I love to run. I love the freedom, the time alone with my thoughts, the challenge to my body and mind. I love that running makes me more in touch with my body’s needs – I notice it more when I need food or water or sleep, and I’m more willing to give my body what it needs so I can run again the next day.
I live in Vietnam. It’s hard to run here. It’s hot, I’m slower, the air quality is poor, and I have to be really careful about sun protection. However, in the two years I’ve lived here, I have run hundreds of miles completely alone and I haven’t ever felt unsafe.
I’m a teacher. My school is far out in the suburbs. When I run after school, it’s often through farmland and mangrove jungle. It’s beautiful and peaceful and the air is cleaner than around my house. I love to run near my school.
Yesterday I was running a loop near campus that I’ve run two-three afternoons each week since August. All was normal. Families waved and said hello as I ran past. Small children ran after me to try to keep up for a little while. Dogs barked half-heartedly but then laid back down on the pavement, unwilling to stray too far from their bowl of water in the heat. I crossed paths with a friend of mine who was running the same loop, but in the opposite direction.
I was about halfway through the loop. I had a half mile to go before I reached the main road, and another mile or so after that to get back to school. And suddenly, I heard a motorbike following behind me.
At first, I thought the wiry, weathered, older man on the bike just didn’t want to pass me on the narrow path. I scooted to my right to give him room. He didn’t pass me. I glanced over my shoulder. He was leering at me. It became clear that he was following right behind me intentionally. I stopped and gestured for him to pass me. He drove up next to me, still leering, totally invading my space, gesturing at me and at himself and saying something I (thankfully) couldn’t understand in my limited, survival-only Vietnamese. Incomprehensibly, I flicked him off. I don’t even know why; I am not sure that it’s a gesture that meant anything to him. But I was frustrated and nervous and confused and frozen and I just didn’t have any words. Then he passed me and I sighed with relief. I thought the interaction was over. I thought I’d be able to finish my run in peace.
He kept looking over his shoulder at me. I could tell that he was touching himself. He stopped thirty yards ahead of me and turned around. He drove back towards me. This time, he’d pulled out his penis and was masturbating at me. He slowed down as he approached me, leering again and saying something I couldn’t understand. I started to panic. I considered pushing him off his bike. I considered kicking him. I considered calling for help, but knew I was on the most isolated stretch of my run, in a place where no one would hear me. I thought, “Could I take him, if it came to that?” The moment seemed to last several long minutes, but it really couldn’t have been longer than a few seconds. He drove off again. I felt like crying. Instead, I ran harder.
I was maybe 250 yards from the main road when I heard a motorbike approaching from behind again. I started to run faster. The motorbike was catching up, I was picking up speed, it was gaining on me, I was flat-out sprinting… and then he pulled up next to me again, still with his genitalia on full display, still touching himself, still leering at me. I lost it. I started screaming obscenities at him as loud as I could. I called him every name I could think of. There were a few people around at this point, but no one intervened. We were almost at the intersection with the main road. I kept screaming at him. He veered off to the left and sped away. I turned right, back towards school.
At this point, I had to stop and walk. I was totally spent. The sprint to the main road had messed up my pacing. My body was trying to cry, but I was out of breath and all I could do was gulp in air and make this weird, strangled, sobbing sound. While I walked, my mind was racing.
I can’t run here anymore. I think I’ve seen him before. He knows my schedule. He’s following me. What if I run here again and he follows me again and it escalates? What if something happens to me out here and no one knows? What if I fight him off and then next time he brings friends? I hate him. I hate him for ruining something I love. I hate him for making me feel unsafe. I hate him, I hate him, I HATE HIM.
I was angry at literally everyone.
I was angry at this man.
But I was also angry with the people standing around who didn’t interfere.
I was angry at my school for not getting the treadmills in the weight room they’ve been promising for a year.
I was angry at the colleagues I used to run with for not running after school anymore.
I was angry that, after establishing such a great routine, after putting in so many hours and miles trying to get back into good distance-running shape, I felt like my efforts were going to be derailed.
And I was SO angry that even here, in Vietnam, where I’ve so rarely felt unsafe because of my gender, there are always going to be men who want to punish me for existing in a public space while female.