A week before the World Cup began in Russia and two weeks before their first game, the bars of London were ready for the tournament. “RUSSIA 2018” and “Live-streaming of all matches” signs took over the usual happy hour streetside boards. At the embassy, fans picked up brochures on Russia and enquired on the status of their fan visas at the service centre.
“Are you going to see England play?” an excited fan asked me as he waited in line with other British citizens waiting to pick up their Fan IDs. Despite all the warnings, England’s coming to Russia, I thought. Upon my return to Moscow, it was evident that this wasn’t quite the case.
Back in Russia at England’s first match at Volgograd, fans from as far as China and the United States made up a reported stadium attendance of 43,064. But the couple of thousand English fans reported present were far from dominant.
“I support England because I lived there before,” a Chinese fan told me on her way to the stadium, armed with a flag and face paint. It was glaringly obvious: While there was support for the Three Lions at that first match, much of it came from beyond England.
As early as March, government warnings were issued for Britons travelling to Russia for the World Cup. “Due to heightened political tensions between the U.K. and Russia, you should be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
The warning came after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, was found slumped on a park bench next to his daughter in the quiet cathedral city of Salisbury. Investigators pointed to a Russian-made chemical agent.
In response, Prime Minister Theresa May rallied European Union allies, the United States and several NATO member states to respond. Between them, more than 100 Russian diplomats were expelled. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the allegations. Had it been us, he says, it’s inconceivable that Skipal and his daughter would have survived.)
“[We had] the English government saying ‘don’t go, we can’t guarantee your safety.’ We [had] no royals visiting, which is very, very disappointing.”
Adding to the fear and tension were British tabloids spitting out reports of death threats from Russian ultras, concerns of Kremlin agents blackmailing fans and memories of clashes in Marseille during the 2016 European Championship finals. And right smack in the middle of the World Cup, two British citizens were found critically ill from Novichok poisoning, the same nerve agent used in the Skripal poisoning, and in the same area as the first incident.
But for Phil Thomas, 34, his experience in Russia was no different from previous visits during less volatile times. “There’s a lot of talk back in the U.K. about relations with Russia being at an all time low, but that [hasn’t manifested] in how people are,” says Thomas.
“We were walking around Red Square in our England shirts, going to different bars, and people [have been] extremely hospitable.”
Meanwhile, news of distasteful behaviour from the English side was present but limited, as videos of fans making Nazi salutes came under investigation and reports of two arrests for rowdiness on a Russian train made their rounds. A statue of a Soviet football star was vandalised with “England” scrawled across it, with the guilty Brit having since apologised. As far as a look back on the World Cup goes, this has been the worst of football-related conflict between the two countries.
“[To me,] English people have always had the same kind of generosity and respect extended to them by Russian people,” says Andrew Rayton, 46, who has lived in Moscow for three years. “I haven’t noticed any change in that. If anything, it’s improved.”
You can find the bad stories if you want to find the bad stories.
For Darren Hull, 50, this first trip to Russia proved to be a surprising contrast to opinions back home. “Everyone said that I must be mad,” says Hull. Still, Hull stood proud with an Aston Villa flag, bringing English football and its culture to a new land. “We met a police officer who’s going to give me his police hat for my son in England, who’s [also] a police officer, as a momento,” he says.
Beyond his positive experiences though, Hull has been disappointed with the decisions of his government.
“[We had] the English government saying ‘don’t go, we can’t guarantee your safety.’ We [had] no royals visiting, which is very, very disappointing.”
As tensions continue between the governments of both countries, a different story continues: There are longer ways to go yet with both Russia and England now driven towards greater international football success, riding on their recent achievements and the revived hopes of their fans.
On the day of the World Cup finals, I spoke to Reverend Malcolm Rogers, the Chaplain of St. Andrew’s Anglican church in Moscow, who hopes that the tournament will provide a different perspective to what’s usually reported on Russia.
“You can find the bad stories if you want to find the bad stories, and there are lots of them, but it’s unbalanced,” he says. “It doesn’t present the other side.”
