A theft in Shaoxing


SHAOXING, CHINA —Travel guides caution foreigners to be wary of pickpockets while traveling in China. Lonely Planet, for example, writes in its China book, “Pickpocketting is the most common form of theft and the one you need to carefully guard against.” Despite this knowledge, as well as advice from my Chinese friends, I was apparently unprepared for the reality and was a recent unfortunate pickpocket victim.

My camera was stolen — snatched from my shoulder bag with the strap left dangling by my side. I thought I had been exceptionally careful to hold onto my purse and camera on that day when I visited the small, scenic and historic water town of Shaoxing. But in a matter of a few minutes that I lapsed into giddiness at the sight of beautiful cotton shirts, the camera was skillfully misappropriated.

I was devastated — more for the loss of the recorded images than for the camera. Stored on the memory card was material for at least two lectures that were already organized in my head, as well as shots to accompany one newspaper article. Also stored in the camera was evidence of some significant moments in another city that could not be duplicated, but which thankfully will be recorded in my memory for eternity.

My tears provoked startling curiosity in onlookers. The embarrassed tour guide was very sympathetic, but he too could do nothing but try to console me. When I lamented my loss to my foreign friends, they shrugged and recited the oft-chanted mantra, “This is China.” One friend added, “You haven’t had the total China experience unless you’ve had something stolen — congratulations!”

My Chinese friends, although relatively concerned, blamed me for the loss. “You must be careful; this is not America,” one chastised me angrily. “Why didn’t you download the memory card before you went on your trip?” another said. And another asked, “Why wasn’t your camera on a strap around your neck?”

The rate of violent crimes in China is extremely low, and violent crime involving strangers is almost nonexistent. Protecting oneself against theft, however, presents a veritable challenge taken seriously by all. There are steel gates on almost every window and door on the lower levels of buildings and some on the upper levels as well. Despite the number of locks or their complexity, bicycles are hot items for theft.

The theft of my camera is obviously not a matter of life and death. Theft happens every day in every country. It certainly happens in America, and even in my hometown of St. Paul. I was, however, taken aback by the reactions to my story — no one was as outraged as I.

When one Chinese person laughed at my story, I decided that it was time for me to keep the incident to myself. Because I could not afford to replace my camera immediately, consequently, I had to go on with life without one. It was difficult, however, to go on without resentment as my anger steadily festered.

Looking for emotional reprieve, I turned to Chinese spiritual beliefs. Astonishingly, there was no solace in the teachings of Confucius. According to Confucius’ words, losing my camera was my burden. “But for your greed, though you rewarded thieves, no man would steal.” I discussed this startling finding with several Chinese people, anticipating that someone would disagree with my interpretation of Confucius’ attitude towards theft.

My sources not only credited my interpretation, but through our conversations my insight into Chinese culture was enhanced. I came to understand that Confucius’ teachings, folk tales, belief in luck, and proverbs are all integral aspects of Chinese culture today that influence today’s cultural views.

My friends assured me that bad deeds do not go unpunished. This gave me little comfort, and further I was chagrined because if I accepted that proverb, then I was also being punished for bad behavior.

I decided to take heed of the lesson learned from the incident and be more careful with my personal items, as one Chinese friend suggested. I also chose to reflect on another of Confucius’ sayings: “Forget injuries, never forget kindness.” The numerous kind actions I have received over the last nine months have far surpassed the single act of one person. For example, on more than one occasion when I was obviously in the wrong place, someone has taken the time to escort me to the right place.

To some Chinese people, I will be perceived as a rich foreigner who can afford to pay exorbitant prices for goods and services. I hope also that I can be perceived by many as an average Jamaican American woman who made a personal and financial sacrifice to come and teach English in China for a year. And it has been a year during which I have gained many incredibly rich experiences!

Jennifer Holder, Ed.D., a retired bank executive from St. Paul, is one of seven foreign teachers and the only African American at a foreign language school in Hangzhou, China. Dr. Holder welcomes reader responses to jyholder@msn.com.