It was 9:00 pm on a Monday in Beijing and I was completely worn out. My wallet was stolen, I chased the robber, a gang of old women helped me, I rode in a police car and got to see the inside of a Chinese police station.
So now, the events in order:
That Monday, I had just received the “Family cash” for the week. My husband got paid in cash, Chinese currency, and every week I would get a generous portion to use for groceries and other necessities. Whatever was left over, I got to keep.
After being out all day, I got off at our subway stop at 4:00pm. Since it had been such a long day and there was a big crowd waiting for the bus, I thought I would take a “buzzer”. A buzzer is what I called the Chinese Tuk-tuk, or three wheeled motor bikes. I called them “buzzers” because they sounded like lawnmower buzzing up and down the streets whisking people home during rush hour.
Outside the subway was a sparkling, shiny buzzer waiting to take someone home. I got in and the driver and I agreed on a price. He didn’t get 2 feet before he was yelling at someone behind him. Somehow he had managed to get himself lodged between two taxis, one of which was trying to do a u-turn with cars passing in each lane of the busy street. One of the taxis backed into him and hit the front of the buzzer. The taxi driver and the buzzer driver started yelling at each other. It was time for me to go and find another way home. It’s said that if a foreigner is involved, even as a passenger in an accident in China, it’s best to leave as soon as possible to avoid being blamed. So I got out and started walking away. After I was about 20 feet away, a man yelled something at me in Chinese. I ignored him because 1) I didn’t understand what he said and 2) if the police were about to arrive, I didn’t want to be around.
I got another 50 feet away, half way down the block, and a girl in a taxi that was going by yelled out the window in English, “Go back! That man has your wallet!” I looked in my bag and didn’t see my wallet (sinking feeling). So I started to walk back towards the man in the buzzer. When he saw me coming back, he shot off like a rocket in the opposite direction. I knew my wallet was gone forever at that moment, but I still had to try to get it back.
A group of about four taxi drivers and a few other not so legal driver men saw what went down and pointed me in the right direction of the fleeing thief-buzzer.
I asked two of them in Chinese if they could help me. It was one of those moments where my lack of language ability didn’t matter. They saw what happened, were ready for something exciting to come along and when it did, they were ready. I was ready too and wanted my wallet back.
What happened next should have been in a movie. I hopped in the backseat of a stranger’s car with two strange men who don’t speak a word of English. The driver threw the car in gear and we peeled out into oncoming traffic. The other man and I yelled to the driver where to go as we spotted the thief-buzzer darting in between cars, pedestrians and apartment buildings.
Chinese drivers are crazy anyway, but stir in a active crime during rush hour and you’re doomed to fail. For all of the hair-raising maneuvers the driver pulled, including driving on the opposite side of the road very fast while narrowly missing on-coming traffic, we lost the thief-buzzer.
That was until we saw him again as he zipped through a gated apartment complex. The two men in the car said to me, “Go and chase him down!” I said to them, “Sure! But you should come with me! You’re supposed to be the men!”
They didn’t. The cowards.
So, I left them and took off on foot through the apartment complex. I was in better shape then. The buzzer was too fast. And then a weird thing happened: As I ran by, a woman walking with her son yelled to me, “Hey! Are you an English teacher?” I stopped and said, “yes, but do you speak English? A man just stole my wallet! I need help!” “Sorry, no English”, she replied.
So I told her what happened. She was very kind and helpful. At that point I was surrounded by a gang of grandmas interested to see what happened with the helpless foreigner. For the collective good, they decided it was best to call the police. 911 isn’t 911, it’s 110 in China … just so you know.
As we waited for the police, the nice woman with the son asked me where I lived and how was I getting home. “Oh, I didn’t think of that. In fact, I have no clue where I am. All I know is I’m somewhere not too far from home … I hope. Just point me in the right direction to the bus stop”, was my reply.
Then she said, “No, don’t take the bus. You probably should go back to the subway station. Maybe the buzzer driver really isn’t a thief and is looking for you so he can return your wallet?”
Then she did the nicest thing. She handed me cash for a taxi ride home. Just as I was about to leave, the police called to say they were on their way. No cab for me. I tried many times to give her the money back, but she refused. I said, “Would your son like English lessons?” (magic words). It was agreed … English lessons for being a good Samaritan.
Two police men arrived a while later. Before they took me to the police station, they drove me by the subway station a couple times to show them where everything went down. This entire time I was using all the Chinese I could since everyone I had encountered so far spoke the most basic English, not much beyond “hello”.
After I arrived at the police station I spent four hours meeting four different policemen, all of whom wanted to hear me tell what happened. I watched the police surveillance video three times and had to explain in detail every move I made. Just to show you how much surveillance there is in China, I saw everything that happened. From my exit from the subway to me hopping into the car with the crazy driver, it was all there.
Just when I thought I could go home, the officer who spoke the most English asked me for my passport. After I told him no one in their right mind carries their actual passport around for the very reason of my visit to the station, I said my passport copy was in my wallet which I would never see again. So, he asked me for my full name and inputted it into his computer. Puzzled look from him and then I was told, “We cannot verify your identity. You are not registered with the police.”
All foreigners are required to report to the local police station within 24 hours of arrival. If a foreigner does not, and is caught, it can get ugly. Now my wallet was the least of my problems. I wasn’t too worried, the officer was very nice and didn’t seem to care too much but I still had a feeling that the situation could turn bad for me at any moment. I stopped speaking Chinese and acted like a dumb American. My husband’s boss had said he would register us with the police (he hadn’t). With permission, I called him. Eventually he came to the station and acted as my personal translator and groveler. It was enough to get me released and escorted home.
During moments of reflection, I can’t help but picture my wallet living somewhere in Beijing with its new owner and my California driver’s license pinned to a wall as a treasured souvenir.
See Myra’s personal blog: The Interactive Expat