Beyond how each country is presented by the media, Rev. Rogers hopes that public impressions will start to change, too: For Russia, that it’s a good thing to have tourists around. For the U.K., that Russia is a place you can visit.
“What I really hope for is that tourist visas on both sides will become much easier to get,” he adds. “It’s good for [Russia’s] image, it’s good for the economy.”
Later that night the World Cup came to an end with a French victory. That same evening, Putin publicly spoke about extending visa-free travel for fans who had obtained a Fan ID for the tournament until the end of the year.
Note: I care a great deal about any form of harassment, discrimination, and abuse, including harassment against men and transgendered people. For the sake of this post and in light of the recent news and movements, I’m in particular addressing the plight of women, and the action we need by men.
Today, all over the Internet are women (and some men) who have bravely come out to say Me Too – a viral movement to shine a light on just how many women we know and love have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
As a loud and proud feminist, I have never been shy about discussing these issues. They’re not comfortable, but they’re necessary to publicly discuss and using the platforms I have, I have always been vocal about the rights and safety of women.
The #MeToo movement comes after a particularly busy week in my young female life, which makes it hit home, hard. Harder than usual.
Last Tuesday while waiting for my husband Martin on a busy street with plenty of lights and people, I was circled slowly by a man who then sidled up to me to start a conversation. I wasn’t threatened, but I was annoyed and uncomfortable, of course. As he stood talking, leaning in closer and waiting for me to shake his hand, all I could think of was how hard I had to force myself to not shake his hand in return. It’s been so firmly instilled in us: even when you’re being harassed, even when you’re uncomfortable and intimidated, you have to be polite. That’s what nice girls do.
Now in the last few months of my 20s, I’m done with being a nice girl. I don’t have time to play nice with assholes. I didn’t shake his hand and he eventually trudged away, and I privately congratulated myself on this little victory: that I managed to not shake the hand of a man who was making me uncomfortable. Baby steps and small victories.
The next day, I was with Martin at a supermarket. On the way out, I noticed a man staring at me, head to toe, the kind of stare that strips you in an incredibly disconcerting way. Feeling unafraid because while it was late, I wasn’t alone, I stared the fool down as he continued to mentally strip me.
As our paths crossed, he said, “….sex?”
“Yeah sure, your place or mine?” is not at all what I said, instead laughing, hard, though on hindsight I can’t say if it’s because I thought it was funny or as a reflex action in the face of unease. That’s another thing that we women do when afraid or uncomfortable: we (fearfully and uncomfortably) laugh.
Just a day later, more supermarket adventures presented themselves, this time in the form of two men giving me all the creepy stares a girl could
ask for violently object to, singing loudly with lyrics along the lines of “beautiful girl”.
Again, my husband was with me – but in both supermarket occasions, he was a couple of feet away. Fair game as long as you don’t have a man actually draped over your shoulders, right? Not right. Not right at all.
I thought the week’s harassment ended here. I posted about this on Facebook, and I eagerly looked forward to the support of family and friends, and another fresh week ahead, removed from all this bullshit and the fear, intimidation and unsettlement it brings.
Enter a surprise special guest: Saturday night, the fourth day in a week. A man on the subway platform tightly grabbed my wrist and yanked me towards him. I cried out in surprise, and Martin spun around, much to the horror of my assailant who had thought I was alone. He ran like the wind and by the time we marched over with the station guards in tow, he’d slipped away.
What We Can Do
Now, I’ve had it up to here (here being as high up as you can imagine) and I am exhausted after a week where four times, I was harassed and attacked for no reason other than the fact that I was a young woman, and one presumed to be alone. Walking down a busy street, shopping in a supermarket, taking the subway, anywhere at all. This is not something that happens once or twice to one or two females. This is something that happens constantly, consistently, around the world, to women everywhere.
Another harsh reality: My week, while it was a really awful week, is not the worst week a woman could have.
There are women who fight back hard, like this woman who took selfies with her street harassers, or this woman who engaged her cat-callers in conversation to understand what all this aggression was about.
