In today’s New York Times was an article titled “U.S. Visitors to China Are Wary Amid Accounts of Intimidation”, in which the observation was made that executives and professional visitors to China are now being detained and held for questioning as a result of the consequences of bad U.S.-China relations.
Well, contrary to this specific belief, these types of behaviors are not new, and even worse, they’re not just limited to people of status and means.
Shortly less than ten years ago, I was returning to the United States from South Korea where I had been teaching English to young school children. It was one of those adventures that lasted a year, and it had its up and downs, starting off really fascinating and then turning to a nightmare towards the end when the school was sold to a person who saw the hired help as slaves (his words, not mine) rather than employees. He actually thought he could hold back all of our pay to keep any of the foreign workers from purchasing their own plane tickets home (“what are they going to do? Beg the authorities for money?”), but he had no idea that I had money of my own so the second I realized the situation wasn’t salvageable, I booked a flight and headed home.
But because fate is sometimes fickle, the weather decided to add unexpected storms, so the flight was detoured to Beijing for refueling and an eight hour layover before being able to head out on a separate flight.
Because we were switching planes, that put us into the spotlight of Chinese customs, an interesting experience if you’ve never gone through it before.
First, I was pulled aside because I was an American, which for some reason seemed to be a weird kind of reason for why they needed to question me further. Their first question was one I heard probably no less than fifty times while I was there: “Why are you here in Beijing?”
First answer: “Because the plane was diverted here from South Korea.”
“Why were you in South Korea?”
“I was teaching English to kids.”
From there, the questioning continued with a type of continuous loop that seemed to come back to “why are you here in Beijing?”
To make matters worse, they, at first, did not have any translators who spoke English, or if they did it was pigeon English with very little pieces of understanding. Why I mentioned it made things worse was that one of them realized my boarding pass was completely in Korean and made the astute observation that this was rarely done if you didn’t read Korean (meaning they’d issue me one that was printed in English). Strangely enough, the observation and realization were incorrect as they would normally just print whatever language they had unless you were going through a specialized travel agency, or were lucky enough to find a ticket agent that was smart enough to realize you needed a boarding pass you might actually be able to read.
To make a long story short, the Chinese investigator made a comment about wondering why I was coming from some small village in Korea instead of Seoul, and I pointed at the Korean on the boarding pass and corrected him, showing I was actually departing from Seoul.
That kind of opened eyes I shouldn’t have opened, because he then realized I could read Korean and then tried to speak to me in Korean.
I should mention that I’m fluent in Korean, having been taught it while I was in the Army. It was kind of a reason why I went to Korea in the first place to teach English.
Well, an American in China who was fluent in Korean threw up red flags (yeah, I see the joke present in that, but I digress), and then I started to be questioned as to why I was fluent in Korean.
The smartest thing I ever did at that time was just pretend I didn’t really understand his question, and I kind of shrugged it off because I realized he was starting to throw questions at me as if I was some kind of intelligence agent who had snuck into Beijing by being on a flight from South Korea that had been detoured and parked in their hanger. My usual response would have been to go far sarcasm and claim that “yes, I caused the weather to erupt in storms so that this plane could be pulled from its path and put me in Beijing. Now, I’m going to perform my magic trick where I disappear in front of thirty Chinese customs officials and melt into the background of the communist shadows.”
But, instead, I just played stupid and answered any questions with how I was just a teacher who was trying to return home.
The interrogations continued, including a new wrinkle, where they brought me to a back room so they could go through my luggage while it was on a table in front of me, two agents (a man and a woman) going through each item, holding it up and then staring at me to see if I was going to offer information significant about a piece of clothing or a book that was now in his or her hand.
“Yes, you got me. That pair of Fruit of the Loom underwear proves I was originally sent here to infiltrate your evil society. Now stand back or I will grab this copy of “The Star Wars Encyclopedia” and destroy you all!”
No, I kept silent and just let them stare at me like I was guilty of whatever it was they must have been thinking about me while going through my suitcase of surreptitious western loot.
The guy kept asking me: “Why are you here in Beijing?”
I would respond, “I was in Seoul, teaching little kids English.”
And then he would continue to ask a series of questions that all seemed to blend together.
I even stopped saying I was teaching English. I just kept making motions of showing the height of the little kids I taught and said, “I teach little kids. Little kids.”
I noticed the female interrogator staring at me strangely, but she never asked me any questions. It was always the guy.
And then the door opened and some Chinese soldier entered who appeared to be of much higher status than these two because his uniform had more adornments to it, and the two interrogators seemed to immediately show respect to him. He spoke in Chinese to the two interrogators, and they responded back quickly. The guy motioned at me, not giving any indication that he seemed to be on my side.
But then the guy in charge turned to the female interrogator, and she responded in quick Chinese, but did something different. Even though I understood nothing of what she said, she kept making the same gesture I had, indicating that she was referring to little kids with her hand horizontal to the ground.
The boss stared at her for a second and then turned to me and spoke English: “You teach little kids?”
I nodded and motioned the same way. “Yes, little kids.”
Then he surprised me and smiled before turning to his two underlings, saying something quickly in Chinese to them. He then turned back to me. “Thank you,” he said as he looked at my paperwork, “Mr. Gundrum. Your work is appreciated. You may go now and enjoy the rest of your trip.”
Then I packed up my belongings and was ushered out into the waiting area where other passengers were waiting to continue the next flight home.
So, I am not that surprised that this type of behavior is continuing to this day. I don’t really think it’s changed.
But I can say how glad I am that I am that no one ever knew I used to be a counterintelligence agent when I was working for the US Army. Even though I wasn’t when I was working in South Korea during this time, I can imagine that just that piece of information might have kept me stranded in Beijing for so much longer.
They made the right call by letting me go because, yes, I was just a teacher of little kids. But it’s that sense of distrust that makes our countries so hostile towards each other, convinced the other has only bad intentions when just maybe their intentions might be nothing more than just wanting to get from one place to another.