I have something serious I want to discuss, but before I do that, I want to mention that I added another Chinese language learning resource on my Chinese learning page. It’s the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which maybe everyone else already knew about, but I just discovered and I love it. I’ve been reviewing the basics and re-solidifying my foundation in basic grammar.
Ok, so the thing I want to talk about today is sexual harassment, specifically in China. Like I mentioned in my post yesterday, lots of things change very quickly in China and I think that the nature of sexual harassment is one of those things. During my first time in China from 2003 through 2005, sexual harassment happened, but it wasn’t a regular thing that happened every day the way it seems to be now.
Just to be clear, I am not one of those overly sensitive types who thinks that any guy who says anything or looks at me is sexually harassing me. Like most women, I have way too much experience with the real thing and am very clear on what sexual harassment is. I’ve been sexually harassed in almost every country I’ve visited, so this isn’t anything unique to the Chinese either. I know the difference between a Chinese man looking at me because I’m a person who just happens to be in his field of view and people are naturally interested in one another, or a person who’s maybe just looking to see what I’m wearing, or a person who is simply curious or surprised to see a foreigner. I know what that kind of staring or looking is, I know what it feels like. What I’m talking about is the long, up and down gaze that rests too long on the breasts or butt, sometimes accompanied by a lecherous smirk and/or unnecessary commentary. Some men have gone so far as to touch me without permission, follow me, or even just straight up ask for sex. Just a couple days ago, I ventured outside of central Shanghai and was followed down the street by a man who was commenting on how pretty I am and how big my breasts are, while trying to make me look at him. I went into a subway because I knew there would be security guards down there and he followed me until I passed through the gate (I guess I wasn’t worth the 3 kuai ticket) and he stood outside watching me until I couldn’t see him any longer. It made me nervous and I felt very unsafe. We’ve all seen those videos of horrible things happening to people in China where no one helps other than to record the incident on their phone. What if that guy had decided to attack me right in the subway? Would anyone have helped me? I don’t know, but the fact that I even have to wonder if anyone would help me certainly doesn’t make me feel better about those situations.
I was talking about this with some friends the other day and all of my western female friends had similar stories. Our male friends were incredulous, even a little suspicious that we were exaggerating or somehow misunderstanding the situations. Their reaction, to be honest was a little hurtful. I’ve asked a number of female Chinese friends about these situations and they’ve all said the same thing – that nothing of the sort has ever happened to them, that they’ve never heard of it happening to any of their Chinese friends, and that they didn’t think most Chinese men would behave that way to a Chinese woman. There are probably several reasons for that. So why us Western ladies then? Why do we have to put up with harassment all the time? I’ll tell you why I think it is. We’re probably all thinking the same thing by now, which is that Westerners have a reputation for being “more open” than Chinese people. Western people have sex all the time with whoever they want without any social or emotional consequences. We’re all pretty slutty. How do we know this? From movies and TV, of course! If it happened in Sex and the City, it has to be real, right??
(Sidebar – Many English teachers in China encourage their students to watch American TV and movies to “learn about the culture.” This is a great idea, but only if the student has the ability to think critically about what they’re seeing and interpret it. For example, many Chinese people have the mistaken idea that life in America is like the Die Hard series, everyone has guns, we’re all running around shooting everyone and blowing everything up. Combine that with Sex and the City and we’re doing all of that in Christian Louboutin stilettos. The real take away from American TV and movies is that yes, we’re more open to the idea of seeing violence and sex on screen, but really we just love a good explosion and watching ridiculous high rollers living it up in NYC because most of us will never do that. It’s fantasy!)
However, in spite of the unfair conclusions drawn from American media about how slutty I am, I think there is at least one more culprit. In 2003, it was very fashionable for any and all companies to use white people in their commercials and advertisements. It didn’t matter what the product was, white models were required. There were white people in ads for cars, clothing, restaurants, all varieties of products. Now, I think that many Chinese brands have shifted towards using Chinese models because of pride in their product, pride in their country and pride in Chinese beauty. Obviously, I think this is great. I think it sucks that the whole world seems to be leaning towards one standard of beauty – white, tall, slender, blonde, etc that nearly no one in the world can attain aside from those with Northern European heritage. Anyway, so now that more and more Chinese brands are using Chinese models, more foreign brands have even started to as well. I think that fewer and fewer Chinese are willing to accept the message that “white people like it, so should you!” However, the ads that almost exclusively still use white women and not Asian women are ads that are related to anything of a sexual nature…lingerie or condoms, for example. I was in a store the other day and I noticed that the posters and displays around the store used Asian models, except for the lingerie department where the ads featured white women. I saw a commercial on TV recently that struck me as odd from the beginning, but I couldn’t say why. It showed a white couple in their house, she was making dinner and he was reading the paper (very 1950s, I know) and they sat down to eat, but suddenly, the woman ripped her clothes off (at this point the commercial no longer seemed weird), jumped on the man who then lead her into the bedroom. The commercial turned out to be an ad for Jizbon condoms. What seemed weird was seeing a white woman portrayed as a wholesome housewife, but it quit feeling weird when she was being portrayed the way I was used to seeing white women in China. (Of course, women are also objectified and sexualized in American ads too, but we objectify ALL women, not just white women, which of course, doesn’t make it ok.)
I realized that I had somehow subconsciously become used to seeing white women portrayed only in a very sexual light. If that way of thinking could be unknowingly taken on by me, someone who had only really been subjected to these differences for two years, then how does that affect the attitudes of Chinese people, specifically men towards white women? I’m going to guess that perhaps that subconscious relating of white women and sexuality is much stronger. You know what? I think that really sucks. Not just because now I get to walk around being treated like nothing but a one dimensional sexual being (by some people, not the majority, but enough to make me uncomfortable on a fairly regular basis), but also because these ads criminalize sexuality and sexual behavior. They label it as something “foreign,” “not for Chinese” and thereby take away the right of Chinese women to be overtly sexual if they chose to be without being unfairly labeled in the same way that I am. I believe that a person’s sexuality is theirs and theirs alone to decide when to turn it off and on and how they want to embody it or display it. They should get to do this without judgement and without preconceived notions about how sexual they are or aren’t, or how sexual they should be.
I suppose I live in a fantasy land because as of yet, I don’t know of a single country where this is reality.