This is not an easy entry for me to write. My trip to China was the scariest trip that I’ve ever made, and for a simple reason I would have never considered: I look Chinese.
Let me clarify. I look Chinese, but people can tell that I’m not from there. I’m tall, tan, and I dress differently. I travel by myself. As soon as I open my mouth, people hear my accent and know that I’m not proper Mainland Chinese. In the best case scenario, some are interested in where I am from but in the worst case scenario, others want to take advantage of me and because I look Chinese and am female, it could fly under the radar.
I left my family in Zhuzou rather haphazardly to go to Hong Kong. I didn’t have a cell phone, a map, or any friends in Southern China. I didn’t really have a clue. I just wanted to get out of a stifling family environment and I knew that my Mandarin was passable. To be more specific, I had left directly after an argument with my family and I was emotionally distraught and not thinking properly. I knew that I was going to be dependent on the kindness of strangers to direct me to train stations, Hong Kong, etc but I had no qualms about this because I had been in Colombia and Ecuador only two weeks before, probably two of the friendliest countries in the world. It’s in their culture to help people and to welcome them into their lives and my best experiences had been because I went out of my way to talk to and befriend strangers. Well, even though I’m Chinese-American, I had forgotten about this one rather important unspoken rule of the Chinese culture: you don’t help strangers.
It therefore stands to reason that not many would help me, and that those who help me would expect something out of it. I didn’t think much of it when a group of Chinese guys befriended me on a train. There was a girl in the group, and while she didn’t speak to me – mostly because she was sleeping – her presence was reassuring. I enjoyed passing the long ride talking with them as they were a joking and friendly bunch. None of them had gone to Hong Kong but they told me to go to Shenzhen as they thought it would be near. How near, they didn’t know, but it was the only lead that I had, so that became my plan. A guy sat down with the group towards the end – I’m not sure if he knew them all already or if he just sat down randomly – but I somehow associated him with the group and conferred a certain amount of familiarity upon him. He offered to help me buy the ticket to Shenzhen or Hong Kong as he needed to buy a ticket to get to where he was going.
We got off at Guangzhou and the group scattered. They hadn’t been friends before; they had just banded up during the train ride in order to pass the seven hours more enjoyably. It was just me and the guy now, and I was incredibly overwhelmed at the train station in Guangzhou. It was old, immense, and there were three different stations to buy tickets. Nobody was selling direct tickets to Hong Kong – only to Shenzhen – and I was exhausted from the trip and just wanted to rest somewhere, but I was in a really bad part of Guangzhou. I didn’t want to stay there and I didn’t know anybody in or anything about Shenzhen and what it would be like. The guy told me that Shantou, where he was going, was the same distance and price from Hong Kong as Shenzhen and there he was going to stay with friends. He asked me to come with him, and I thought – well, he seemed harmless (short, skinny) and my other options are shit, so okay. I must admit that I also had anthropologist motives – I naturally gravitate towards going off with locals for linguistic and cultural purposes.
Long story short – Shantou is much farther away from Hong Kong than Shenzhen is – Shenzhen basically is the Mainland Chinese part of Hong Kong and you can cross the border walking – and it is one scary city. It’s extremely poor, industrial, and has way too many advertisements of lingerie. Then the Chinese guy and I shared a taxi with some other people going to a part of Shantou far, far, far away from everything. We got off in some neighborhood that had no buses, train, subway, or forms of life. I felt like I was in a waking nightmare. I survived the night (yes the guy had intentions, and yes, I fought him off.. thank you USC Tennis Club) and tried desperately to get out of there the next morning. I walked for hours to find a guy with a computer who then kindly helped me to get a moto-taxi to the train station, which was so empty and un-used that there were no trains leaving at all to Shenzhen, so I had to take a long bus. Once I got to Shenzhen and took a bus to Luo He port and saw foreigners, I finally felt like the nightmare was beginning to end. I arrived safely in Hong Kong and stayed there as long as possible.