There are also many situations where safety is the first and often the only thing to be considered. There isn’t always a nearby husband, boyfriend, friend or security guard to scare off the harasser and sometimes, all you can think of is how to get home safely. Safety always has to be the first priority, and this is something I’ve had to fiercely teach myself.
There’s a lot of feminist rage in me, and after years of going for martial arts classes and countless boot camps, I have to consistently tell myself that as a 5ft3 (160cm) female, I’m not going to win a fight against most (if not all) men if it gets physical. (Truth: my heart broke a little as I typed that. I wish with all my might that it wasn’t true, but it is, and it f*cking sucks, but this truth is more important than the fact that it sucks.)
But what we can do is keep talking about it. Don’t let #MeToo be a fad. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to keep talking about things like this – but if we continue to make it unavoidable, it is a problem that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore.
Which brings me to my next point.
Men, We Need You
Let me say that again.
Men? WE NEED YOU.
If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’re not a #notallmen ‘activist’ – (If you are, it is implied, always, that obviously not all men and also read this). You are key to the safety and well-being of women everywhere, both physically and socially. Another thing it pains me to think about is that your voice as a man is worth a whole lot – often a whole lot more than a woman’s.
But that’s how it is, at least for now.
Men, we need you to speak up. Don’t let the only voices today be women speaking up with our countless examples of harassment and abuse. Be the voice that says I will not stand by as this happens to women all over the world. Be the voice that says, not if I can do anything about it.
Think about the fact that while you’re picking up milk a the supermarket or running for the bus, it’s highly unlikely that you’re fearing for your safety just by existing. Women don’t always have that privilege.
Use your privilege for good, and be the voice that this movement needs.
We need you, today and always, on the streets and on the internet, so much more than you know.
I have been away from home for a while now but this week, home feels a little further away.
For those who have managed to miss it or who aren’t from Singapore, here’s the gist of it. Local actor Shrey Bhargava wrote in a Facebook post how he was asked to exaggerate an Indian accent when auditioning for a role in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 4, which is a local film about army life for male Singaporeans. He was offended, but he did it, and felt disgusted after.
Side note: I’ve been asked to ‘perform’ a Singlish accent among foreign friends before. I did it once, everyone laughed in delight, and I felt that same disgust immediately after. My ethnicity, my nationality, the way I speak in the company of friends and family, is not a party trick. An exaggeration of your identity is not for anyone else’s amusement. Even among foreign friends I sometimes spontaneously break out the Singlish but here’s the difference: doing it because you want to and doing it on request are worlds apart.
Shrey subsequently wrote this post. Many fellow minorities have come out to share similar experiences. Many Chinese Singaporeans have expressed regret, shame, anger. But so many people. SO many people. Have now come out of the woodwork waving a “LOL guess what everyone I’m kinda racist” flag, previously hidden under their beds, previously only taken out in the company of like-minded friends.
I write this as a minority. I write this as someone who has only ever known what it is to be a minority. I have written about racism in Singapore before, and like any minority, I have a lifetime of experiences and examples I could share.
But this week, my heart hangs heavier than it ever has before. For the first time, people I’ve known for years have come out to rant about the validity of Shrey’s experience. “It’s just comedy,” they say.
And you know what? It’s fine if you, as someone who has enjoyed the privilege of being the majority, don’t know what it’s like, or if you can’t imagine why it hurts. But no one who has decided to join the angry mob dedicated to the very public lowering of our flag has stopped to first ask – “Is that how it feels? I had no idea.” And I really wish they had asked; I still hope some will.
You don’t get to decide that just because you don’t know how it feels, the rejection, shame, fear and occasional self-loathing that often comes with being a minority is invalid or should be invisible. Make an effort to understand instead of denying the deep-rooted racism our allegedly racially harmonious country has.
Today, I am especially grateful for my Chinese friends who have stood up tall against other members of the majority race who demean and invalidate the experiences they will never have the misfortune of knowing. In the same way I believe men are a key part of feminism and equality, the ethnic majority has a voice they can use for good. Not like xiaxue. Please don’t be like xiaxue.
