During the first two years of my arrival in America, I worked as a graduate assistant at SIU. My job was to work with teenage moms in the rural area of Illinois. The youngest client I worked with was a 14-year-old mom.
I taught them how to care for their newborn baby from bathing to bottle-feeding to house cleaning. On more than one occasion, the houses were infested by cockroaches and I couldn't even find a clean place to sit. Even though we were poor in China, our living conditions were clean; it was surreal to see extreme poverty in America during those initial years. I've met grandmas in their 30s. The same teen pregnancy repeated in their families.
I was told that many girls were taken advantage of. They didn’t know how to say NO when they were in potentially unsafe situations. I didn’t quite get how powerful a simple NO could be until one afternoon during my first spring in America.
There was another Chinese student who entered the program a year before me and he was a few years older, on his way to get his Ph.D. He wore a pair of glasses and spoke at a slow tempo. Though he never talked about his wife, we all knew he was married.
As graduate assistants, we all shared one room to do paperwork.
That day, I was sitting across from him on the bench, leaning against the wall, speaking in Mandarin Chinese with him about one of my cases and seeking his advice. I had a notebook in my hand, ready to take notes. I respected this man as my senior. There were just two of us in that room that day.
As I was in the mid-sentence describing the challenge, he suddenly reached out and touched my right breast. It took me completely by surprise. I looked down at his hand and looked up at him. My heart started to beat fast. I felt frightened and I was confused. What just happened? He removed his hand but his eyes looked at me like I was a helpless lamb, What are you going to do? He didn’t say a word but his raised eyebrow conveyed exactly that. Before I could think straight, he reached out and touched me again, on the other breast. His hand lingered longer while continuing to stare at me with a smirk.
“NO!!!!” I screamed, slapped his hand off, and jumped up.
My voice was shaking, so were my hands. My eyes were blazed with fire, “Bie Tai Guo Fei Lei. How dare you!!!!” I shouted in his face and glared back at him, directly into his eyes. He seemed startled. His body started to lean back, he touched his glasses and looked down.
I stuffed my notebook in my backpack and stormed out. I’m not sure why I didn't report what happened to the authorities. Maybe I was not educated about harassment? Maybe I was ashamed? I have wondered why he only targeted immigrated Chinese students, his own kind, the very group that needed help the most. But maybe because of that screaming NO, he never dared to touch me again. He tried to avoid me or maybe I tried to avoid him. We were never in the same room alone again.
When I went back to teach in China a few years ago, I heard he had received his Ph.D., lived in California, and went back and forth to teach in China. I only told my best friend in SIU 25 years later about this incident when she brought his name up. She was shocked. I don’t know if he ever harassed other Chinese students or if he is a changed man.
Whenever his name comes up, I still remember the smirk on his face. With that loud NO, I found my power. I only wished I had slapped that smirk right off his face, hard.