Accosted on the Street in Shanghai

Aside from COVID updates, I don’t write a lot about daily life in Shanghai these days. After living in China 20+ years, there’s not a lot that feels worth mentioning. Recently, though, I had a very new experience.

The Incident

I was walking down the sidewalk one morning, heading to the office. You can see from this picture what a normal stretch of sidewalk it was:

the spot

I was walking “toward the camera” (like the two people in the foreground of the photo above). I was about where the woman in the tan jacket is.

Then I noticed a woman (around 40?) walking toward me on the sidewalk lock eyes with me. She looked unhappy. I had no idea who she was or why she might be upset with me.

When I got close to her, she planted herself right in front of me and told me (in English) that I wasn’t allowed to walk in that direction on the sidewalk. I was confused. This was a sidewalk I’d literally been walking back and forth on for years. Right next to me on the sidewalk were other pedestrians walking the same way. I tried to just walk around her, but she quickly moved to block me and even grabbed hold of my jacket. She refused to let me pass.

As I kept trying to go around her, she got angrier and angrier at my “insolence.” She insisted that I was walking the wrong way on the sidewalk, and that I had to walk the other way to the intersection a block down, cross the street, and walk on the other side of the street. Not only was this a ridiculous 10-minute detour, but it’s just blatantly untrue. This was not a one-way sidewalk, and even if the woman was somehow right, she was also just ignoring everyone else who was walking the “wrong” on the same stretch of sidewalk. People on bikes and scooters too.

As the woman started shouting at me that foreigners can’t just do as they please in Shanghai, a crowd was gathering. Mostly delivery guys and elderly local residents. Fortunately, since we were now speaking in Chinese, everyone could understand what was going on. Some of the elderly Shanghainese bystanders started to interject.

“Of course he’s allowed to walk that way. It’s a sidewalk.”

“What are you talking about? Let him go.”

And to me, quietly, “there’s something not right in her head.”

“Mind your own business!” the woman snapped at them.

As the incident dragged on, a kindly old man called the police for me. I had started recording everything on my phone shortly after the altercation started, for my own protection. (This angered her at first, but then she ignored it.) I wasn’t about to push the woman or lay a hand on her in any way, but who knew what story would be told later. So I needed video proof.

As the minutes dragged on, the police didn’t show up, and one of the bystanders, an old Shanghainese man, started arguing with her. It turned into a shouting match and, unfortunately, got a bit physical between the two of them. No one was hurt, but the end result was that the woman stormed off, shouting obscenities at the old man.

I was free.

The old folk assured me that I had done nothing wrong, and that she wasn’t right in the head.

It had wasted about 15 minutes of my day, and left me unsettled.

A Few Thoughts

  1. Mental health is a tricky issue that is often avoided in China. It’s traditionally viewed as a personal, family matter, and there’s shame associated with seeking help. I do see the situation getting better, but it’s slow going. No one knows how to react to public incidents like this. I do wonder what the police would have done, had they showed up.
  2. I do have a video of the incident, but I see no reason to share it.
  3. What if it wasn’t a matter of “walking the wrong way on the sidewalk,” but riding a bike or a scooter the wrong way on the street? This does happen… You see people riding the wrong direction in the bike lane all the time. It’s illegal, and it’s dangerous, but people do it. If a foreigner were to get called out for doing that (despite other locals around doing the same thing), a doubt the foreigner would get any sympathy from bystanders. Very different situation, legally, but also similar.
  4. The locals totally supported me. It’s key here that they could understand what was being said. If our conversation had stayed in English, they might have made some incorrect assumptions and sided with the woman, without really knowing what had happened.
  5. The woman herself was not from Shanghai, and she even proudly declared that she had just arrived from Beijing. A coworker of mine declared that this proclamation negated any sympathy she might have gotten from the local bystanders. I’m not sure.

Stay safe, everyone. And stay calm!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Stephen Spackman Says: March 10, 2022 at 11:17 am

    I have certainly heard it said that “these out-of-towners” just don’t know how to behave in Shanghai, so there may be some truth to 5, unless things have changed greatly in the last few years.

  2. Hi John. What an unsettling experience. If one reverses the scenario, it seems so typical these days. Asia-looking person walking down the street in San Francisco or New York, gets accosted, obscenities are yelled. I’m really happy that locals and bystanders got involved. It’s what is needed everywhere. As a bystander said, a person dealing with issues. Nothing to do with you. Hard to shake off though. Keep well and safe. LT

  3. Juliet Thomas Says: March 10, 2022 at 12:59 pm

    What a difficult situation – I lived in New York City throughout the 80s – flaring mental health issues always held the potential of this sort of encounter, but the international aspect of your experience raises things to a different level. For a person without your deep fluency – both cultural and linguistic – it could have gone differently. Probably more importantly, for someone without your ability to keep your cool, it almost certainly would have gone very differently.

  4. Mental health as an issue is the same here in Taiwan. People tend to ignore or not talk about it. Also, people in general tend to view it as a non-medical issue. I wonder if the younger generations (20s and 30s) view it this way as well? Way to keep your cool and not be THAT foreigner in the news 😉 Stay safe!

  5. We have a lady in our community who talks to no one in particular, but doesn’t usually interact with others. It’s sad to see there is no help for her. But at least she is not homeless like most mentally ill where we come from.

  6. Are one-way sidewalks an actual thing even?

  7. Erik-Nicki Johnson Says: March 13, 2022 at 9:00 am

    We’ve had a few encounters like that over the years, memorably when a woman entered a restaurant and circled our table counterclockwise 8 times while muttering unintelligibly, then left, once when another woman began following us in the park, shouting that foreigners didn’t speak Chinese and should not be allowed to be in China. Neither responded to our attempts to gently respond in Chinese, and nobody else got involved, but happily they didn’t physically accost us.

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