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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52 responses to “Hidden emotions boil under the surface and disturbing societal norms

  1. Núria

    I find this so frustrating, when you see a situation is not right and people keep ignoring it and behaving in secure ways for them and just letting things go. A Chinese girlfriend of mine told me that during a conference she met a Chinese guy who invited her to have dinner together. On the way to the restaurant, in an underground car full of people (in US) the guy started bothering her and making her uncomfortable, kept telling her not to make a fuss. So that’s what she did!!! She even actually have dinner with him, stayed with him the whole afternoon. I told her “why didn’t you yelled at him in the underground, make him ashamed in front of everybody else and leave?”. She just told me that was not right, and that since she didn’t know the location she didn’t went straight to her hotel so she just stack with that guy the whole time until dinner was off. For god’s sake. That guy didn’t even need to hold her arm like the awful situation you described, since she was so passive the whole trip. And I’m talking about a really clever girl, highly educated, lived abroad for 4 years. This makes me get mad. I’m not sure if I would be able to deal with this cultural thing in China for a long time, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want my children to grow up with these conceptions in their minds as if they were right.

    • I can’t believe she stayed with him after that! It is terrible that people just pretend that it is ok.

    • ruo fei

      Your experience is very normal in Shenzhen. It is a wild world not a city! As a man who likes civilized life, I left this city after staying there for one year.
      The attitude from your friends makes me angry as well. It’s a serious issue and the people who made the attack should be shot from my point of view.

  2. maklu001

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much this post resonated with me. I never had a personal encounter like yours but this disturbing societal norm made its entrance on many occasions while I lived in China for the last four years. My Chinese husband and I moved to the States a little over two months ago for this and many other reasons.

  3. Wow, Ericka, this is just horrible. Really horrible. Especially as so many people you knew thought that nothing wrong happened. I was once sexually assaulted in China; thankfully not raped though, which I’m grateful for. Thank you for being brave enough to share this with all of us.

    (Incidentally, I shared your story with my husband and he thought it was outrageous that anyone would tell you nothing happened.)

  4. Oh my god, this is horrible. I’m so sorry you had to experience this. What makes me really angry is that people blame the women these things happen to. Ugh.

  5. iamcanadian

    i think it is the cultural thing that they downplay this kind of horrible act. it will take a long time, if ever, for them to change their attitude. look what happen in the middle east and africa, the way they treat women there.

  6. Ri

    What a terrifying and traumatizing encounterーpartly because of the assault, but even more so due to the lack of recognition for what it was. My blood boils when there is victim blamingーpeople seem to forget that assault of any kind is always a *choice*. Also for all the “men are superior” bs that floats about; if that’s the case then why can’t they control themselves just because a woman is in the vicinity? Ugh. I’m so sorry you had to experience that.

  7. I’m so sorry that you went through that, it’s horrible that you were made to feel like it wasn’t a big deal for all that time and I’m glad you’ve finally had some support from friends.

    Things need to change.

  8. I currently live in Chongqing and get asked if I’m Russian all the time. One night I was trying to hail a taxi at the gate of my school where I teach and a white car pulled up with two men persistently hollering “Ni shi nage guojia de?” I said “Mei guo” and ignored them but they persisted… at one point, rolled up the tinted windows and repositioned the car so the front window faced me, then the driver opened the sun roof and half stood in the center and continued to holler at me while pretending to jack off. I was wearing a long blue skirt and long sleeved white blouse. NOT revealing. NOT sexy. Yea. I can’t believe you were ACTUALLY groped and attacked and it horrifies me. China can be so disgusting sometimes.

    • Oh boy, that’s horrible. I am so sorry to hear that. Chongqing happens to be my hometown, and I know some men are rude and disgusting out there. My foreign girlfriend visited the city with me a couple of times, and on the street men just stared at her breast, not sure because she is foreign or she has unusual size, or both. I always had to imagine what those jerks would have done If I were not by her side with a 6ft body frame.

      We had better experience in a Shanghai, Hong Kong or other Chinese cities.

      Still, I hope you are not too much discouraged by what’s happened in Chongqing. There are still a lot of positive and exciting things going on in the city, to my knowledge.

      • Im still enjoying my time… I am learning to avoid speaking to people unless i have to, and the chinese community where I live seems to keep track of who is a teacher and who is not. Now that many know I am a teacher, I am treated well near my home.

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  10. Johnny

    Is the boyfriend who ignored her sexual harassment her actual husband?

  11. I am disgusted to hear this story. In my mind assaulting a foreign women in public is not something that would happen very often. It must be horrible when it does happen. And local people’s reaction makes me angry as well. I say this as a Chinese man.

    • I don’t know about other woman,but I was assaulted or harassed almost everyday for the first month I was in Shenzhen. Beggars would hit me with their walking sticks or bowls for not giving money, people officers would whistle, all kinds of fun stuff. It stopped when I started dressing down, being aggressive, and walking home with a guard from work.

