Is China a safe place to live for expat women? My personal experience of harassment by a Chinese guy

A false sense of security

“Is China a safe place to live for expat women?” This is an important question every woman planning to live in China has to ask herself before moving there. The first years of living in China, I always felt quite safe. But like many others and only after having lived here for some time, I’ve realised that China is not as safe as many expats think it is. I haven’t experienced sexual harassment the way Jocelyn from Speaking of China, who writes about being sexually harassed by a driver in Beijing and Zhou JiaYi from Shandongxifu, who was almost gang raped in Shenzhen, have, but there were a few close calls.

Amanda from Two Americans in China has recently shared her experience of assault and harassment in China. She mentions having been threatened by one guy in particular because she’s speaking up:

“There is a Chinese man who calls himself Nathan but I call The Shenzhen Creeper who has been harassing and stalking expat women in Shenzhen for over a year. He is the reason we had to turn the Shenzhen Writers Circle into Women Writers of Shenzhen. The women in the group simply didn’t feel safe with him in our community. Whenever a new expat woman would join our group (only expat women; he has never stalked a Chinese member of our group), he would get their WeChat (like China’s Facebook and instant messenger) and their email address and continually message them. Most of the messages may seem harmless enough, asking if the women want to get coffee or go to a movie, but several of them have been creepy, asking where the women live, work, or go to the gym. He has sent long love songs to women and asked if they “see themselves” in his love poems. I should also mention that Creeper is married and has a one-year-old daughter.”

I want to talk about the Shenzhen Writer’s Circle incident with you – the same one Amanda writes about in her post. No matter where we live, as women, we should never give ourselves a false sense of security.

is china a safe place

My experience of harassment in China

I was one of the women the above mentioned guy contacted. Like Amanda mentioned in her post, he goes by the English name Nathan (but of course, he might change his name on WeChat in the future). He is a Chinese in his mid-30s with a wife and a 1-year-old daughter (something he used to “forget to mention”). Below, I’ll just refer to him as that guy. I’m listing a few of the things he said or did that made me feel uncomfortable, anxious and even afraid for my safety. I should mention that he did not only contact single women, but didn’t stop at any woman, including me, a married and pregnant woman. But really, even if I was single, he should have stopped. I hope that this will help other women who are in similar situations to recognise the pattern, speak up and put a stop to people like him. Many Western women are not as confrontational as we are sometimes made out to be in China. Cultural differences are not an excuse to harass people.

Joining the Shenzhen Writer Circle’s WeChat group

When I joined the WeChat group of the Shenzhen Writer’s Circle, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy. I often felt nauseous, exhausted and had a few other pregnancy symptoms, so I didn’t go out much during that time. Shortly after joining, that guy kept contacting me. He complimented me for my writing on my blog and asked if I wanted to go for a coffee to talk about writing. Out of politeness I said yes, although I really didn’t feel like going for a coffee with a stranger. I always made excuses not to go. Also, I started ignoring that guy because he asked a lot of personal questions that made me feel uncomfortable.

The first time I went to a meeting of the Writer’s Circle, I was in my second trimester of pregnancy and my bump was already showing. Ignoring that guy didn’t keep him from contacting me and after having met him in person, I thought it harder to ignore him. Not because I thought he was a nice person, but because it’s just harder for me to ignore people after having met them and talked to them in person (and knowing that I’ll run into him again at other writer meetings).

Not taking a hint

I ignored him for long stretches of time, over and over again. I told him I’m happily married and pregnant. He couldn’t take the hint (or didn’t care).

Asking me to reveal personal information

He asked me for a lot of my personal information. He wanted to know where exactly I lived in Shenzhen, my phone number, my date of birth, my home address in Austria, my husband’s full name, you name it. These questions made me feel very uncomfortable.

Asking me to meet up with him ALONE

is china a safe place

He asked me time and time again to meet up with him ALONE – to go to the movies with him alone, to go climbing the hills in Eastern Shenzhen (where he suggested to take me ALONE by car), to have coffee. I turned down most of his invitations. I suggested taking my husband – of course, that guy didn’t like the idea. When he got too annoying, I met up with him on a few rare occasions in public places to tell him how much I love my husband and that I’m not interested in him (that guy) romantically. I was naïve enough to think that this will discourage him. I have learned one thing from this experience: In China, if a guy asks you to meet him alone, he isn’t interested in friendship, he expects something else.

