I was sold in China.
I wish this could have been a nostalgic reflection of my time in China, filled with romantic prose about the exotic and beautiful mystery of this alien culture.
But it isn’t.
What follows are the ugly truths that no guidebook will ever print and the story of a city that was as toxic to my soul as the air was to my lungs…
Aged 33 and desperate to leave the proverbial rat race I had found myself in at home, I sought out opportunities to live and work in foreign climes and experience a world much bigger than my own. After significant research, I applied for a 6 month internship to teach English as a foreign language in Beijing. The program I carefully chose was arranged by a reputable TEFL company in the UK who not only owned and ran a respected school in England, but also a chain of schools around the world. For a fee, they would provide work visas, accommodation with a colleague, Mandarin lessons, full teacher training in their sister school and orientation to the city that was to be my new home.
I was ready to embrace a somewhat cosseted exposure to the oriental mystique of the previous Olympic city.
It turned out to be neither a sheltered nor protected encounter. Predominantly because this ‘reputable’ company neglected to inform me that there were no available teaching posts for my terms intake and I had instead been sold, for an extortionate fee, to a Chinese ‘agent’ specializing in Western fare.
The first time I felt uneasy about my trip, my plane had not even landed.
My eager stare out of the plane window as we circled above the former Peking, provided me no insight to the city I would be living in. We touched down in the midst of a midday cloud with haze so thick that the terminal building loomed like an eerie imposing shadow in the distance, devoid of features or detail or a horizon beyond it. I remember having the fleeting thought that there might have been an apocalypse mid flight and we were the only survivors.
My first post-flight gulp of fresh air indicated that this was in fact not a cloud after all – but a mass of suspended particles that actually had a taste, a sulphurous smell, and I could physically feel entering my mouth, my nose and my eyes. I unconvincingly told myself that it must be airport pollution. Little did I know, the clouds of pollution in Beijing are not discerning in their locale, nor the result of aeroplane fuel alone, and that this oppressive blanket would follow me for the entire duration of my stay in an equally oppressive country.
Exiting customs, I eagerly sought the Western face of the school coordinator who had arranged to meet me. Although I had just disembarked a plane from London, I could no longer see any other Western faces. The faces I could see, from my vantage point several inches above the crowd, were either donned with surgical masks or busy spitting phlegm from the deepest parts of their lungs on to the terminal floor, wiping excess saliva onto the nearest surfaces. The unrelenting cacophony of mucus removal from every direction was as retch inducing as the stench of the air inside the building – stale sweat and urine from the open squat holes in the bathrooms.
The quicker I could escape its confines the better.
I left the airport in the company of a Chinese lady who held a board with my name and told me ‘she was sent by the coordinator’ I had previously arranged to meet. I assumed she was a local colleague from the school. On arriving at her apartment on the outskirts of Beijing in a depressingly grey and hazy high rise neighbourhood with typically loud and chaotic Asian traffic, I was shown to a filthy room and commanded to sleep off my jetlag in a bedroom the environmental health would have condemned. After demanding my passport from me, she locked me alone in the grotty prison.
I awoke from an uneasy, fully clothed sleep – on a mattress covered in cigarette burns and questionable stains, once darkness had set in and to the return of my host. The meeting was fleeting and I was left with instructions to answer the door to a man who would be depositing 2000 RMB with me at 10pm. I was to leave it on the table for her when she returned from another outing.
I found myself alone again – thirsty, hungry and scared. This was not how things were supposed to be happening. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that something was very wrong.
A short while later, a man let himself into the apartment. He spoke in Mandarin and at my obvious confusion gave up his attempts at communication, looked me up and down disapprovingly and left as quickly as he had arrived. Although I was glad he had gone, he had not left money for my captor. As my anxiety grew at the thought of confessing the lack of funds waiting for her, the money depositor finally did arrive. Another man, who nervously claimed the cash was rent money. I didn’t question this any further and after he left, retreated to my flea pit, stacked my bags against the door and sat shaking, confused, crying that I had no phone signal and furious that I had ended up in this situation – whatever it was.