But we need to look at the fact that it took one Facebook post to tear a nation in two. It took one man saying, “This is what happened. This is how I feel and it sucks,” before thousands jumped on his words to loudly invalidate them. I get it. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the discomfort of others. But if for the sake of our continued comfort we disallow room for honesty, for discussion, for understanding, then our racial harmony is a sham, and a shallow one too.
It feels like this week we, as a country, have failed to live by what we recite in our pledge, what we claim to celebrate as a multi-ethnic nation.
Think of it this way: If it’s uncomfortable for someone in the majority to acknowledge that our country
is racist AF has a long way to go, imagine how it feels for the those who have lived it their whole lives. It isn’t just national pride or illusions of harmony at stake. It’s the dull thud that comes with realisation that in your home country, your identity has been deemed worth less than the entertainment of others, that your real experiences have been voted unfavourable, unworthy of further discussion and understanding. We’ll be ok just don’t talk about it shhhhhh.
I don’t write this in anger, or in hatred. I write this as a member of the minority whose heart hurts this week because the spotlight has at last been shone on the deep-rooted racism many of us tried to pretend wasn’t there, and now there’ s no denying it.
The part that hurts the most is this: Even after all this time and all my own experiences, part of me still desperately wanted to believe in Singapore’s racial harmony, too.
I’m getting married this July, and like any woman I’m getting increasingly excited and somewhat nervous about this. My fiancé is American, I’m from Singapore, we met in China and we live in Russia. It’s hard to plan two weddings from a country that neither wedding is taking place in (shoutout to our families who are doing so much!), and I’ve already started having dreams about everything going wrong.
But as someone who is all about equality, feminism, self-acceptance and patriarchy smashing, there are a couple of things that my impending wedding will not be about. Some things are easy decisions like not having a bouquet toss, not changing my name, or having gender neutral terms like ‘people of honour’ (instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen), and Most Honourable People (instead of a best man or maid of honour). Trust me, even I roll my eyes at myself every time I explain this one – but I wanted to make a point about equal opportunities and hey, it’s my wedding.
There are a couple of things that are more important still, and for the sake of any other bride or groom or person who needs a reminder that you’re gonna do just fine, here it is:
- It doesn’t need to be the best day of my life
I want this day to be really special, and I know that it will be. I’m marrying my partner and my best friend, and it’s a big deal. A huge deal. Families are coming together and it’s the official start of a new chapter. That’s the important bit. But the rest of it is just a day – a highly symbolic and important one, true – but it doesn’t need to be the best day of my life. It is something I will cherish forever I’m sure, and it is something that holds a great amount of importance and significance to me, my fiancé, our parents, our families and friends. But it isn’t an accomplishment, nor is it the most important thing I will ever do.
I want my wedding day to be special; I don’t need it to be perfect.
- I won’t diet for it
Some things just annoy me – like being asked if my fitness goals are all for my wedding. Hint: they aren’t. Some things just about break my heart – like being asked what my wedding diet goals are. I have friends who have dieted hard for their weddings, and more power to them; they have all looked amazing. But calorie counting for a single event is something I had already decided I wouldn’t do anymore – it just doesn’t work for me, and my wedding is no exception.
I love working out and getting fit, but clichéd as it sounds fitness to me is a journey rather than a destination. Asking someone how hard or how well they are dieting implies that you think they need to diet or change their bodies. Outside of the context of a wedding, a random “So, how’s the diet going?” would be harsh – I can’t see how weddings are any different.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to fit into a body type that will never be mine, buying clothes a size too small to ‘work into it’ and trying to get skinny for Christmas, for someone else’s wedding, for some big event or other.
Not for my wedding. I want everyone, myself included, to be happy and comfortable. My fitness plan (less beer, more kettlebell swings because never mind skinny but dammit I will be strong) will stay in place, as it did before and as it will after the wedding. And if for just one day I get to make the rules, let it be this: Easy on the body shaming; we’re here to have fun and celebrate.
