I’ve been talking to people about my criminal record on a much-too-regular basis recently. To be totally frank, I don’t have a criminal record. But to be totally frank, it’s sort of surprising.
One of the reasons why this discussion is surfacing is because of a little incident that happened with a friend while I was in China. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because I’ve been having to answer questions while going through the Belgian visa process and helping people I know who are applying for the US foreign service exam. They need to answer questions on their application about people they know (ie, me) and any possible foreign legal implications.
So, in honor of a youthful folly, I bring you an old write-up from my travelogue regarding the time I was interrogated by the Chinese military:
Before I left for the great unknown Asia, my parents gave me a parental “five things you shouldn’t do while you’re in China” list. The list included things like don’t talk politics/religion, don’t contract an unknown disease, don’t trust the Chinese medical system, don’t die and don’t get in trouble with the Communist Party. All in all, it was a basic parental safety checklist for their child. Well, for reasons outside of my control, most of those have been broken. Especially when you and your friend find yourselves being interrogated by the Chinese military for a few hours.
The weekend started out innocently enough. The plan was to go to Zhengzhou to meet a mutual acquaintance and to see our friend Ketao. He’s a cadet at the Chinese version of West Point located in Zhengzhou and was until very recently, in the running to join the Olympic Torch relay to Beijing. We knew his school was strict because he’s not technically supposed to have a cell phone and he has to apply to leave campus so it was a big deal for us to arrange a time to meet up with him in the city. Nonetheless, we were excited to see him and about the prospect of seeing his hometown.
When we finally met up with him, he was wearing the same cyan-colored fleece jacket and the wide smile he sported the first time we met. After establishing that there wasn’t much too actually do in the city, Ketao quickly offered to show us around his campus after we grabbed some breakfast. The day went downhill from there.
After scarfing down some food from the local streetmarket near his campus’ main gate, Ketao quickly diverted us to the back of his campus.
“The main gate is right there,” he said, as he pointed to a wide open boulevard where two Chinese soldiers stood on top of the silly plywood boxes that all Chinese officials like to stand on. “But I think that if we walk through that gate, they would not like it very much.”
“Why?” asked Erin.
“Well, I think you are going to be the first Americans ever on campus,” he said, extremely nonchalantly. “Besides, there is a hotel on campus. If we walk through this other gate, they will just think you are staying at the hotel. No problems!”
So we went to the other side of campus with Ketao, who exhibited no signs of nervousness or anxiety.
Even though there was a guard at the gate, he didn’t flinch or move when he saw us. There wasn’t even so much as a nod or an inquisitive look in our direction. We figured we were fine.
“Here, we can walk around this lake!” Ketao suggested.
As we walked around the small lake that was immediately to the right of the entrance gate, Ketao pointed out the general area of the dorms, where the cafeteria is and where students gathered to listen to music and dance the night before. Then he took a picture of the two of us standing next to the lake.
There had been small groups of men in uniform walking around the lake as well, but that didn’t cause any alarm since we knew it was required to wear the military uniform to go to class. But there were two men in particular who looked slightly more distinguished and older than the other soldiers. And they were coming right for us.
They stopped us on the lake, and immediately took Ketao’s camera while pointedly asking him questions in Chinese. He was normally a happy and fast-paced talker, but he was now suddenly answering questions in a quiet and shaky voice.
“Ketao, is everything ok?” Erin whispered.
“I, uh, I think we have some big problems. We need to go,” Ketao whispered.
“We can leave if it’s a problem,” I offered.
“No, you can’t leave. We have to go – with them,” he replied, as the older looking man stared Ketao down and started barking something to him.
As we followed the two officers toward a big building, we were suddenly joined by another officer who was waiting for us at the top of some stairs. The three uniformed men took us inside a dormitory and into a medium-sized room that was completely bare except for two desks that were now being used by the older man and the crony who originally stopped us.
The crony sat across from the old man who was running the show and taking notes on the conversation. The only other things in the room were a list of rules, two computers whose humming loudly filled the small room, and a door that slammed shut every time someone touched it.