As the early days passed I was granted a key to the apartment block so I could get food, escorted to buy a mobile phone so the lady could keep tabs on me, and escorted to job interviews. It became apparent at this stage that I would not be subjected to sexual slavery, but would however be expected to lie heavily to secure a teaching job for fully qualified and experienced teachers (which I wasn’t), for which she would take half of my measly salary and fine me for illness, taking a day off, or for breathing out of turn. I realised I was a goldmine for her and understood why she had so quickly extracted my passport. In return I learned I would be expected to work 80 hour weeks, with no holiday, receive pocket money for rice and live in accommodation arranged by her, on a budget which could only stretch to a damp and infested room in an apartment with no kitchen, a vaguely plumbed toilet and sharing with 4 couples and their rat sized dogs.
I quickly realised I no longer had the job or existence I had come for, I had no travel documentation and no prospect of having money in my pocket to escape with. I felt utterly sick and alone.
My eventual escape from her clutches, many long days later, came via the Westerners I had originally paid for my ‘internship’. In a tangle of frenzied phone-calls, threats of embassies and reputations being ruined, they extracted me from my relative squat and the greedy hands of the agent. With their own threats of embassy involvement, they successfully retrieved my passport. I left them to deal with the consequences of being the ones to cause a Chinese person to lose face and the amount of money they now owed her to compensate, in addition to the commission she had paid them for my ownership. The threat she made on her ‘people’ revoking my visa left me with a sense of relief that a natural end might come to my Chinese ordeal.
As it happened, it would take her some time to carry out her threat on my visa and in the meantime, I inexplicably fought for the internship I had paid for with the crooks that had been so ingrained in the Chinese culture that their morals had been lost. Two long and miserable weeks later and being holed up in a prostitute ridden hotel in downtown Beijing, they eventually gave me what I demanded, in fear of their own reputation and lucrative ventures conning education mad parents in Beijing being lost to my story going public.
At last, for the first time in weeks, the upside of my stay in China began. The teaching community of Westerners is tightly knit and offered an instant circle of friends, providing solace from the largely misunderstood nation we resided in and a little taste of home whilst we were thousands of miles away. We drank cheap bottles of local brew together, had cosy gatherings at each others (very basic) apartments and dined on incredible native cuisine at local food holes where we could practice our Mandarin. We adopted local mini markets where, after much cajoling, our foreign faces received shy smiles from the vendors.
But although I had found allies and support in my Eastern challenge and nurtured smatterings of a private life, this also meant that I had begun my life as teacher of English in China.
I had become a cog in the wheel of the depressingly aggressive education culture. ‘Teaching’ 3 year olds English, whilst their parents looked on, battling for their precious children to be prodigies and blaming us when they weren’t showing early signs. Or dealing with over zealous parents of exhausted 10 year olds who could barely stay awake during the extra curricular private lessons we taught because their school day was now 14 hours long – not including homework.
These poor children were victims of the single child policy. They carried the full weight and responsibility of being an extension of their parents reputation and status – where being mediocre at anything was unforgivable. Their childhood was effectively dead – and I felt partially responsible.
The school itself was also brutal. Without warning, teaching timetables would often be extended beyond our contracted hours. Teachers would find themselves sacked one day and reemployed the next – when rich parents complained about the inconsistency of their child’s teacher. Or, colleagues were evicted from their apartments for no apparent reason. Everything was money driven and greedy – and everyone lived day to day, unsure of their existence, and what tomorrow would hold. I quickly saw why they had so easily had no conscience when they sold me into the underworld.
