Fear & Trembling in Beijing

Michelle Richmond
Jun 2, 2015 · 10 min read

The fear overtook me on a Friday afternoon, four days after my arrival in Beijing. I had spent those four days in captivity, waiting in the apartment for Mr. Yiu to show up. Every night he would call and say, “Tomorrow I come to apartment before lunchtime.”

I would go to Ritan Park in the early morning to watch the elderly people at their exercises and yoga. At around 10:00 I would have coffee at the Japanese café across the street from my building, and I would be back in the apartment by eleven. Then I would wait. 12:00. 1:00. 2:00. No word from Mr. Yiu. Finally around 4:00 he would call and say that either he couldn’t make it that day, or he would be there about 6:00 for dinner. Although I enjoyed having the days to myself, but the idea of wasting so much time, when there was so much to see, made me sick.

Friday had been like that. All day I had waited for Mr. Yiu. Finally, at 4:30 in the afternoon, he burst into the apartment without knocking. “We go to dinner with someone,” he said. “Maybe you better change shirt.” I was wearing a form-fitting black top with spaghetti straps, so I wasn’t offended by his request. I changed into a conservative black skirt and a blue cotton button-down blouse. When I came out of the room Mr. Yiu glanced at my outfit and paused as though he had something to say, but the he led me out the door silently. As we waited for the elevator, he glancing over at me with a pained expression, and about the time we hit the ninth floor he said, “In business in China women don’t wear that kind shirt.” I assumed he was referring to the black top I had changed out of. Only once we were downstairs and waiting for a car on the curb did I understand that he meant that women don’t wear button-downs.

“Is like man’s shirt,” he said, blushing. “Not normal for girl.”
This I did find offensive, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. I would be in China with this man for two months. I didn’t want to cause any unnecessary tension. So I went upstairs to change again, this time into a knee-length black dress, black pumps and pantyhose, something even my mother would have approved of.

When I got downstairs, Mr. Yiu waved impatiently from a black Mercedes. The driver was a pimp-ish looking fellow with a gold necklace and black button-down shirt, whom Mr. Yiu introduced to me as Mr. Fang. That seemed a little too easy. Visions of werewolves danced in my head. I made a mental note: Get Mr. Fang to smile. Check for signs of abnormally pointy incisors. We screeched away before I even had my door shut. For the next hour, we drove at maniacal speed farther and farther away from the center of town. Mr. Yiu and Mr. Fang talked excitedly in the front seat, neither of them saying a word to me. During our two weeks together at the office in New York, before Mr. Yiu sprung upon me the conditions of my employment — a two-month trip to China — he had been very talkative. We had even shared some “moments” over dinner, when we laughed at one another’s jokes. Back in New York, I had come to feel almost comfortable with him, despite the fact that I hardly knew him. Now, he seemed like an entirely different person.

I became suspicious, uneasy. Why was Mr. Yiu ignoring me? Was the mask coming off? Was I about to be exposed to “the real Mr. Yiu?” Who was this Mr. Fang, and where was he taking me? I tried to memorize landmarks in case I needed to make an escape, but everything looked the same. The randomly placed street signs were no help, as I couldn’t decipher one Chinese character from another, and even those signs that were translated into Pidgin all sounded alike — Jianguommen Way, Jinguommen Dajie.
Gradually the scenery became more grim, row after row of dirty cement apartment buildings, unkind eyes glaring at me from the roadside. For the first time in my life I felt the discomfort of being a minority. Even though I was locked away in a car, people saw me, they noticed me, they stared. With my red hair, pale skin, and European nose, I was an oddity, a point of interest, a freak. Despite the scrutiny of strangers I tried to roll down my window, just to see if I could, but it was apparently controlled from the front seat. The lock on the door was also secure. There was no way of escape. Claustrophobia set in.

Finally Mr. Yiu addressed me without looking at me. “We go Mr. Fang’s apartment,” he said. “Maybe you have dinner with him.” At that moment, I became convinced that I was being sold into prostitution. It had occurred to me a few times that this job was too good to be true; after all, I’d never met anyone who’d been paid a decent salary just to travel abroad with her employer and help him learn English. Now, I thought, I was going to learn what I was really being paid for. “Dinner” could be a euphemism for any number of involuntary acts of sexual perversion.

