I woke up early this morning and decided to go off and take some pictures before breakfast. The air was chilly but the sky was clear and it was a beautiful day in Shenyang so I walked along singing "Here comes the sun." And it's all right.
But it wasn't.
I took pictures of some spring cherry blossoms and some shops and alleyways and the North Korean consulate and the Russian consulate next door to it. Good. Now I'll have more scenic photos to e-mail back home. And then I took a photo of the American consulate. And then all hell broke loose.
"Halt!" a rent-a-soldier type in a green uniform screamed at me in Chinese. I tried to ignore him and keep walking but by then I was surrounded by five or six more green rent-a-soldiers, all yelling, pointing at my camera and pointing at me. OMG. This can't be happening!
The soldiers kept yelling stuff like "Stop right there!" and "Hand over your camera!" and "I think we got us a terrorist spy here, caught in the act!" and "20 years in the gulag for her!" At least that seemed to be the gist of what they were saying in VERY expressive Chinese.
I'm screwed. I'm screwed. I'm screwed.
"English? Does anybody here speak English?" I blubbered. "I'm an American and this is MY consulate," I cried, trying to sound brave -- but it came out more like a whine as I took turns pointing at the consulate and pointing at me. Then the soldiers all went into a huddle to discuss strategy and while they weren't looking, I seriously actually considered swallowing my camera's memory card, but as quickly and surreptitiously as James Bond I managed to pocket the card instead. Hey, I gots photos of my grandchild on this card! My mission? To protect baby Mena's image at all costs!
Then the Shenyang police arrived. I wonder if Chinese jails have orange jumpsuits. Orange isn't a good color for me....
Then the head rent-a-soldier borrowed a policeman's cell phone and called up someone at the consulate. "What should we do with this grandmother ring leader terrorist criminal?" I think he said in Chinese.
"Send her to Guantanamo," must have been the reply. But cooler heads prevailed and the police officer in charge took a more realistic view of things apparently. I guess he knew what real criminals looked like and, frankly, I didn't fit the profile -- not many job opportunities for senior-citizen crooks.
"Where is your passport?" he asked.
"Back at the hotel." So they frog-marched me off to a patrol car and then to my hotel, and it was all totally embarrassing to have the entire staff of the hotel see me dragged through the front door in chains.... Well maybe not in chains. But it was still very embarrassing. And how was I going to explain to my children that they can't even let me out of their sight for one moment before I'm causing international incidents. I can just hear Ashley now. "What are we going to do with you, silly Mommy...."
Anyway, the nice police officer put me on the phone to someone at the consulate with a Chinese accent but at least he spoke English. "Are you a professional journalist?" he grilled me.
"Nope. I honestly can't say that I am. At least nobody's ever paid me so far..." But then it was my turn to ask questions. "Is it illegal to take photos of the consulate?" I asked. "Do I need a lawyer? What are they charging me with? What's your name?"
"Uh, er.... No it's not illegal. It's just that your timing was wrong."
"You mean that if I had taken a photo during the afternoon, I wouldn't have been arrested?"
"Well, no, but...."
"So it IS legal to take photos of the consulate...."
"Ma,am, there's been a misunderstanding. We are sorry to have troubled you. You are free to go."
Whew. Now I won't have to send an e-mail to my kids saying, "Dear Joe and Ashley: Your poor sweet mommy is in jail in China...." and I won't have to go off on the run and be pursued by Interpol or nothing. Whew.
PS: Is there a moral to this story? Yes. But perhaps you are thinking the obvious -- "Don't take photos of American embassies, Jane." No, that's not it. There is a deeper moral than that. It's time for us to reconsider our basic American embassy policies themselves.
American embassies and consulates used to be guarded by the US military. We don't do that no more -- apparently because foreign national rent-a-soldiers are cheaper to hire, are less of a target, can relate to locals in their own language and can free up more American soldiers to try and make an omelet out of Bush and Cheney's broken eggs in Iraq.
Some of the more obvious disadvantages of hiring locally-based rent-a-soldiers are, first, that although our embassies are supposed to represent America abroad, you can hardly tell them apart on the outside from the other embassies guarded by similar locally-based rent-a-soldiers unless you are familiar with our blast-wall architectural style and can pick out the American flag.
Second, America's consistent robber-baron/globalization approach to other countries in the last 150-odd years appears to have created such an "us versus them" mentality abroad that our embassies are definitely not popular hangouts for the locals and/or beacons of freedom and hope. Rather, all too often they are seen by the locals as symbols of globalization's economic boot on their necks.
And, third, whenever us American citizens come to our embassies for aid, we immediately run into a language barrier between us and the foreign-based guards. For instance, I couldn't understand what the rent-a-soldiers were asking me today and so I didn't respond. What if they had seen me allegedly ignoring their commands and then shot me? It would have been a misunderstanding but I still would have been dead. Without language skills, knowledge of cultural cues and adequate training, these rent-a-soldiers, while sincerely trying to perform their job of guarding our consulates and embassies to the best of their ability, still tend to treat even US citizens like terrorists.
But then American citizens are also treated like terrorists at home as well. You think not? Then you obviously haven't read the Patriot Act.
PPS: I'm really tired of hearing Americans whine about what a daunting power China has become. And who made them so powerful? The American consumer and American corporations. Shenyang is one of the industrial capitals of China, with manufacturing hubs in abundance. But do we have even one steel mill located in America? Probably not.
I'm an American patriot -- and what "globalization" has done to my country makes me sick. We need to stop giving corporations the same rights as citizens, teach our children industrial skills, buy locally and stop allowing the globalization mafia to use our fine military men and women as enforcers to go out and break third-world countries' kneecaps for their own fun and profit -- at the expense of ours.
"Gee Jane, no wonder you got arrested."