The plane touches down into the Sydney Airport, and I sigh internally, breathing in the familiarity and safety of return. For me, Australia is a safe place: I speak the language, and I know the culture. It’s where my home, family and friends are. I love to travel, and I especially love to explore countries and cultures distinct from my own. China was no exception, but there was one negative experience that sticks in my mind.
Within my first 20 minutes in Asia, in Singapore, a Vietnamese man asked for a photo with me. I joked later that he was my first fan. At The China House in Tianjin, I asked another fan’s friend to take a photo on my phone too. A woman asked for selfies with me twice at Mount Taishan. My Chinese friend kept joking that I was famous. It was funny, but it felt strange to be treated like an undeserving celebrity.
The gazes and not-so-subtle photos became an ordinary part of my life. In Australia, I would never tolerate it, but I put it up to cultural difference. It’s all part of the travel experience for a young white woman, and it’s less irritating if you joke about it.
Then I started to hear from multiple people that a man had been lurking on the street between our hotel and university, following and grabbing the white women in our group. He’d grabbed someone’s bum from behind as she waited to cross the street; he’d followed another pair closely until they ran away.
One morning, I was walking with my roommate, when a man walked up fast from beside me, invasively brushed against my side with his forearm, did an 180-degree turn and walked back past me. Seemingly, he had made a v-line for me. As I walked home alone from class that day, the eyes on me were signs of a threat. My vulnerability was too much. I got back to my room and cried.
I talked to other girls in my group. It was the same man. This was reassuring in a sense, but it also meant we had a consistent threat, and we were on constant lookout. The walk to class was no longer simple or enjoyable. The men in our group suggested that they accompany us to class. This was not the point.
We told the convenor, a woman from NTU in Singapore, and she recommended we go to the police. Although most of the others thought it would be useless, two of us went along with a student guide from Tianjin University. We entered a police station thick with cigarette smoke, despite the ‘no smoking’ signs in every room. Of the 40-odd police officers’ photos displayed on the wall, only two were women. The only woman we saw in the flesh was the cleaner – picking cigarette butts off the floor as she mopped. Our guide translated as we explained what had happened, and the officer asked us endless questions. Where did it happen? What time was it exactly? How tall was he? Why didn’t you call the police straight away? They were only interested in our experiences; we weren’t allowed to speak for our friends. I was worried that our guide might mistranslate something and make them dismiss the whole case.
Eventually, they decided to look at the video footage – one advantage of China’s heightened surveillance. They flipped between shots of the surrounding streets before telling us that, even if the cameras did catch something, the police couldn’t arrest him unless he did something ‘more extreme.’ They told us to try and catch it on camera next time. Before we left, frustrated, the police officer laboured to try to teach us how to say ‘leave me alone’ in Chinese. If only we’d thought of that!
The next few days, we noticed officers and cars on the way to class. The next time we saw the man, he walked on to the road to avoid us. It seemed that, despite our unpleasant experience at the station, the police had spoken to him and increased their presence. Suffice to say I was pleasantly surprised, as were my friends back home, particularly those with Chinese heritage. A few days later, I got an email from the ANU, saying they hoped I was okay and offering me phone counselling if I wanted it. Others on the trip received no such emails from their universities. I have no clue what it would have been like if this was in Canberra, or indeed if the perpetrator had been a fellow student, rather than a random Chinese man.
Despite the follow-up, the experience at the police station was incredibly negative. It’s hard to explain it succinctly, but there was a strong vibe that they thought we were wasting their time. It was frustrating for me, but I know I was lucky to be a white person in a non-white country and not vice versa. Imagine being an immigrant to Australia, not a tourist, and being assaulted by a local. Imagine being asked why you didn’t call the police straight away, when you don’t have a full grasp of the language they speak. Imagine being scared to call the police, because they don’t treat you the same way as people of their race. My Chinese-American friend told me later that she never feels comfortable walking on the street in the USA as a woman of colour. The plight of minorities, racial or otherwise, is worse in this regard and this is clear from the survey results released this month.
I have heard many horrific stories of police reactions to sexual harassment and assault, in Australia and abroad. I can understand why so many go unreported, and it breaks my heart that the system so often fails to protect people. I hope this month’s AHRC report doesn’t dishearten survivors, and that it leads to better responses, at least in Australia.