I imagined Mr. Fang’s hands on my body, his incisors piercing my flesh. I tried to come up with ways to overcome him. Once in a made-for-TV thriller I had seen a woman drive the heel of her stilettos into a rapist’s eye. For years after that I had kept a high-heeled shoe beside my bed at night. I glanced at my serious black pumps; the heel was too wide and blunt to do any damage. I thought my best tactic would probably be to pretend that I was into it; then, once Mr. Fang began to trust me and his guard was down, I would make my escape. This would only work if we were alone together, though. What if Mr. Yiu planned to stand guard outside the door?
At one point Mr. Fang picked up his cell phone and engaged in a brief, angry conversation with someone in which the only words I could make out were the English phrase, “one hundred dollars.” So this is my asking price, I thought. My first instinct was to be offended, although perhaps I should have been flattered: one hundred dollars is almost an entire month’s salary for the average worker in Beijing.

We kept driving. Mr. Fang and Mr. Yiu kept talking. The only word I could make out was Shanghai, which Mr. Yiu repeated several times. I had read about Shanghai; it had a sordid reputation as sin city, China’s very own Bourbon Street. I had a lot of time in the back seat to plot grand schemes, but it always came down to this: I was in a fairly hostile environment, without language or public opinion on my side. I didn’t know how to say “police” in Chinese. I didn’t know how to call for help. Your average citizen would probably be unlikely to get involved with a gweilo’s problems, especially a red-headed gweilo traveling with an obviously wealthy Chinese man. At that point, panic set in.

“Are we almost there?” I interrupted. “Where exactly are we going?” I thought that if I forced Mr. Yiu to talk to me, maybe he would remember those quiet Italian dinners in New York during which I taught him how to say meatball, pasta, carafe, and corner booth. Perhaps he would begin to feel some sense of guilt. Maybe he would think twice about selling my body for one hundred lousy bucks.

“Soon,” he said.

Soon indeed. A couple of minutes later Mr. Fang had swerved off the main road and was whisking us through a maize of narrow back streets. The high-rises disappeared, giving way to scattered apartment blocks that were equally dirty and run-down, but shorter, which somehow made them look more habitable. The sidewalk seemed to be the center of life. All the things that Americans do inside, behind closed doors, with air conditioners humming, here had been brought outside, in plain view of anyone and everyone. The tools of every trade, the playing pieces of every game, the ingredients of every meal, and the contents of every life were spread on rickety tables or arranged on little pieces of cloth on the ground. I am an extremely private person who has lived alone most of my adult life, but the notion of privacy instantly seemed as far away and ludicrous as doggie sweaters and cryogenics.

An elderly woman was giving haircuts on the sidewalk. Her salon consisted of a rusted metal chair, a yellow comb, a bowl of water, a pair of scissors, a hand-held mirror, and a tin can in which she collected payment. Her current customer was shirtless and gray-headed, and his hair had been shorn to military proportions. The haircut she was giving him — the haircut that seemed to be most popular here — was a shorter version of the fifties buzz cut once worn by Elvis and homegrown Army recruits. Nearby, a pretty young boy squatted on the ground, selling ears of corn from a plastic bucket wedged between his legs. Every few yards, another group of men crouched around a card game or a set of mahjong tiles. Children stood in shop windows, slurping noodles with chopsticks. Toddlers in split-crotch pants stopped in their tracks, squatted, and peed on the sidewalk. A wheelbarrow loaded with watermelons stood right next to a fancy ice cream freezer, which was decorated with pictures of popsicles and drumstick cones. A leg-less man sold incense sticks from the back of a rickshaw. I suddenly had the great feeling of being amongst the people, on a real Chinese street, the stuff you don’t see on TV because it is neither beautiful enough or ugly enough to arouse the interest of news crews and filmmakers. For a moment, I was so immersed in the giddy feeling of travel, of seeing something completely new, that I forgot my fears of forced prostitution at bargain-basement rates.

