Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Theft of Benevolence

Ma Lei has been seeping preciously little, of late. Her belly is just too big for her ever to become comfortable, as the big watermelon has grown to become a contender for first prize at the county fair. (Roman is already over 8 lbs., three weeks before his due date. I'm terrible with these sorts of details, but people tend to gasp when I tell them that fact.)
So around 9:00 this morning, I was very much relieved to hear her snoozing gently. I tried to avoid making a peep, as anything I do in this teeny-weeny apartment inevitably wakes her up.
Then came a quiet yet insistent knock at our door. It came once, and we ignored it. It came again. Then a third time. 
By this time, Ma Lei was out of bed and at the door.
"Who is it?" She asked. 
"It's me!" came the quiet, mysterious response, in an old woman's voice she didn't recognize.
"Do I know you?"
"I know your cousin," the woman said. "I've come selling blankets for your baby. Let me in so I can show you."

If this sounds like the intro to a Disney movie, it's not!
We have a little screened door-within-a-door, a foot and a half high and a foot wide, to allow air flow on days when it's not quite hot enough for the air conditioner. Ma Lei opened that little door to see two fifty-something women — but no blankets, no other inventory, and no flyers or other sales materials. Only their giant, Cheshire grins and another request for her to invite them in.
Ma Lei freaked out and yelled at the women to get the hell out of here. "I don't know you, and I'm not buying anything from you old crones!"

(Still sounding like the intro to a Disney movie. Still not.)

For one thing, Disney movies never involve social media, unless you count the seagulls in Finding Nemo.

Ma Lei immediately got on various social media groups for our neighborhood, and after confirming briefly that these women had been pestering various neighbors, she was quickly on the phone with the police.

I was quite shocked by all this fervor. Granted, these women interrupted her precious sleep, but why call the cops on them? Perhaps I've seen too many Disney movies in which cruelty toward the door-to-door crone turns out badly.

Well, it turns out there is a reason for Ma Lei's reaction, which a middle-class, Disney-fed American would never understand.

There is a scam in China, in which people come to your door with some reasonable pretense to get you to open up. Once you do, they have two ploys available to them. 

In one, they simply case you out, quietly inventorying your place for things they can later return and steal. 

In the other, they won't bother with such formalities, getting straight to work: they knock you out with chloroform or some other drug, then take your stuff immediately. An old man in Ma Lei's home village got robbed that way, losing something close to $200. (In a Chinese peasant farming community, $200 is a massive loss. That might be a year's worth of his savings.)

The two scams work together. The thieves may be the same ones: if they see that there are two people at home, they'll opt for Plan A, but if it's just a lone housewife, they might go for Plan B. This is what Ma Lei explained to me.

I was still skeptical, and Ma Lei could see it on me. So she walked me out into the hall, where someone had stroked a little red hash mark next to our door. I was still uncomprehending as Ma Lei dashed inside to grab a wet rag, then set about aggressively washing it off. When she had finished, she explained a bit more.

The mark would have been put there by someone who observed us and identified us as — literally — "marks." I.e., easy and/or lucrative victims. Foreigner = rich and naive, in the Chinese criminal mind. (In this case, much more the latter than the former.) About to have a baby = vulnerable. Even a Chinese woman might go soft and let her guard down during those last few weeks before birth. The combination is salivatory, if you're a Chinese criminal.

If only the foreigner is home, he'll be happy to show you in. "Oh yes," he'll answer your question, "we bought that TV just last year. It cost about $400. Why yes, that is my laptop. I take it with me to campus every day. ... No, it doesn't bother me to carry it with me, because I also have my other computer that's always in my apartment. That one is safe from theft or accident." And so on, and so on. Foreigners are stupid!

If only the Chinese wife is home, she won't be so stupid. She might tell you when her baby is due and what she needs to buy, but in the meantime you can case out the place. Already, she's given you too much information, but not as much as her running-at-the-mouth foreign husband.

And of course if neither one is home, you can do your business right away. Hence the rather quiet rapping at our door: the neighbors wouldn't hear it.

There's no way to know what their scam was, but the evidence is clear that this was a scam. 

  • We'd been marked out (by whom, we'll never know). 
  • The women knew that we had a baby coming, yet they had no good way to know: they didn't know Ma Lei.
  • They refused to identify themselves by name. 
  • And they weren't carrying anything to indicate that they were actually selling something. Yeah, I'm convinced that this was some kind of scam.

"Welcome to China! The nice hat-check lady will be happy to take your coat, your umbrella, and your American benevolence toward your fellow human beings. Better give it to her, and get a ticket so you can get it back when you leave China. Otherwise, someone's liable to steal it for good."

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