Hidden emotions boil under the surface and disturbing societal norms

Chinese people like to ignore emotions among other things. If an emotion or situation is unsettling, it is simply disregarded. It is funny how this mindset can rub off on someone making one believe that something shocking was really nothing. After coming back to the United States, where my memories were given a wash of American perspective, I have learned to deal with experiences that I was not allowed to process while living in China. There were things that deep in my heart I knew were very wrong, but so many people told me were nothing at all, that I swept away assuring myself that I must be mistaken for feeling anything.

I hate Shenzhen.
Not in the exaggerated lighthearted way people often throw around the term, but actual hate. I get angry whenever I talk about Shenzhen. I hate the city for so many reasons. I will not go in depth into all the reasons as that would take too long. Right now I will give one example of why I hate the city. I will give an example of how there is no morality or respect for women.
I lived in the electronic district of Shenzhen. If you know this area, then you know that there are almost no foreigners living in this area and almost completely occupied by men. The number of white women I encountered in the months I lived there could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare. Needless to say, I stood out.
It was a bright sunny day around noon and I was walking home from work on the busy sidewalk on my lunch break. Shenzhen is so very hot and humid that you start sweating as soon as step outside. To battle the heat, I wore dresses. That day, my dress had cap sleeve and came to my knees with modest heels to match. I had only been back in China for a few weeks at this point so I was not yet beaten down. I walked with a smile on my face, my head held high, and my long blond hair flowing down my back.
As I was walking, I overheard some men behind me talking about me. They were saying that I was Russian among other comments. This was a common assumption, but one that bothered me because it unfortunately came with the association of being a prostitute. I did not want that association. As the men walked a little faster to get a better look at me and continue their blatant conversation as if I could not understand, I informed them in Chinese that I was not Russian but American. Hopefully, speaking Chinese would stop them from being so rude as to speak about me as if I wasn’t there and correcting my nationality would stop them from assuming I was a prostitute.
I was stupid.
There were 3 men. They were middle aged and obviously transients to the city from their country-side, labor-worn appearances.
“She speaks Chinese!” one of the men exclaimed. Now I had really sparked their interest. They got closer and started to critique my appearance more. They told me how I didn’t look American because I wasn’t fat. They said they loved my blond hair. I kept walking assuring myself that I was in public in broad daylight, but I felt awkward.
They started talking about my pale skin. Then as one of men pointed out I was slighted tanned on my chest, he literally used his hand to point it out by brushing his finger above the opening of my button down dress.
I reactively swatted his hand away and looked the man in horror. The men smiled. I was feisty.
I started forward but was detained. The other men had grabbed my arms and my attempts to get away only brought them forward with me. Panic rushed through me. I momentarily looked around at the passersby who watched me with curiosity and pity. I had been in China before and I knew that no one would ever help a stranger; They would simply stop and watch. I had been in Shenzhen long enough to know that the police wouldn’t help, even if I had happened to see one in that very second. I was scared.
I fought against the three men as they started to pull me away out the crowds, move their hands towards forbidden places, and start to tear at buttons on my dress.
I am not a passive person. I have dealt with sticky situations before but never 3 men at the same time. I fought and struggled and squirmed some more. I finally got an arm free. It was enough freedom to physically assault one of my assailants. In all of the times I had been harassed in China, I had never physically punched anyone for fear of legal ramifications as a foreigner. I wasn’t thinking about that right then.
I could see the shock on the hit man’s face. Did Chinese women not fight back? Did he still think I was a prostitute and would take it as long as I was paid? I don’t know, and I didn’t stay to find out.
While the 3 men were momentarily stunned, I freed my other appendages and ran. I took off in my heels running through the busy crowd. I can run distance so I knew I would out run them. I ran as fast as I could and went a round about way back to my apartment in case they somehow kept up. I ran into my building and up the 9 flights of stairs. No one was following so I opened the door, went inside, and locked it. A million thoughts rushed through my mind, but I couldn’t sort through them and I couldn’t breathe.
I stood there in silence for a few minutes looking down at my partially unbuttoned dress.
Once I caught my breath, I pulled out my cellphone. I went through the list of contacts contemplating who to call and what to say. Should I call an American friend? Should I call a girl friend? Should I call the police? My employer? Who would help me and who would calm me down? My boyfriend was the logical choice so I called him.
I was calm up until that point. When I had to get the words out into the air to tell him what had happened, I broke down. Tears started streaming and that loss of breath came back. Worse of all, how could I, in my current haze, rack my brain for the right words in Chinese to throughly explain what I was feeling. My now husband, told me to calm down. When I finally did, I told him about the 3 men on the street. He asked me concerned questions like -
Was I hurt? No.
Was I actually raped? No.
Did they steal anything? No.
Well, what’s the problem then?
By the end of the conversation, he had convinced me that nothing had actually happened. My brain processed this.
I showered and changed my clothes and went back to work late from my lunch break.
I still wasn’t better when arrived. I just sat there staring at nothing. I told my manager what had happened. He asked accusatory questions like -
how could I let that happen? Well, there were 3 grown men and one of me.
Why wasn’t I more careful? It was broad daylight on a very crowded sidewalk.
He agreed to have someone walk me home from then on.
Despite having been provided with the knowledge that nothing actually happened, I still felt upset. I kept looking for someone to console me. I wanted someone to agree that it was horrible and should have never happened, but no one ever did. I called up one of my Chinese girlfriends and she came over.
I recounted the story to her. “That’s it?!” She said. “That’s normal to get catcalls and nothing happened. You shouldn’t have been wearing a dress!”
Every time I talked to someone about it, they said similar things.
Nothing happened.
It’s normal.
It’s my fault.
I shouldn’t have dressed up.
I actually started to feel guilty because complaining about some wandering hands was belittling women who had worse stories. All of my Chinese girl friends would tell me about getting fingered on busses or worse. It was normal. I needed to stop complaining. I was also making Chinese people feel uncomfortable by talking about feelings so much.
Slowly the words started to sink in and I started to ignore my emotions as irrational. Maybe it was my fault? I did encourage those men by talking to them. If it was my fault then I was going to take steps to change it.
My first thought was to get a taser. After finally finding where to buy one, one of my friends explained to me how they aren’t safe because they can be easily turned and used against me. Then I sought pepper spray. Why is it so hard to find pepper spray in China?! I finally found a can of pepper spray but it was huge and single use. It was made to be used by police to spray an entire crowd. One of the girls at work gave me a can of breathe spray and said that it worked just as well. I found that having anything in my hand that could possibly used as a weapon helped. Then on, I always carried my metal tea thermos or umbrella in my hand while walking. I averted my eyes and never smiled or looked at anyone.
I changed my physical appearance too. I went to Hong Kong to dye my naturally blond hair brown. I stopped wearing dresses. It was regularly over 100 degrees outside with the humidity and I always wore pants.
I couldn’t leave my apartment without someone with me. This meant that I didn’t go anywhere because I lived alone. With all of these steps I was only regularly harassed instead of being occasionally attacked. It all left a bad taste in my mouth despite everyone telling me it is normal and that I’m over reacting.
My boyfriend soon quit his job to start his business and moved in with me, which made things mildly better. I started to laugh off being solicited and made friends with some girls who regularly dealt with sleazy men by profession.
I stopped talking about it because it annoyed people and they thought I was crazy. Other foreigners didn’t even believe me because if they were women, they only knew the foreign area of Shekou and if they were men, they were oblivious to how women are treated in Shenzhen.
I lasted in Shenzhen for less than a year before we moved. With my boyfriend no longer working near the city, there was no reason to stay.