But then Mr. Fang stopped the car at the end of an unpaved alley. Oh boy, I thought, this is it. He and Mr. Yiu got out of the car, urging me to follow. They were walking so quickly it was difficult to keep up, and I contemplated the absurdity of attempting to keep pace with my captors. I tried to plan some form of escape, or some desperate speech that might make Mr. Yiu reconsider the cruelty of his actions, but I was completely lost and could think of no way or words by which to extract myself. Mr. Yiu looked back at me, almost as an afterthought it seemed, and jerked his head to indicate I should speed up.

We passed out of the alley into what looked like an abandoned apartment complex. The ground was littered with cement blocks and construction materials, and muddy rivulets ran along a sidewalk which seemed to lead nowhere. Then we were walking in a narrow space between a high cement wall and a gray building, just the three of us, my heels sinking into the mud. At this point I seriously considered bolting, just turning around and running. But where would I go? Just the other day I had taught Mr. Yiu the word mercy, which we had come across in an article in the New York Times. “Mayor Guliani says he will not allow the taxi drivers to hold the city at their mercy,” the article said. Now, I knew, I was completely at the mercy of my employer.

Moments later we were inside the building, climbing an extremely dark set of stairs. I walked four or five steps behind Mr. Yiu and Mr. Fang, still keeping my options open. I felt like a character in a B movie, the one whose early death seems fitting, almost deserved, given the depths of her stupidity. On the fourth floor they stopped and knocked on a door; no one answered. I lingered on the stairs for a long, obvious few seconds, then reluctantly came to stand at the door behind them. I heard male voices inside. I wondered how long it would take my husband Kevin to contact his U.S. embassy friends in Beijing and have them come looking for me. I was certain they would never, ever find me. I felt like Hansel and Gretel without the trail of crumbs. I became oddly resigned. There’s no going back from here, I thought.

Then the door opened. A tall, attractive, young Chinese guy in wire-rim glasses invited us inside. He looked like a university student, and I felt immediately relieved at the sight of him. It would be a terrible ordeal, but at least it would be clean. Possibly quick. I hesitated at the threshold. Then I heard one of the loveliest sounds I have ever heard — a female voice. The woman was standing behind him, and she was one hundred percent mom, and I suddenly felt secure again in the world. What is it about maternal figures that puts us at ease in an alien place? We instinctively trust them, willingly place ourselves in their care. As it turned out she was no quiet homemaker, but a professor of Arabic at Beijing University. She had studied in Cairo in 1976, among the first wave of students allowed to study abroad following Mao’s death. She offered me a seat and a banana popsicle, and in very broken English she asked how I liked China so far. Mr. Fang disappeared shortly thereafter. He was not my pimp, just the driver.

Only later did I realize that when Mr. Yiu had said “Maybe you have dinner with Mr. Fang,” he had actually said, “Maybe you have dinner with Mr. Cheng” — the man who lived here with his family. And he meant “we” instead of “you;” we hadn’t yet discussed the finer points of pronouns. The building where he had taken me was not in ruins; to the contrary, it was still under construction. Apartments are in such high demand in Beijing that buildings fill up before they are completed. I realized then that in order to maintain my sanity during my China summer, I was going to have to put all my Red Corner fears aside. In the States, Mr. Yiu relied on me to communicate with others. Now, everything was upside down. It was as if I had unwittingly become the student.

The Caffeinated Writer

Notes on novel writing, publishing, the writing life, & the intersection of tech and literature from New York Times bestselling novelist Michelle Richmond. Get your free novel planning worksheets: https://mailchi.mp/bookdoctor/novelplanner

Michelle Richmond

Written by

NYT bestselling author of the THE MARRIAGE PACT. Paris expat. http://michellerichmond.com Write your book with me at NOVEL in NINE: http://novelin9.com

The Caffeinated Writer

Notes on novel writing, publishing, the writing life, & the intersection of tech and literature from New York Times bestselling novelist Michelle Richmond. Get your free novel planning worksheets: https://mailchi.mp/bookdoctor/novelplanner

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