The Price Of Being Petite

Breaking News: I just got a Twitter! I’m not entirely sure how it works yet or what proper Twittetiquette is, but you can follow me while I figure it out! (Just as a distance, please – I startle easily.)

Confessions of a Pocket-Sized Human Being*

I get scared.

I admit it. Without ducking behind the stereotype that portrays women as weak and defenseless, there is truth to the idea that I am very easy to kidnap. My backpack, at a logical max a third of my body weight (though more realistically between a fourth to a fifth), adds at most 35 pounds to my frame.** Meaning, of course, that a kidnapper could grab me, backpack and all, and still only haul 140 pounds.

This situation isn’t as absurd as it might seem. Being friends with big guys has made me accustomed to unexpected airborne hugs and mischievous drunk fireman throws. And while I laugh and playfully wiggle my way to freedom, there’s always a sobering moment when I realize that I am quite powerless in these mens’ arms.

This is why I intended to learn Krav Maga. The only time I should be manhandled is when I want to – damn it! – and the only way to ensure that is to become a weapon myself. Berkeley has a pretty distinguished Krav Maga Institute, and I vowed that my summer days would be spent in the gym or in this school, getting ripped and kicking ass.

Of course, my natural sloth-like tendencies won out, and I instead read article after article about how to prevent robbery and assault. Their tips weren’t very reassuring.

Don’t look weak.
Don’t wear ultra-feminine clothing.
Don’t look wealthy.
Don’t drink with strangers.
Don’t smile or make eye contact with men.
Don’t hold other people’s babies.
Don’t walk home alone.

The last one is good advice, admittedly – I should have listened to it last year when I hyper-anxiously made my way back from Amsterdam’s Sugar Factory to my hostel in the heart of the Red Light District. (This famous night featured my near-escape from a Dutch motorcycle gang, a slight bout of the roofies, and a case of mistaken prostitute identity. …Never going to a club alone, ever again.)

Even last night, when biking home at 2 AM from San Pablo and University, I scolded myself for my lack of planning. Opting to bypass the ultra-sketchy Bonar St. (home of every hard drug you might ever want; also nearly my sophomore year street of residence), I biked down the deserted University Ave. I had my headphones in, explaining why it took me a second to register that someone had been talking to me. As I biked past the open window of a parked car and stared directly at a creepy shadow-clad man, I semi-hilariously/ semi-scared-shitlessly squawked/ screamed and biked faster than I have ever biked in my life. My heart pumping, I knew that if that man had decided to follow me, that could easily be it. My pepper spray might not even phase someone already tripping on PCP – and in Berkeley, you never know. Luckily, a police officer down the road leapfrogged me a few times and ensured my safety down the remainder of University.

But the other tips? “Don’t look weak?” How can I not look weak, when I’m a slender 105 pounds*** and a shorter-than-average 5’3 (for my European audience out there: 1.6 meters, 46 to 48 kilograms)? It pleases me to know that I’ve recently been described as “fit” and “street-smart” – people have told me that they wouldn’t instantly choose me as a target if they were to mug anyone on the sidewalk. But whether these are sentiments shared by foreign – and not hypothetical – muggers is still an unverified question.

Furthermore, every culture describes “ultra-feminine” as completely different, and observing the average dress in one area could still be inappropriate for another (think Malibu Beach versus Amishville, Pennsylvania). The same goes for “wealthy.” You can try to blend in as much as you want, but to the experienced eye, you’ll always be an outsider. Taking advantage of said outsider – especially a young, wide-eyed, petite girl – might even be easier than stealing proverbial candy from a baby; at least babies fight back.

“Don’t drink with strangers”? “Don’t smile or make eye contact?” Hell, half of my motivation for going on this trip is to drink with strangers, and if I’m able, smile, laugh, and possibly look them in the face. Cultures that value drinking cannot be permeated without sharing a whiskey or two, and with lowered inhibitions comes down the faux-hardened-criminal look that travel books recommend. Even non-alcoholic, Muslim communities value their tea time, though admittedly in such cultures stricter gender roles must be observed. In any case, not drinking – or eating – with strangers crumbles one’s ability to acutely understand a culture’s social dynamics. For a trip around a world, that can make the whole voyage meaningless. (Yes, I note the irony in the fact that I don’t drink beer. Hint: This might change…) Wherever I go, I can’t help but smile – I’m a California girl, and I’m traveling the world! Even the bitterest Eeyore in the world has to appreciate the levity in the situation.

“Don’t hold people’s babies” is a foregone conclusion for me. I do not anticipate a moment in which I would willingly hold someone’s child, particularly someone I don’t know, so such gypsy tricks are lost on me. I do understand the “Don’t give strangers the time” trick though, so for such situations I will be wearing a watch. Hopefully it’ll make me more punctual, but the only time punctuality should matter is when catching a plane to a new adventure. (I learned this lesson the hard way when baked in Amsterdam – I forgot to reset my watch for the entire time I was in the Netherlands, and instead of arriving at the airport super early as I anticipated, I ended up arriving fifteen minutes after check-in closed for my flight to Oslo. $200 lesson learned.)

At the end of the day, I am a target just by being me. Being brown only protects me so much. While I might blend in with the gypsies from whence my blood ran (true story! ..maybe), this isn’t much consolation in countries where Gypsies are seen as troublesome transient populations. In the Middle East, my ethnicity might cause for nationalistic tensions (note to self: check every country’s diplomacy with the US and with India). In South Africa, Indians are so numerous that they’ve been dedicated a separate racial category, alongside the binary “white” and “black.” Inevitably, there are racial conflicts with that scenario as well.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” might be a motto touted by kindergarten teachers, but the truth is that first impressions can reveal a surprising lot about a person. My habits, my size, my skin color, and my general well-kept appearance might mark me as the perfect target for a mugging or a kidnapping – and there’s nothing I can to change that.

Forget what you’ve heard. Sometimes, being small just sucks.

* This post is dedicated to Palkin, who encourages my outrage against anti-small-person propaganda.

** I’m about 48 kilograms, so my ideal pack weight would be about 12 – 16 kilograms, or 26 – 35 pounds. That almost qualifies for carry-on status, if I didn’t carry liquids, pepper spray, and pocket knives. (Which I do, so don’t fuck with me.)

*** I can hear it now: “You’re too small!” “You need to gain weight!” Stop right there. I’m fine – according to my Body Mass Index, I tether on the edge of “healthy weight” and “underweight” with an average score of 18.5. This system is flawed in many ways anyway. What such tests don’t take into account are fat levels and ethnicity; everything is inflated to accommodate an American diet and build, but my Indian roots ensure that I will thankfully never be American in either diet nor especially build. In case you’re wondering, I assure you that I get enough exercise, and if you’re describing me to your hot, intelligent, fun friend, I’d prefer the term “lean” or “toned” to “skinny.”