      • Very sorry about your bad experience in Shenzhen. I honestly didn’t expect it would be this bad. Shenzhen, as a city of migrants, is always chaotic and can be brutal to a foreign woman, I guess. Shenzhen beggars are notorious and they are mostly organized professionals. They are very aggressive and would do that to anybody.

        I am glad you are not in Shenzhen anymore.

      • I think it was the area. I know a lot of foreigners in Shekou who didnt have any issues. The beggers are horrible there! I found the fake monks to be very sacriligeous.

      • Andy Z

        Well I thought about the area but after all the ordeals you’ve been through, I really didn’t want to sound like I was trying to defend the city.

      • I have to rationalize too because I haven’t met anyone else who had problems there.

  12. I’m really sorry to hear about that. You should never have to accept something you feel is wrong, no matter what people say. I hope that you find the strength to overcome this.

  13. Jenny Lee

    I’m surprised that your friends in China thought the thing normal, and then did nothing. I hate Shenzhen ,too, though I have been in the city for many years and possible forever, once I and my husband were robbed by 7 men with knives,we’re hurted. Terrible ! It’s a big thing in my life.

  14. Jack

    Erm, how did you ended up staying with your current husband (then boyfriend)?? I found it amazing he ignored / make light of this serious situation and you didn’t just leave him?!

    • He was able to calm me down and console me over the phone. He shouldn’t have made light of the situation, but he acted like every other chinese person I have ever met. When you are the only one who thinks differently, you start to think you are the one with the issue so I never blamed him.

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  16. I highly recommend that you find a good judo club and learn few years of it. This way you will be able to easily handle three men by throwing them hard on the ground, or strangle each one, to teach a lesson.

    • Joey Schmoey

      In my opinion, it’s unrealistic to think that even a very well-trained woman (or man) could deal with three larger, male attackers. I think there are few classroom training programs that would even begin to address this. Awareness and mental preparedness will be much more useful than physical reaction after being grabbed. As the victim said, she learned to ignore people and dress differently, I would say in those circumstances she developed a survival skill, of course not an implication that she was at fault, but just an acknowledgement of the reality, and the reality is that you can’t fight 3 determined men once they’re on you, no matter how many judo or other classes you take.

      • Believe me, a well trained judo player can handle few untrained hoodlums. I have been there, seen it, done it. Once one of them gets smashed on his head or back, or gets strangled, you’ll see the others lose most of their will to fight. It is not my opinion. I know it for a fact because people like me prepare people to fight. If you don’t believe it, you ought to try it yourself with two buddies, go to a place where they have a well trained instructor and try to fight him. Record it and share it here. If you want to see a good woman fighter, look up Ronda Rousey. Reality is different for different people, if you experienced it, you will change your mind. There is no amount of arguing on the internet that will show you.

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  19. Wow…. this is a riveting story. I also hate Shenzhen… perhaps its changed since I was last there but doesnt’ sound like it. Looks like this post was only written last year. My ( ex) Chinese husband was also very good in stressful situations to calm me down. The reactions from the two different countries are classic culture shock, cultural differences.
    Its scary and frightening to be in a situation where you are attacked by three men in any country, let alone one that is not your native country.
    But this attitude of being ‘helpless’ goes much deeper than that. it’s the classic china mode of 没有办法.
    Being such a frontier town, everything is heightened and exacerbated in Shenzhen. Our reactions to situations are always socially driven, and if you live here for a long time, you have to adjust your attitude to many things.
    Violence against women is also increasing in many countries worldwide…. I’ve also had the “are you russian” question many times. Or the other more prevalant assumption these days, “are you american”. Nup.

  20. How freakin’ offensive it is for anyone to tell you this is ‘nothing.’ I was living in North Hollywood and one day (broad daylight) was walking by a young guy. He reached out and grabbed my breast. I just stood for a second and poof…he was gone. I had noone to report. It was the most bizarre thing. Although it was not the same as three men, it was still a physical assault. In the US (where we are from) this is a crime that is punishable by possible jail time (if convicted). The lucky thing is you got away and that you did so unscathed. Many are not so lucky.

  21. Hamilcar

    Very sorry to hear about your experience…….
    Whenever I run into these cultural clashes I always try to think of the logic behind it. When they said “You shouldn’t have dressed that way.” or whatever. I feel like it is the same logic as “You shouldn’t have been counting your $100 dollar bills while walking through gang territory.” They aren’t so much as blaming you as saying you had a lapse in judgement and common sense. Unfortunately, it sounds like in some areas of Shenzhen their are places a woman shouldn’t be alone in.

    Regardless, those men should be arrested.

