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.
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.