Constant use of benevolent sexism

I thought about what it was that made me feel so uncomfortable about that guy. In hindsight, one of the reasons was his constant use of benevolent sexism. Here’s an explanation of benevolent sexism:

“Hostile sexism is what most people think of when they picture “sexism” – angry, explicitly negative attitudes towards women. However, the authors note, there is also something called benevolent sexism:

We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure) (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491).”

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).”

He made a lot of compliments. He liked to use adjectives like kind, sincere and shy to describe me, many of which bother me because they are a form of benevolent sexism. He called me out on never thanking him for the compliments. I had my reasons for not thanking him: The compliments he made were sexism in disguise. I might not constantly speak up about sexism, but I’m very much aware of it. Women are not obliged to thank guys for compliments (even more so if the compliments are actually putting women down). It’s sexist to think we are.

Further down, the article states:

“Benevolent sexism may very well seem like harmless flattery to many people, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t insidiously dangerous.”

is china a safe place

He once even compared me to Lin Daiyu, a girl who grows into a young woman in the Chinese classical novel Dream of a Red Chamber. Lin Daiyu is a “sickly, emotionally fragile woman” (Wikipedia) who falls in love with the main character. The two love each other, but when they can’t be together and the main character marries another woman, her illness becomes more severe and she dies at a young age. I assume that for most women, being compared to a sickly, emotionally fragile woman who dies because she can’t be with the man she loves is not a compliment.

Telling me “I miss you” and “I love you”

He started saying stuff like “I miss you” and “I love you”. This made me feel very uncomfortable. He also asked me to “love him back”. I didn’t have any feelings for him, which he knew. I told him to stop saying these things, but he disregarded my request more than only once.

Implying that I would have fallen in love with him under different circumstances

He asked me many questions about how my husband and I met, who made the first step, who is the more active/passive one in our relationship, … He came to the conclusion that if only we’d met two years earlier, we would be together today.

harassment-in-china_06

Stop. No, we would not. I find a few of the implications here really bothersome:

  1. My husband could be substituted for just any other guy;
  2. I don’t care about the guy I’m married to as long as he’s Chinese (just like benevolent sexism is sexism, positive racism is racism too);
  3. As long as I’m single, I’m passive enough to just say yes to any guy who’s chasing after me (implying that as a woman, I don’t have an opinion of my own);
  4. I don’t care if the guy chasing after me is married or not.

I don’t agree with these implications at all.

Accusing me of needing the attention

He thought I needed the attention. I told him that I don’t need this kind of attention. He still behaved like I did. When I asked him if I had ever led him on, he said no, not in the least. Thinking a woman needs a man’s attention is very sexist (again). I haven’t explicitly written about sexism on this blog in the past, but it’s a topic close to my heart.

Touching me inappropriately

On one occasion, he brushed my hip and touched my hand with his hand. I withdrew my hand immediately. I hate being touched by mostly anyone except my husband, and no man, no matter if he’s a friend or just an acquaintance, should assume that women like being touched if they don’t clearly state they don’t. Women are not public property.

is china a safe place

Stalking me

One time before a writer’s meeting, he turned up at my workplace, which was near the place we were meeting up. He sent me a text message saying that he was waiting for me outside of my office. I did not ask him to pick me up and I did not tell him the address of my workplace. He only backed off when I told him I’m leaving with my husband (which I did). Turning up at someone’s workplace unasked and unwanted is not called romantic, it’s called stalking. 

Disregarding my request to never contact me again

In June, 2014, I blocked him everywhere I could block him and told him via email not to contact me again. That was shortly before my son was born. He said that he would respect my request. He disregarded my request a few weeks later by sending me a text message. I ignored the text message. He contacted me again in January, 2015, once per text message and once per email. He sent me a Chinese love song (or at least that’s what I guess it was, I didn’t bother to read it) and wrote something like that he wouldn’t stop loving me until I’m deceased (or something like that, I only skimmed through the email, but I clearly remember him using “love” and “deceased” in one single sentence). I told him to never contact me again.

Harmless or dangerous – where do you draw the line?