Yes, I made a bad decision that in no way reflects my normal logic and my travelling rules (see Traveling Solo as a Woman… also, I’ve been traveling alone since I was 13) because of very particular circumstances. The point of this story is not how something that happens to many Chinese women happened to me – no, my story is clearly exceptional in that Chinese women normally wouldn’t talk to strangers – the point is that this incident showed me how desperate Chinese men are – especially rural, poorer men – and how they treat women. I also learned what it felt like to be invisible in China. It absolutely riles me that I’m in more danger in China because I am female and I look Chinese. Nothing would look out of place if a Chinese man took advantage of me there. Foreigners are in a sense, protected, exactly because they look different and are therefore conspicuous.
I began to think about what it is like to be a poor woman in China… in a country where masochism is part of the culture and even part of Confucianism – which says that women are inferior to men in every sense and should always occupy at least one post below men professionally- what is the reality for poor, native women today? It’s dark. China is notorious for its lack of concern about human rights, and women receive even less, since they are not considered as important as men in the society. Here are some statistics that I’ve found from All Girls Allowed; they have sourced these statistics from the UN Human Development 2009 Report and the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China Annual Report, 2008,2009, and 2010.
– The problem of domestic violence remains widespread, affecting nearly one-third of China’s 270 million families, according to a November 2009 People’s Daily report.
– Many unattached men migrate from rural areas to urban destinations, patronizing prostitutes there. In doing so, these men could turn China’s HIV epidemic – now confined to certain high-risk populations – into a more generalized one by creating “bridging” populations from high- to low-risk individuals. Such male bridging populations have fueled HIV epidemics in Cambodia and sub-Saharan Africa.
– Women currently make up approximately 80% of an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 North Korean refugees in China, and of these women, an estimated 90% become victims of trafficking.
– Suicide is the #1 cause of death among Chinese rural women aged 15-34.
– 500 women commit suicide in China each day: violence against women and girls, discrimination in education and employment, the traditional preference for male children, birth-limitation policies, and other societal factors contribute to the high female suicide rate.
And let’s look at the social trends in China. While women born in comfortable circumstances are educating themselves more, gaining professional jobs even while being discriminated against, and generally living human lives – poor, rural women are born to lives that could be considered inhuman. Consider that 118 boys are born for every 100 girls because of sex-selective abortion, and indirect abortion (from not providing baby girls with adequate medical services, nutrition, etc). Newspapers in China cry, but what about the poor men! There won’t be enough wives for Chinese men in the future! You can still see the complete focus on men’s welfare in Chinese society. I’m more concerned for the women in China in 2050 or so. I feel that so many more women will be forced to go into prostitution because they will face even more professional discrimination or be trafficked because these men will be much more desperate. According to a United Nations official: “The shortage of women will have enormous implications on China’s social, economic, and development future…The skewed ratio of men to women will [also] have an impact on the sex industry and human trafficking,” as well as family, societal, and regional stability.
China is, however, making a nominal effort what with the world-wide onslaught of criticism of its treatment of women. The Deng Yujiao case is one example (see picture and information below). Also, China has recently set up the All-China Women’s Federation to publicize knowledge of womens’ rights – there are supposedly posters all over China publicizing that women have rights and should know what they are (we assume that nobody has never informed these women what their rights were before…). Still, though, I am extremely unsatisfied with what little effort China is making for girls’ and womens’ rights. Deng Yujiao was only released from jail and charged with a “lesser” crime because the entire country spoke out against the government. Even then, the government tried to censor web forums and stifled protests in her name. In China, there is no accountability for domestic abuse. Cultural and social pressure is often exerted so as to undermine rape stories. Women are insecure in rural areas. Professional discrimination is the norm in hiring women and is reflected in their salaries. Finally, women have too little political representation for any change in their interest to come about sooner. Of course, the list goes on. The implications of all of these societal and cultural realities are unbearable to me.
What do you think about the situation in China? Have you heard any of these statistics before? What do you think that we can do about the situation in China for girls and women?