…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
I might come off as China-savvy and sassy in my posts, but the fact that I’m not maimed or laying in a pile of water buffalo turd in a place where there’s no 3G connection is due more to dumb luck than any thoughtful planning on my part.
Actually, I’ve had my share of high-risk situations: I’ve had my ATM card and PIN stolen and subsequently several hundred dollars taken from my account (A Letter to my Neighborhood Bank), every time I cross the street in China it’s a crap shoot whether I’ll make it to the other side (Toto, We’re not in Kansas Anymore), I’ve been attacked in a fake Starbucks Jerry-Springer style with a glass of tepid water, got into a catfight, and ended up in a police station, then a hospital for medical evaluation (it’s a long story and yet to be blogged) — and I’m sure that, walking to and from work everyday with my knapsack, wearing Fit Flops with my floral dresses, I have “muggable” written all over me.
I should also add here that I live alone in China and basically know no one outside of work. I have a maternal grandmother and uncle who live about 20 minutes away. But most people only know I’m still around when I show up at work, and even then they don’t believe it’s really me till I sign off on expenditures and pay their salaries.
It was pretty much after the Jerry-Springer incident that I decided to put together a 10-Point Safety Plan. I call it a 10-point Safety Plan, but I’m hard-pressed to find even 5 relevant points. 10 points just sounds better.
1st point in the plan – I told my uncle that I’d call him every night at 9pm, so he’d know I wasn’t locked inside the trunk of a speeding car headed towards water buffalo country. We had to negotiate this a bit, because he goes to bed by 9pm, so we agreed on 8:50pm. But then I felt kind of bad, because maybe he wanted to…you know…with my aunt at 8:50pm, so the time ended up being 8:30pm (I didn’t think he needed more than half an hour, anyway). However, I did secretly wonder what would happen if I were kidnapped at, say, 10:05pm. Not being experienced with kidnappings, I’d think most kidnappings occurred in the dead of night and not during prime time TV.
2nd point in the plan – When walking to and from work I of course made a point of going through well-lit streets, although in China that’s not often possible (I often work till 8pm or 9pm). Not only that, I had to make sure that I was not walking near any bushes or areas where people could easily hide, then come out and attack me for my Fit Flops. At the same time, I couldn’t walk too close to the street, because motorists could come up in motorcycles or scooters and steal my purse or knock me over and steal my Fit Flops. I also wouldn’t take the same route everyday and would give wide berth to any cars idling on the side of the road. I also had to be careful about letting other pedestrians get too close to me, as I imagined most of them wanted to lunge towards me and steal my purse then cut my feet at my ankles to access my Fit Flops in the process.
By the way, if you hadn’t noticed, I am having a love affair with my Fit Flops, because they provide me with unconditional comfort.
3rd point in the plan – At night before going to bed, I’d obviously make sure that all the doors and windows were locked, including my bedroom door and windows. One of my greatest fears is rats or an army of cockroaches climbing into my windows at night and scurrying off with my Fit Flops, or my eyeballs. As I’m typing this post on my laptop in bed, there are several tiny ants crawling on my laptop monitor and I have no idea where they come from. I’m sure the ants are performing a reconnaissance mission and that the ants, cockroaches and rats are planning a joint offensive against my Fit Flops and/or eyeballs in the near future.
I had to make sure my cell phone was by the bed or under my pillow and that the phone was fully-charged. I’d close all the curtains in my place, so nobody outside could see how many people were home and what was going on inside. I’d have my purse and wallet with me, so that I’d have some ID with me at all times.
4th point in the plan – In one of my more inspired moments, I’d once taken a women’s self-defense course at a local community center while a senior in high school. The course actually freaked me out a bit, because I was surrounded by abused older women – battered wives, abused girlfriends, women with very low self-esteem, whose lives I totally couldn’t relate to, or even imagine. The class usually ended in a bath of tears, with the instructor giving us self-empowerment speeches and exercises and all of us standing around saying, “Oh I’m SO SORRY, did that HURT?” when practicing self-defense moves on each other.
The only thing I remember from that course was to use my keys as a weapon – that is, to hold each key between each finger with the sharp ends sticking out and using my keys as a slasher weapon to slash my attacker’s hideous face with. This is assuming I reacted quickly enough, had enough keys on the ring, and had the strength and agility to do this.
A family friend had also given me this small vial of pepper spray, which attached to my key chain. This was my plan: I would lurk the dark streets of China with the keys in my hands and the vial of pepper spray hidden in my palm. I had to be very careful about how I held the vial, as the spray button was extremely sensitive and the slightest touch would set it off. In fact, I had sprayed myself several times trying to unlock my front door when the button jammed. I had to put a clear piece of Scotch tape over the spray nozzle to keep it from doing that again.
