I’ve been meaning to write about a specific incident I had a Shanghai for a while now but, because of midterms, technical issues, and an overall lack of time, I am only now getting the chance. The impression the situation left on me was definitely lasting and although I am still having a wonderful time, my views on certain things have definitely been tainted.
Two weeks ago this past Sunday, on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, 5 friends and I took a trip to “People’s Square”, a very bu sy, popular location in downtown Shanghai. For our film class we had to visit a historic site related to Chinese film and we decided to go to the city’s Grand Theatre. Our project wasn’t due for a full week later so we were very relaxed about the trip. We would take the subway to People’s Square, write a few notes on the Grand Theatre, and be back in our dorms in no time.
The subway let us off in the middle of a park, less than 5 minutes from our final destination, and we took our time as we walked. In the park there was an exhibit of sorts, featuring about 20-25 small sculptures and statutes of random subjects done by different artists. I remember that there was one of a really fat, naked lady that stood about 10 feet from a purple Dotson and pups(the mother had ridiculously exaggerated breasts and the way the pups were feeding gave the scene a strangely sexual sense). My friends and I didn’t react too well to either and we quickly walked away to see the other art.
We had been in the park for less than 5 minutes when we stumbled upon a small statues of three young girls. Raised on a pedestal, the statue was still only about 4 feet high. A grayish-greenish color, had a texture that resembled the paper mâché projects I often made as a child. It was neither the size or the material that caught the attention of my friends and I, but was instead the orientation of the girls; the girls were forming a circle, each with one leg bent at the knee and held behind them, in a way that their legs overlapped and created a triangle. (I’ll try to find a picture) Intrigued by the pose and the how cute the statue was, two of my friends and I decided to try out the pose ourselves.
As foreigners in China, we typically find ourselves surrounded by onlookers, so when a few China people came over to watch us, I thought nothing of it. The simple pose, however, proved to be a bit harder to emulate than we had originally thought and we were trying to figure out how to best go about arranging ourselves. As a lifted my leg to lay on my friends, I saw the arm of an older woman (since I was looking at my feet I didn’t get a good look at her face) swatting at my leg. “不，不” she said, slapping my leg away. I gave a small chuckle, not at all surprised by her aggression. We could clearly figure out how to do the pose ourselves, but if she wanted to help, we were going to let her. As she lifted her hand up again to correct another of my friends, the upward swing of her arm hit the statue.
I saw the arm of one of the statue girls fall to the ground, followed by one of my friend’s saying something along the lines of “oh crap”, and my first instinct was the run. I resisted the urge to run but my friends and I all began to casually walk away, feeling quite awkward about the lady’s mistake. I only walked about 25 feel away before I turned around to look for my friends. As I made eye contact with one of them, a large man grabbed on to my arm and started screaming at me in Chinese. My initial shock stole any and all words from my mouth and I willed myself to speak at the man began dragging me back towards the statue. When I realized what was going on I tried to plant my feet and explain myself but it was no use; I was going with him whether I liked it or not.
As he pulled me along I tried to snatch my arm away but he was so strong that I could barely relieve any of the force he was applying. I tried my hardest to think of what to say to get him to let me go, but my mind had gone black. Finally I began shouting “我不打算跑步”—”I don’t intend to run.” Despite my efforts, however, he wouldn’t let me go. By this time at least two of my friends had appeared by my side and one of them began struggling with the man as well.
“Let her go!” he yelled. Of course, his words had no effect and I cringed as the man’s grip tightened. It was at this point that I started to get really angry.
“Get my phone!” I yelled to my friends. They struggled to dig my phone out of my bag (which was on the same arm that the man was grabbing on to), but when they did they immediately called the director of my program.
I saw the man pull out his cellphone and told the man that I wanted him to call they police. At the same time I noticed an older woman who also worked at the park (she could have been the woman that broke the statue for all I know) was standing next to me, speaking calmly to the man. After trying—and failing—once again to rip my arm away from the man, I grabbed the hands of the older woman next to me and wrapped them tightly around my other arm, a sign that I had no intention to go anywhere.
