It was Monday morning in Guiyang, China, and I was constantly checking my phone. Something which I hate doing, especially right before bed.
I was waiting on a reply from my Chinese friend who was coordinating with construction workers who needed to come and do work in our house.
See a few days before, there’d been loud knocks at the door from our building manager. (Very loud knocks, with like 2 seconds in between — who gets to the door that fast?)
They told us our washing machine had caused a waterfall in the apartment below.
They came in and inspected our laundry room. Side note: they came in without taking their shoes off — which is a big deal in China.
Every time you go into someone’s house you either put these booties on over your shoes, wear slippers they give you, orrrrr just take your shoes off.
So if you just barge in with your shoes on it’s quite disrespectful here.
Anywayyyyy, they couldn’t see anything wrong with the washing machine.
Which meant … all the problems were below the floor.
Because our whole house is basically a concrete block, our floor would have to be completely pulled up to be able to get at whatever was causing the tsunami problem downstairs.
Like, completely destroyed. They eventually came with jack-hammers.
So the building manager and woman left telling us that we couldn’t use our washing machine until this had been fixed. And we had NO idea when that would be.
My friend kindly started making calls to figure out what was going on.
Bless her, she was trying to coordinate with 5 separate people. Obviously the work had to be done when the people who lived below were also in.
After a few days (and a quickly growing laundry basket) they showed up to begin.
Four workers showed up with an amalgamation of tools and 30kg bags of cement. After greeting them, I quickly told them to please not smoke in the house.
If you’ve not been to China, well Guiyang especially, you might not know, but smoking is a HUGE thing. People smoke EVERYWHERE. In the loo, in a lift, even sometimes in a freaking school.
It’s crazy. It’s so ingrained into culture it’s even an important part of showing respect to superiors in business meetings and family settings.
Whenever we meet someone new, they always offer us cigarettes as a sign of respect and connection.
So yeah, if you don’t like smoke (like me) and you’re living here, you’ve basically enrolled into an everyday-assault-course to avoid the grey puffs emanating from everyone’s mouths.
I know I told them in Chinese correctly, because they responded and agreed to go outside into the hall to smoke if they wanted to.
But after they traipsed cement all around the house for about half an hour, I heard that distinct click of a lighter.
I was astonished. In my own house. My sanctuary. The one place you think is your own space, where you set the rules and you feel safe and comfortable.
I was so angry. I wasn’t even sure if I could move. But I knew I had to do something.
Why hadn’t they listened to me?
I went to the window to check I had heard right, I didn’t want to barge in and see nothing and feel like a fool.
And what did I see? One of the workers squatting and puffing away in my laundry room.
I was right.
So after taking a few deep angry breaths I went into the room and said: “I already told you to not smoke in the house, now my house smells like cigarettes!”
How did they respond?
They both looked straight at me … and laughed.
Yep, they literally laughed in my face. He continued to puff away right in front of me while I stood there in shock, in complete disbelief. I was outraged.
I felt small and powerless just standing there.
I didn’t know what to say or do next. They had completely ignored me. So I told them, again, to go outside if they wanted to smoke.
But you know what the worst part is? The next day they came back, but this time my husband Jeff was home.
And when he told them not to smoke in the house they … listened to him.
Of course they did.
They trundled off into the hallway every five minutes or so to have a cigarette.
It was clear they didn’t listen to me or take me seriously because I’m a woman. Because if the “man of the house” told them the exact same thing, they obliged.
I felt completely disrespected because of my gender. And I felt trapped because I didn’t know how to provoke change or reflection, or even just feel heard.
And even if I did know how to voice the injustice I felt, would they have even cared?
The work went on for a few days, and it happened that they arrived again when Jeff wasn’t home.
At one point there was just one guy working in the house.
I was constantly cleaning up the house after them, while also trying to prepare for work (I had misplaced an important lesson plan … #responsibleteachermuch).
But this one guy who was left was intent on chatting with me. I thought, okay, I’ll view this as an opportunity to practice my Chinese and make them feel welcome. (Hoping they’d do the job quicker and leave!)
He was asking me the general questions: How much money do I make? How much was my rent? Where have I travelled to in China? Can I eat spicy food?
The regular questions which here are totally fine to ask someone you just met.