Outside of school (aside from the safety of my new-found friends), my experience was no more positive. Stepping outside of my immediate neighbourhood and the relationships with the locals that we had collectively nurtured, I often found myself in non-tourist areas on my explorations and was stared at everywhere I went by soulless, empty, cold faces. Gone were the delusions that a 5’7” blonde in Beijing may be viewed as a minor celebrity as tourist publications would have you believe. Locals could barely hide their contempt for me. Two weeks into my ‘freedom’, someone spat half an infected lung onto my leg in disgust at my presence. I promptly vomited into the dusty, filthy gutter of the hutong I had dared to venture down in search of the quaint China I had researched and hoped for. Not long after, I found myself running for my life after an attempted mugging from a tri-shaw rider who took me down a back alley to his friends and tried to rob me. At that moment I was grateful for the survival Mandarin I had learned in my panicked attempt to prove to them that I was not a tourist that could be taken advantage of so easily. Survival being the operative word in this very instance.
Traversing this complicated city proved a constant challenge. As a Westerner, abandon all hope of hailing a taxi to safely deliver you to your destination. A foreign face is ignored. Even keeping to the well trodden path of the formal transport system of the subway meant taking your life into your own hands. They were so jam packed with people that standing in the vicinity of an armpit of a fellow commuter on the London underground became appealing once again.
It was not only a personally imposing experience where full bodily contact came as the norm – but it was a violent, unsafe affair. An early experience of the chaos of the Beijing commuter culture, where people forcibly shove themselves on to a carriage before alighting passengers can exit, saw me witnessing a smartly dressed business man punching and kicking a tiny young girl who had dared to push passed him to enter a subway car. He continued to beat her with his briefcase until the doors began closing and the train could carry her away to safety. A violent kick to her already buckling legs was the finale of an encounter that none of the hundreds of people in the audience batted an eyelid at. It made me feel sick to my stomach. Was this normal? Was this acceptable behaviour? Apparently so. To halt an attack, even after realising it was wrong, meant losing face. And so he continued, unrelenting, whilst people pretended not to see – lest they be implicated in the loss of face of another person. Even if it did involve a disgusting unprovoked attack on a minor.
But even that was not my lowest ebb. The threads of my faith in the humanity of this nation were utterly destroyed when I had the misfortune to witness a violent collision between a bicycle and a car at an intersection in the very centre of the horrendously congested and polluted Beijing. Whilst the victim lay inert on the filthy road, not a single person, even the culprit, exited their vehicles to tend the casualty. The body merely a temporary and inconvenient obstacle drivers had to navigate. If it wasn’t for a Western good Samaritan running to his aid he would still be there to this day, of that I’m sure. In the meantime, I watched China carry on its business. Even the occupants of a police car parked alongside of me remained impassive as someone’s son, father, friend, lay potentially dying – all alone.
It was then that it finally dawned on me that these incidents were not isolated, or simply my bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This lack of humanity was all very real and all too commonplace. I questioned that if this nation does not even care for its own people, their morality destroyed by corruption and greed, how could I, myself, ever expect to be safe here?
To add to my already deep seated concerns, I had recently discovered that the visa I’d been granted by the agent I was sold to was in fact fake, and my status as an illegal alien in this dangerous country now terrified me to the point that I knew I had to leave. It was time to admit to myself that my safety was not worth such an unrewarding, miserable and frankly perilous existence.
I resigned from my job the next day. Unwilling to continue the cycle of fear I had lived in since my arrival 4 months earlier. I walked out of the school that day, believing the trauma was finally over.
But it wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. This was China.
Less than 24 hours after my exit, the school was the subject of an unannounced raid by police and immigration hunting out illegal foreign workers – demanding to see travel and work visas of all Westerners, capturing my friends faces on film and taking teaching rotas, payroll data, and employee records as evidence.
When I received urgent word of the search from concerned colleagues – my only friends, a more acute fear set in than ever before. Who was the only illegal worker? Who could be the reason for an anonymous tip off to the police by a disgruntled Chinese agent? And who was most at risk of detention in a Chinese prison?
And now they knew exactly who I was…