It was almost midnight as I threw my heavy backpack in a taxi outside Wuhan’s international airport. Exhausted from a long weekend of networking at TBEX, I slumped into the back seat. My taxi driver, a young man in his thirties, asked for my address with a genuine smile. I had to be back at the airport at 7 the next morning, so I directed the driver to my cheap hotel near the airport. Only a mile away, I figured the ride wouldn’t be too expensive.
Little did I know, taxi costs would be the least of my worries.
As we sped down the highway, my driver casually asked me questions about my recent trip. Why was I staying so far outside the city? What was I doing in Thailand? Where did I work in Beijing? I happily answered him, as I do with all taxi drivers. I’ve found chatting with cab drivers to be one of the best ways to practice my Chinese.
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Slowly, things started to get awkward. First, he started complimenting me on my beauty, saying it “shocked” and “distracted” him. I’m used to this kind of stuff from taxi drivers in China, and I usually change the subject or pretend not to understand. Refusing to let it go, this driver opened a voice translation app on his phone, forcing me to read his inappropriate compliments in English.
As I bent forward to read his phone, I noticed the meter wasn’t on. I quickly yelled at him to start it, worried he was trying to scam me. My driver refused to turn it on, waving away my concerns with his long fingernailed hands. Berating myself for not noticing sooner, I figured I could just argue him down to an acceptable price when we arrived at my hotel since we would probably be there soon anyway.
But we didn’t arrive soon.
We drove on and on down deserted, tree-lined roads. Every once and a while we’d stop and he’d lean into the backseat to “have another look at the address” while breathing cigarette smoke on my face. As time went on, I began to get more and more nervous. I had no idea where we were going, and I felt extremely uncomfortable with my driver’s constant flirting.
Eventually we turned down a highway road full of construction. He took us down a dead end, bringing the car to a sudden halt. I placed a hand on my purse, ready to grab it and run. What if he has friends waiting here for me?! It was pitch black. I couldn’t see a thing and there were so many places to hide. Tears welled in my eyes as I began to panic.He slowly put the car in reverse and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Where are we going?!” I asked in what I hoped was a casual tone.
“I’m going to sell you!!!” he exclaimed. “HAHAHA just kidding.”
I didn’t laugh. He repeated the joke twice.
We continued down deserted roads, as he causally asked me my age and other details about my life. I tried not to panic, but my anxiety was through the roof.
What should have been a 15-minute drive had turned into almost an hour of traveling down deserted roads.
We turned down a random road and my driver suddenly stopped, leaning into the backseat.
“Kiss me.” he demanded in Chinese.
“What?!” I exclaimed.
“Kiss. Kiss me,” he repeated, now in English.
“NO.” I all but yelled as I grabbed my bags, preparing to jump out of the cab.
“Okay, okay,” he laughed, “I’ll take you to your hotel.” He pulled the car further up the block and stopped. “It’s here! The price should be 50 yuan or more, but because you’re so beautiful, you can pay me 30 if you give me your We Chat.”
I threw him a 50 and proceeded to get out of the car.
He laughed, and handed me a 20 yuan note back, asking for my We Chat yet again. I refused as I grabbed my bags from the backseat.
“This is such a small hotel!” he exclaimed. “You won’t be safe here.”
Little did he know that staring at the blinking lights of my tiny hotel was the safest I’d felt in the last hour.
I’ve been in China on and off for about 2.5 years now. When I first arrived, I couldn’t help but feel much safer here than back home. I never felt nervous walking around at night. I never felt intimidated by Chinese men. Frankly, it was a relief to move to Beijing after four years of living in crime-ridden DC.
The longer I stay in China the more I realize I was 100% wrong. I’m an idiot for thinking I’m safer here than back home. China isn’t worse than the US, but it sure as hell isn’t better either.
Just one week ago I was cornered in a small room in the mall where I work while waiting for the staff elevator. About eight Chinese guys from the local hair salon blocked the door yelling catcalls at me. At first I was mildly annoyed, but when one of them tried to touch my hair, I literally shoved him and pushed past all of them, running for the stairs. Tears welled in my eyes as the group laughed at me.
What an awesome joke.
I almost didn’t believe it when many of the female expat bloggers I follow started posting about sexual harassment in China. Apparently a few of them were having issues with a fellow member of their writing group stalking, harassing and touching them inappropriately.