Over the years I had occasionally brought up the topic of the 3 men who almost did more and my husband tired of it. He didn’t understand why I kept bringing it up since it was so long ago. It kept popping up no matter how much I tired to bury it.
After we moved back to America, I casually told the story to friends and they looked at me in horror. They told me that it was a big deal and that I shouldn’t blame myself.
Now I was really conflicted. I had convinced myself that it wasn’t a big deal and now I was being told that it was. The more I thought about this, the more other buried memories and emotions surfaced.

Something did happen. What really happened to me is that I lost control of my life for a few moments or minutes or however much immeasurable time passed. I was held by three grown men whose physical strength overpowered mine. That was the moment when I was supposed to have a rush of adrenaline that was supposed to give me amazing strength to break free and save myself, but it didn’t happen. I felt how futile it was to struggle and realized I was utterly powerless. That is the rush of panic that I felt. That is what has haunted me all those years. That is the feeling that no one understood or let me talk about in China.

I’m angry at how these kinds of situations are handled. Even Chinese women treat it like it is normal and accept it so. The blame is always placed on the woman. Even with my American upbringing, I couldn’t escape my beliefs being reshaped by the norm. Enough people tell you something is normal and you believe it must be, but just because something is common does not make it right. Finally, Emotions are better dealt with than ignored.

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Sensing Toxins

I think I’ve figured out why so many mothers seem a little obsessive over chemicals and toxins their children are exposed to – pregnancy.

Pregnancy increases sensitivity to everything. I have a super sense of smell and can smell the tinniest hint of cigarette smoke or food gone bad. Breathing in a bit of windex is enough to make me light headed and need to sit down. I suddenly had to switch my laundry routine because the products I used before caused me to itch. Supposedly this increased sensitivity is supposed to keep the baby safer by being more aware of dangers. Either that or because a pregnant woman’s immune system is depressed, it’s a matter of self preservation. Either way, a pregnant body has toxin sensing super powers.

My brother kind of summed it up best. We bought new carpet for our house and I couldn’t be in the house for a few weeks to give it time to off gas. I checked on it a few days after the installation and just a quick visit gave me a headache and sore throat. My brother saw this and said that if I’m just more sensitive to it, that means that there is something being released by the carpet and he wondered what that meant for him breathing it in. Does not having a reaction make it any safer?

It has made me question a lot of products that I use. I’m definitely worried about what my baby is exposed to and that is making me a little crazy. I refuse to buy cheaply made products for baby. Everyone tells me that the baby won’t care, he will be comfortable in anything, but why would I give my newborn something that made me sick? Maybe in a few months I’ll change my mind and go back to chemical cleaners, heavily processed foods, and flame retardant man-made fabrics.