A lot of this might sound harmless, but it’s really not. I’m a married woman who was pregnant at that time. If he doesn’t stop before a married and pregnant woman, I’m sure he won’t stop before a single one.

harassment-in-china_02

These incidents have not only made me feel angry, but also anxious, uncomfortable and unsafe. After I heard that he did this with many Western women in Shenzhen and that they felt uncomfortable too, I realised it wasn’t just me being annoyed, but that guy being annoying (and creepy). Note the difference? Also, a few of the occurrences were very frightening, like him requesting me to tell him where exactly I live, getting really angry that I didn’t feature any of our conversations on my blog, his touching me inappropriately, his putting me down for spending a lot of time alone or going out almost exclusively with my husband (I love spending time both alone and with my husband, and that’s perfectly ok), his wanting to control my time and feelings, his stalking me and finally, his disregarding my request to never contact me again. You might call many of the above harmless, but stalking and harassment (his repeatedly contacting me when I explicitly told him to never contact me again) are certainly not. He does not respect personal boundaries and tries to make you feel guilty by acting like he’s the victim. Someone who accuses a woman of “needing the attention” might even go as far as to say “but she didn’t say no” or “she said no, but in reality meant yes”.

Speaking up and worrying about one’s safety

Speaking up is hard. We have to worry about retaliation if we speak up. We need to worry about our personal safety or that of our family and friends. We might be threatened. That’s why many women prefer to keep quiet.

Amanda from Two Americans in China has spoken up selflessly for all the women he repeatedly harassed. She’s doing this to protect those who have already been harassed by him and others he could potentially harass. After speaking up, he has started threatening her:

“He has threatened to have me arrested, sued, and has threatened my employer. He has even threatened my guy friends who have stood up for me, telling them that they would also end up in court if they take my side. The women are not unreasonable in their fears that Creeper could escalate things if they were to outright reject him.”

I can’t say it any better. This is one reason I’m speaking up. If you’ve been harassed by this guy or anyone else, please don’t keep quiet, speak up as well.

Have you ever had to deal with harassment?

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About

Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

42 comments

  1. K

    First, your blog is fantastic. Second, I agree with you. A woman has the right to feel safe and reject advances. We are told so many times to be polite, to be agreeable, but I will not be agreeable to violation of my safety or space. Good for you Ruth.

  2. I am so glad you came forward to write about this. It’s such an important topic, one that desperately needs to be discussed — especially since there are far too many folks out there who still believe it couldn’t happen in China. I know how hard it is to share these experiences and I’m grateful you have. Hopefully you will encourage more people to speak out!

  3. Thank you so much for speaking out about this. What an ordeal you went through. I never had this type of experience in China, but I did in the US. As women we are conditioned to be nurturing and thoughtful of other people’s feelings over our own. And that can often backfire, as it did in your case and in mine. It may seem like there’s nothing wrong with trying to be nice, but in the end it just encourages these guys. I told some male colleagues that I was being harassed at the gym and they called the gym to tell the management about one of their employees and that he was harassing me in the swimming pool. The management didn’t fire him, but just moved him to a different area. I left that gym after that.

    • Sadly, harassment happens anywhere in the world. I agree that we are conditioned to be nice, although sometimes we just really shouldn’t be. The gym incident sounds horrible. I’ve heard of similar incidents where the management didn’t fire a person even after knowing that they sexually harassed someone at the workplace.

  4. It’s a terrible thing to happen and the worse thing is that it’s not one and only case.
    I’m so glad you talk about it.

    I know I promised to share it on weekend, but I forgot so please mail me before that, since all the moving and now even more problems I’m under pressure and forget way too many things.

  5. It is really brave of you to write so honestly about this.
    The part about benevolent sexism is particularly interesting as I’ve not heard the term before but now I think about it, I have encountered that type of comment and attitude very often amongst Chinese people, men and women both (even my own husband is occasionally guilty of this).
    It’s obvious this guy will never change, but thank you for writing to warn others. I hope he never bothers you again.

  6. Chimin

    Are there restraining orders in China? No, justice in China only serves AFTER the crimes have been committed. I think you have to reach out to the media, like Southern Metropolis Daily, which is known for whistleblowing. These sorts of issues are under reported in China because most Chinese women are just too afraid to come forward, you’d be doing a service to not just yourself but all the women in China that have experienced it.

    • That’s the problem with these incidents and that’s why it’s so important for more people to know about that guy and in a more general sense that China is not a safe haven for women. Amanda’s article about that same guy was published in the Southern Metropolis Daily (it’s the same article I linked to in this post, you should definitely check it out if you haven’t yet).

