It’s hard enough finding your hotel in rural China when you’re not being tailed by an undercover cop. The road is bumpy, lights are scarce. You make a left, a right, then shit, dead end. You want to just back up, only he’s behind you, unmarked license plate an all. So then you have to motion for him to reverse, thus breaking the delicate dance in which you pretend you don’t see him, and he pretends the same thing. And he thinks you’re trying out some trick you’ve gotten straight out of a Hollywood movie, while you’re wishing you’d watched those movies more closely so that you’d know what to do in a situation like this. And now he’s reversing, and you’re this close to asking him directions while he’s this close to asking you for a push. Very awkward, frankly, for all parties concerned.
We’d known what we were getting into, going to Xinjiang. After all, you can understand the CCP’s perspective: it’s embarrassing, having to hide the fact that you’ve stuck a million of your own citizens in concentration camps, even if they are Muslims. You know how it is: questions get asked, awkward silences follow. People start saying things like, ‘Well maybe you shouldn’t try to forcibly homogenize your minorities, even if they did riot in 2009,’ and, ‘Yes I did talk to that Muslim melon dealer, but it was strictly about melons.’ It’s hard to save face while asking a redheaded American who’s entirely doubled-up in laughter to please delete her photo of the Spongebob graffiti — for national security reasons, of course. Even if you’re being paid to do this kind of thing, you’re probably not being paid enough.
It was all about the ‘J’ on Lear’s visa. As a rule, I’ve found the Chinese government doesn’t like Js. ‘Joints,’ ‘jurisprudence,’ ‘justice,’ ‘Japan’ — worst of all is ‘journalist,’ and that is exactly what Lear’s ‘J’ happened to stand for. We tried telling them we were on vacation, which, coincidentally, happened to be true. I tried explaining that for vacations me and Lear always went to miserable places — it was the bastion of our friendship. But since my Chinese is limited all that came out is ‘I’m a vegetarian’, and they didn’t seem to hear me , seeing as they were busy going through and deleting all of my photos. Not everyone’s a multitasker, after all.
We had arrived in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, about three days previously, and had expected the cops to be waiting for us at the tarmac, perhaps holding some sort of large net. When we realized they weren’t waiting for us we were elated — maybe we’d slipped through the system, maybe we’d gotten away. Lear chatted happily about the paramilitary tomato operation he wanted to check out, while I flipped idly through my copy of Anne Frank’s diary, not a care in the world. Boredom was our worst complaint — one of the downsides to wiping out your minority population is it can leave a city somewhat culturally desolate. So we made a plan: Rent a car and head to Raisin Town, a small city on the outskirts. We thought it’d be funny. We thought it would at least be fun.
It wasn’t actually called Raisin Town — that was our nickname for it, having read its rather paltry Wikivoyage section, which focused mostly on raisin-related activities. We’d cackled wildly as Lear read aloud descriptions of ‘Raisin Square’ and the ‘Grape Girls.’ What a whimsical outing, we thought. What fun! Everything was peachy as we rolled down the highway, through a lovely American landscape (as long as you ignored the dystopian propaganda.) But we hadn’t been out on the road for long when the Men in Vests appeared.
I don’t know what your experiences have been with Men in Vests. Generally, I find, when a man/woman in a vests waves me into a particular lane, it’s never good. At best, you find yourself getting deported from Canada, and at worst you start eyeing your companions, wondering who you should pick in the event of a Sophie’s Choice-type situation. I said as much to Lear as we drove into the right lane.
“No, I think we made it,” he said. “I think the one on the left has more security. We passed.”
There is one simple method to ascertaining whether or not you have indeed ‘passed’ a security checkpoint. Look at the person to your right. Are they Muslim? Now look to your left. Is this person also Muslim? If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to only one of these questions, then, quite simply, you’re fucked. If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to both, then you have about thirty seconds to reach for your cyanide capsule. That’s about the remaining time your throat will probably continue to work.
