Today is Chinese New Year, 2016 being the Year of the Monkey. Therefore, I think it’s time for another weird China story from the vault.
On September 11th 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (which was nerve-wracking enough in itself) I made the journey from Wales back to my ESL teaching job in China. After getting a lift from my dad to Cardiff Central I got a National Express coach to Heathrow airport and then endured a gruelling 10 hour flight to Shanghai Pudong, where I had to get another bus to another airport in Shanghai so I could make a connecting internal flight to Changsha city, capital of Hunan Province. As you can probably imagine, by that point I was tired, stressed, and not in the best of moods.
I dragged my 24 kg suitcase to check-in at Hongqiao, where a nice young Chinese lady slapped a sticker on it and sent it through an arcane-looking X-ray machine. And then an alarm went off. Uh-oh. A couple of burly ‘security operatives’ appeared and whisked me away to a little side room where my suitcase was waiting, sitting on an oversized metal table. One of the security people motioned to a monitor where several ‘suspect’ items were highlighted, and told me to open my suitcase. He then put on some rubber gloves and proceeded to rummage around in my personal affects, placing several of my possessions on the table for further scrutiny.
The first was a police-issue extendable baton, bought for 20 RMB from a street seller in Changsha the year before. Whatever your opinion on this, in my view living alone in a foreign country where laowai (foreigners) are often targeted, necessitates some form of personal protection. Besides, it was pretty cool.
“Can’t have,” said one of the young customs officers.
“Okay, no problem,” I replied, sheepishly. Fair cop, guv.
The next item was a 5-inch switchblade knife with a retractable spring-loaded blade, kept for the same reasons as the baton (although this one doubles as a handy household tool). They are illegal to own in some places, and certainly illegal to carry. The customs officers opened the blade and admired it for a few moments, tested it was sharp enough, then stuffed it back in my suitcase and told me it was fine.
What? Are you sure? I wanted to ask, but of course didn’t. Besides, things were about to get weird. The next things pulled out of my suitcase was a meagre collection of paperback books.
For reference, the titles of these were as follows:
Horns, by Joe Hill
Breathless, by Dean Koontz
Full dark, No Stars, by Stephen King
Bookie Wook 2, by Russell Brand
Country Driving, by Peter Hessler
As the security personnel picked their way through the pile, flicking through the pages and breaking the spine on at least one (I hate that) vague notions ran through my mind. The Chinese government dislike Peter Hessler, an American who lives in China and writes almost exclusively about his adopted country, and often ban his stuff. Could this be the problem? Or could it be the fact that in 2008 the Chinese government banned ‘horror’ (whatever that means) in reaction to Steven Spielberg pulling out of his role as advisor to the Olympic committee on political grounds?
“Why do you have so many books?”
“I like reading.”
“Really. Why else would I carry so many books half way around the world?”
The customs officer considered this and, apparently satisfied, moved on to the next item, which was a pound of Cheddar Cheese.
“It’s a pound of Cheddar Cheese.”
“What is it used for?”
“It’s cheese. You eat it.”
“Erm, whenever you want.”
He made a ‘yeah, right!’ face, picked the cheese up and started bending it and sniffing it. ‘Did you pack this yourself?’
“Yes I did. I packed my suitcase myself, and this is definitely my cheese.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes, I am quite sure this is my cheese. Is there something wrong with it?”
“I’m not sure you can take this on the plane.”
“So I can take a knife on the plane, but no cheese?”
“Knife no trouble in suitcase.”
“So will the cheese be trouble in my suitcase?”
“Maybe.” He gives the matter some thought, stroking the few wispy hairs on his chin.
“Look, I would really appreciate it if you let me take my cheese on the airplane. Of course I will put in my suitcase, and not get it back out until I get to my apartment.”
“Okay. We trust you.”
I hurried off and hid in the departure lounge before they changed their minds. Angry, confused, and bummed at losing my baton, but happy I got to keep my books and cheese. Happy New Year, China.