It was 17:19 on a Friday evening and my train was departing Nanjing South Railway Station, headed for Shanghai. The seat next to me remained empty, so for the time being, I placed my magazine and bottle of water in that space. I noticed a man, a few rows up, standing over someone; he looked as if he were negotiating something, but it didn’t involve me and so I put my headphones on and sat back.
Some time later, I heard the announcement that we had arrived at the next station and I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was that man, the one from earlier. Perhaps because I am a foreigner or he felt he would just give it a go, he tried to push past me and instructed for me to remove my things from the seat beside.
Immediately suspect, I asked to see his ticket; looking taken aback, he tried explaining he didn’t need to, that this was his seat. He stank of stale cigarettes and sweat, his nails were filthy and his clothes unwashed. Again I pressed to see his ticket, by this point, other passengers stuck their noses up; having smelt a whiff of entertainment, they looked wide-eyed as I carried on with my investigation.
The man became impatient with me; I was trying to carry on until a guard came, but no one came. Eventually he pulled out of his pocket not one but three tickets, and very obviously covering the names on the tickets, aggressively shoved them in my face. I gave in and removed the stuff next to me, he sat down by the window, removed his shoes and spread his legs wide; arms behind his head, he closed his eyes.
I looked around the carriage; the young businessman to my right who I know witnessed everything, looked down in a manner that let me know he would be of no help should I need it. Everyone else the same; no guards to be seen.
For the rest of the trip, the seat squatter would shake his leg and twitch his head in such a way that made me think, “this man’s unstable”. I scanned his clothes for any sign of a weapon, since irrational stabbing is the most prevalent crime I see in the Chinese news lately; a physical threat kept racing through my mind.
This encounter came as a shock to me because, until recently, I have lived in China without ever feeling the need to watch my back or bag. I have spent most of my time here, as a foreign woman, roaming the streets of China night and day, sober and drunk, and never have I felt unsafe. If I had ¥1 for every time I told someone I feel safer living in China than I do in my home country, I’d be a rich woman.
My experience is far from isolated. On 20 September, 2018, the Hengyang Railway issued a notice stating that a woman, who was featured in a video that went viral on Chinese social media, was in the end fined ¥200 and had her “social credit” score reduced, leaving her with a travel ban of 180 days.
The woman, Zhou Moumou, was filmed arguing with train staff about wanting to sit in the window seat even though she had not purchased a ticket prior to getting on the train. “At this time, the police and crew should come forward to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the ticket holder”, said Lawyer, Zhao Liangshan, discussing the case.
For the entirety of my trip, there were no police officers, guards or even staff to be seen in my carriage, which was odd, since there is usually at least a waitress offering food. The squatter not only tried to take photos of me, talk to me, and stare at my jewelry and bag, but he continued to behave in such an awkward and suspect manner that it made me feel extremely uncomfortable. After arriving in Shanghai, I found myself looking over my shoulder for the entirety of the walk from the train to the metro; until he went in the opposite direction, I didn’t feel safe.
I have lived in Mexico, one of the most dangerous places in the world; my paranoia when wandering around the country was certainly justified. Some people may say I was just being paranoid that day on the train, that the man was unlikely to have caused me any harm, but at the same time he very well could have. More and more, incidences like these these that I have in China make me wonder what safety will be like 10 years from now.