After performing the test (part I and II) I reached in my pocket, but unfortunately I’d left my cyanide at home. After briefly wondering if I should bludgeon my head against the nearest wall, I gave up, simply joining Lear as he was questioned by a baby-faced man (in a vest!) Seeing the ‘J’ on Lear’s visa, the cop made the distinct expression of one who has also forgotten his own cyanide capsule. Instead, he gave a quivering smile, picked up the phone, and said: ‘Five minutes.’ Lear and I exchanged a we’re-definitely-going-to-be-here-longer-than-five-minutes sort of look, and sat down. Baby Face, appearing to need comfort, put his helmet on as he returned to some paperwork, shuffling it arbitrarily, giving us side-long glances.
“The king of Cambodia is gay,” said Lear, always a lover of non-sequiturs.
“What’s the political situation down there again?”
“Shhh,” said Lear, gesturing towards the cameras, and I sighed. What it was about the King of Cambodia’s sexuality that could get us detained I didn’t know, and was apparently not going to find out. Instead I watched dully as the many Muslims got their faces scanned with the attitude of people buying groceries, a normal weekly task. An hour-and-a-half later Lear was summoned. Passports were returned. We were free.
“Not quite the American road trip, eh?” I said, as we passed by a gas station, covered in barbed wire and about seven layers of security.
“‘The Communist Party is good’,” said Lear, translating aloud the propaganda signs. “‘The big family of ethnicity is good.’ ‘The development of the area is good.’ ‘Socialism is good’? My God! These are ridiculous.”
He was blasting electro-pop, and a song came on whose chorus was ‘This is a cold war/ You better know what you’re fighting for.’ The laughter had barely died on our lips when we spotted another Man In A Black Vest.
I didn’t bother performing the test this time — We knew everyone in our lane was definitely Uighurs. As usual I watched with a mixture of annoyance and anger as Lear was questioned in Chinese. The cop — this time not baby-faced, though equally dumb — stepped aside, and a pudgy man in a Monsters Inc. shirt began saying something to Lear, his manner supplicating, as if making a request. A sudden wave of dislike passed through me as I watched him. I knew I didn’t like this man.
“He’s asking to come with us,” said Lear, a wry smile on his face. “Obviously I told him we would prefer to go alone, but…”
I rolled my eyes. I’d gotten used to this on the North Korean border. Chinese cops, when they fuck with journalists, aren’t rude, or angry. They’re friendly — they smile, they ‘invite you to dinner,’ i.e. detain you and throw you out of a city for arbitrary reasons. I appreciated the lack of I-might-suddenly-murder-you vibe that I get from American cops, but also hated the pretense, the hypocrisy. The man introduced himself in (seemingly: one can never be sure if it’s a ruse) limited English and I gave him a nasty look. We hit the road this time with Our Brand-New Friend.
I don’t know if you’ve been tailed by the police before. Maybe, to you, it sounds a little fun. No doubt your mind conjures up movie situations: noirs, blockbusters, and you get a secret, titillating amusement from the idea. That’s how I felt, going into it — I thought it’d be funny. After all there was nothing to worry about — intimidation of this kind is routine, and unlike our cops they don’t have guns. But after the jokes have been made (‘Man I hope we find a train track so we can cross just before the train comes and lose them ha ha ha’) the feeling of hilarity becomes weaker and weaker, until an anxious silence follows. You tap the dashboard, look into the rear view mirror — still there. You turn a corner —still there. A couple hours of this and we were on edge, irritable, afraid to stop or talk to anyone for fear of getting them in trouble. Paranoia seeped through us — Lear was nervous about contacts on his computer, as well as the mysterious phone scanners that were rumored to download even Facebook messages, and we were both worried about our photos. We were tourists, after all, but Lear and I have never been ones to take pictures of sunsets and smiling brown children in our arms. Barbed wire, security cameras and propaganda filled my own memory card, not to mention a million videos of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian children, videos that looked distinctly journalistic. Even a simple, if illegal, google was enough to see I was a freelancer. If they found out that they might deport me. As much as Lear got shit for his ‘J,’ living without it made me even more vulnerable, in a sense.
