Monday, November 01, 2004

It won't happen to me

Tonight The Man and I were talking about Shosei Koda, the young Japanese man who was beheaded in Iraq. We agreed that it was stupid of him to have gone to Iraq in the first place. "Didn't he see the news?" I asked. "Didn't he know how dangerous it was?"

The Man agreed. But he also said that he hoped people wouldn't remember the guy only for that. "I hope that people remember that when we are young we always do stupid things," he said. "We all do things that could get us killed, stupid things. We have survived our stupid things, and learned from them. He just didn't get that chance."

I wondered about that. "I'm sure I wasn't that stupid," I said.

"You only think that because you survived," he told me. "What about... what about that time in China that you told me about?"

"What was that?" I wanted to know. "I'm sure I didn't do anything so foolishly dangerous."

"When you got lost, and ended up in a dark alley where those women tried to give you their babies," he answered.

"That wasn't dangerous," I said. "It was sad, but it wasn't dangerous."

"I've read about that kind of area in China," he told me. "And it was dangerous. Anything could have happened. Those people were outcasts. They had nothing to lose, and you were alone."

"They didn't try to hurt me," I said. "They only asked for money, and when I didn't have any they tried to give me their babies."

"It was very dangerous," he told me. "I've heard and read about it, and it was. They might have killed you. That sort of area is known to be dangerous, by local people."

I thought about it.

"There was nothing in the guide books about it, or in the media, or in any of the books I'd read about China before going there," I said. "And we weren't connected to the Internet then, so I couldn't look it up. It wasn't the same kind of thing as what Koda did. Everybody knows Iraq is the most dangerous place on the planet right now, for people who are white, or Korean, or Japanese, or who have any connection with the U.S. And Japan has thrown in its lot with America for this particular adventure. He knew that."

But now I wonder. At that time, in China, I'd got lost. I had been lost for a few days. I knew which city I was in, because that was the destination of the bus. And I knew my friend was living there somewhere. But I hadn't been able to locate her, and when I tried to call there was no answer. I was staying in a rather sleazy room in the old building of the 'Overseas Chinese Hotel', which was supposed to be strictly for overseas Chinese visitors, and was spending my days wandering around the town trying to locate the university where my friend was teaching. Nobody seemed to have heard of it. I hadn't seen any non-Chinese people for at least three days.

On one of my long wanderings, I'd ended up, at night, walking down a street that was not well lit, and which got darker and darker and less populated until it was empty of people. And really, if I'd been thinking like a sensible person I would not have continued. But I did, and then after a while I decided to turn back, but wanted to go back a different way (having an aversion to going back the same way I'd just come), so intending to go around a block and head back on a different street, I turned a dark corner into an alley to cut across the block. It was a very dark alley, and when I was well into it I was suddenly surrounded by women who came to me out of the dark, like wraiths, carrying babies and holding their hands out for money, or perhaps for food. They surrounded me so I couldn't move. When I indicated that I didn't have money on me (which I didn't - I was carrying only enough to get me back to my hotel if I got lost and needed a taxi, supposing I could find a taxi), they thrust their babies at me, saying something I couldn't understand. I could only understand that they were desperate and wanted me to do something for them.

When somebody holds a baby out to you, you automatically stretch out your arms to take it. I started to do this, and then something stopped me, and I held back. I suddenly knew that if I took a baby the women would disappear. My arms ached to take them, but I didn't.

The women were pleading and almost (but not quite) threatening. It was as if they had so little hope they didn't even have the energy to threaten. It was both sad and frightening. The women and the babies were very thin and dirty, dressed in rags, and the babies were terrifyingly silent. They should have been crying and distressed but instead they were painfully quiet and still, huge eyes in the gloom, sores on their hairless heads and faces, gazing at me blankly. They weren't really babies, I realised. They were stunted toddlers. They were beautiful, even with their sores and thin faces and huge staring eyes. They were luminous and pathetic in the darkness.

It was like a nightmare, not quite real. These wretchedly thin women and babies, huge staring eyes set deep in their skulls, almost hairless, terrible sores ... it was like being plunged into a Goya painting, plunged into horror so unexpected it doesn't seem real.

There was nothing I could do. I had to walk away.

It was terrible, walking away. I stroked the babies' faces, and apologized to their mothers in a language they couldn't understand, and walked away, leaving them there. They parted for me so I could go. I didn't feel it was dangerous, but I did feel it was an awful thing to do, to walk away like that, and I hated myself for it. There were just too many of them, and I couldn't help them all. If there had been just one woman and her baby, who knows what I might have done, or tried to do, to help them? But there were at least a dozen. I originally told The Man there were twenty or so, but I think there were probably fewer. It just seemed like more.

I fled back to lights and civilisation, walking fast and weeping, and furious at myself for weeping because I didn't have the right to weep for those people if I wasn't prepared to help them.

Remembering this, which I don't often (it still feels like a dream), I told The Man, "But there were only women, and they were so thin I could probably have taken them all on, and won, if they'd attacked me."

He said, "You don't know that. You said it was dark. Maybe the men were waiting in the shadows. Maybe you just got lucky. Maybe you did something right by mistake, and they spared you. But my point is that if you'd been kidnapped, or killed, or hurt, people would have said, 'What was she doing there? Why was she in such a dark and dangerous area?' And even though nobody knew of it before, they'd all know about it now, and would think you'd been stupid.

"Yes, the guy who went to Iraq was stupid, and he didn't think, but we all do stupid things and don't think, sometimes. And we learn. He didn't get the chance to learn."

I guess The Man is right. But I'm still distracted by the idea that I did something so dangerous. That hadn't occurred to me. I didn't know, even after it was all over, that the area I went to was dangerous. I still find it hard to believe. But I do remember feeling scared, and I wonder why. I'd always thought it was just the shock, and the thought that these women were so far outside society that they weren't even mentioned in guidebooks, or in books about China. I didn't know who they were. They didn't fit any picture I had of China. They were not 'official' people, so I didn't know they existed. Nobody knew. They were invisible to the 'real' world.

I was naive. I thought that anything that wasn't in the guide books or in the news didn't exist. If it wasn't written, it wasn't there. How silly is that?

The Japanese guy was naive, too. He thought, "Well, I'm not a political person, I'm not trying to change anything, I am not representing Japan, I am just an individual who wants to know what is really going on. I'm just curious. People will see I am innocent, and they won't hurt me."

And he thought, as we always do,

It won't happen to me.

But innocence doesn't work like that. We are all symbols of something, whether we like it or not. I am a symbol of the rich, white world. I don't like it, but that's what I am. I am clean, well-fed, healthy and white. To those women I must have been unimaginably rich. Koda was rich, dressed in the clothing of the enemy, had a visa stamp for Israel in his passport, and he represented Japan, whether he liked it or not, and whether he knew it or not.

I still don't know whether being in that place at night was dangerous for me. The Man might be wrong about that. But it could have been, easily. And if I'd died, people would probably have thought I was stupid. I could have been comfortably at home in my safe little New Zealand, across the other side of the world. If I'd been hurt I would have become a person who had everything and threw it away for personal thrills and 'fun'. I didn't have to be there in a dark unknown alley in a Chinese town at night, alone. I was asking for it.

It was a smaller scale stupidity than the Japanese guy, but really, it was based on the same foolish impulse, or wrong instinct. The same thought of it won't happen to me.

The difference is that I survived.


Clyde Wallace said...
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