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Friday, 30 July 2010

How to get Kidnapped in China

Written by Michael Norwood
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“We aren’t going to Huanggang City.”

This is apparently how a kidnapping can begin.

The first time I suspected something was wrong was when I heard this sentence, approximately 10 minutes after leaving Wuhan airport, Hubei province, Mid-East China.

The decision I made to teach in China was a snap one, and I had no idea then that it would end up in what can only be described as “friendly kidnap.” Although there was no bag being pulled over my head, no being bundled into the back of a van - in fact, the kidnappers were very friendly, full of smiles, and would continuously try their very best to be accommodating and generous hosts.

Huanggang City, the location where I had applied to teach, could be described as a university city with a healthy foreign community and a handful of English teachers, while still being in the heart of Chinese culture. Therefore you could live and teach in China with a certain level of control over how much you immerse yourself in the culture, and you could take a step back from it when you wanted to. Unfortunately I would never get a chance to find out if this is an accurate description since I went, instead, to Xishui.

“We aren’t going to Huanggang city” and the three hour car ride from the airport in Wuhan to Xishui was when I should have realised my perception of how this experience would turn out was optimistic and mislead. The motorway was long and wide, although very empty, as though it was anticipating the arrival of masses of people, when instead it has been, and will be, waiting a long time.

Flanking the motorway on both sides were rice paddies that went on for miles until your gaze briefly found some mountains in the distance. After almost an hour, the car crossed an impressive bridge over the famous Yangtze River. As I got closer to the mystery destination, some of the rice paddies made way for more barren terrain, and the road turned to bumpy dirt. After half an hour of this there was one more bridge to cross before we arrived.

How to get Kidnapped in China, Huanggang City, English teachers, friendly kidnap, live and teach in China, living and teaching in Xishui, China, Michael NorwoodXishui is a pure and untouched small Chinese town that is 10 minutes by bus from one side to the other before you re-enter the rice paddies and rural China. I felt as if I’d never been more foreign and really understood the term ‘culture shock.’ It didn’t take long to discover that there weren’t any other westerners here, and that there probably never has been.

The first time I entered the school gates, the children were all outside, and being the first westerner most had ever seen, the reaction was unforgettable. I was surrounded by a large crowd of screaming children, all wanting to shake hands or hug. It was a toned down version of children meeting their favorite music or acting hero.

Then after almost 20 hours of traveling, I was given a book and told to start at 7:30 the next morning. Having never taught before, my first attempt at it would have to be done while still jet-lagged and with no time for preparation.

The first stage of the kidnap was underway. Perhaps it was a British approach, but not wanting to immediately quit meant the only action to be taken was to get on with it and try and enjoy the experience, while complaining only to people who were in no position to do anything to help.

The teaching was what made this experience worthwhile. It wasn‘t easy - resources were blackboard and chalk only, and the teaching environment could be described in one word: cramped.

How to get Kidnapped in China, Huanggang City, English teachers, friendly kidnap, live and teach in China, living and teaching in Xishui, China, Michael Norwood60 students of varying levels were in each class. Their desks were cramped as well: lift up the lid of the desk and it was full of books. The same with the top of the desk - trying to see students over their pile of books was sometimes impossible. The students’ time-table could also be described as cramped: They have school six and a half days a week for 15 hours a day. This means there are almost two common types of students. Some are very tired and try to sleep, while others are trying to film you with their phones or take photos.

For the first month all students were the latter – taking photos and filming - until, the novelty wore off for a few and tiredness kicked in again. For others - the majority - the novelty never wore off. Almost seen as a celebrity instead of a teacher, one boy asked me to write my name in his book. All of a sudden, 59 more books were pushed under my nose and I realized I was giving out signatures.

It would be a few months before the second part of the kidnap would become clear to me. The first stage was to be taken somewhere against your will. This makes the next stage of kidnap obvious: make it impossible to leave. And that’s what happened.

Arriving one morning to a lesson, after almost three months living and teaching in Xishui, my students informed me that I didn’t have lessons, and that I was actually free for a whole week. It took a while for this news to become believable.

As the outside of the school filled with buses to take students to their respective homes in the outlying country, the reality sunk in. Only very briefly was this lack of communication both confusing and frustrating, as instead, excitement and scheming set in, and a holiday to Beijing was formed. This excitement lasted for about 15 hours - the time it takes to get to the hostel in Beijing and for my last bit of blissful obliviousness to evaporate.

Upon trying to check-in to the hostel, the news that the receptionist gave was that there was no valid visa in my passport. Having previously seen a “foreign expert” certificate myself, I took this as a mistake. However, after speaking to the school, it became apparent that this was no mistake. No visa meant no hostel. It was possible more action should have been taken by the receptionist towards me. They were kind enough not only to let me off, but, after several hours of negotiating, make a room available for one night, provided if anyone asked, complete denial was the only response.

Eventually I returned to Xishui and sheepishly handed back the passport to the school so they could finish the working visa process. This would be the last time I would hold my passport for three more months. Second stage of kidnap complete. No passport meant I couldn’t travel anywhere in or out of China. Just to make things worse, the local police wanted to impose a fine of 20,000 RMB, about £2000 at the time. It was like being asked to put up my own ransom money.

Why it would take three more months to clear this up will forever be a mystery. No doubt there would have been red tape, paper work and phone calls to make, but it was finally resolved when a head from the school took the head of the local police out for dinner and discussed the business over what would have been plenty of food and plenty of rice wine. Later, I would hear many stories from western businessmen in Wuhan about similar scenarios where this is how things eventually get done; One went as far as describing this area as the “wild west” of China.

So finally, a few days before Christmas, I received the best gift ever: my passport back in my possession, no fines, and a fully legal visa. Next to come would be the final hurdle for a kidnap victim: escape.

I had given Xishui and the lifestyle that came with it a chance, even though I knew it wasn’t what I had applied for. Aside from the culture shock, lack of things to do, and the lack of passports, it was the loneliness a life like this brought that meant I had to leave. So about one week after regaining my passport, I handed in my notice.

This should have been a triumphant act, but again, nothing was that simple here. In reality, even though I had decided to leave, there was still a possibility that the school could fine me, and even not agree to let me go. In the “wild west” of China, the school holds all the power.

How to get Kidnapped in China, Huanggang City, English teachers, friendly kidnap, live and teach in China, living and teaching in Xishui, China, Michael NorwoodIt would take almost the full month of notice I had given before I would hear the conclusion, just three days before I intended to leave at the beginning of the holiday for Chinese New Year. Quitting and persuading the school not to fine me will now always be one of my happiest and greatest personal achievements. The school actually told me if I was Chinese they would never have agreed to let me go. Negotiating my release was as enjoyable as it was surprising - a small miracle.

I left China with a very unique experience. I have friends who stayed for much longer, who lived just three hours away in Wuhan, and had fantastic experiences. These friends share many of the same issues and thoughts that I do on the country, along with seeing many of the same positive sides. However, they were able to take a step back when necessary and discuss this entirely different world over drinks and place it in a more manageable position in their mind.

The majority of people teaching in China are happy - seeing and living in a hugely different culture has a lot to offer a person. Even my experience is unforgettable and I believe the heads of the school only created my situation unintentionally and through lack of experience. Most people I speak to report that they are shown great hospitality from their Chinese co-workers, as I was, even if it did come across to me as a friendly form of kidnap.

© Michael Norwood

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012