And finally, he let go.
My arm began to throb and my anger peaked as I realized that we were surrounded by at least 100 on-lookers. Other than one or two women who I had heard urging the man the let me go moments earlier, no one else seemed to have anything positive to add. They just watched.
There is no way that I can even begin to describe the confusion that ensued. My director, who was sent into a panic, told me to request to speak with an English-speaking officer and to ask to speak with someone from the Embassy (I never ended up having to reach out to the Embassy, but just thinking that I did made me incredibly nervous). He also told me to wait for two of my teachers to meet us at the park, even though they were about 45 minutes away.
Soon enough, an officer did arrive but, of course, he spoke absolutely no English! Too tired and angry to even attempt to express myself in Chinese, I kept repeating that I wanted to speak with an English speaker. The man who has grabbed me continued to scream at the officer, explaining what he thought happened while I stood nearby, silent. Finally, a Chinese man with his wife and small daughter stepped forward and decided to help me; they spoke English.
Though I didn’t even say much to them, I don’t know what I would have done if the family hadn’t interjected. The man reiterated the fact that i wanted to speak with an English speaking officer and acted as a translator for me; he was able to tell me what the man was saying to the police. I made a few attempts at setting the record straight but I tried to obey my teachers; I decided to keep my mouth closed, even though the man was perfectly willing to help.
As the crowd continued to grow and my heart stopped beating hard against my chest, the throbbing in my arm became more noticeable and I began to wonder if my arm was really hurt. The English-speaking man was trying to reassure me that everything would be fine; the statue could be fixed. “But he hurt my arm,” I urged once or twice, careful not to say to much. Nearly half an hour had elapsed and my teachers still hadn’t arrived (and the crowd had not thinned). As some of the bystanders began to take pictures and more police began to arrive (none of whose spoke English) the attention was drawn towards the man who had grabbed me (he was still shouting).
When none of the police were paying attention a man dressed in a fine tailored suit, who had been standing in the crowd the entire time, approached my group of friends. “No matter what happens, don’t admit to touching the statue. Even if you did,” he said, his voice low and clear. He stood around for about five seconds more before stepping back and disappearing into the crowd. I was speechless.
Almost ten minutes later, one of the officers—through the man that spoke English of course—asked where my teachers were. We hadn’t heard from them in a while but we knew they were close. I guess the officer was a getting frustrated as well because the man came back and told us that since it was too difficult for him to judge who was right and who was wrong, that we should all just leave the park and be on our way.
Though we were tempted to leave, we decided to wait for our teachers to get there.
To make a very long, dramatic story a little shorter, my teachers arrived soon after and we all took a little trip to the police station. The police took the statement of all “involved”, which included me, the man that grabbed me, and the woman that I was with when he finally let me go (we never clarified which woman had actually broken the statue). There were no charges filed or fees that needed to be paid and after scolding me for not carrying my passport with me, the police let us go.
Even today I am not quite sure how I feel about the whole thing, but I know that my views and feelings of China and th people who live here have definitely changed. It’s well known that the Chinese bystander is typically silent and inactive (the video footage of a toddler being hit by two cars and ignored by over ten people was all over the Internet a few weeks ago), but experiencing it first hand was pretty traumatic—I had heard that at least three other English speakers had spoken to my friends during the entire thing, but none of them had offered to help.
I was also surprised by the sense of “justice” that exists here. That an officer would suggest I leave the science of a supposed crime because, at that moment, he couldn’t judge who was at fault completely blew my mind. If he had felt just the opposite and had believed the screaming man’s story, what would have happened to me?
It’s a shame that my vision of China has been tainted (maybe tainted isn’t the right term but…). As my time in Shangai dwindles down I think I’ve lost my identity as a naive, trusting, fun-loving traveller. I’ve become a great deal more careful.
And, needless to say, I don’t plan on going back to People’s Square anytime soon.