Having been detained, and then let go, by the criminal gang that was operating its own border crossing just off the main road, I decided that my remaining time in Myanmar would not be spent doing any more exploring. I shouldered my backpack, clutched my day bag and a Shan-style woven hat I’d bought as a souvenir, and made my way toward the large group of people milling around outside the official border crossing.
To make a long sub-plot short, as well as to drop two cliches in as many paragraphs, suffice to say that border procedures were a huge pain. Involving lots of lines, and the same confused, and then exasperated, border agent over and over again, the whole deal was also uneventful-enough to be unworthy of recounting here (although that hasn’t stopped me before). What matters is that once I finally got through the Myanmar side, I was feeling nothing less than euphoric at being back in China. Finally, back in a more-normal country! I’ve never smiled so brightly at a Chinese immigration officer. Nor at one of any other country’s immigration officers. I felt like I was home.
Having received my passport stamp, as well as plenty of bemused smiles back from all the immigration officials in the room, I walked out onto blessed Chinese soil. Then I looked up and noticed a tour bus pulling up to the little square around the checkpoint. The door swung open, disgorging a loudly chattering group of tourists holding comically-large, sun-blocking umbrellas over their cowboy hats. They saw me. Then out came the telephoto lenses.
All my euphoria evaporated. Welcome back!
Myanmar had been painful, uncomfortable, filthy, and altogether depressing experience, but I’d taken for granted too quickly how the altogether friendly people there had always looked me in the eye and seemed to regard me as a person–an extremely rich and undeservedly fortunate person, to be sure–but still a someone and not a something. Returning to China, however, I was back to being something that everybody pointed at. Nothing to take personally, of course. It had just been a while since I’d last found myself reflexively sighing and rolling my eyes.
Anyway, such minor annoyances were a small price to pay for being back in a country where I felt much, much more comfortable. And I was about to really have something not be happy about. Because I was about to lose my day pack.
First: I got a taxi, threw my big backpack and day pack in the back, and asked for a hotel near the bus station.
Next: I checked into the hotel and went up to my room.
Then: I realized that I’d left my day pack in the cab.
As I explained in the beginning of this long story, day pack = notebook filled with thesis notes, a hardcover book not available in China, a Kindle, a camera, and my cellphone.
I went downstairs to the front desk. Did they recognize which cab company the car that dropped me off belonged to? Now it was my turn to have people roll their eyes at me. No.
I went out to the street and looked for cabs with similar paint jobs. They all had similar paint jobs. Were they all the same company? I asked a cab driver that I hailed. More rolled eyes. No. There are four companies, he said. And they all have the exact same green-yellow paint scheme.
I explained what had happened. The driver laughed at me. “In this town, the cab drivers are all waidi ren,” he said. People from out of town. “And waidi ren don’t return things. Your bag is as good as gone.”
Well, maybe it was a cab from your company, I proposed. Can you use your radio to send out a message?
“I told you, waidi ren, they don’t return nothin’. And in any case I’m not allowed to put out messages like that. But I can take you to our office if you want.”
Sure. I hopped in, and off we went.
The office was maybe six hundred meters away. “That’ll be 15 kuai,” said the driver.
The office was just a table and chair in an open shop space, the kind that gets closed at night by pulling down the garage door. A small, middle-aged lady sat at the table. Next to her was a radio set-up. I explained my situation and asked for her help.
“But you’re not sure it was our company?”
“No, but I’d like to try with yours anyway. And then I’ll go to the others.”
“Well, if you don’t even know which company it was, ha, you’ll never find your bag! Let me tell you about people in this town. Waidi ren.”
“I can try, can’t I?”
“Sure, whatever. I’ll put the message out later.”
“Okay… do you want my name and number, and a description of the bag?”
“And can you just put the message out now?”
“When did you lose your bag?”
“About an hour ago.”
“An hour ago!? We just switched shifts! Sorry, that driver won’t be listening to her radio. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow, when the shifts switch again. Ha!” She chuckled and shook her head.
“But… Is there anything…”
“Here’re the names of the other cab companies in this town. There are four total. We all have the same-colored cars. You can try them.”