- I won’t wear makeup
This seems almost easy after I spent months considering continuing my anti-shaving agenda – my legs are currently hairier than my fair-haired fiancé’s. I don’t think I will, though. The world just isn’t ready.
But what I will do is rock up with a bare face because 1. I know I will cry and make a mess anyway 2. With the exception of eyeliner, I hate having makeup on and 3. Remember the whole patriarchy smashing thing.
Makeup can be a lot of fun, and it is to many people I know and love. It’s also a choice, and if it isn’t you, like it isn’t me, don’t do it.
Just like I won’t be in heels because I hate wearing them, and I don’t need my dress to be a surprise for my fiancé because I am not a gift to be presented, and no woman (or man) who’s getting married needs to fix themselves to qualify for the role.
It’s your wedding. You do you.
Having come back to school at 29, many of my classmates are in their late teens and early 20s. Can you believe it, I’m in a class with kids born in 1999? In 1999 I was busy choosing the coolest 2000 party glasses. Just sayin’.
photo from here
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll call the Middle Millennial, let’s say those in neither the oldest nor the youngest side of the scale. Born somewhere between 1986 and 1989 (though I imagine those +/- 2 or 3 years can relate to a lot of this).
Technically a child of the 80s, a decade you unfortunately have no personal experience in but can swear you were technically there, dammit. You were a kid in the 90s so you know VHS and cassettes and how to fix the latter with a pencil. You made mixtapes recorded from the radio; you’d wait all day to hear your song.
This should be a case for Mulder and Scully
You spent your time mucking about exploring drains, breaking into abandoned houses for no reason other than to explore and hunt ghosts. There you were, riding bikes with your neighbours, living a free, tie-dye, neon life. So many neon tights.
You were a teenager in the 00s so you’re a digital native who documented your angst on LiveJournal and hosted various IRC channels like a boss, you knew how to send alphanumeric texts to a pager and you had a mobile phone before they were smart. But the dialup song was the anthem of our time, and speaking of songs, what the hell was that whole Napster saga about?!
**SpaceGirl14 slaps you around with a large trout
But now you’re on all these same digital platforms as people not much younger than you and you feel like you’ve got this magical backstory to the Internet and life before. You know the secrets of a forgotten time. You caught the tail end of an era and were there for the bold new arrival of a new one, and you know both sides, but you were never really 100% in either.
That’s how you can feel a million years older than someone four of five years younger than you, and yet you still feel like a kid when your older friends mock your overuse of hashtags #amirite. You fit into both and you fit into neither.
You’re a bit of a nowhere person who just has to be cool with this generational limbo, and figure out how to respond (or not respond) when teenagers ask you what the 20th century was like the way you ask your parents about the 60s. You have to grudgingly share Harry Potter with today’s children and be content in your smugness because you can appreciate Stranger Things on a deeper level #fact.
Maybe this is relevant to me especially because I haven’t hung out with anyone over 30 for a long time now, and it
sort of really gets to you. So for now I’ll just chill here with my part-80s-kid-part-90s-kid-part-00s-kid self, reliving the salad days of our youth: a confusing coming-of-age tale that was splashed out across three decades, two centuries and endless days of in between.
Only at her insistence they shook her hand too, and with an overcompensating firmness.
Soft, smooth brown met weathered white leather
The sparkle in her eyes outshining their cataracts
Their waistlines rivalled only by the vastness of her imagination.
Isn’t she fascinating, they mused, with wandering eyes.
Isn’t she young, and isn’t she interesting, and my god, isn’t she feisty! But, what an awful lot she has to say, and I do wish she wouldn’t say it
To her, a young woman, a feminist, a fighter, with something important to say.
To them, a curly-haired gypsy girl dancing for her masters as they wined and dined on themselves and on each other, tapping her tambourine to the tune of their ego-stroking circle-jerk, twirling between the social orgy of their septuagenarian self-importance.
When will you have babies, their voices boomed like their generation once had, grinning and nudging each other like schoolboys who’d only just learned where babies come from.
It was just a joke, they sighed as deeply as their dwindling lungs would allow.