Power stuff. Pepper spray.
5th point in the plan – I think it was my Mother (but I don’t want to give her this credit – she will forever lord it over me) – who said that I should carry a little bit of spare cash concealed on my body just in case my purse was stolen or lost, or I lost all my money in a Texas hold ’em Mahjong tournament. So, I try to remember to have some money either folded up at the bottom of my shoe, or tucked in the waistband of my pants.
After less than a month, my great 10-point Safety Plan was falling apart at the seams.
My uncle, surprisingly, was the first to go. After calling him several times without an answer one evening, my Grandmother, who had suffered a stroke several months ago and was bed-ridden, with her left side paralyzed, finally picked up his cell phone.
“Hello? Hello? Who is this who keeps calling?”
“Grandma? Grandma, is that you? Why are you answering Third Uncle’s Phone? Where’s Third Uncle”
“Is this Wei Wei? I told you, I have no more money to give you! Why do you torture an old lady like this!”
“No, Grandma! It’s Susan, SUSAN! Your GRANDDAUGHTER!”
“Susan, Susan…where are you? Are you in China, are you OK? Did you eat?”
“Grandma, I’m calling Third Uncle to let him know I’m OK. Is he there?”
Suddenly, my Grandmother’s voice becomes a hushed whisper, “Susan, you have to rescue me. They have taken me to a different place, I don’t know where I am. Everyone is ABUSING me! They won’t let me eat, they won’t let me sleep — it’s like a prison here! They’re spraying poison in the air, I can’t breathe!”
“Grandma…WHERE…is… Third Uncle, where’s Auntie (the caregiver)?”
“They’re all trying to poison me, poison me! OH no… here they come….” Lots of muffled noises, which sounds like a struggle, then the phone goes dead.
I try calling back repeatedly, but the phone just kept ringing and ringing. Then, I called my Third Aunt’s cell, then Third Uncle’s land line, then the caregiver’s phone… they were either off or they just kept ringing and ringing, or it rung then stopped ringing.
By 9:15pm I was getting worried. All this time I had been concerned about my own safety — I’d never thought about my relatives and employees, who are just as likely to be the victims of crimes.
9:40pm: wearing Fit Flops, an over-sized, misshapen T-shirt from that says “HOT Dog” with a picture of a cartoon dog in a bikini, big, thick, plastic-rimmed glasses, and a pair of old workout sweats two inches too short with a loose waistband, I run into the empty street outside my condo like a nut job, trying to hail a cab to get to my Uncle’s house. After more than 15 minutes, one nearly runs me over, as I’m running after another Taxi across the street.
Another 10 minutes later I’m at my Grandmother’s condo.
My Third Uncle and Grandma live in the same building but on different floors, with my Grandmother on the first floor with a garden. I find her suite and stand in front of her bedroom window, which faces out onto the street. There is a 5-foot concrete fence surrounding her complex, about 4 feet from her bedroom window. I stand up against the fence on my toes and try to peer inside (I’m 5’ 2-1/2”). Then, I try to scale the fence, but there’s no toe-hold. And it’s hard with Fit Flops.
Then, I try to get into the complex through the front door, which is a big locked gate with the 5-foot concrete fence. But I have no idea which suite number my Grandmother or Uncle’s in – I just know the location. I try to buzz other suites and have them let me in, saying I have this Uncle living in the complex on the 4th floor and I’m worried about him, etc., but most people just curse at me and hang up, or threaten to call security. Then, I tried dialing my Third Uncle and Aunt all over again, to no avail.
After exhausting all resources at the main gate, I return to my Grandmother’s window. It appears dark inside and the blinds are drawn.
(In a harsh whisper) Grandma…Grandma…Grandmaaaa…GRANDMA! (louder) HEY! GRANDMAAA!
“HEY! Keep your voice down, it’s past 10pm!”
Startled, I nearly lose my balance and fall over onto the ground. It was one of the security guards patrolling the complex.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re here!” Why didn’t I think about contacting security before?
The security guard looks at me up and down, then finds a fifty-dollar Renminbi (about US$8.00) on the ground, bends over and picks it up.
Suddenly, I realize my pants are halfway down my hips from all the jumping and attempted scaling of the fence, and that the fifty-dollar Renminbi I’d stuck into my waistband had slipped out.
“Oh, that’s mine; the money … er… fell out of my pants”, I said, trying to hoist up my pants, without looking like I was trying to hoist up my pants.
