It says a lot for Beijing that the two times I’ve felt unsafe here, I was: 1. Laying in bed and 2: Taking a walk to buy a toaster oven on a sunny afternoon.
This probably sounds grandiose, but I feel safer in Beijing than in any other place I’ve lived.
You walk down the street, at any time of night, and never worry about getting stabbed or robbed or beaten up or asked to sign a petition to raise or lower the capital gains tax.
I think it’s partly the fact there’s no meth to speak of, and partly the fact it’s just not the way Chinese people are wired (for the most part). Of course, I did live in Tacoma for a long time, so maybe my basis for comparison is a little off.
The point is, with the obvious exception of taxis, I’ve only felt unsafe here those two times. I’ll easily take any security concerns I have now over the chance of getting skulled with an Evan Williams bottle by a meth-head while I’m digging my keys out of my pocket in Tacoma.
Those two times here are going to require some half-assed history lessons to explain.
The first was late last spring. There was a blind activist named Chen Guangcheng who had more or less become the center of the world for a week or so. He wound up in the American embassy a few miles from where we live, and then in a hospital that’s about as close. His story is riveting, but I need to make a very long story short.
I was in bed one night and read this, in which Chen said that, that very day, the government had called and threatened to beat his wife to death if he didn’t leave that hospital and turn himself in.
Now, Chen Guangcheng and I obviously live wildly different lives, but when your own wife is sleeping next to you and you read that about a guy who says that and is basically in your neighborhood - it’s pretty damn unnerving. I promise. I didn’t sleep much that night, and I was ready to head to the airport the next morning
The second time was two weeks ago. I have no grasp of whether the story about a disputed group of islands in the East China Sea has made much of an impact in the U.S. (I’m guessing not), but it’s really interesting, so I’ll give you some incredibly simplistic background.
The dispute islands lie here ..
The Diaoyu Islands - known as the Senkaku Islands to the Japanese - have been under Japanese control since 1895. Before that, they were China’s since, roughly, time immemorial or so.
Japan’s strongest claims to the islands are that they were legally awarded them after WWII, China spent decades not caring, and that (most importantly) Go To Hell, China. A Japanese buddy of mine put it this way (over the course of a few emails):
Moochers. It’s strange that they seem to find a chance to claim the islands in the first place. We are “civilized mad.” We are pissed, but trying to show the world that democracy and freedom are not the same as controlled anarchy, or Chinese democracy.
China’s claim is that it’s held the islands since forever, that the islands were taken by illegitimate force, that there was a linguistic mistake in 1945 that led to Japan’s continuing ownership, and that (most importantly) Go To Hell, Japan.
It’s much, much more complicated, of course, but that’s the gist of it. My own read is that Japan probably has a better claim. I’m accustomed to the idea that possession is nine-tenths, and I’m not the kind of person who usually whips myself up into a nationalistic fervor. But then again, my read isn’t very informed.
(I suppose if, say, Canada started claiming Hawaii, I might get mad, but who’s to say? I bet Canawaii, or Hawaiiada, would grow the world’s best weed. Canawaii would probably make the most sense from a branding perspective in that scenario.)
A month or so ago, Japan’s government purchased the islands from their private (Japanese) owners, and everybody got really mad, really fast.
I’m usually pretty ignorant, so, before we moved here, I had no idea the Chinese hated the Japanese on a visceral level. But, Good Mao, they do.
Again, I’m going to gloss over this, but most of it stems from the Second Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s and 40s. Japan invaded China in a such an awful manner, even by invasion standards, that it’s somewhat commonly known as the Asian Holocaust. Most of those involved have died off, but their offspring know the stories. It’s not the kind of thing you just forget about in a few decades.
What you’re left with is the Japanese viewing the Chinese as stupid barbarians, and the Chinese viewing the Japanese as savage devils - that might sound like nit-picking, but it’s not.
Some riots and protests broke out. They were no joke. One afternoon, we were in a cab on our way to a local park, and it took an extra 45 minutes to get there because there were some riots/protests blocking traffic. (There are truthful-sounding rumors that the protesters were bused in by the government to divert attention from the extremely problematic once-every-10-years regime change that’s eminent and a fiasco.) Former Washington Governor Gary Locke is the U.S. ambassador - his car was blocked in for a few minutes by a mob. A guy in Xi’an - a few hours from here - was beaten nearly to death for driving a Japanese car.
Back to the toaster oven.
The two places we do our shopping here are, by chance, Japanese owned. They were both shut down for a couple days. They even took the trouble to cover every bit of corporate signage on the storefront with pro-Chinese slogans. It was especially annoying because one of them is the 7-11 on our block that Kelsie and I stop by a combined five times a day, I would guess. (Just take one second to pretend all the 7-11’s in the U.S. were Japanese owned, and that your closest 7-11 did this for these reasons.)
On the day in question, my boss - an exceptionally sober, level-headed guy - started off a meeting with “Diaoyu Islands are China’s!!!” and an awkward fist-pump. He was kidding, but in that truth-said-in-jest kind of way. When he was done, he strongly warned me to stay away from anything even mildly related to Japan for the next week. Again, he’s not an alarmist. But China hates the Japanese; the U.S. is a Japanese ally; good enough.
Warning: this next part is anti-climactic.
As it happened, I had been fired up to get a toaster oven for about a month, and that was my day to do it. The place I planned to go to was the other of the two Japanese-owned businesses in our world, a large department store about a 20-minute walk from home called Ito Yokado.
So, mostly out of pure thick-headedness, partly out of a pretty intense lingering desire to make the apartment smell like chocolate-chip cookies, I decided to go anyway.
Now, before you judge me too harshly, take a look at the reality. Really.
On that 20-minute walk, I flinched probably 10 times. A lot of that was because it was almost like a montage of paranoia: there was a guy casually carrying a big metal cane and smacking it against his palm, a group of guys brandishing rebar as they unloaded a car full of it, and a group of teenagers yelling aggressively as they walked down the street. Not the kind of stuff you see every day, but also not the kind of thing you’d notice if you hadn’t been specifically warned that you were likely to be a target of random violence and seen a bunch of footage of it happening to other people.
It was right in that sweet spot where you know you’re being paranoid, but get to feel a little bit justified for it. I made it to the store with few, if any, injuries. (Zero injuries.)
I don’t feel ridiculous for being freaked out, but I also still feel completely safe here. Every place in the world is going to have things to fear. In Beijing, it’s taxis, nationalism and unsafe food, air and water.
OK, that’s a lot of things. But still.