The next day we were stopped by a band of cops, demanding to search our car. As Lear argued with one of them, the embassy on the line, six riot cops with batons and shields surrounded us. While waiting for the embassy to get back, we quietly debated where to hide our cameras’ memory cards.
“Just stick it in your bra,” said Lear.
“You know I never wear a bra.”
“Then just put it on your person,” he said, raising his eyebrows significantly.
“What does that even mean? I’m wearing a dress — I don’t even have fucking pockets.”
“Just put it on your person.”
“Lear, unless you want me to put the memory cards inside me — “
He shushed me, his eyebrows still raised. As Lear talked to the multiplying guards in Chinese I wondered, heart racing, how I could covertly stick two memory cards up my vagina without being seen. Before things got desperate, however, our passports were returned and we drove away. Lear had managed to avoid the sinister phone scanner — they’d flipped through his photos instead — but he was still worried they’d done something to his phone, bugging it, and so he turned it off. There was no music this time — we wanted only one thing, to lose our tail. We’d gotten it at the checkpoint into Raisin Town, and so like the Ichabod Crane we just wanted to cross the bridge (or in this case, checkpoint) where he’d disappear. It had been two days of harassment, and Monsters Inc. had been joined by a meaner guy, one who’d harassed us at a local graveyard— they were in the car together now. Lear tapped the steering wheel anxiously as we headed back to the checkpoint — Raisin Town had been far from relaxing.
“Finally,” he said, with a sigh of relief.
We’d passed the checkpoint — the black car had disappeared. A weight seemed to lift off our chests — suddenly everything was lighter, cheerier, like killing a Horcrux.
“Well fuck,” I said. “That’s the most pain anyone’s ever taken to go to Raisin Town.” The feeling of freedom was intoxicating, of mere normality itself. I rolled down the window, breathing fresh air. “Thank God!”
The note in his voice was unmistakable. My stomach clenched.
“I have a funny feeling about that car.”
It was a white car now. A different license plate, different people inside. We made one turn, then another.
“Noooooo!” we shouted simultaneously. The car was definitely, certainly, tailing us. Suddenly our forced equanimity was gone, and we derailed quickly into hysteria.
“Why!” I shouted. “ALL THIS FOR RAISIN TOWN?”
Lear had his face to the steering wheel, a mad look in his widened eyes. “Come on come on come on come on,” he said, mutter-screaming as he weaved through traffic, making a desperate and futile attempt to get as many cars between us and our tail. “Aghhhhhhh!”
Whatever had been holding us together was gone. Lear, usually cool and monotone, had developed the hysterical pitch I associated with coked-up Eagles fans during the Playoffs. His eyes were wide, and he kept emitting little mad cackles every time he switched lanes.
“Yeah? Try to follow that, and that!” he said, gobbling raisins with one hand, leering a Jack Nicholson smile.
I, meanwhile, had derailed into an explosion of explatives.
“Motherfucking cunt-ass-pigs!” I shouted, my years of public defender upbringing finally getting to me. “You fucking Nazi fascist shitheads can go burn in fucking hell you fucking concentration camp making, collaborating cunt— ”
“ — NOOOOOOOOOOO!” scream-shouted Lear as a truck moved aside, revealing the white car directly behind us. “FUCK YOU!!!”
“Go go go go!” I egged Lear on, also chomping on raisins, my one source of nutrients for the last 48 hours.
“Ha!” he shouted, managing to get a small car in between us. “HA HA HA FUCKERS!”
“What’s gonna happen,” I said, afraid to voice it. “What’s gonna happen once we get to Urumqi? They’re gonna follow us on foot?”
