What do you do when you see what appears to be a man ready to choke a woman in public, right on the street, right in front of the whole world passing by? But what if things aren’t what they seem? What if you can’t tell?
It’s middle of the afternoon and I’m heading back home before the kids get out of school. It’s brisk and clear, but windy. My weather app had warned that rain was coming, but I hadn’t bothered to bring mon parapluie. No big deal; I didn’t have too much walking to do.
I walk down a narrow lane amid scattered raindrops and cross the street to get to the RER entrance along the Seine; it starts coming down harder and I pick up my pace. I reach the stairs leading underground when I notice a couple against the concrete wall between the sidewalk and the river below. A young man and woman. Asian. Tourists, it seems to me.
She’s pressed up against the wall, her back against it. He’s right up against her, his arms surrounding her, but not in an embrace. His hands are resting on the wall—but not resting. Nothing about him is at rest. He’s talking a mile a minute—is it Korean?—his voice is raised, but not shouting; he’s agitated, pushing up against her one moment, then rocking back. Her face is a stone.
I slow my pace and turn away from the stairs to approach the wall, never taking my eyes off them. Whatever was going on, it didn’t look good.
I’m standing not fifteen feet away. Everything in me says treating a woman like this isn’t right. I lean against the wall and watch them. Not discretely—no, I stare. Maybe if I’m obviously watching them the guy will tone it down.
He continues berating her. So much for that idea. There’s no sign either one of them is even aware I’m there. In all the time I’ve been watching she’s said almost nothing.
Am I seeing things that aren’t there? This is when the clash of cultures becomes real. The disconnect between what we know and understand and that which is truly foreign. They look and sound Korean to me, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. I’m an American; my sense of personal space isn’t the same as a French person’s—or this couple’s. But I can’t imagine any reality in which having a conversation that looks anything like this is in any way acceptable. He’s talking at her in continuous agitation and yet he’s close enough to kiss her. His mouth is right up to hers and he’s continuing his tirade. Can this be normal?
I’m not the only one who’s concerned. A woman with a child passes the couple, stops, and turns to look at them. Her concern mirrors mine. A twenty-something, American-looking white guy comes up the steps from the RER. He sees them as well. He notices me watching them and and we make eye-contact, as if to say to each other, what do you make of this?
Now the Korean guy isn’t just talking, he’s repeatedly reaching around the girl’s neck, like he’s going to grab her or choke her. My heart is racing now; I really think he’s about to clamp his hands around her neck—but then he doesn’t. At times he seems to push her; but more with his body than an outright shove. It’s all strange and perplexing and contradictory; they are so close to each other, so entwined, it’s hard to tell if he wants to hurt her or kiss her. At one point he buries his head in her shoulder and his expression looks heartbroken or crestfallen.
All this time I’m trying to imagine what could have led to this. The way he is so agitated, so apparently angry, so willing to have this intense interaction in public, it seems something terrible must have happened. Something that he blamed her for? But the way he had held onto her with his head on her shoulder seemed like he was trying to keep her from leaving him. Was their relationship falling apart?
The cultural gulf between me and this couple is formidable. I don’t understand how they interact, I don’t have any idea what their cultural values are, what their gender roles are like, what they expect of each other. I hadn’t even seen the beginning of the incident—I’d walked in on the middle of it all.
But I can’t just walk away.
It had been a few minutes now that I’d been not-even-remotely-discretely watching them and neither of them had betrayed any sense that they were aware of my existence. That all changed in an instant.
By now the woman and her child have moved on. The American guy has walked to the other side of the couple from me but is still watching them. I can’t tell you what I was thinking exactly, but I pull out my phone and hold it up. I’m fumbling with it a bit; I can’t get it to open to the camera.
Now the agitated man turns to me. “Don’t do this!” he says insistently (although he’s still not shouting). He repeats this and then says it again.
“Is everything okay?” I ask him. My thumb keeps slipping on the camera icon and I still can’t get the thing to open. I lower it slowly. I put it back in my pocket. “I haven’t taken a picture. Is everything okay?” I ask again.
“This is a private conversation,” he declares without a hint of irony.
“Are you okay?” I ask; I can’t really think of what else to say. I want to tell him to leave her alone, but I haven’t understood a thing said between them and I don’t know what’s really going on. Looking back now, I imagine saying something like, “You can’t treat a woman like that here!” I may not be French and I don’t understand the nuances of French culture, but I’ve never seen a man treat a woman in Paris the way he was treating her. But I imagine you know what it’s like to think of what you wish you would’ve said well after the moment’s passed.
The woman still hasn’t looked at me; the man still insists everything is fine.
“Is she okay?” I ask.
She finally looks at me and nods slightly. She looks sad. Or is it resignation? Shame? She says in English that she’s okay. A moment later they turn away from me and start moving off down the sidewalk, but slowly. Across the way, the American guy is still watching it all. We make eye contact and he calls over to me: “It’s okay,” he says as they pass by him. Apparently he’s satisfied.
I watch for a moment more before taking the stairs down to the RER. I still don’t know what to think. I say a prayer for each of them as I pass through the turnstile.
During the ride back home I can’t get them off my mind. What would happen between them now? For as many times as he said and she said and the American guy said, “It’s okay”—it still didn’t seem like it was okay. But I’ll never see them again. And I’ll never know.
I pray again. What else is there to do? What would you have done?