How the F%$^ I Learned to Say No

He won’t budge.

A tall, tattooed and butt-naked gang member blocks my path to the sauna and is cackling with laughter.

Every instinct I possess screams at me to level him in the side of the head with a vicious hay-maker. But there are six of them and only one of me. And I’ve never been in a gang.

Why was I here, trapped in front of a real-life gangster in a bathhouse in the back-lands of China, both of us naked and (one of us) afraid?

It’s kind of a long story.

But mostly: My struggle to prioritize what I want over the needs of others.

Come again?

Before I get all philosophical on you, let’s backtrack a few hours.

It’s 8:30 PM and my co-workers and I are just getting off work.

I’ve been sick for about three days (a nice cold/flu job), dragging myself back and forth between my bed and the school I teach at, neglecting to hang out with any of the other teachers. Which, when you’re one of ten English speakers in an entire city, is a big faux pas. Especially to my co-worker (and bestie) Jeff, who loves and needs companionship, and never takes no for an answer. He’s been bugging me for days to hang out. And today’s his birthday.

I’m painfully ill but I feel bad about neglecting him so many times. And today’s his birthday, which is the holy-grail of friendship. Birthdays are when you see who among your buddies is really riding with you. So I agree. I’m in. Whatever you want, Jeff. He says we’ll just hang out for a bit. It seems manageable.

After a bit of birthday drinking, he proposes the idea of the bathhouse. He tells me it’s “legit as hell.” That “I have to come.” I’m skeptical. He explains that they have warm and cold baths, saunas, steam rooms, and then, when you’re ready, massages upstairs. “Massages.”

I’m pretty reluctant. I feel sick. I have a girlfriend back home who I’m not going to cheat on, let alone with a Chinese rub-and-tugger. I know deep down I should back out of this excursion.

He sees it in my face and starts to guilt me, as all friends do when they want companionship. He points out how I’ve been missing for days. About how the baths might actually help me get better and it’d be stupid not to come. About how I can relax in the spa and not get any strange massages I don’t want.

About how it’s his birthday.

Ugh. I’m sure you know this flavor of guilt. It’s the nudging/urging that gets you to the bar/club you don’t want to be at. To events you have no interest in. To hang out with people you’d rather not. In my case, to a late-night, guys-only, no-clothing-necessary bathhouse when all I wanted was some Nyquil and a cozy blanket.

I broke down and agreed.

So here I am two hours later, naked and alone, with my friend upstairs getting violated, East Asia style.

I’m making my way across the tile floor from the cold pool to the sauna when this tattooed maniac jumps in front of me. He starts playing with my chest hair and tapping me on the nose, commenting in Chinese about how cute I am. It’s kind of funny, but also terrifying. His body looks like it’s covered in one big tattoo; a rich tapestry of red and black ink with all kinds of pictures and insignia weaved in. A portrait of his daughter blankets his throat. His torso is outlined by a huge black star that’s shooting red thunderstorms down his legs. The rest of the pictures look violent, gang-related.

Then he shoves a black cigarette in my mouth. That ended any fun and games for me. Normally I’d laugh it off (smoking is a big part of social culture in China) but I’m sick, and my body’s on the verge of breaking down. A cigarette might collapse the entire ecosystem. I remove the cig, and he repeatedly shoves it back in my mouth as I act out a cough and painful sore throat for him.

He doesn’t care. He’s trying to bond with an American with cute chest hair and he’s not taking no for an answer.

Mild panic sets in as I start to get angry. I’m fed up with him toying with me, and pissed that I put myself in this vulnerable situation. But what can I do? I visualize this tattooed demon and his buddies leaving me for dead down there and no one ever finding out. Naked and alone in a bathhouse in China is not how I want to go out.

I curse myself. There’s no need for me to be here. Why couldn’t I have just put my foot down and politely told my friend “I’d rather not?” Why is it so hard to say no and then stand your ground when the guilt and peer pressure starts?

Maybe it’s an innate desire to please people. Saying yes to people feels like it will make us liked and accepted. We want to be popular and cool and never miss out on anything.

But the thing is, people have this sixth sense when it comes to behavior. We all have tells. And when you’re going against your instincts it’s usually clear. They may be pleased that you agreed but deep down they don’t respect it. What people respect is when you stand up for yourself and take care of your needs first, and prioritize that over pleasing them.

You don’t have to be a selfish douche. Don’t think only of yourself, but put yourself first. Take care of you first and then be generous and gracious and all that good stuff. That’s what people respect. It signals a high level of self-worth; that you value yourself too much to be tugged around by the wishes of others.

There’s no need to be rude, to ignore or get angry with people who peer-pressure you. You can politely decline. Thank them for the offer but stand your ground. Be firm.

Maybe it’s easier said than done. Maybe you think it’s harmless to give in to people’s wishes and invites when you’d rather not.

But let me tell you this. Coming face-to-face with China’s version of Charles Bronson, a cigarette exacerbating my sore throat while my friend got manhandled by a sex worker taught me one thing.

Build up the courage to say no.

It’s worth it in the long run.

Holler at me on Twitter (@StephensilverHP) if ya wanna see how the story ended…