  7. Lea

    Thank you so much for posting this! What a piece of work. It’s so important to speak out and give these creeps the shame they deserve.

    I had a “close call” with a Chinese man a couple years ago. I interviewed him for my thesis research (with an interpreter) and he asked us if we wanted to have dinner with him after (normal enough in China, I had lunch/dinner with several other people I interviewed). My interpreter had to go so it was just me and him. He asked if he could see my work since our studios were close to each other and I said okay. Then he stared at me and called me “beautiful” and I got really weird vibes from him, and I really regretted saying yes as we walked to my studio. Thank god my (male) roommate was in; creeper was out like a shot. He clearly had no interest in my work. I was so shaken afterwards! Luckily that was the last I heard from him.

  8. This was well-written, Ruth. And thank you so much for sharing and talking about an issue that is still so prevalent today. I am sorry to hear what you went through. Very scary, since it sounds like he could be capable of almost anything, watching over you like that. A stalker like that does not deserve any attention. It’s so sad – us women all have the right to be safe and feel safe, but sometimes that is entirely not in our control.

    I have had a few guys harass me previously – repeatedly asking if I want to be friends with them over social media although I’ve never met them. Luckily they backed off when I gave them the cold shoulder. Nothing like what you went through, I hope he never bothers you again.

    • Thanks, Mabel!

      In the past, giving someone the cold shoulder usually worked quite well in Austria (I’m not saying harassment doesn’t happen there, it does), but it seems to be quite different in China. That’s why it’s even more important to let other women know about these incidents.

  9. This things are just terrible. in the past years I have read more and more articles about these things in China however also in any other countries such as Japan, India or plain Germany. These things can happen anywhere in the world and thus far there are no real means to protect you from such people.

    I am sure that the very same thing could have easily happen also in Finland, in fact I am very sure as I have seen it myself few years back. During my university time we had a guy in our class who would go to nearly every girl and ask for their phone number. He would get all of their numbers as he would just start to annoy them as long as necessary to get the number. Frequent messages and calls to those girl for going out with him, meeting up and telling them how beautiful they are. Some even said they saw him outside their doors sometimes…contacting anyone from the authorities didn’t help as they would do only something when something had happened already thus meaning there was no help from those. In the end few of us stood up to him and he stopped it at least around the girls we knew but he most likely just went on in other places. Oh and of course he was already married with a little child…

      • I am actually happy that we were so many. Alone would have been dificult, I would probably say something when facing him alone but he would not take it seriously but as a whole student group he seemed to acknolwedge at least the fact that he shouldnt do it anywhere around us

  10. Thank you for coming forward with your story of harassment. It is so important to get this information out to other foreign women and everyone who is currently or considering making their home in China. In the back of my mind I know about this stuff but it should always be in the front of my mind, and everyone else’s.

    Recently I learned of a particularly awful story that happened to an acquaintance of mine in Xining. It absolutely broke my heart. Getting the word out about things like this so important. Thank you for sharing and hopefully preventing a similar thing from happening to someone in the future.

    • It is important, especially since there are still many women saying “but I feel so save in China walking home alone at night”. Feeling save walking home alone at night doesn’t mean harassment (and unfortunately, often also sexual harassment) doesn’t happen in China. It does, and it happens a lot.

  11. I’m truly sorry for what you have been though and at such a time, too! The good thing about phones these days is you can call someone quickly, take photos and record if you need to. But it sure is terrifying to feel like you are being bullied, harrassed and followed. Can I wish for bad things to happen to him because I can think of a few things…

  12. Ri

    I’m so sorry you had to experience that. It’s not talked about much, even though it’s not uncommon.
    And I agree, Amanda’s quote is spot on “The women are not unreasonable in their fears that Creeper could escalate things if they were to outright reject him.” — This could be the case for any guy making you feel uncomfortable.

    I think the comedian Donald Glover makes a good pointーhe says it in jest, but he’s also making a very poignant point when he says “Every guy has a crazy girl story… but ever notice how girls don’t? It’s because they’re dead, or they’re not the funny kind.”
    (Ugh, just reading that makes my stomach turn, but Glover manages to bring it up as a joke, but still make a very clear point about the potential violence brought on by a snubbed guy.