I got another cab and went to the next dispatch office on the list. “That’ll be 15 kuai,” the driver cheerfully informed me as I got out. This office had even worse news: their company didn’t have a dispatch radio. Neither, the lady told me, did the next company on the list. I wracked my brain: did the cab in which I’d left my bag have a radio, or didn’t it? I couldn’t remember.
I asked: “How do you contact your drivers anyway, then?”
“Well, mostly we don’t.”
“If they need something, they call the office.”
“Do you have a phone list for your drivers at all?”
“Okay… can we use it?”
“Huhhhf, sure, I’ll call them. Just leave your name and number for me. I’ll call them in a little while. You can go back to your hotel, and I’ll call you if we find it.”
I was seeing a pattern. “Look, I’ve got nothing else to do. If you don’t mind, I’ll wait here.”
She yelled towards the back of the office, and a man came forward. “Call all the drivers on the morning shift,” she said. “Tell ’em a foreigner lost his bag.”
The man grimaced and sat down next to the phone. After asking me for a few more details about the bag and its contents, and establishing that the driver I’d left my bag with was a woman, he went to work. There were fewer than twenty numbers to call. However, half of the numbers on his list seemed to be disconnected, or the phones were turned off, or the recipients simply refused to pick up. He persisted anyway, returning to unsuccessful numbers and dialing three, four times each. When he did get through, the drivers on the other end all said they hadn’t seen me or my bag. All in all the whole process took about half an hour. But with so many calls that didn’t go through, I felt I was no closer to ruling out this company than I had been at the beginning.
“Well, the word’s out there now, so the others will find out soon enough,” the man said. “Right now, though, there’s nothing else we can do. Somebody probably got in the back of the cab and just took the bag anyway. That’s how things go in this town.”
“Waidi ren?” I asked.
I left my phone number and moved on.
After similar results at the remaining two cab companies, I went to the bus station, located across from my hotel, to look at schedules and consider my options. I considered how long I could afford to stay in Ruili, looking for my bag, before hightailing to Kunming and onward back to Hangzhou, where I had a new semester to register for, and also a little thesis to write–notes or no notes. I cancelled my original plan to head north for a day or two, and decided I’d stick around and give Ruili 36 hours to produce my bag.
As I was leaving the bus station, I noticed a security camera on the post of the one of the streetlights. Security cameras are of course ubiquitous in China, but I hadn’t considered the obvious implications of this until now. Of course! I could view the footage from a few hours ago, see the license plate of the cab that dropped me off, and presto–bag found. I hailed another cab and asked to go to the police station.
The police compound appeared completely deserted as I walked through the gate into its large parking lot. Must be all out monitoring the border fence, I thought. I went into the front office and found a guy in shorts and a t-shirt watching something that might have been porn on the office computer. “I’m trying to find my bag,” I said. “I left it in a cab outside the bus station. I don’t know the license plate, but I noticed there’s a security camera there. Can we see the camera footage?”
The man paused the video on the computer, offered me a seat and some tea, and asked to see my passport. “You’re the American?”
The. Apparently I was. “Yes.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came from Myanmar.”
“You Americans sure like to travel.”
“Must be nice! No need to save up for your parents or kids, you Americans. You make a hundred kuai, you spend a hundred kuai!” He smiled and shook his head, marveling at this thought he’d just had. “So, what was in your bag?”
I told him.
“I’ll get the chief.”
He slid his bare feet into some plastic shower shoes and loped out the door and across the parking lot. A few minutes later, he came back with the chief.
I stood up and shook hands with the chief, a big man who was actually wearing a uniform. “You lost your bag, eh?”
“Lost my bag.”
“You left it in a cab.”
“Left it in a cab.”
“Well, it’s not a theft, so we won’t open a case on it.”
“Okay. Is there any way to make use of the security camera footage?”
“The camera footage? Ha. You watch too much television. You can’t tell one car from another with those cameras. Nothing’s clear on the footage.”
“Can we try?”
“Useless! I’m telling you, those cameras can’t show you anything. I wouldn’t lie to you.”