We jumped every time that door clanged shut. The noise punctured the computer humming and made everything much more ominous.
Ketao sat in a hardback chair facing away from me and Erin. We were allowed to sit in two chairs that had cushions, staring at Ketao’s profile. At one point in the beginning, Ketao stood up with his lips thinly stretched across his face and slowly walked out of the room as the door slammed behind him.
“Oh shit, this is when they beat up Ketao!” I thought. All of sudden, horrible visions of what they could do to him flooded my mind: bloody face, swollen lip, scenes from The Hostel, Falun Gong organ harvesting.
But Ketao came back. Turns out he just needed to get his ID.
The old man, whose hand looked like an unappetizing bloated sausage, kept asking Ketao pointed questions while simultaneously chopping through the air with his thick fingers, as if the forceful staccato of Mandarin wasn’t enough.
Erin and I knew that Ketao was making a story up of how he met us because the Chinese military isn’t big into online social networking with Westerners and that our couchsurfing experiences would be unforgivable. The only problem was that he was telling it all in Chinese. We had no idea what this made up story entailed. Our stomachs started to drop and churn as we realized that we would be asked to match our stories with his. We had no idea what to say. The gruesome mental montage of Ketao’s bloody torture session left my mind and was quickly replaced by scenes from every bad movie about an American trapped in an Asian prison.
Suddenly, the sausage hand man, who kept displaying his fingers quite deliberately and prominently on his forearm, turned from Ketao and started to talk to me and Erin.
“Oh no oh no oh no” I thought. The words “I don’t speak Chinese” gurgled out of my mouth as I tried to stop myself from smiling like a ridiculous fool. I’m of the certain disposition where when I’m nervous, I smile uncontrollably. Most of the time it doesn’t pose a problem, but I thought that the Chinese military would think otherwise.
Next to me, Erin was trying valiantly to stifle the bursts of laughter escaping from her mouth. She’s of the disposition where she laughs when anxious. Ketao sat in his chair staring at us with eyes that clearly said, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
But Sausage-Hand Man kept asking us questions and all I could do was shrug my shoulders and say “I’m sorry.” Ketao tried to translate for us, but every time he opened his mouth, Sausage-Hand would tell him to be quiet.
Eventually, Sausage-Hand stood up and left the room, his well-heeled shoes of authority click-clacking on the impeccably clean floor. When he came back, he brought with him a scrawny soldier who looked like his head was a bit too small for his hat. A thick scar sliced through his left eye and cheek, making his smile lopsided. When he cracked open his mouth to talk, you could see he was missing one of his front teeth and the rest of his teeth were held together by primitive looking braces.
“Hello,” he said.
“Nihao,” we muttered back.
“Do you have your IDs?” He asked.
We had left our passport and our foreign expert residence cards back in Kaifeng. The only type of ID either one of us had were our state driver’s license. After we gave them to Sausage-Hand, Scarface asked us if we had Chinese names.
“No, we don’t,” I said.
“We need some though!” Erin quipped.
“If you want to give us some names that would be great!” I jokingly said back, hoping to ease then tension out of the situation.
Scarface knew we were joking and tried to cover his smile as the three other officers and Ketao looked at us completely stone-faced.
Erin and I only looked at each other.
The next hour was spent as Scarface interpreted Sausage-Hand’s questions for us. We discovered they were trying to find out how we knew Ketao and what we did on campus. We were trying to figure out how to avoid answering those questions.
“All we did was see the lake,” I said for the fifteenth time.
“Ok, but do you know anything about Ketao’s school?” Scarface asked back.
“Yes, it’s an information school, he’s studying electrical engineering and it’s a military school. That is all we know,” Erin and I would say, taking turns.
“But do you know it’s a military school? Do you know Ketao is a soldier?” Scarface would ask back.
“Yes, we know that!”
“What do you talk about with him?” Scarface would ask.
“Talk about? Traveling, music, movies, families, what our hometowns are like. We don’t talk about his major. We don’t even like electrical engineering!”