The security guard gave me a strange look then reluctantly hands me the bill. “What are you trying to do here, harassing the residents?”
“I’m not harassing anyone, sir. My Grandmother and Uncle live in this building. My Grandmother is bedridden and today I had a strange phone conversation with her on my Uncle’s cell, in which she told me she was being poisoned and abused, and now I cannot reach either of them through any of their numbers. I just want to know they’re OK.”
Security guard speaking quickly to his walkie talkie, “We have a four fifteen at the Yujia Garden complex on the main floor, Suite 104. Request backup.”
I follow the security guard into the main gate and towards my Uncle’s building. Another security guard joins us halfway. Outside my uncle’s building there are neat piles of debris – concrete, wood flooring, some broken glass.
“One of the suites in this building had a termite infestation; had to tear up the place and fumigate the whole fucking thing, what a mess”, said the second security guard, as we walked towards the building.
As we entered and approached my Grandmother’s door, I noticed there was a red sign with black calligraphic writing on it. The door was covered in dirt and there was dirt all around the front stoop.
Even before I could think the worst, I heard my Uncle’s voice calling my name, “Susan? Is that you, Susan? What are you doing here?!”
I turn around and my Third Uncle is wearing a faded, oversized T-shirt that says, “Jagermeister Master”, a pair of too-short, nylon/silk lounge pajama pants with a loose waistband, no socks, black loafers, and sweat pouring down his face.
“Third Uncle! I’m so glad you’re OK, I was so WORRIED about you!”
“Worried about ME, I was worried about YOU! I tried calling you but your phone was busy all evening, or you didn’t pick up! It just kept ringing and ringing. Then, I drove over to your condo and I used your spare key to get in, but you weren’t there. You had left all the lights and the TV on, like you just left suddenly, or something happened. I waited a bit to see if you were just taking a walk, but you never went back. I tried talking to the security guards there, but nobody knew anything.”
“Third Uncle, I called YOUR cell phone today and Grandma picked up and said she was being abused and didn’t know where she is. And when I tried calling your land line and Third Aunt….” Then, I looked at my cell: 8 missed calls.
“Your Grandmother’s place had a TERMITE INFESTATION! We discovered eggs in the floorboards the other day and had to tear up the whole place and fumigate it. That’s what this notice on the door’s for! We had to move her upstairs to my condo and she’s not used to the place, so I gave her my phone and said she could call people and chat with them, if she got scared. She dropped the phone on the ground and now it’s not working properly. We also couldn’t give her a proper hot meal today, because we were all caught up with the fumigating and things got late. That’s why I wasn’t available when you called. I was downstairs cleaning up after the fumigation. Your Third Aunt and Auntie are still feeding and cleaning up Grandma upstairs…everyone’s just been too busy to take notice of the phone…I’m sorry…well…I guess I’m just glad that you’re OK…. “
(My uncle pauses, sniffs, hoists up his pants without trying to look too obvious and then looks at me. He looks as exhausted as I feel.)
“ You want to go up and say ‘Hi’ to Grandma? I’ll bet she’d be happy to see you.”
The second unraveling of my Safety Plan was not so benign. After disembarking from the ferry to the Hong Kong Airport, I was going through the security check x-ray machine to board the airplane. After my purse went through, I was asked to step aside and my purse was searched.
The security staff reached into my purse with his white rubber-gloved hand and pulled out with two fingers… my key chain with the vial of pepper spray attached to it.
“Ma’am, is this your key chain?”
“Uh…yea, it’s my key chain.”
(Points to a large placard with a cartoon cop chasing a cartoon pistol, a cartoon knife, a cartoon cannabis-shaped being with legs, and a cartoon can of mace/pepper spray)
“Ma’am, do you know that pepper spray is ILLEGAL in Hong Kong, just like FIREARMS and DRUGS?! It is NOT tolerated here!” (Talks into his walkie talkie)
“We have a situation over here at security checkpoint Alpha012, that’s Alpha zero one two.”
Being a very law-abiding citizen – I never go 10 mph over the speed limit while driving – I even kept an apple core in my purse for almost a week, because I didn’t want to litter and couldn’t find a garbage can, and then forgot about it – I should have nothing to fear from law-enforcement. But even seeing uniformed police officers walking on the street always terrified me.
I was certain that cops would find out about the time I found several hundred dollars in cash on the street…and kept it; or the time I bought three pairs of pants and wore them all at once, so I wouldn’t have to declare my purchases at the Canadian-US border.
