.
I was pretty sure I’d read about this cultural adjustment stage, and that I should prevent myself from sliding further down this unclassy scale. I consulted my program assistant director, a visible foreigner who has been living in Dakar for years, for advice. First, she suggested shutting down harassers by ignoring them completely, to deprive them of the satisfaction of reaction. This had been my coping strategy after I’d run out of friendly waves but it hadn’t prevented this buildup of frustration.
In terms of actually dealing with the harassment, she reminded me that not only was ignoring harassers the best middle finger, but also that there was nothing I could do to stop the harassment. Paradoxically, knowing that I was powerless to prevent the harassment helped me feel more in control because I remembered that this harassment wasn’t my fault – that it was the harassers’ fault for harassing, and not mine for having yellow skin.
Currently I’m trying to imagine a Patronus-like armor surrounding me, invisible but strong enough to rebound any nasty words. This evening, another round of “ching chong ching chong” was hurled at me through the passenger window of a passing taxi. For the next few minutes, I felt myself sinking into the darkness of the twilight. I tried to focus on something else. The glad eyes of the fruit vendor this morning when I thanked him with a genuine smile and sustained eye contact. I reminded myself that certain bored or mean-spirited individuals do not represent an entire people. I’ll keep this fact within reaching distance until it comes to me naturally.