“But do you know Ketao is a soldier?” Scarface would ask again.
They also wanted to verify that we were teachers at Henan Daxue, so we had to give them the phone number of Jackie Chan, our ‘handler’ whose obsession of Al Pacino ran very, very deep. When I was locked out of my apartment one time, I waited with Jackie in his office for the locksmith to come, and as we waited, he showed me his photo album of Al Pacino. He also demonstrated how he rolled his money like Tony Montana from Scarface. So the fact that the Chinese military was calling him was really entertaining to me and Erin.
To make matters more awkward, our friend Max, a fellow English teacher, called in the middle of the interrogation. Max has an incredibly loveable disposition, but is also someone who can’t focus when he’s hungry. Because of this, he has a tendency to get annoyed when there is something blocking his way to food. In short, he’s hungry angry, or hangry. Unfortunately for him, our interrogation had lasted into lunchtime and our pre-determined date to meet up.
My phone was ringing uncomfortably loud in the muted military office. The shrill ring had rattled my nerves, making me fumble through my bag trying to find the tiny phone to turn it off. Weirdly, the military officers were keen on me answering Max’s lunchtime plea for food.
“Hey, where are you guys? It’s time for lunch!” asked Max.
“Um, I can’t talk right now. I’ll call you back later,” I said.
“Well, where are you?” Max asked.
“Max. I really cannot talk right now. I’ll call you later,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Why can’t you tell me where you are?” He asked in his fake whiny-kid voice, a strong indicator of his hunger-fueled annoyance. I finally got him to hang up, only to have the soldiers staring at me.
And then, quite suddenly and abruptly, Scarface turned to us and said “Ok, you can go now.”
“Oh? Can Ketao come with us? We wanted to take him to lunch?” asked Erin.
“It is best for Ketao if you don’t talk to him. He is a soldier and must be loyal to the army. He cannot speak to foreigners,” said Scarface.
“Wait, we can’t talk to our friend?” I asked, shocked.
“It is best for Ketao if you do not talk,” he said back.
“Well, can we give him a hug goodbye?” I said.
“It is best for Ketao if you do not touch him.”
As we left the room with our four person military escort, we ran into a soldier student running up the stairwell. When he saw the two of us, his jaw hit the floor as he suddenly stopped, almost falling backward on the staircase. He didn’t move from that position until we left his sight.
Sausage-Hand man saw us out of the building, but left us to walk with Scarface and three other young soldiers. We found out that Scarface and another one of the soldiers in our escort were Ketao’s friends and were working as interpreters for the military.
“We are very sorry for this horrible day,” said Scarface, suddenly relaxed and at ease.
“Oh it’s ok. We are very sorry, we didn’t think it was going to be a problem,” we told him.
“No, we are sorry. This has been a horrible day,” Scarface said very sheepishly, and repeating his earlier sentence with the practiced sing-song staccato like many young Chinese who are still finding their footing in the English language.
“Can we really not talk to Ketao again?” Erin and I asked. We didn’t want to be cut off from him completely.
“No, it is ok, you can send him a text message. It is fine if you talk to him,” he said, completely reversing his stance on what he had been quite explicit to denounce five minutes earlier.
“Oh ok. Are you guys going to tease Ketao for getting into trouble?” I asked.
“Tease? Oh no! We will say ‘Ketao! So Cool!’” he said.
Scarface and Ketao’s other friend helped us get a cab so we could meet up with Max. When we got in the cab, I called Jackie to see how the phone call from the military went.
“So Jackie…did you get a strange phone call earlier?” I asked.
“Yeah, something about you and Erin being on a military base where you’re not supposed to be?”
“Yeah, that,” I said hesitantly.
“I have ALWAYS wanted to do that!” He said excitedly.
“Really?” I asked, very surprised that Jackie wasn’t stressed out.
“Yeah! Where are you now?” He asked.
“We’re in Zhengzhou,” I told him.
“That is much better than being interrogated,” Jackie said.
“Yes, yes it is.”