I was still uncivilized. Among the Starbucks Wednesday morning commuters who awaited lattes while wearing ties, pencil skirts, and blowouts, I stood out. Air-dried hair frizzed from my head, baggy... [+]
It was after 10:30 at night. I was surrounded by towers of nondescript apartment complexes over 20 stories high, though the middle courtyard was graced with beautiful trees hiding maze-like walkways. The Shanghai summer night was mild, cooled off after another blisteringly hot day, and I was going home after a relaxing night out with friends. Lost in my thoughts about nothing, it took a moment for me to hear the footsteps trailing behind me. The area I was walking in was not particularly well lit, but I had no reason to think anything of the sound. But I did. Because I’m a woman, and that’s what I’ve been molded to do by my parents and by society.
The complex in which my apartment was located must have housed thousands of people among the ten buildings comprising the large area. I figured the faceless person behind me would eventually diverge away; there was a 1 in 10 chance they would follow me to my building.
As probabilities work, 10% is not 0%, and as I made my way toward my building, I heard the footsteps continue to keep pace with me. Heart beginning to pound a little, I started walking a little bit quicker. Without my permission, my imagination was already jumping. I figured if I could get enough distance between us, I could scan my card to open the main door, and it would close before he got there (because he was most definitely a he and not a she, in my mind). If he could get in, then he belonged in the building. And if not, then good thing I sped up.
Everything was eerily silent. Apparently, everyone had decided to stay indoors that night.
At this point, I had already gone through three other scenarios: run in a different direction, turn around to verify who this shadowy figure was, or yell loudly if anything were to happen. Perhaps I was letting my imagination run ahead of itself. I had zero reason to think the man behind me was following me. It didn’t make sense, but fear has no logic.
I quickened my pace even more as he, too, sped up. I felt desperate at this point; my heart was pounding in my chest as I thought about the skirt I was wearing. I had my key card already in my hand as the main door to my apartment building came closer. I was sure there was enough distance between me and the man that if I scanned my card and didn’t open the door too wide, it would close before he got there. Because even then, in my fear, I didn’t want to insult him by manually shutting the door in his face. Just in case he actually lived in the building—just because I didn’t want to be rude.
I tapped my card against the reader before slipping through. Safe, I thought.
But I wasn’t. Because as I walked down the hallway to the elevators, I turned my head and stared at the door easing its way shut and saw an arm reach out to grab it right before it could click. And that’s when I knew I had no escape. My throat was thick with fear (I finally understood what that meant) as I saw the face of the man for the first time. Slight build, mid-30s, and did not look intimidating. I knew better then to judge a book by its cover.
I turned around and practically ran to the elevators. As he made his way down the hallway to where I was waiting—slowly now, because he had no reason to hurry—I prayed and prayed for the elevators to get to me before he could. And they did! The elevator came. I flung myself into it as it slowly opened and frantically pushed for the doors to close. It’s as if, though, the elevators did not understand my terror, could not feel what I thought was palpable frenzy for the doors to close quicker. As the two doors slowly made their ways toward each other, a hand slipped in to stop it.
My heart dropped.
I didn’t know what to do now. He had me trapped in a dimly lit elevator. I couldn’t move, even though the smart thing in retrospect would have been to leave and take the next one. What little thought I had left in me told me to not press my floor first. That would be the biggest mistake of the night. I lived on the 23rd floor and there were only 24 floors, so the chances of him living above me were slim. I’d let him choose his floor first.
To this day, I’ll never know if he actually lived on the 24th floor. I’ll never know if he had any ulterior motives when he asked if I lived alone. And I’ll never know if my lie that my roommate was waiting for me was one he believed. I’ll never know. I don’t dwell on this incident in my life, but it sneaks into my mind every now and then, particularly when I’m on the streets alone or thinking back to the many moments I categorize as “close calls.” I have an internal argument with myself about whether I‘ve overthought the whole situation, but then I remember that he asked me personal questions on the elevator ride up. The expectation is silence among strangers, not questions about living arrangements. Only after I relayed this experience to a horrified friend did she tell me that “elevator crimes” are commonplace in many Asian countries.
I wonder now why I felt so compelled to maintain politeness even in a situation of fear. If I don’t feel safe, I shouldn’t feel bad about closing the door in someone’s face or worry about the type of message running would convey. I certainly wish I had done both. I don’t want to treat all men like they’re bad people, so how should I act when next confronted with footsteps tracking mine? Years of social molding have made it difficult to do what would make me feel secure; the “what ifs” always seem to favor the stranger.