An reader, who has asked to remain anonymous, sent me a recent story about a stalker in her workplace in Shanghai.
I didn’t really think about sexual assault for the longest time in China, even though as a woman, it was something we always talked about back home in my Western country. Things often seemed different, even safer, over here. But now I realize I was a little naive, especially after what my coworker told me.
We work at a large company in Shanghai. Most of us are women, the majority Chinese, with a few foreigners like me. And some of us have to work evenings. I do too at times but the night never worried me.
But last week, my Chinese coworker came over to me and said, “Did you hear about the stalker at work?”
I was so shocked she used the words “stalker” and “work” in the same sentence. I mean, this is our office. It had felt so comfortable and friendly most days. And people had to swipe a card to get inside. So how could this be?
She said that the guy is from Shanghai and actually used to work for our company. He got a swipecard from a former employee and then hung out around the building during evenings, when bosses are gone but the evening workers (usually women) are still around. He had swiped his way into our department to harass some of the women. She said he had come to harass women more than once.
My coworker didn’t elaborate on what “harass” exactly meant in, but I could tell from the look on her face that it wasn’t anything good.
But it got worse the other night. The guy followed my coworker all the way to her apartment building. I don’t know if he saw her exact apartment or what, but it was chilling enough to know the creep trailed her.
The news has rattled me a bit. I’ve often bicycled home late at night after getting off at work, and would always say how safe it is because there are so many people out on the streets. Now I’m not so sure.
My coworker said she doesn’t want to work in the evening anymore. And I’m asking myself, should I do the same too?
Whenever we take walks in the park every afternoon, my Chinese husband John takes on what he considers an incredibly important responsibility.
He “guards” my butt from the wandering eyes of other men.
I always used to think John was going a little overboard when, not long after we moved to Hangzhou, he chose to start walking behind me. At some point, I know there was a conversation between the two of us that went something like this:
Me: “Why are you walking behind me?” John: “To protect your butt.” Me: “My butt needs to be protected?” John: “Absolutely!”
I never thought I had the kind of butt – like, say, Kim Kardashian – that could go viral or inspire butt-envy. Why would anyone need to guard it?
But then there was this one day where, while strolling through the park (yes, with John behind me guarding my own behind) we came upon a group of men. There were at least three of these guys and they were loitering on this bridge we had to cross. I happened to be wearing a light pink shirt over a hot pink sports bra, and a pair of navy blue spandex exercise pants that fell just below my knees.
Most days, I try not to stare too much at the people around me – especially men – because, chances are, they’re already looking at me. I’m a foreigner, after all.
On this day, I wasn’t looking directly at any of these men, yet I felt their dirty stares all over my body. This wasn’t foreigner curiosity in China, but something perverted.
Behind me, my husband whispered in my ear, “Move, get away from them. Fast!” We both hurried past them across the bridge and jogged until they were far away and out of sight. Even though not one of those men had laid a hand on me, I still remember feeling disturbed by the whole experience. I wondered, How could someone look at me like that? Why had I never noticed this before?
The thing, once this happened, I started noticing shades of the same behavior while walking through the park. Like glancing back at some guys we just passed, only to catch them stealing a look at my behind. Or passing a group of men, ogling me in a decidedly uncomfortable way.
I don’t think it’s fair to simply blame the attention on my spandex pants or how my butt happened to appear while wearing them. Still, as ridiculous as it sounded for my husband to “guard my butt,” I understood he did it for love.
(Well, love and the fact that he likes to stare at my butt while we walk.) 😉
So why am I writing about this experience? Something that, frankly, I push from my mind more than I want to admit?
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.
The worst thing, though, is that I can relate to her experience. I was once sexually assaulted in China myself. And like the Shandongxifu, I’ve not wanted to share it for a long time – believing, as she did, that somehow it was all my fault.
It happened in Beijing when a driver a friend arranged to send me to the airport ended up touching one of my breasts. He did it just before I was about to leave his car – as if he had wanted to touch me the entire time and held out for the right moment. It was creepy and despicable and the kind of thing I hope will never happen again.
I honestly thought nothing like this could ever happen to me in China. I always used to feel so safe and even protected in China. Years ago, I often told friends how I would walk through Shanghai late into the evenings and never feel worried about getting raped or jumped by anyone.
But now I wonder if I really had it right or not. Was I safe in Shanghai because we lived in the center of the city, where lots of people streamed through the streets day and night? Or was I simply naïve?
But then again, I never thought I would be sexually assaulted in the US either – and that also happened to me. Back in the Spring of 2001, while riding in the passenger side of a fifty-something man’s car, he suddenly laid his hand on my thigh and caressed it in a creepy and even disgusting way (I don’t suppose there is any other way when you’re touching a woman who doesn’t want you to touch her that way). This silver-haired fellow was the president of a professional organization I belonged to (I never went to another meeting again after that). There I was, utterly trapped in this man’s car (with no cell phone, mind you), with the frightening thoughts flashing through my mind. Is this it or will he do more? Will he do worse?
Thankfully, that’s all he did.
One night, while John and I were traversing the park beside our community in Hangzhou with our Chinese friend Caroline, she said she was feeling a little nervous. When I questioned her about it, she told us she was worried about running into bad people in the park. John naturally reassured her that, with the three of us together, that was unlikely to happen. It did reassure her, in a way. But then she admitted she wouldn’t dare to walk through the park at night on her own. “I’d be worried about rape or assault.”
It’s the kind of thing I always used to think to myself in the US. And now that I’m in China – and understand that the same dangers exist here too – I realize it’s my worry too.
What do you think about this subject? Have you ever experienced sexual assault?
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