And the Hong Kong Police is nothing to sneeze at. Influenced by British rule for so many years prior to 1997, Hong Kong has a less-corrupt and more transparent government system than the rest of China. Public transportation runs efficiently, people line up; bribery and pandering are not as widespread; government employees are cordial and actually assist you in getting things done. And the police in Hong Kong is someone you call when you actually want law to be restored and justice to be served.
So when the security checkpoint guy was calling in the Airport Police and telling me that my pepper spray was illegal, I was beyond terrified.
Moments later, two men – one younger and smaller and another older and harder-looking walked towards me.
They were decked out in full anti-terrorist regalia: body armor, helmet with the plastic face screen on the front. A weapon holster which included something that looked like a nightstick; a gun holster, big huge black boots that made weird squishy-squeaky noises when they walked. The younger man seemed to have problems keeping the nightstick from hitting his crotch every time he took a step forward. When they marched towards me, everyone gave way.
After speaking in rapid Cantonese with the security checkpoint guy, the older cop looks at my passport, takes the keys, then and throws the keys in front of me with a flourish, “Are these your keys!”
“You see what’s that on the key chain? That…right THERE…that’s PEPPER SPRAY… Pepper spray is — ILLEGAL — in Hong Kong. It’s a punishable offense for which we can arrest people, fine them AND JAIL them!”
“Look, sir… I am really, REALLY sorry that I brought this pepper spray into Hong Kong. I honestly didn’t mean to. I live in China, and well, you know how UNSAFE it is there compared to Hong Kong … which has a GREAT POLICE force… I mean, for a…single…foreign … woman like myself… in China… I had NO IDEA this is illegal in Hong Kong. I … this pepper spray is totally for personal use… look – look at how small the vial is! It’s not a weapon of mass destruction…and frankly, I’ve never even used it… I mean… except on myself….” Then, I reminded myself of the first rule of talking to law enforcement: Don’t babble to the cops. Less is best.
Suddenly, the younger cop speaks up, “Sir! There appears to be a clear adhesive on the nozzle of the pepper spray vial, sir!”
“OH WELL…” (Trying to think of an explanation which wouldn’t make me sound like a total idiot), “I … the uh button on the vial is very sensitive and several times I’ve accidentally…the vial… accidentally — ejected…SPRAYED… onto myself, so I had to cover up the nozzle…I mean, you see…you see! I obviously didn’t have the intent to cause any harm, since I even put tape on the nozzle to PREVENT the pepper spray from spraying…. I had actually taped SEVERAL PIECES of tape on there to ENSURE the sprayer would not spray.” I tried to force my face into an innocuous, respectful and serious an expression as possible, which was difficult, as I felt like laughing, crying, and screaming at the same time.
The older cop looks at me for a bit, looks at the pathetic-looking pepper spray on the counter, looks at the young cop, then looks at the security checkpoint guard, nods to the young cop, then straightens up, pulls up his weapon holster and takes a deep breath:
“Ma’am, you know being in possession of this is a VERY serious offense – one we take very SERIOUSLY…especially as you’re about to board an airplane! What were you thinking!”
“Yes, I know, sir … YES! It just… completely SLIPPED my mind I had this… I have never even used it, so I don’t think it’s there… I’m very — so sorry, I promise this will NEVER EVER happen again. I had no evil intent with this pepper spray.”
The young cop brought forth a piece of paper, “This is an affidavit stating that you are aware of the laws of Hong Kong pertaining to pepper spray and a description of this incident. We will have to confiscate your pepper spray, and the affidavit also states that if you should bring pepper spray into Hong Kong again, you will be SEVERELY PUNISHED ACCORDING TO HONG KONG LAW, but we will let you go this time, as it is your first offense, is this understood?”
“Yes! Yes! Of course…oh, I’m SO SORRY… I guarantee this won’t even happen again, EVER!” I grab the pen, read the affidavit and sign it.
“And…”, the older cop bends over and looks at me straight in the eye, “You tell ALL your friends AND family that in Hong Kong, we don’t accept weapons of ANY KIND! You spread the word that pepper spray is not welcome HERE…EVER!”
Losing the pepper spray was a big blow to my 10-point Safety Plan. I was also too embarrassed to approach my Third Uncle again about the nightly calls. He had enough problems with my Grandmother and the termites, without having to run over to my place every time he couldn’t reach me on the phone. It wasn’t that the pepper spray or my Third Uncle really warded off any potential attacks, but it was just nice to know someone had my back. I was now truly on my own. I had to re-haul my entire plan.
I started tweaking my home invasion plan. I figured that I’d be most vulnerable when completely alone.
I live on the top floor of an 11-storey building – the penthouse suite, actually, with three levels in total, the top level being the rooftop deck and the second level being my bedroom.
