One of the things that people wonder about when hearing that I live overseas is my safety. It’s certainly something that my parents were concerned about when I informed them that I was returning to China for a year and would be doing so alone this time. Despite the strides made by women in so many areas, it is thought that a woman wandering around a city or country other than her own (heck, even sometimes when it is her own) is not being sensible.
That’s why I’m always met with a certain degree of surprise when I nonchalantly talk about life here and how it’s so safe. Because it is.
I don’t know what to chalk it up to, but I feel safer walking down the street here in my home city, or even in Beijing, than I do in some cities in Canada.
Is there crime here? Sure. There are pickpockets and purse-snatchers, and everyone is constantly going on about being on guard against them (knock on wood, I’ve never been a victim of this). There are thieves (remember, someone stole my husband’s bike…wink, wink?) and burglars (that’s why the houses on the first floor have bars on them). There are even a few violent wackos who from time to time lose their marbles and head to a school with a cleaver and harm some children.
But I’ve never felt unsafe here in China. That’s right, I said never.
There have been a couple of instances where I have felt uncomfortable, but never that my safety was being threatened.
When I leave the house to go out shopping or wandering around the city, if I’m not with my husband, most of the time I go alone (I’m perfectly happy not having to converse with someone else or stop to look at things I don’t want to look at – I know, selfish, right?!). I walk through markets and down little alleys that look interesting. I’ve walked home in the evening and wandered around our residential zone late at night when I can’t sleep. I’ve even let my head get a little big and run my mouth off at some obnoxious jerks when they shove me or bump into me especially hard on the street or in the train station (for the record, my husband has told me that he will not be backing me up in a fight if one should start – thanks, honey).
Is it because I’m a foreigner and the penalties for a crime against a foreigner would be much higher? Is it because I’m such a novelty that victimizing me is the last thing on people’s minds? Is it because I strike such an intimidating figure (all 5 foot 3 inches, 115 pounds of me) that no one dares to mess with me? Is it because even if they were to ask me to give them all my money I would just smile and keep walking because I wouldn’t understand anyway? Who knows.
Chinese people seem to have the same sort of attitude, especially the children. Kids run wild in our zone (when they aren’t in class or studying, that is), skipping, riding bikes, skateboarding, and making up all sorts of games. Many primary school kids walk or take the city bus to and from school each day, alone. At Spring Festival, parents send kids outside with firecrackers to amuse themselves. I’ve seen two small boys gather up dry grass and sticks and light a bonfire without any adult supervision whatsoever.
People here seem so much less concerned that significant harm will fall on their kids if they are allowed to (gasp!) go outside and play, especially as compared to the paranoia that exists in a lot of places in North America these days (not that some of it isn’t justified there). And the kids, well, they don’t seem to be growing up with such fear of something bad happening to them as some of their North American counterparts.
This might explain the response of my students to an incident in class a few days ago (forgive me, I know I don’t normally talk about my job, but for this story, I had to make an exception).
I was teaching class, as usual, on Sunday morning (yes, that’s right, class on Sunday morning at 8:30 – ugh) when we all heard a loud, sharp crack. This particular class is notorious for their inability to sit still for even a few seconds, so I didn’t give the noise a second thought, assuming it came from one of the students’ desks. Even the Chinese teacher in the classroom didn’t pay any attention.
It was a few moments later that our students helped us identify the problem. Pointing towards the window and chattering away, they informed us that there was a mark. Upon closer inspection, we discovered a tiny hole in the window, surrounded by a chip about the size of a quarter, not unlike a rock chip in your windshield.
The difference between a rock chip and this one, however, besides the small hole that went all the way through the pane of glass and the fact that our classroom is on the 5th floor, was that a couple of pieces of the glass had broken off the inside and flown into the classroom, which the students found on the floor and proudly displayed to us. That’s right – someone shot the window.
(I will point out here, for those who are concerned, that China does not allow gun ownership, and the hole was much too small for it to have been from a real gun. It appears as though it may have been an air-powered pellet gun…not that that makes it a whole lot better.)
As you would expect, the kids were suitably worked up by this development. Their response, however, was what demonstrated the fearlessness I mentioned earlier.
Every one of them got up and went to peer out the window.
Class was effectively over at that point (you can’t really come back from something like that). Was it serious? No, not really. But I can now tell everyone that I have been shot at…and survived!