Well, I haven’t written anything here for such a long time, but I guess I was just waiting for a day like today to happen. Today felt like a culmination of the many, many life lessons I have had over the years, the ones that teach you how to be a good human being.
It started with a 05:00 wake up alarm. I was going to join my friends for a Crossfit session at the 24-hour gym near the American Consulate. One of my friends from the writing group was leaving Chengdu after I had only just started to get to know her, and I wanted to see her one last time before her flight this afternoon. I woke up with a strange feeling. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I just get this ripple in my gut, like a warning.
I got a flat tyre on my mad-dash cycle not to be late for the 05:30 class. I was worried I wouldn’t find the gym, but I did, and it didn’t even rain on me. My bum got splashed quite a lot though. I hate that dampness.
We worked out; it was good. I didn’t have to Skype my mom until 08:30, so I figured I’d tag around with the trainers for breakfast, get to know some new friends. I said goodbye to my writer friend and promised to stay connected. We went to Peter’s Tex Mex for breakfast, which purportedly opens at 07:30. We were early. We waited. Then we waited inside for the chef to arrive. We ordered at 07:40 and got our food by 08:00. More friends joined us. I excused myself to Skype my mom. She and I spoke until after 10:00, then I departed. I tucked my embroidered purse beneath the strap on my front pannier rack, and pushed my bike into the street. I intended to take it to the bike shop I’d bought it from, drop in and say hi to the foreigners who owned the place.
As I crossed the first street, I looked down at my pannier. My beautiful black and bright flower purse was gone.
Did I drop it? I looked around, I looked down, I looked. It was gone. Someone stole it, they slipped it away like butter, transformed it into a fish and it swam away, quick and invisible. It was gone.
I ran back to the restaurant, crying out about “wo de bao, wo de bao!“, my bag, my bag. A manager came up and started asking all the right questions. “Where?” “How?” She called the police and an old woman came up and started talking about the surveillance cameras.
“They can catch them you know, they can see! You should be careful about your bags, I wear mine on my wrist when I go shopping like this, see…”
I was heartened by her words, heartened by Wendy the manager’s assistance. The police came, and Wendy took my bike back to the restaurant while I went to file a report. The purse had contained my phone, some cash, two bank cards, and my house keys. And a pen someone had left at the writers group meeting which I think was actually cursed. The issue of the surveillance cameras was brought up but swiftly abandoned. I never followed it up. I did snap at an officer who asked me where I was from. He legitimately needed the information, but I was so used to nosy people. An older officer apologised for the young man and explained gently to me that they need this information for the report. I behaved. Then I heard voices outside that I recognised–the two boys who had joined us for breakfast were there!
I explained to them what had happened and answered the officer’s questions, seamlessly turning from one to the other, swapping between languages easier than it is for me to slide glasses on and off my face. They were at the station to register, just like all foreigners must when they arrive in China or in fact any time they spend the night in a different city or move apartments. After my report was filed, I joined them, and stayed to help them iron out a few issues with their applications. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but my incident had shaken me. It was simpler to stay as their translator and deal with their problem rather than dash off to solve the dozen new ones the theft had created for me. I had a lot of items to recover.
As we waited in that office, I did have an important cultural lesson reiterated for me. In an attempt to get the secretary’s attention, I stood on the waiting chairs. A man grumbled at me to get down, so I squatted, then he went off on a rant about uncivilized behaviour. I retorted that my purse had just been stolen. He shot back that having one’s purse stolen had nothing to do with acting civilized, with acting in a way that reflects well on the people from my country. Irate but seeing his point, I had no other recourse than to apologize, several times, which had the desired effect of shutting him up. It was at this juncture that my friend reminded me that it was severely taboo to put shoes on chairs in China, because they are so dirty. Outside, the civilized gentleman was hawking a lugey. Still, I’ll never let my shoes touch a chair again (in China).
Helping my friends recharged my courage. I stopped by the restaurant to collect my bicycle and check in with Wendy. I thanked her profusely, and began my Labours of Hercules. First, I needed to get my bike fixed.
So I ran-walked to the shop, and the cool Chinese chica who works there replaced my blown inner tube. I used her computer, but realised that I had forgotten my password for my email account. Then I mistakenly sent the password reset code to my phone.
The one currently in possession of a thief.
Cue well-controlled panic and a thin layer of sweat.