    • It’s interesting that you find wearing a dress to be asking for trouble. It’s not a cultural clash as it is perfectly acceptable to wear dresses in China. The dress I was wearing was not promiscuous by Chinese or American standards unless you have a librarian fetish. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, I would have still been blamed for attracting attention as I’m female. Your point is really that my lapse in judgement is being woman without an escort. That unfortunately still doesn’t solve the problem. I was still harassed when I had people with me and still harassed when I wore pants.
      It’s also over 100 degrees outside with the humidity in Shenzhen during the summer. Wearing long sleeves (and being being a sweaty mess) and having an escort helps, but something is wrong with the morality of the city, not in me asking for trouble just for being there.

  22. Hamilcar

    Wow. You were still harassed when you had an escort and dressed down?!?!?!?!?!! That is terrible I am sorry to hear it.

    I asked my Chinese wife about it and she says that the migrant workers are like that everywhere and always cause trouble.

    • Almost everyone in Shenzhen is a migrant. Without that feeling of community, things are chaotic.
      I have always dressed more conservative in China with shorts and skirts at least knee length and no tank tops. I was on my lunch break from work so I was wearing office appropriate attire at the time.
      When I had an escort in a uniform – my office building security guards – I wasn’t harassed, but if I was with another guy, men would ask my rates or say the guy needed to share. It really didn’t matter what I wore, people assumed I was a prostitute.

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  24. wayfarersteph

    Excellent post!

    I am thinking about visiting Shenzhen again but I am hesitant for your above reasons. Your post really hilights how badly people are treated esp women!

    Lives are just not very important with a population of 1.3 billion. I’ve almost been hit and killed by a cabbie in Shanghai, through no fault of my own and of course, no apologies from him. In fact we got into a heated cursing match!

    I’m Afraid to think if I should faint (as I have done in Hong Kong a few times) or feel unwell the general population in Shenzhen would just pickpocket and sidestep my body.

    I think for an American, talking about it is a way to cope but in Chinese society, they don’t dwell too much. To them dwelling on all the horrors, upheaval and other shit they are used to would be too much to deal with and they are too focused on simply survival. That’s the only reason I can think of anyway.

    I’m actually shocked. I always been told that the Chinese tend to only want to swindle Caucasians but were too fearful to outright harass and molest them. I’m really surprised they would dare so far as to touch you.

  25. Pete

    I hope this horrible experience helps you and other readers in America understand what minorities and people of color live with everyday and support movements like “black lives matters” in America.
    Questions like “are you Russian?” Suggesting you’re a prostitute kind of sound like “you are black so you must be ———–” fill in the blanks

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  27. Great that the writer told her story ,which is total reality for women living in Asian countries and who like to travel in Asia. I guess one also has to be very realistic and aware that a lot of people are born without “emotions/feelings and a guilty conscience = narcissism”. Just make yourself aware and knowledgeable on the subject that these types can never change, they are born that way and this is in most societies. In societies where there are narcissists in bigger amounts , obviously they will find nothing wrong with it. http://samvak.tripod.com/malignantselflove.html ( Sam Vaknin on FB , just search for him and read all about NARCISSISM then you will understand people in society who are not going to change)

    • It’s the way men are nurtured in that environment. There is prostitution everyone and men walk around with wife and mistress, it does little to instill a sense of value for women.

  28. Ad

    As a blonde American woman living in GZ, I can completely relate to your experiences. While I generally feel “safe” walking on the streets (as in I don’t feel like I will be abducted), there are nearly weekly encounters of sexual harassment… including unwanted touch from men on the streets, in the metros, in restaurants, and more. I’ve had a repair man that I called into my apartment grope me under the sink as he “showed me what he’d fixed”. When I reported it to management, they said it was just my word against his and nothing they can do. I’ve had men intentionally rub their clothed penises on my body in crowded areas. Men point and speak derogatory phrases right in my face assuming that I can’t understand them. Men ask me “how much to have sex with you” as I’m standing in a busy area with friends. All while dressing conservatively and doing nothing to provoke anything. I’ve also had Chinese friends tell me that it’s “nothing” or that “every woman experiences that– it’s no different because you are a foreigner.” While I completely acknowledge that local women also experience terrible harassment, it’s clear that my blonde hair draws daily attention- I’ve debated, like you, on dying it.

    As Pete said, this has really helped me empathize with minorities in America that talk about oppression and feeling attacked by the majority. Instead of speaking from a majority standpoint and discrediting their experiences of harassment, we need to be more willing to believe and acknowledge their pain.

    And as far as the serious problem in China where women are degraded and abuse is seen as a “domestic issue”… it’s hard to know what/if anything can change that perception…

    • I’m so sorry you are going through it. If you ask a male foreigner in Shenzhen, they are completely oblivious to this. Maybe the harassment is just as ad for local women but that still doesn’t make it right. As long as Chinese women brush the issue under the table, it will never get better.

  29. Kay

    I am so sorry that you experienced being assaulted. I was really shocked and horrified reading your story and I hope that you have found healing as time has gone by.

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