But as much as she tried, she couldn’t tear herself away from the battle for which all were present but only one fought.
And so she stayed, till every last one of these centenarians ran out of things to say, and they were wheeled off to the young wives who’d made them dinner, to the daughters who deserved so much more.
So for the past few years, I’ve been living the mostly blissful life of a young woman who magically got rid of some of the sexual harassment, street-side annoyances and catcalling that women often face. The difference: I quite often had a man by my side. Martin and I do most things together.
This weekend he ended up in France and I ended up travelling solo in Russia. Note: I love travelling on my own. I do it every time Martin and I happen to be apart because as much as I love travelling with him, I love x10 travelling on my own.
Fast forward to two nights ago, where I’m doing exactly what I’m doing now: hanging out with my laptop in a hostel, tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing, thinking patriarchy-smashing thoughts and such. I’ve already spied two middle aged gents who are slightly drunk and keep looking my way. I’m already annoyed, and I’m not giving up my spot.
And before I know it Dude 1 is next to me, saying (in Russian) “hey girl, where you from, can we talk?” and so on. Tired from the travels of the day I pull the easiest one there is: I don’t understand any Russian. But suddenly there he is up in my face, poking at my laptop screen saying (in Russian) “she speaks English, where are you from, India, Pakistan? Maybe England?” at which point I blast music and put headphones on tight. then Dude 1 shouts to his friend, “Ask her in English!” and Dude 2 begin shouting exactly what D1 just said to me in English. It can’t possibly be that I’m not interested. I just don’t understand, poor me.
Last Night: After an amazing day out seeing sights in countryside Russia, I come back to a bar near my hostel for a meal and a beer. There I am engrossed in my book and a man comes up and says, “Can I share your table?” and without looking up I’m like yeah, yeah sure. Whatever, right? Common space.
And then he starts talking. And then he doesn’t stop. I don’t feel particularly threatened (and in fact am broadcasting live on Twitter and to my fiancé, who’s in France_) and it’s all only slightly annoying because it’s less reading and more conversation until he says he’s paid the bill. Both our bills, including whatever I’d ordered long before he came. Oh boy.
You shouldn’t have, I say, trying to grab the receipt. Like, really really shouldn’t have.
I’ll take care of you, he says, trying to grab my hand.
I’m leaving, I say.
So I leave, and he walks out after me. Note: We are right next to my hostel but he doesn’t know that.
So where are we going?
I don’t know where you’re going, I’m going home.
Can I come?
No, no you can’t.
Can we *something in Russian*
I don’t know what that means.
Oh yes you do, he says, and leans in to kiss me.
*pushes him away*
Please? I really like you.
Dude, you don’t know me.
Fine, I don’t know where you’re from. You’re not really from Singapore, Singapore people look like this
AND NOW HE PULLS HIS EYELIDS INTO SLITS
And I say, oh come on. Fuck off.
And he says, did you tell me to fuck off?! Don’t say that.
I will say that, look at what you just said.
Please stop, can I be just with you.. he tries one last time
No. Seriously. Fuck off.
And now this butthurt dude storms off into the night without looking back and I’m standing there like:
Now this whole time I wasn’t threatened at all, being on a well lit and busy street and with my hostel and its friendly staff next to me, unbeknownst to him. In a situation where safety is a concern, I never (rarely) aggravate (as frustrating as this often is).
But what really gets me is the next day, when I wake up to find a Facebook request from him. Note: the ) is a Russian text smiley.
Now I’m just annoyed. Because of this entitlement, this sense of a right to talk to women a certain way. The fact that as a seemingly single woman you can’t always hang out in an open space without men seeing you as an opportunity. The fact that after all last night’s drama he’s still trying.
I won’t and have never let this hinder me from doing things on my own. But it sure is a reminder that just because my personal situation has changed significantly and I see less of this, it hasn’t really changed at all. So thanks, ‘Tom’ and the two dudes, for reminding me that we’ve got a lot of work to get done. I dedicate this week’s patriarchal takedowns (and gym aggression) to the three of you.