Stop! THIEF!

I really never expected to get robbed. I haven’t felt unsafe since I arrived to China and, of course, feel that I’m “street smart” enough to avoid dangerous situations having been doing so for over a year now. But, as usually happens, you get lazy over time and take security for granted. Today would have cost me $700 bucks if not for my theif’s failure to wear a little deodorant.

But let’s back up.

When my brother visited me in China several weeks ago, I was just finishing up a class for Siemens which entailed class with the same 13 people for 10 days straight, for 6 hours a day. After that, I hurried to the Berlitz Center to teach for another 2-3 hours before getting home exhausted each day. The stress built up and I could see it affecting me in my every day life. Little things really got on my nerves because I was so busy and didn’t have time I usually do (and usually quite enjoy) to “play the third world” game – which entails running around in circles, lots of hand gestures to convey what you need, and sweat. Lots of sweat.

And so, that class ended and since then, I have had only evening classes. It’s been rough, let me tell you. I stay up late watching DVD’s, sleep in until 10:00AM, study a little Chinese, watch a DVD then leave for class so that I can teach students I geniunely enjoy teaching and spending time with. I’ve been having a great time and can usually be found walking around with a big grin on my face just because. The brilliant weather each day has made for incredibly blue skies which beckon one from his 5th story apartment and out into Beijing just to see what happening on the streets.

Yesterday, I took to said streets and ended up at a park that I pass by each day in the bus on the way to work. It has always looked nice but I had always been busy or the weather was always bad and so I hadn’t yet visited. It struck me as beautiful because of the wide river it had flowing through it with, complete with concrete walkways and large shady trees on either side of the water. I walked along the stream and eventually found a nice spot on a bench where I read Thoreau’s Walden, ate my lunch, and watched the old men dangle their fishing poles into the calm water. It was a peaceful scene indeed. Occasionally, a guy or woman would ride by on a bike, smile and say “HELLO!” to me, to which I responded with an excited “HELLO!” (I try to say it in exactly the same way as they say it to me, back to them) and a smile each time.

After finishing a chapter, I made my way through the park and past the old men flying kites (there are always old men flying kits in large open spaces in Beijing) and over to the Beijing TV Tower: a huge and lumbering structure that stretches high into the sky (over 900 feet). Would I be able to go up and see Beijing from the top? I didn’t know, but I was going to try. I walked up the stairs and to the door where a woman asked me if I had a ticket. I said that I didn’t and asked where I could obtain said ticket. She pointed to the big building that said “Tickets”. Revelation. I bought my ticket for 50 yuan and was soon on an elevator to the top of the tower. When I arrived at the top, I stepped out onto the viewing platform and was blown away.

The metropolis I saw sprawled out before me was nothing short of incredible. In all directions stood buildings like soldiers of all different heights and colors, single-file, poised and ready for action. The city is remarkably flat and so, you can see it all – especially so on such a clear day – far, far, far into the distance where the mountains started and the power plants spewed smoke into the air in the west. You could barely make out downtown, as it wasn’t that much more densely populated with buildings as the other parts of town and something about the way the sun cast its light on the fronts of the buildings gave the entire scene a surreal feeling. The perspective I had was like something you would see in a movie just before a giant comet came and smashed into the city. It honestly didn’t look real.

Just below, I could see where the river I had just visited led to, which was a much larger park and a series of small lakes. I made a mental note to visit it before I left Beijing and sat high above the masses for about 20 minutes, trying to take in the incredible beauty of what I was seeing, before I went to the indoor viewing area just below. Inside there were 20 or so couches around the room right in front of the huge windows looking down (in the outside viewing area, you cant really see below you as your view is obstructed by the platform that extends out in front of you, past the guard rail). I made another mental note that I would come here again on an evening that promised to bring a beautiful sunset and stay until nightfall so that I could see Beijing “light up”, so to speak.

That night at class, I discovered that I would have the next day (today) free because my two classes had been canceled (since I teach for companies, they sometimes cancel class for a meeting or for the sake of some project deadline being met). And so today, I decided to pay a visit to the park I had seen yesterday from the tower. I remembered seeing a gate at the front, which meant that there would be an entrance fee and seeing as this is an area with very few westerners, everything was in Chinese and I therefore had no idea what to do, how much to pay or where to go. After consulting the ticket lady, I was informed that the entrance would be 2 yuan (about 30 cents), which I paid happily as I was expecting it to be more.

I spent about 30 minutes walking around the winding pathways, past the lakes and ponds, past the trees and flowers, past tea restaurants and young couples sitting on the lawns in each others’ arms and eventually found a nice little bench right in front of a beautiful pond filled with water lilies, lotuses and ducks swimming around and looking for trouble to cause. I took out my book and commenced to read, occasionally looking up to observe some people walking by or some birds flying by. An old man walked by and stared at me to which I responded by smiling and nodding my head and he did the same, saying “HELLO!” And there I sat for quite a while.