“I can’t fucking believe it,” said Lear, weaving aggressively. As soon as we hit Urumqi he began taking creative turns — Lear has the extremely useful power of being able to digest maps quickly, and he’d picked up a few tricks from the cab drivers who’d taken us through the city. Lear made a turn last minute, switching lanes before a light, taking an unusual road.
“Nice!” I said.
“Did we lose him?”
“I don’t know.”
But every time, after one minute, maybe two, the white car would be behind us, our evil shadow, aggressively cutting, screeching, to stay on our tail. They were riding closer, obviously pissed, hanging close to our back.
“Shit,” said Lear. “We missed the turn to the rental.”
Lear turned right, into a parking garage. As we drove down the slope Lear stuck his head out the window, talking to an attendant, who told us that there was only one entrance/exit to the garage and we’d have to turn around.
“Ah, fuck,” said Lear, making a U-turn, only to confront the white car. It had stopped, right where we’d spoken to the attendant, who was looking confused. They were blocking our way.
“You know what,” said Lear. “I’m just gonna get out, tell them, ‘Look, I’m just on vacation, and I’m really just trying to leave this parking garage, I know you’re just doing your job, but— ’”
“No no no,” I said. “Fuck these fuckers — let them sweat. They chose this job. They’re the ones harassing us. They can take it.”
The parking attendant was talking to the cops, clearly confused as to why they were blocking our path. A small crowd of workers had gathered. Lear drove up so we were front-to-front, their headlights shining in ours.
“I just want to get out of this fucking garage,” muttered Lear. “I just want to return this fucking car.”
The attendant was telling the white car to move. I kept expecting them to lean out, flash a badge, but they didn’t. Instead, we heard them hit the engine.
“Fine, we can do it this way,” said Lear.
They were reversing, backing out so they’d be facing us the entire way.
And that, it turned out, was their crucial mistake.
Friends, I was tired. Forty-eight straight hours of surveillance on a raisin-based diet will do that to you. They’d stalked us to our hotel, stalked us to a market place. They’d stalked us while I took a picture of Spongebob graffiti, they’d stalked us while we drove through a vineyards. Even when they let us out of their sight we were never free — a camera hangs on every sidewalk, on every storefront, a metal detector outside every store. So even when Monsters Inc. wasn’t actually there with us we could feel him, feel him as we talked to locals, saw the nervousness in their eyes every time we skated across something even remotely political: ‘How come the night market isn’t actually open at night?’ as we asked a raisin seller. ‘For, uh, safety reasons,’ said the woman, with darting eyes.
The feeling was uncanny, eerie, rage-inducing. And when we realized this wasn’t just for a couple days but an entire week, we’d nearly lost our minds. I knew, now, the feeling of a cornered dog, the feeling of wanting someone to drop dead not out of vindictiveness but self-protection, the feeling of most practical hate.
So let me say, that seeing that car try to reverse, make a screeching sound, and slowly fall back, not once, not twice, but over and over, over and over, while me and Lear howled with laughter, while they sweared with embarrassment and were shouted at by parking attendants, was one of the most beautiful, exquisite moments of my life. It was something like seeing Mussolini slip on a banana peel, having about the same transcendent comedy, the same perfect silliness of seeing Darth Vader cut one as he activates the Death Star. The attendant was shouting: Move over! Why don’t you just move over? while their shitty car screeched, screeched, failed, screech, screech, failed over and over again. And we howled in their faces, genuinely doubled-up, and they had to watch us laugh at them, for minutes on end.
Finally, they accepted defeat: the white car moved aside.
“Bye-bye motherfuckers!” I shouted, waiving as Lear sped up the slope. He didn’t waste time: Lear turned quickly, and in a minute we were at the dealer’s, the car returned. Any longer on the road we would have been found out: nearly every intersection has license plate readers, and no doubt soon we’d have had a third car on our ass. Before the white car could find us we scurried into a restaurant, this one called Big Fish.
