Something to write home about
Trip Start Aug 24, 2007
42Trip End Jul 04, 2008
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The weekend started out innocently enough. The plan was to go to Zhengzhou to meet a friend of Max's and most importantly, to hang out with our friend Ketao. He's our Chinese friend who couchsurfed with us in October. He's a cadet at the Chinese version of West Point located in Zhengzhou and was until very recently, in the running to run with the Olympic Torch. We knew his school was strict because he's not technically supposed to have a cell phone and he has to apply to leave campus. It was a big deal for us to arrange a time to meet up with him in Zhengzhou so he could show us around and we were pretty excited.
So on Saturday morning, Erin and I got up early to meet Ketao in the city, leaving Max at his friend Edmund's apartment. When we finally met him, he was wearing the same cyan-colored fleece jacket and the wide smile he sported the first time we met. After establishing that there wasn't much too actually do in the city (haha! I knew Zhengzhou was lame from the get-go!) Ketao quickly offered to show us around his campus after we grabbed some breakfast. The day quickly went downhill from there.
After scarfing down some food from the local streetmarket near his campus' main gate, Ketao quickly diverted us to the back of his campus.
"The main gate is right there," Ketao said, as he pointed to a wide open boulevard where two Chinese soldiers stood resolutely on top of the silly plywood boxes that all Chinese officials like to stand on. "But I think that if we walk through that gate, they would not like it very much."
"Why?" asked Erin.
"Well, I think you are going to be the first Americans ever on campus," he said, extremely nonchalantly. "Besides, there is a hotel on campus. If we walk through that gate, they will just think you are staying at the hotel. No problems!"
So we just sauntered around to the back side of the campus with Ketao, who exhibited no signs of nervousness or anxiety.
Even though there was a guard at the gate, he didn't flinch at all when he saw us. There wasn't even so much as a nod or an inquisitive look in our direction. We figured we were fine.
"Here, we can walk around this lake!" Ketao suggested.
As we walked around the small lake that was almost immediately to the right of the gate, Ketao pointed out the general area of the dorms, where the cafeteria is and where students gathered to listen to music and dance the night before. Then Ketao took a picture of the two of us standing next to the lake. There had been small groups of men in uniform walking around the lake, but we didn't pay much attention to them because according to Ketao, you have to wear the military uniform to go to class. But there were two men who looked slightly more distinguished and older than the other soldiers that were walking around the lake. And they were coming right for us.
They stopped us on the lake, and immediately took Ketao's camera while pointedly asking Ketao questions in Chinese. Ketao, a normally happy and fast-paced talker, was suddenly answering questions in a quiet and shaky voice.
"Ketao, is everything ok?" Erin whispered.
"I uh, I think we have some big problems. We need to go," Ketao whispered.
"We can leave if it's a problem," I offered.
"No, we can't leave. We have to follow them," Ketao said, as the older looking man stared Ketao down and started barking something to him.
As we followed the two officers towards a big building, we were suddenly joined by another officer who was waiting for us at the top of some stairs. The three uniformed men took us inside a dormitory and into a medium-sized room that was completely bare except for two desks that were now being used by the older man and his crony who originally stopped us. Now the crony sat across from the old man who was clearly running the show, and taking notes on the conversation. The only other things in the room were a list of rules, two computers that quietly filled the room with humming, and a door that slammed shut instead of quietly closing. Every time the door the shut, Erin and I jumped a little because it made everything seem so much more ominous. Ketao sat in a hardback chair facing away from Erin and I. We were allowed to sit in two chairs that had cushions, staring at Ketao's profile. At one point in the beginning, Ketao stood up with his lips thinly stretched across his face and slowly walked out of the room as the door slammed shut behind him. "Oh shit, this is where they are going to beat Ketao up!" I thought. All of sudden, horrible visions of what they could do to Ketao started to flood my mind: bloody face, swollen lip, scenes from the movie The Hostel, organ harvesting, expulsion from school. But Ketao came back. Turns out he just needed to get his ID.
The old man, who had a hand that looked like an unappetizing bloated sausage, kept pointedly asking Ketao questions while forcefully chopping through the air with his thick fingers. Erin and I knew that Ketao was making a story up of how he met us because the army would not like to hear about Couchsurfing. The only problem is that he was telling it all in Chinese and Erin and I couldn't follow it at all. Our stomachs started to drop and churn as we realized that we would be asked to match our stories with Ketao's and we had no idea what to say. No sooner had my gruesome mental montage of a bloodied Ketao left my mind before I silently started to freak out again as scenes from every bad movie about an American trapped in an Asian prison started to flick through my mind.
Suddenly, the sausage hand man, who kept displaying his fingers quite deliberately and prominently on his forearm turned from Ketao and started to talk to Erin and I. "Oh.shit." I thought. The words "I don't speak Chinese" gurgled out of my mouth as I tried to stop myself from smiling like a ridiculous fool. I'm of the certain disposition where when I am nervous, I smile uncontrollably. Most of the time it doesn't pose a problem, but I thought that the Chinese military would think otherwise. Next to me, Erin was trying to stifle the snickers escaping from her mouth since when she's nervous she laughs uncontrollably. Ketao just sat in his chair staring at us with eyes that clearly said, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" But the Sausage-Hand Man kept asking us questions and all I could do was shrug my shoulders and say "I'm sorry." Ketao tried to translate for us, but every time he opened his mouth, Sausage-Hand would tell him to be quiet.