Suddenly, the aroma of body odor whiffed past my nose. Strange, I though. It cant be me. I wear deodorant. It was also quiet – no one was walking by, which was unusual, because usually someone was walking by. I suddenly got the feeling that someone was right behind to me and I turned around to look and see. I caught a guy quickly walking away with a camera in his hand.

“Strange,” I thought. “What the hell was that guy doing? Taking a picture of me reading?”

I have been known to try to snap pictures of people without them knowing if I have seen a beautiful picture before me which would be ruined if the person knew that I was going to take a picture (they look at the camera or act differently and it ruins the natural feel of the photo). But this was just me reading a book. He wouldn’t have needed to get so close (remember, this guy stunk, I could smell his BO despite it being fairly windy outside) to get a nice picture of someone sitting on a bench reading.

As he walked away, I noticed how similar his camera looked to mine. They looked identical.

I glanced in my open bag to the right of me and didn’t see my own camera which I had placed in the pocket not 20 minutes before. I didn’t have time to figure out how he snagged it without my knowing, or even if he didn’t even take it – maybe it was just buried in my bag. I just grabbed my bag and ran, barefooted, after him.

My heart was thumping and tiny rocks dug into my feet as I jetted towards the guy. I could see him sprinting down the trail (we had water on either side of us and were both on a little semi-island between the lakes) and he wasn’t too far ahead of me.

He saw me running and started walking, as if to make it look like he was just a normal guy taking a stroll through the park.

I walked up to him, put my hand out and said, “Alright. Hand it over.”

He didn’t move and so I looked around and yelled “Police!” I didn’t know what else to say. I don’t know how to say “police”, “thief”, “help” or any of those important words in Chinese. Everyone looked.

The guy was just a kid, maybe two years younger than me, fairly skinny and I knew I could pretty easily take him down if I had needed to. But I stayed pretty calm and just repeated myself.

“Hand it over.”

He didn’t move and looked blankly at me and so I spotted my camera in his pocket, pulled it out and gave him a look of disgust and disappointment. I imagine that it was like a look that you would give your best friend if you found out he was stealing from you.

“Why?” I asked as I shook my head in disgust.

“Pathetic. Remember that word. Pathetic,” I said. And I walked away.

The old Chinese men and women sitting on the surrounding benches looked at me and gave a thumbs up and shook their heads in disappointment. The whole way back to my bench, where my sandals lay, everyone looked at me inquisitively (they had seen me sprint past moments before) and I showed them my camera and pointed at the guy. They all shook their heads and smiled as if to say, “way to go!” and at the same time embarrassed that someone had done such a thing to visitor.

I sat back on my bench and was presented with the perfect opportunity to philosophize on the events. How often are you nearly robbed and then given the opportunity to immediately sit in a beautiful park, alone and think about it? So I thought.

I had said the words “pathetic” and “why?” to him, both of which were unnecessary. Did I think he was pathetic? No, I don’t even know him. Maybe he was starving and wanted to by food. I highly doubt that though, seeing as he paid money to get into the park and seemed to be a perfectly able bodied young man. Maybe he just wanted to buy some deodorant. I can understand that. He could have bought a lot of deodorant with the proceeds from my camera. In that case, he was only trying to better himself. By robbing one man, he would be able to avoid robbing countless others of fresh smelling air.

No, I didn’t think he was pathetic. Nor was I disappointed. I know that certain people are thieves. Everyone knows that. Crime is a necessary evil in any society. People have been stealing ever since the onset of the idea of private property.

Did I really want to know “why”? No, I knew why. He was a thief. Maybe he was a hungry thief, but I see thousands of people each day who are able to provide for themselves by their own meager means. Some guys sell bottles of water, some guys sell sweet potatoes on the street that they cook on a bike with a big drum / barbeque welded to the back, some guys drive taxis and some guys work for big multinational companies. Seeing as this kid was even younger than me, had no apparent physical handicaps, and was quite bold (you would have to be to sneak up behind someone in a quiet park and quietly pick through the bag he had sitting right beside him as he read), I am fairly confident that he wouldn’t have had a big problem finding an honest job in China – Beijing, no less. I am pretty sure that he didn’t need the camera any more than about a million other people in this city who go to work every day and work hard at that, and so I can therefore logically conclude that since they work, he can too. In that case, I didn’t really want to know why he took it.

And so, I was left with nothing to say to this guy. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t sad or disappointed. My feet did hurt from running after him, but I was sure that would pass. I’ll just keep a better eye on my bag from now on. I sat there for another 20 minutes and then continued walking around the park.

A landscaper looked up as I passed, smiled and yelled, “Hello!” and then so did his buddy. I did the same with a smile.

Since the sun was about to set, I sat down on a bench overlooking the lake and the Beijing TV Tower I had visited the day before and watched a beautiful sunset unfold before me. People swam and fished as the sun went down – and they chose to do so in front of the signs that explicitly said “No Angling, No Swimming”, ironically. I left the park and went home.

Yep. All in a day’s work. Or, in my case, a lack thereof.

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