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Race – unknown

I’ve had quite a few people tell me that I am not in an interracial relationship and my baby isn’t of mixed of race. The reasoning is that my husband isn’t black. I find this kind of puzzling. Isn’t Chinese a different race? He speaks a different language, has a different cultural heritage, and is from a different geographical area. It seems more interracial to me than two people born in the same country.

The issue of race in America is complicated. It is probably a matter of perspective. The people who have told me race is only black and white have been people who classify themselves as either black or white. Plus I live in the south.

The government considers us to be different races most of the time. We are asked about race on standard forms where my husband and I check different boxes. If different race boxes are checked, doesn’t that make us interracial? I always thought an interracial relationship was one where two people of different races were in a relationship together. It apparently depends on which races are checked. Some are more applicable than others. Continue reading

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Oh Boy

I have fulfilled my duty as a daughter-in-law by selecting the Y chromosome. My 18 week ultrasound confirmed that my little baby is a boy! My in-laws said they would have been happy either way, but they only said this after we found out we are having a boy. They are quite happy to say the least. After all, there is a shortage of Asian men in the world.

My sister-in-law was not so happy though. She is four months further along than I am and didn’t find it fair that we found out the sex of our baby before she did. Yup, it’s illegal for doctors to tell a couple the sex of their baby in China. In fact, this caused a bit of confusion because after we announced we are having a boy to the Chinese world, everyone wanted baby pictures and congratulated us on the birth. Continue reading

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oh Baby

Big news: my husband’s little sister is pregnant! She was 3+ months pregnant and didn’t even know it. It was the pickled cucumbers 凉拌黄瓜 cravings that cued my mother-in-law to thinking she might be pregnant and she is! How difficult it must be for my husband to have his little sister expecting her first child before him. We are already failures of reproduction in China because we have not produced offspring within the given time frame of 1-2 years after marriage and then in the age hierarchy, our future unborn children will forever have to call husband’s younger sister’s child “older brother or sister.” It’s messing up the generational hierarchy here. To add to the town gossip, conception was before the wedding. Simply scandalous! It’s big news and I’m very happy for her. My mother-in-law is very happy for her, but I feel kind of bad because I’m sure there is talk in that small community and I’m sure there is a pang of disappointment that baby’s a 外孙/女 “outside” grandchild and not a 孙子/女 grandchild within the family name.
Oh the pressure this puts on us! Except we live halfway around the world so we don’t have to care what anyone says and we kind of enjoy our carefree DINK lifestyle. That, and about a month after she found out her news, we discovered that I am pregnant! These things must be contagious or something. It puts everything right in the world again, sort of. Mother-in-law is happy – I will have fulfilled my traditional obligation as a daughter-in-law. Our baby will always be about 4 months younger than sister-in-law’s, which would mean they are the same age in America, but it means he or she will be considered younger in China. On the American side of things, I don’t know what we are going to do with a one bedroom apartment or how I’m ever going to finish grad school, and how does one take care of a baby? Nor do I foresee the two cousins being very close since they will grow up so far away from each other.
Well, we are very excited. No idea how we are going to handle a baby. At least I get to experience the joys of pregnancy with my sister-in-law though she is half a world away going through the experiences very differently.

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Will that be Cash or Credit?

When a Chinese person buys a wallet, he/she looks to see how much cash it will hold; when an American buys a wallet, he/she looks at how many credit cards it will hold. (Useless fact: Chinese wallets are actually larger than most American wallets because 100 RMB bills are larger than US dollar bills) The entire concept of money seems to be different between the two cultures.

As soon we came back to the states, I started building my husband’s credit. I found a credit card with a terribly low limit but no fees, and we bought a car with a high interest rate even though we had enough to buy the car in cash. Sadly, the bank representative told us this was very common. As she explained, even though immigrants often have plenty in cash to buy a house or a car in full, without credit, they can’t get a loan. I’m sure there is logic in there somewhere. So we paid interest to have a credit score because credit is king. Continue reading

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Contraception in China

So my parents-in-law have been coming up with lots of theories of why I have not produced a grandchild. The one that they are sure of is that because I once took birth control pills I must therefore be infertile. I laughed at it because it was absurd, but it made me kind of angry with no way to educate them on how birth control pills works. That’s when I realized that their assumption was not entirely uneducated. What exactly is considered “the pill” in China?

A long long time ago, I was a student in Xi’an with a 6 month stock pill of my American birth control pills. I ended up staying in China for longer than 6 months though and did not want to disturb my cycle or hormones by going off the pill. Too bad you can’t refill prescriptions by international mail. So I grabbed one of my Chinese girlfriends to take me to the pharmacy to buy a month’s supply of birth control. Simple enough. We told the pharmacist what we wanted and she handed me a box with one pill. I looked at both my friend and the pharmacist and explained that it was not right. My friend laughed and said that it was the right medicine. “You take this pill once a month and you will not get pregnant.” It took a few seconds for what she said to sink in. In my hands was the morning after pill.
Continue reading

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