I should mention that at this point I was still in my sweaty Crossfit duds, and terrified to remove my hoodie, since it was essentially my comfort blankie at this point. More sweat. I tried again and sent the reset code to another email address. Relieved but still quivering, although that may just have been the many cups of bottomless free coffee slurped down at breakfast.
I flew home on my trusty steed. Next step, get inside my apartment, where the key to solving all of my problems was tucked away snug and sound: my passport. The real estate agent didn’t have a copy of my key, but he did have the number of a locksmith. And he helped me search for the phone number of the training school I was supposed to teach at that afternoon. It was just after 12:00 at this point, and my classes were at 15:00. I phoned, I explained, I canceled the classes.
The locksmith arrived.
“I just want you to know that my purse was just stolen, so not only do I not have my keys, but I don’t have much cash or my bank cards. Just 100RMB.” (My friends had lent me 200, but I wasn’t going to tell him I still had exactly 150 left after the tyre repair.)
“Ah, that’s just enough.”
Metal picks ground and tumbled.
“You have a spare key inside, right?”
I never knew what I should do with that damn spare. It didn’t seem to make sense to keep it inside the apartment, so I just kept the two keys together. The thief has them both now. Gee, I’m dumb.
“Um, no, I don’t have a spare. Oh. What can I do?!”
“I’ll change the lock.”
“My friends only lent me a hundred. I… I could go borrow some more, I could…”
“How about you make a new friend, right here? I’ll replace it for free.”
The family that runs the calligraphy school next door let me sit inside their apartment while the locksmith works. They are kind people.
I was in.
I showered. I dressed. I could do this.
First, the bank. Easy. Although I started to cry as I sat there, 5 people from being served. Anybody watching that mini-film advertising the bank’s services would have. A deaf man, struggling at the ATM, a bank clerk approaches. She knows sign language. “Whenever you need help, I’ll be here,” she signs. “Can I walk you home?” he signs one evening. “No, no, no! No need.” “You misunderstand me.” “Oh?” “All my life, people have ignored me, looked at me differently. I never imagined I’d meet anyone as helpful and kind as you.” She smiles. “Good morning,” signs the front desk girl. “Good morning,” signs the male bank teller. “She taught them all sign language!” he realises. I sit there and wipe away the stuff leaking onto my cheeks.
One new card down, one more to go, but first I needed to get my SIM card reinstated. I asked for directions, got a clear answer. “Go to the provincial China Mobile office, they can get your old number back.” “How do I get there?” “It’s… gee, where is it? Take a three-wheeler taxi, they’ll know where it is. 5 RMB.”
“Take me to the provincial China Mobile office. 5 RMB?”
We arrived, I handed her a ten. She handed me a five. I smiled.
Inside, I had to explain that my passport number had changed. The receptionist looked concerned, fleetingly, then she acknowledged that my name was unchanged, and we were moving forward. “When did you register the number?” “2013, when I first arrived in Chengdu.” Nod. “Okay, can you write down five numbers from your recent calls?” Shit. No one remembers phone numbers anymore. But I had written down the two important ones I could find, and had a copy of my rental agreement. I had only just recently talked to my landlord. Three numbers, only three numbers… Argh.
Before long, my number was called, and I leaped to the desk, hoping she’ll tell me quick if I have to run home and dig through my box of business cards. But shockingly, SHE WAS REASONABLE. No problem with the changed passport number. No problem with the phone numbers. “When did you last top up?” she queried. I asked to see a calendar, because I vaguely recalled it being right after I’d arrived back from the States, on a weekend. “Morning or evening on that date?” she asked. I related my memory of topping it up at night after the friends I had been hanging out with convinced me to set up my WeChat Wallet, a kind of PayPal system. THEY WERE CONVINCED. THEY GAVE ME MY NUMBER. I was pretty chuffed, and felt a bit like I was getting away with murder. They were being so reasonable that I may have momentarily forgotten I was in China.
On the walk home I texted the friends who had sent me their numbers through the social media I could access from my laptop. I finally ate something. It was 16:00. Now I needed to get my other bank card done, and go home to check that the small card wallet with my drivers license wasn’t in the embroidered purse. It wasn’t.
I’m resting now, but there’s still a few small things to take care of. I stopped in at the Xiaomi store to price out another smart phone, since my spare phone is a brick-like slide-up-to-answer. This weekend I still have lessons to plan, and lessons to teach; life doesn’t stop for things like this.
But you know what? I feel happy.