“My friend is very sensitive to sunlight; could we have a table far from the window?”
My chalk-white skin was for once a cover, and we quickly found the darkest corner the restaurant had. Undercover cops, it turned out, were easy enough to spot — it’s hard to tail someone unnoticed, or maybe they’re just not that good. We knew we were safe, and that the safety would be short-lived — only a few hotels allowed foreigners in Xinjiang, and all hotels required passports, so we only had a few hours of freedom before they tracked us down again. We plugged in our devices, shaken, and quickly began uploading photos into the Cloud, hiding everything for when they inevitably searched us more closely. We barely had time to celebrate losing them — we quickly agreed Lear should call his editor for advice, and I tried to read Anne Frank’s diary as my mind scanned for anything I’d forgotten, jiggling my knee to Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi,’ which had become stuck in my head (‘I’m your biggest fan I’ll follow you until you love me…)
In the bathroom, I looked myself in the mirror, trying to shake out the tension, pull myself together. I was stuck in survival mode. There was nothing to be truly worried about — we weren’t in danger. At worse, we’d get detained only 72 hours. In the broad scheme of things, that wasn’t so bad.
I came back to a table of hot pot, Lear still on his devices, covering our electronic trail. After a few hours the tension lifted — we chattered, half-shaken, half-amused (“Just to be clear I wasn’t telling you to put the memory cards in your vagina.” “You totally were.”) It was so strange, hanging out with this old college friend, the person I’d always looked to when I felt I couldn’t stand my school’s sequestered luxury one more minute. We’d gotten along so well because in a sense both of us were running — we were angsty suburban kids at heart, terrified of nothing more than the too-silent silences of a too-safe world. Usually we were too busy convincing our more timid friends to do things outside their comfort zones to bother being afraid for our own lives — we were hungry for the things we’d spent years reading about, too hungry for anything to feel frightening, or even real. I’d dragged a boyfriend through a Hezbollah controlled neighborhood, and an Englishman through Skid Row; I’d hitchhiked with meth-heads and slept in the homes of strangers. And I’d never been afraid. Not since India, anyway, where we’d met.
“Well,” I said, finally. “You have to admit. This is the opposite of the suburbs.”
Lear paused, considering it, and laughed. He laughed harder and harder. “That’s good. Write that down.”
“You’re allowing me to quote myself?” I said, scrawling it in my notebook. We’d finally gotten the very thing we’d wanted. We’d learned what the suburbs were built for, to hide us from exactly what we wanted to find. For once we weren’t writers, dreamers, but characters, only the thing is characters can die. And even though death hadn’t been a factor we’d gotten a whiff of it, however distant, on the periphery of the evil center rotting at the heart of Xinjiang. Lear had admitted, after the fact, that all he wanted now was a hug, and so we clung together, not feeling brave, or cool, like Hunter S Thompson or Hemingway but like the soft, fragile bodies we truly were, feeling once more like children, not adventurers, children who’d gone too far. For the first time ever we didn’t talk history, or geopolitics, or even about boys. We talked about the books we’d read as children, the safest adventures there were. We talked Harry Potter, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Roald Dahl, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. We talked about the stories Lear had almost forgotten he’d read at all, long before he’d abandoned them for articles, biographies. We knew, that soon, our little spell would be broken, that we’d be out in a strange city where strangers were doggedly trying to find us, to hide their hideous secret which is no longer secret to the world. Like Death Eaters, like Count Olaf’s troupes, like Dahl’s witches or Tolkien’s Ring-wriaths they were sniffing for us, and we felt just like the little protagonists, in over their heads.
“I think we hit our ceiling,” I said to Lear, still locked in a hug.
“That’s pretty hard to do,” he agreed.
We broke apart, gathered our belongings, back to a hotel whose staff were employed specifically to betray us, to a morning that surely would bring security, guards, maybe guns.
“But still,” I said. “We did accidentally win a car chase.”
“Yeah, I guess we did.”