    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=39a_1352288958

    • “Every guy has a crazy girl story… but ever notice how girls don’t? It’s because they’re dead, or they’re not the funny kind.” That sentence gave me goose bumps. The thing is that women are also very much used to harassment and everyday sexism, so much so that we don’t speak up because we think it’s not a big deal (but oftentimes, it should be).

  13. Thank you so much for telling your story, and this is even so much worse than I knew! I had no idea he came to your office. In fact, the women in the writing group are always telling me worse and worse things about *that guy,* and it just makes me so angry and want to cry all over again. It is frustrating to know that he is still doing these things to more and more women around the city and there is basically nothing anyone can do to stop him. All we can do is get the word out so his other victims know they are not alone.

  14. Seth

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, and thanks for making it so well written too. I’ve found it to be very insightful. Its a perspective that thankfully I’ll never experience, but at the same time never fully understand due to that same lack of experience. So I’m glad to see you speaking out. I can’t begin to tell you how much this helps.

  15. Thank you for telling your story. It’s very important to talk about this and I am glad you did. I have dealt with harassment and maybe one day I will write about it. Thank you, again.

    • Thanks, Eileen! I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had to deal with harassment too. It’s hard to talk about it openly, but also very important for more people to know that these things happen. Women often think it’s their own fault. I’m glad more people are inspired to write about harassment by reading stories from others who spoke up.

  16. I have been harassed and assaulted in a number of countries. It can happen anywhere, but the likeliness of it happening and the way in which it happens can sometimes vary. In the past, I tried to ignore incidences because I didn’t want to see myself as weak or helpless. Recently, I’ve come to realize that what happened was wrong and I had a right to be upset about it even if I didn’t have a chance to do anything about it. I’ve also realized that I probably can never fully let my guard down, no matter where I am in the world. It’s a bit naive to believe anywhere is completely safe.

  17. Ray

    I don’t know what to say. I’ve only just come across this post. I saw him being slightly creepy firsthand, I remember the drama of the women’s-only group decision, and heard about Amanda’s recent hassles. But I had no idea it was that bad all along.

    In person, anybody could tell he was kind of weird and inappropriate at times. I don’t know, I guess I thought he was ultimately harmless. At the least shouldn’t most people be able to take a hint before it gets to that point? I was very wrong; turns out he’s an extremely fucked up person. Period. Wish I knew all along.

    The stalking part is delving into the realm of dangerous, getting scary.

    Frankly, your husband should have kicked his ass.

    Hopefully his wife will discover this blog and he will have some explaining and reflecting to do.

    Also: you are absolutely right about benevolent sexism, and positive racism as well. Being fair to others means respecting them, not being condescending.

    Thanks for sharing. So sorry you had to deal with these experiences. I hope in the future less women will have to deal with it, because of your bravery in sharing.

    • I think that’s what most of us thought – that he’s weird but harmless.

      Benevolent sexism and positive racism are both sometimes hard to point out – but often just feel wrong if you’re at the receiving end.

      I hope so too! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  20. Even just reading this post made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I can’t imagine how disturbing living this in real life must have been, especially during such a delicate period like a pregnancy.

    I am very sorry you had to go through this.

    I have always been very lucky regarding safety both in China and Taiwan, but I can’t help thinking that this could happen to anyone at any time, so I’d better always be ready to face ugliness.

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  23. Crispywonton

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope everything goes well for you now. I am a man and i am actually in this situation of permanent harassment from a chinese woman, she asked me all the same personal détails, send me email, wechat messages, ask my friend to contact me (because i don’t want to speak with her). I really feel bad with this story. She said that she will call police if i don’t reply to her mail for they do some research in case that i am dead. (?!) Everyday harassment by all the way possible and exactly in the same way that you describe. This woman is from Guangzhou. Maybe it cultural. But really i feel scary, i have a bad feeling. I blocked all i can, but she know my workplace, she create fake wechat account and send me daily friend request, i feel like traped in a bad movie. Sorry for my bad english. Best regards.

    • Have you told her to stop it and that it’s none of her business if you’re alive or not before blocking her? Harassment can happen in many forms, and culture is not an excuse, this is definitely taking things too far. You could create a new WeChat ID, change phone numbers and take other measures (including telling all your friends about the harassment and letting them know they should not add her or giver her your WeChat id), but I see how it might not be possible to change the workplace. Hope you can find a way to block her from your life completely.

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