The phrase "Jiao Jingcha!" means, "Call police!"
One day, during my first month in China, my superb Mandarin teacher Xue Li, showed up for class and announced that we were going to deviate from the standard, introductory curriculum that day. The night before, someone had stolen the pocket book of one of her students. Her student lacked language skill to alert the shopkeeper or deal with police, so she had called Xue Li. That day’s lesson for my class, Xue Li decided, was to be devoted to things we might need to say if we were ever victimized by crime.
At the time, the lesson was far over my head. I was still trying to learn the correct way to pronounce "xie xie" (thank you) or "Wo yao he shui" (I would like to drink water). But sometime about a year and a half ago, I pulled out my notes from that day and reviewed them. I practiced until I could say, with some authority, "Zuo kai! Wo jiao jingcha!" (Go away! I will call the police!) For some reason, I thought this phrase, said with enough authority and zest, would deter the numerous beggars who tend to target and then cling to westerners like filaments of wet hair.
A few days after practicing how to deliver this sentence with precision and authority, I found myself on a street corner adjacent to the wholesale jade market, being accosted by one particularly persistent, old beggar man. One thing I find annoying about this particular beggar is that he’s not disabled in the least, and he’s very successful at being so annoying that he gets money from people. Jumping at the chance to practice my new vocabulary, I hissed at the filthy man: "Zuo kai! Wo jiao jingcha!" The staccatto punctuation of this sentence felt as natural to me as if I were spitting nails out of my mouth. I made every effort to spew the verbal nails as forcefully as a drill sergeant spitting out the words at his troops. The old man was completely unfazed. He continued to stand directly in front of me, invading my body space and shaking the money pan loudly with as much gusto as ever.
It was only at this point, as I pondered what to do next, that it gradually dawned on me: In order to enforce my threat, I actually had to carry it out. I glanced around and noticed there were no police to be seen, anywhere. In order to enforce the threat, I would have to start yelling like a maniac, and I wasn’t really prepared to do that. I felt like the parent who threatens to punish a child but who then doesn’t have the gumption to carry out the punishment. But just then, a couple of young security guards actually did walk by. They saw the situation and shooed the man away for me, uttering a few choice curse words at him. About a week ago, more than a year later, I walked by the same spot. There, I saw the same, familiar old man. I guess the jingcha don’t bother him too very much.
When I first arrived in China, my early impression was that there were police everywhere. But that’s not actually the case. There are security guards everywhere. Almost every business has one or several security guards. I actually rarely see police.
There are also security guards all over the island where I live. Like, one on almost every corner. They stand at the corners and gates of the housing compounds. Each security guard stand is within view of the next security guard stand, something like the watchtowers that run the length of the Great Wall of China. The presence of the security guards gives us a feeling of safety when we go out.
Indeed, we have felt secure enough that we used to allow our teenage daughters to run along the riverfront even late at night. Until one night, a security guard stopped my daughter and told her it wasn’t safe for her to be out that late. He told her, specifically, not to run as far as the bridge (her usual turning around point) because a woman had been murdered there recently. Slight chilling effect. Since we can’t read the newspapers or understand TV, we wouldn’t have known this unless someone told us personally. Now, we usually put the brakes on our outdoor activities by about 10 PM, although most of the time we still feel more safe here than in almost any city in the USA.
Disturbingly, a few weeks ago I heard of a westerner who, along with his girlfriend, was badly beaten by a group of four young men while a crowd of onlookers did nothing to help. It gives rise to the question, if I really need "jingcha," will they be there for me? Would anyone help me? If I were accosted on a street corner on my island, in plain view of a security guard, would that security guard come to my aid? I ask this because I assume each set of security guards in fact is hired to guard his own, particular housing compound. As such, I presume it is not within his job description to help someone who happens to be walking by on the street. I’ve written before about the cultural difference that here, there is no duty or feeling of obligation to help a stranger. In general, one cannot rely on any "good samaritans" to come to one’s aid.
I had an experience with this kind of apathy just the other night. At about 10 PM on Saturday night, we were walking through a pedestrian subway that runs under a busy road. David and Munchkin walked ahead of me, but I slowed down in the hope that my notice and (unwanted) attention would cause enough embarassment to halt a bad scene. A young woman, in her early twenties, was standing beside a wall. Her body language was very withdrawn. She had her arms in front of her, her head down, and she was trying to turn away from a young man I presume was her boyfriend. At first, he was just yelling at her, and then he began to punctuate his yells with staccatto pokes and shoves. As she withdrew more from him, he began shaking her and hitting at her. David, by this time, was far in front of me. And he had our little child by the hand. When I saw the man was getting violent, I bolted up the stairs, ran out of the subway, and ran over to a security guard who was standing at the immediately adjacent, crowded bus stop.
David, who had no idea of anything I had seen and even less idea what I was doing, was already in a taxi. This was quite a coup on his part, having been successful in the competition for the rare, available taxi at mall closing time on a Saturday night. As he was yelling for me to hurry up to get in the waiting taxi, I told the security guard quite plainly in my broken, lousy Chinese, "A woman in the subway right there (pointing) needs someone to help her! A man is hitting her! She needs police!"
The security guard acted as if he didn’t know what I meant. I persisted. I repeated that a woman was being beat up, accentuating my words with pointing and hitting motions. Finally, when he saw that I wasn’t just going to go away, he acknowledged that he understood what I meant. He repeated, "a man is beating a woman?" "Yes," I replied. I thought I had been successful in getting some help for the woman. The guard started to bring his walkie talkie to his mouth, then he put it down. Then he took a few steps that direction. David was getting desperate. The taxi driver, stopped in a driving lane, would soon either drive off or kick him out of the car. So, I ran to the taxi and threw myself into the back seat. As I was piling in the back seat, I saw the security guard take one last look toward the subway and then walk back towards the bus stop. He never did call the police.
"It’s his culture," I thought to myself as the car drove away, "and I’m powerless to change it." But it’s also a culture that I live in. The next day, I made sure to repeat to my children the lesson, that they must never rely on presence of police or security guards to protect them from crime. No more night runs alongside the river, for sure.