Eventually, Sausage-Hand stood up and clicked-clacked his way out of the room as his fancy authority shoes hit the puce tiling. When he came back, he brought with him a scrawny soldier who looked like his head was a bit too small for his hat. A thick scar sliced through his left eye and cheek that made his smile look a little lopsided. When he cracked open his mouth to talk, he was missing one of his front teeth. The rest of his teeth were held together by primitive looking braces.
"Hello," he said.
"Nihao," we muttered back.
"Do you have your IDs?" He asked.
We had left our passport and our foreign expert residence cards back in Kaifeng. The only type of ID either one of us had were our state driver's license. After we gave them to Sausage-Hand, Scarface asked us if we had Chinese names.
"No, we don't," I said.
"We need some though!" Erin quipped.
"Yeah, we would love some. If you guys want to give us some names that would be great!" I jokingly said back.
Scarface knew we were joking and tried to cover his smile as the three other officers and Ketao just looked at us completely stone-faced.
"Riiiiight. No joking with the Chinese Army," thought Erin and I as we looked at each other.
The next hour was spent as Scarface interpreted Sausage-Hand's questions for us. We could figure out they were trying to find out how we knew Ketao and what we did on campus and we were trying to figure out how to avoid answering those questions.
"All we did was see the lake," I said for the fifteenth time.
"Ok, but do you know anything about Ketao's school?" Scarface asked back.
"Yes, it's an information school, he's studying electrical engineering and it's a military school. That is all we know," Erin and I would say, taking turns.
"But do you know it's a military school? Do you know Ketao is a soldier?" Scarface would ask back.
"Yes, we know that!"
"What do you talk about with him?" Scarface would ask.
"Talk about? Traveling, music, movies, families, what our hometowns are like. We don't talk about his major. We don't even like electrical engineering!"
"But do you know Ketao is a soldier?" Scarface would ask again.
They also wanted to verify that we were teachers at Henan Daxue, so we had to give them Jackie's phone number so they could call him. They even wanted our email addresses at one point, but we just acted dumb and like we couldn't understand what they were trying to ask us. The last thing I want is for the military to hack into my email account.
To make matters more awkward, Max called in the middle of the interrogation and since they said I could answer it, I picked up.
"Hey, where are you guys? Do you want to get lunch with us?" asked Max.
"Um, I can't talk right now. I'll call you back later," I said.
"Well, where are you?" Max asked.
"Max. I really cannot talk right now. I'll call you later," I said through clenched teeth.
"Why can't you tell me where you are?" He asked in his fake whiny-kid voice. I finally got him to hang up, only to have the soldiers staring at me.
Quite suddenly, Scarface just turned to us and said "Ok, you can go now."
"Oh? Can Ketao come with us? We wanted to take him to lunch?" asked Erin.
"It is best for Ketao if you don't talk to him. He is a soldier and must be loyal to the army. He cannot speak to foreigners," said Scarface.
"Wait, we can't talk to our friend?" I asked, shocked.
"It is best for Ketao if you do not talk," he said back.
"Well, can we give him a hug goodbye?" I said.
"It is best for Ketao if you do not touch him."
As we left the room with our four person military escort, we ran into a soldier student running up the stairwell. When he saw Erin and I, he just stopped and his jaw hit the floor. He didn't move from that position until after we left his sight.
Sausage-Hand man saw us out of the building, but left us to walk with Scarface and three other soldiers. We found out that Scarface and another one of the soldiers in our escort were Ketao's friends and they all speak English.
"We are very sorry for this horrible day," said Scarface, suddenly relaxed and at ease.
"Oh it's ok. We are very sorry, we didn't think it was going to be a problem," we told him.
"No, we are sorry. This has been a horrible day," Scarface said very sheepishly.
"Can we really not talk to Ketao again?" Erin and I asked. We didn't want to be cut off from him completely.
"No, it is ok, you can send him a text message. It is fine if you talk to him," he said, completely reversing his stance on what he had been quite explicit to denounce five minutes earlier.
"Oh ok. Are you guys going to tease Ketao for getting into trouble?" I asked.
"Tease? Oh no! We will say 'Ketao! So Cool!'" he said.
Scarface and Ketao's other friend helped us to get a cab so we could meet up with Max. When we got in the cab, I called Jackie to see how the phone call from the military went.
"So Jackie...did you get a strange phone call earlier?" I asked.
"Yeah, something about you and Erin being on a military base where you're not supposed to be?"
"Yeah, that," I said hesitantly.
"I have ALWAYS wanted to do that!" He said excitedly.
"Haha, really?" I asked, very surprised that Jackie wasn't stressed out.
"Yeah! Where are you now?" He asked.
"We're in Zhengzhou," I told him.
"That is much better than being interrogated," Jackie said.
"Yes, yes it is."