And I asked him some questions (although less personal) about his family and his job. Then he told me his daughter studies in Kunming, the capital city of the next province over.
Kunming is beautiful, my joy of thinking about my travels there must have come across well, because he realised how much I liked the place.
The next thing he said was: “What would your husband think if I took you to Kunming?”
In the few seconds after he said that, I was suddenly aware that I was alone with this guy.
I was in my own house and I felt completely unsafe.
I did that quick assessment every woman who’s been in situations like this has done: “Where am I? What’s the best response? How can I get out of this smoothly?”
But this whole evaluation was also happening across languages and cultures.
I pretended I didn’t understand what he said to buy me some more time to think of how I should and could respond.
I wanted to say, “What the actual fuck? Why would you say that?”
And try and figure out his intentions rather than assuming them. Also, maybe cause some introspection on his side on how his comments were inappropriate and came across.
But I didn’t know how to cause the latter using Chinese, and to be honest I was scared of his response.
If I just asked him why he’d said that, (which was all I knew how to say in Chinese), since he’d been so blunt so far, what was to stop him confirming my suspicions and telling me really why he wanted to know.
After I feigned misunderstanding, he repeated it again.
Without the right language tools to reply really how I wanted to, I opted for the “laugh and brush off method”.
You know the one?
Where you try and make light of the fact a guy has made you incredibly uncomfortable, by turning it into a smaller matter than it really is, hoping to deescalate the situation.
But really …
I said: “He’d want to come too, because he loved Kunming and the food there.”
I nervously watched the guy after I responded. He just shook his head and let out a little tut.
It felt like hours had passed until the other guys turned up. And I was actually relieved when they all began traipsing cement back through the house.
The whole construction process and the interaction with the male workers made me realise how unsafe and disrespected I felt as a woman.in.my.own.house.
I know this is a very specific situation and not everyone is dealing with the complexities and uncertainties of language and culture barriers.
But I’m sure you can relate to not being heard, to your concerns being dismissed simply because of your gender.
Like those meetings where you have an idea and nobody cares, only for a guy to get praised for saying the exact same idea.
Or the double-standard of men and women in the workplace. If a woman highlights a problem she’s often called a “whiner” or “complainer”. But if a guy voices the same problem he’s hailed as a “problem solver”.
So what do we do?
Obviously this is a societal problem, but what do we do in these specific situations where we’re unheard, ignored, or plain right laughed at?
Do we shrink away with our tail between our legs but filled with rage? Or do we stand up and risk being called “too aggressive”?
What I realised from this situation is I should have spoken up more.
I could have questioned the guy who smoked in my house as to why he didn’t listen to me right there and then. I knew how to say that in Chinese.
Or I could have even questioned them as to why when Jeff was here they had listened to him.
Even if I did, and I didn’t understand their response (which is quite likely) I might have made it that more uncomfortable for them to do it to me or another woman in the future.
It might have made a difference. And even if it didn’t, what it would have done was made it very clear to them I didn’t agree with their behaviour.
So at least I would know that they didn’t leave my house thinking I agreed that it’s totally okay to disrespect someone’s wishes purely because of their gender.
So why didn’t I?
Well I think a big reason for me not questioning the smoking guy was pure rage. The kind of rage that stiffens you.
I was so shocked I didn’t know how to react.
But I’m going to take this experience and use it to help me call out behaviour which is disrespectful; I will risk being called too aggressive or too serious.
“Oh, stop taking things so seriously”.
Yeah, you’ve heard this one too before right?
This one really gets to me. Because making someone feel unsafe or unheard is a serious thing. We’re not blowing things out of proportion here or “not knowing how to take a joke”.
The fact that we even have to respond to comments like that is part of the bigger problem.
But what I think we can do, (where safe to, which again, we shouldn’t even have to take into account just for sharing how we’ve been made to feel) is say something.
Even if it’s just a “I disagree with you”, or “please don’t speak to me that way”.
Something which interrupts the privileged status quo, and helps make the “Shit, I should have said this” niggling feeling a little smaller.
That way, we don’t perpetuate the problem through being silent.
Because when you say something as opposed to nothing, you’re no longer buying into the narrative of telling yourself that this sort of thing doesn’t matter.
You’re no longer subconsciously agreeing that you deserved to be treated that way.