I almost died of shock when I read that one expat blogger was almost gang raped in Shenzhen. A group of men tried to pull her into an alley in broad daylight, as the people around her stopped to watch and refused to help (which I’m sure many of you know is typical in China). Thankfully, she was able to get away, however many of her Chinese friends, including her Chinese boyfriend, didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.
Well… nothing happened right? Why are you so upset?!
That leads me to my next point. It’s not just foreign women dealing with these issues. Many news reports are stating sexual harassment and assault is on the rise in China. From female factory workers to domestic violence, sexual crimes and misogyny are widespread in the People’s Republic. A few Chinese women’s rights activists have even been thrown in jail for peaceful protests and organizing AIDS walks.
It’s not just China
I’m not writing this to scare you all away from taking taxis in China. I’ve taken hundreds cabs here and 99% of them have been fine. I just don’t want any of you girls to have unrealistic expectations that China is way safer than America, because it’s not.
I was actually a bit surprised when almost every guy I talked to about my taxi experience made some sort of negative comment about China. This isn’t just a China problem, this is an “everywhere” problem. Some of you might remember the time I was followed home from work in DC by a man I actually thought might kill me.
For some strange reason I’ve been unusually upset since arriving back in China. To be honest, I just feel exhausted.
Yesterday when a misunderstanding with a co-worker made me burst out in tears, I thought I was just having a “Bad China Day”. I was annoyed that I haven’t had hot water for two weeks, and getting it fixed has been near impossible. I figured my frustration with the water situation was making me unusually sensitive.
Today, I’ve realized it’s something else.
I finally have hot water, everything with my co-workers is fine… nothing is wrong. But for some reason I feel like I’m constantly two steps away from a meltdown. I started crying at work three times today for absolutely no reason. I feel like I’m suffering from some sort of minor PTSD after this taxi incident and I have absolutely no idea why.
I’ve tried to tell a few people how I feel, but most girls have a stories much worse than mine. “I was grabbed by a taxi driver in China“, or “my friend had a Chinese taxi driver actually try to rape her.” Heck, worse things have happened to me too!
I feel like a crazy person for being this upset. Nothing happened. He didn’t touch me. He didn’t assault me. He didn’t hurt me. He didn’t even actually try to kidnap me. I’m sure this cab diver went home and had a good laugh about flirting with a white girl.
I think the worst part was the fear: feeling helpless and out of control. It’s one thing to be groped on the street, but when you’re in the backseat of a car going god knows where, there’s nothing you can really do. I think I’ve realized that I have way less control over my personal safety than I thought I did, and it’s scary.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I’m telling you all this story. I guess a part of me wants to make sure that girls in China realize that China isn’t this a safe haven for women that a lot of us think it is. I think I also want guys to be aware of what we have to deal with on a regular basis.
These last few years I’ve realized that whether you’re an expat in China, backpacking through Europe, or staying home in small-town America, it doesn’t matter. Female travel isn’t the problem, the issue is that the world isn’t a safe place for women, period.
Apparently blogging is very cathartic for me, because I almost immediately felt better after writing this. I guess it just took me a few days for my body to get over the shock of thinking I might be murdered on a highway in Wuhan. I’m still not exactly sure why I was so upset in the days after the taxi incident, and to be honest I felt guilty letting myself get so emotional over it when in reality, nothing really happened!
For those of you who are freaking out over me (sorry mom…) I’m completely fine now. I honestly almost didn’t publish this post because I’m worried all my friends and family are going to force me on a plane back to America. After doing some thinking I decided that it is really important for me to share this story. Men need to be aware of what happens to women on a consistent basis, and women need to know that China isn’t quite as safe as we all assume it is.
Now that the shock has worn off, I’ve started preparing myself for what I might do in the future. I can share my Geo-location with my friends on WeChat (a Chinese texting and social media app). I can put my keys between my fingers as an impromptu weapon like I used to do in DC, and I can (unfortunately) stop being so friendly with cab drivers in China.
Next time a taxi driver tries to flirt with me I’ll shut it down right away. I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m a “bitch” anymore. It’s time to let go of my resting nice face and be more assertive. I don’t have to be polite if someone is making me uncomfortable, and I can take steps to empower myself and avoid becoming a victim.
Have any of you experienced sexual harassment in a place that surprised you? Please feel free to share your story below.