With that, I wondered if he was lying to me. I tried to think back to all the times I’d seen the familiar black-and-white police security camera footage played on the TV news: drivers running over kids and bicyclists and fleeing the scene, pickpockets working busy street corners, people stealing other people’s children, etc. I couldn’t remember if the footage was ever clear enough to read a license plate. Maybe it wasn’t. I mean, wouldn’t that be why they always played it on the news? Because the footage alone wasn’t good enough, and they were seeking more information from public? Furthermore, would it really be all that surprising, that they might have blanketed all of China with millions of fancy-looking public security cameras that were actually all too crappy to be of any use?
“Alright,” I asked, falling back on my usual last-ditch plea for help: “What should I do? Is there really nothing I can do?”
“Sure, there’s something you can do. Go back to the bus station. Ask around. Somebody knows where your bag is.”
Good advice, I thought. Here I was, listening to a police officer telling me about how to gain information on a case.
The guy in shower shoes piped up: “Just make sure people know you’re looking for your bag. The people here, they’re all waidi ren. Outsiders. If they think nobody’s looking for it, that bag is gone.”
“I’ve heard that. Thanks.”
Both police officers smiled. I walked out.
I spent the rest of the day making the rounds back to all the taxi dispatch offices. This time, I offered a reward: 2,500RMB, or about $400.
“I hope I find your bag!” Said one of the dispatchers.
“I see a yellow bag, I strike it rich!” Called back one of the cabbies over his radio.
Late into the evening, however, there was still no bag. Exhausted, I ate a bad-tasting bowl of something and went to bed.
I woke up at eight the next morning. Angry at myself for having slept-in when there was still had canvassing to do, I nodded grumpily to the lady at the hotel’s front counter and walked out. My first destination was the bus station, where I would buy an onward ticket for noon. Then I would make one last round of the four dispatch offices. If four hours later I still didn’t have my bag, at least I’d have a seat on a bus taking me out of this miserable town. And sixteen hours on a bus to Kunming would be the perfect opportunity for me to sit and fume and be mad at myself.
I bought the ticket. But I never got to the first dispatch office. As I waited to cross the street, my phone rang. It was the lady at the front desk at my hotel, the one I’d brusquely waved off on my way past this morning.
“Mr. Hu? There’s a lady here. She has your bag.”
This was great news. “On my way!” I shouted.
I ran back to the hotel, smiling at everyone as they pointed at the sweaty foreigner. And beside the desk, there she was: my driver from yesterday. She had a little girl, maybe six years old, with her. And my bag.
“Thank You!” I exclaimed. “I thought I’d lost it!”
The driver beamed at me. “I noticed it in the back of the car this morning! My daughter was opening the bag up, playing with the phone, looking at your notebook. I noticed what she was doing and told her to stop! I said that those things belonged to somebody! She wanted to take everything, but I made sure she put it all back! She cried, but I said those things don’t belong to her! I said those things are probably expensive! That foreigner probably really needs those expensive things, I said! Boy, was she mad at me! But I took it all away from her and made her come with me to bring it back to you!”
I looked at the little girl. She was already nervous to see a foreigner, and now she was feeling ashamed. She clutched her mom’s pant-leg with one hand and turned away.
“Did you get the message from the cab dispatch?” I asked.
“No! My cab doesn’t have a radio! Look! Anyway, I went back to Zhefang right after dropping you off. That’s where our home is.”
“Oh, you come all the way from out there to drive a cab here?” I asked.
“Yes! People from Ruili don’t drive cabs. We drivers, we’re all waidi ren!”
Amazing. She was one of the outsiders everyone had warned me about. She’d brought back my bag, which by itself would have been a nice enough thing to give to her daughter, not to mention the iPod and other goodies. And she hadn’t even heard about the award.
“I tell you what,” I said. “You waidi ren are good people.” Then I took her arm and pushed the reward money into her hand. “And I am very, very grateful to you.”
The lady giggled, grasping the balled-up money inside her palm but not looking at it. “It was nothing! I’m just happy my daughter didn’t break anything!”
I couldn’t help it: “I’m just happy your daughter has such a nice, good mother.”
The little girl and her mother looked at each other and smiled.
Then we said goodbye.