Living at the top floor I often hear a lot of reverberating noises, especially at night, when everything’s quiet. The security guards patrol our building, takes the elevator to the top floors, then walks down each level, banging the fire doors as they go along. There’s sometimes the sound of people nailing something into the wall, or very muffled scratching sounds, which I can only assume are rats and cockroaches trying to get in to steal my eyeballs and Fit Flops.
My plan was simple: at the first sign of trouble, I was to awaken immediately – find my glasses, which would be on my bedside table in its strategic location; grab my weapon of choice, which was a pretty heavy, Costco-sized glass bottle of Heinz ketchup, which I had used once was still three-quarters full.
I’d also grab my cell phone from underneath my pillow, then calmly and quietly proceed to my bathroom, which also had a lock and a very large window, that faced a security guard check post. In the bathroom I also stashed a flashlight. I would call security, flash the flashlight at them, then dial 112 on my cell and await rescue.
This is what really happened: I awoke to the sound of something heavy falling onto the ground downstairs in my living room/kitchen and then the tinny clattering of an empty can. My heart racing, I bolted out of bed, dragging my blanket, pillow, cell phone simultaneously onto the ground and stubbing my toe on the bed frame in the process.
As I frantically tried to find my cell phone in the mess of blankets and pillows in the dark, I bumped into the Heinz ketchup bottle, whose cap wasn’t screwed on tightly enough, and knocked the whole thing over onto my glasses.
After cleaning off most of the ketchup from the glasses with my blanket and haphazardly screwing the cap back onto the bottle, instead of proceeding to my bathroom as planned, I cautiously approached my bedroom door holding, with my right hand, my slippery bottle of Heinz ketchup and my cell phone with my left hand. My vision was a little blurry in the right eye, as there were still streaks of ketchup on the lenses. I smelled like a big plate of fries, without the grease.
The phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, has a reason for being. Even though I had formulated my sound 10-point Safety Plan, I was completely going against the plan and my common sense. I was operating based on another phrase, “To protect your hearth and home at all costs” – which is one that gets most people into trouble. But it just didn’t seem right to curl up into a fetal position in a corner of my locked bathroom, when there were strangers trespassing my home and taking my stuff.
I listened at my bedroom door for a few moments and heard what I thought was whispering. Cautiously and quietly, I unlocked my door … waited a few minutes… and opened it.
The main level was pitch black. I had of course drawn the curtains, according to point 3 of my Safety Plan. But there was a sliver of light coming through the middle of the curtains. My landing on the second floor overlooks the living room, but I could see nothing from where I was standing.
I thought about my options. I needed an escape route: somewhere to get to quickly in case things went wrong. But being on the 11th floor with the only neighbor who was out of town, there was no immediate rescue. The elevator was not an option, as I had to get past the living room to get outside, and I couldn’t outrun anyone anyway. The only option was to run back upstairs, in case anything went wrong. I also didn’t want to call anyone, in case I was wrong. The sane part of me reminded myself that I still needed to make sure someone was ACTUALLY in my home.
My second thought was, how to approach the home invaders? I could be outnumbered. And even if I wasn’t, I’m no match for people who make a living stealing from people’s homes. I had no idea where they were, what kind of weapons they had. How smart was it to ambush them?
And what would I say? Here I was, the only person in the place — a woman — how smart was it for me to call out into the dark, “Listen up, you shitheads! My mute husband and I have an elephant gun and aren’t afraid to use it”?
While I was contemplating these options, I caught the reflected light of something shiny on the ground, near the kitchen. As I looked closer, I realized it was the empty can of tuna that I had thrown into the garbage can earlier in the day. Then, I saw a black shape on the ground next to the can…my backpack. I had walked home carrying a backpack full of groceries and was too tired to put them away when I got home. So I left the thing on my kitchen counter. The backpack must have fallen over onto the garbage can, causing the can of tuna to fall out, making a tinny noise.
But by this time I was already a quarter of the way down the stairs and far away from any light switch, so I decided to continue in the dark. At the last step – or what I thought was the last step – I took a big step forward, slipped, then fell mightily onto the ground, the ketchup and cell phone flying out of my hands,
When I stood up and turned on the light switch I saw:
My knapsack on the ground still intact and my garbage can on its side, with all my garbage sprayed across the kitchen floor
My cell phone halfway across the room
My hands, shirt and legs, which were partially covered in ketchup
My ketchup bottle shattered in pieces on the ground next to my Fit Flops
And my Fit Flops covered in ketchup and glass
I spent the rest of the night doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen.
I’m now on the market for new Fit Flops.