warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

French Press: How It Feels To Get Mugged In A Foreign Country

Matthew Woo |
February 26, 2014 | 9:15 p.m. PST



I felt someone punch me in the temple, yanking away the iPad I had been reading from, and leaving a piece of broken earbud wedged in my ear.  Dazed, I tried to get up, but the accomplice had a stun gun buzzing in my face, warning me not to come any closer before he too scrambled off the train.  I stumbled after them in hopes of finding help, but the doors had slammed shut and the train had started moving.  A compassionate witness offered me his condolences, but there was little I could do until I got off at the next station and filed a complaint with the police.

I still have a slight headache and a mark on the left side of my face where the assailant’s fist impacted my temple, but beyond that nothing really material happened. Sure my iPad was stolen, but everything on it is replaceable. It’s not like I was seriously hurt or lost something important.

What was harmed, however, was my emotions and my psyche.

At first, it was difficult to process my experience. I simply felt the overwhelming emotions of anger, frustration, helplessness and embarrassment. Why would someone do this to me? The answer is probably pretty straightforward: desperation, poverty, peer-pressure or any of the other motives a person could have to hurt another. These answers didn’t help me feel any better though. It seemed so irrational and inhumane for a person who shares this world with me to cause me pain over a simple piece of metal, glass, and plastic.

I had kept asking myself how the situation could have played out differently. If I had gotten on a different train, if I had sat in a different spot, if I wasn’t listening to music, if I hadn’t even taken my iPad out, would this inhumane thing have happened to me? I had heard that Europe was dangerous for pickpocketing and robbery, but I had never experienced it firsthand. Maybe it was my pride and overconfidence in my street smarts, masculinity and senses that left me one iPad short that day. But was hitting me necessary?  If the robbers had only demanded that I give them the iPad, would I have given it up? I’m not sure. There’s something about me that retrospectively says “yes,” that’s what I would have done. However, I also feel that I might have resisted, so maybe the violence was a calculated risk that was necessary in the eyes of my aggressors. Overwhelmed with questions unanswered, I slept the rest of the way back to Paris, dreaming on repeat what I had just experienced.

I had given the boys a glance before they attacked me.  They looked like normal students, no capacity for violence in them at all. One had a baseball cap, and both were dressed casually and wore backpacks. Both were also black. With racial issues thrown into the mix, I couldn’t help but think of my own perceptions and biases. The fact of the matter is that if I could have recognized the threat to my person before it happened, I could have prevented it. The problem is that in the future I will use this experience as a baseline for establishing my safety. The next time I use public transportation, and maybe even the time after that, I will clench my bags a little tighter when I’m around anyone who resembles the people who hurt me. There will be some part of my subconscious that equates young, black and male with violence for some time to come. Indeed, if any two people, regardless of race, had been the ones who attacked me, I would have a subconscious reaction toward anyone who looked like them, and I’m not sure if there’s much I can do to change that.

I may never completely understand the motives or reasoning behind the act of violence that was committed against me, and I may never understand why the world is such that people feel like they must do things to hurt one another. However, dwelling on my experience will not sooth my pain. The happy thing is that wounds heal. I know that the people who attacked me do not truly represent any race or larger group of people. With time, the scene that replays over and over in my head will go away. I still know that people are capable of doing good things. Yet, sometimes unfortunately, miserable things happen to a person. I happened to be that person, that day, and I’m ready to move on.


Reach Columnist Matthew Woo here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.