The Not-Escape from China


I

The girl: I’d gotten used to seeing her every couple of days.  I liked her soft-spoken calmness.  Her English pronunciation was like wafting soap bubbles, mid-air, hanging there.  It was whole, melodic and considered.  I’d admired her writing too, the day she’d taught me to write Merry Christmas in Chinese calligraphy.  I followed her example as best I could, in black ink on red card.  She’d taught me to sing those Chinese songs, the dripping of water and the patience in them; the moon and the boat in that ‘Wan Wan’ song.  It reminded me of Noakhali.

But in the few weeks before leaving she was gone.  She hardly answered the phone, and on the rare occasions she had, she spoke in short answers, inevitably busy.  I’d thought to leave her alone on account of the love factor.  And I missed her a little.

The summer holidays were approaching, my exit to Dhaka planned.  I’d only been there six months previously for winter break, but this time was different.  I hoped to stay.

To the increased stillness of the girl balanced the hyperactivity of CB.  He was ringing daily, sending text messages.  He’d researched fares and schedules down to departure times; explaining how it’d be best to transit Kunming and which days would be suitable because they didn’t fly every day.  Like a cigarette, he offered his travel agent.

As he’d repeatedly ask what date I would go, I remained non-committal; at which he’d fill in the dates himself, the routes on his own.  ‘Yes, something like that,’ I used to say to his proposed itineraries.  He didn’t know that on my own I’d already bought the ticket, though with so many ‘somethings-like-that’ he must have suspected.  And when eventually I’d mentioned it and he’d ask dates, well, I’d get back to him because I had to check the ticket.

China: it spells gratitude for giving me the space for safety, away from Howard’s Australia, to wait out the 2007 December election.  To wait for Howard’s end.

I wrote last that China was a kind of Australian-Siberia; that they can do anything to anybody, anytime.  That is true enough but not a feature that distinguishes the country from AustraliaAustralia is the same.  The difference rather was this: when it came to making problems, unlike Australia the Chinese, by and large, didn’t.  They had a greater level of human decency about them.

Of course now I would still recommend to any Australian facing the onslaught of Canberra’s bungling, that the best and only solution is to put another country’s security people between you and them.  It’s the only protection Australians are afforded, because domestically there is no incentive for the security boffins to be either proportionate or reasonable, as they act with impunity.  And yet, when they are forced to cooperate with another country, reasonable is something that at the very least they have to appear to be.  It’s my assumption.

It was better to face the ‘
Ramsay Street
takes on the world’ abject amateurism of Australia through a silk screen.

Whether I like it or not, without China I’d have died, for to desist in any manner, from painful experience I am certain, the Australian security sector requires not less than a corpse. They would have just kept it up until…. Ah, China!

So while CB’s little shenanigans were stressful, it was nothing compared to what Sydney had been.  There was so much less cruelty in it.



II

Before the departure should be the arrival, most of a year earlier.  It was a mistake.  It was a Godsend.  It was my life.  I’d stood there in Hong Kong airport with a boarding pass in my hand; they’d processed that in Paris.  The boarding pass to take me back to the great insecurity of Australian security: as I said I was fairly certain it had to end in a corpse.  So with reluctance I took a chance, I went to the Cathay Pacific counter to ask if I could cancel my Boarding Pass and reinstate my ticket.  They agreed.

With reluctance I cleared the Hong Kong immigration counter with my life suddenly off in a new direction, like one of those airport baggage trolleys with a faulty wheel.  Normally I would have jumped at the chance for another country, new adventures.  But it’d never before been that such a thing was so completely decided by a negative: that the going somewhere was the result of the not going somewhere else.

And I was scared.  I was terrified.  What little hurdles and games would they play in Hong Kong?  Would I die there?  It seems unlikely as I write this now, but then, after the torture months, after the momentary relief in Malta and the resumption, though for the most part in a more civilised fashion, in Norway, it wasn’t in my comprehension that Hong Kong would yield no harassment at all.

I stayed by myself in a hostel; that was frightening too.  I thought about what to do because it wasn’t only the heavy burden of the past months but a new future, some sort of living I had to organise.  I thought about jumping from buildings.  I sent e-mails in search of work.

The rationale had been that it was easy to find English teaching jobs in China; and that in Hong Kong it might be cheap enough to stay while I found one, on family money for I had none of my own.  I was spending it with guilt.  It was what had dissuaded me from seeking a life in France instead, not boarding the plane to Hong Kong in the first place.  Europe is expensive.

Of course I thought too about just buying a flight to Dhaka; but I was sure this would make problems because Howard was still there.  The chance of it being dangerous for me to try for Bangladesh at that time was high.  It’s silly to have to think about such things, but unfortunately the reality for Australians is: they do.  It was also impractical.  There was no money for a plane ticket really; there was no certain job in Bangladesh

Worse than that, I had to go to the Australian Consulate to renew my passport.  The old one was full so any country I went to that needed a visa needed a page to stamp it on.  It was terrifying to go there: There had been such animal behaviour from those dumb Australian bureaucrats I never wanted to see another one.  I still don’t; and to this day I will tell you the biggest curse of my life was to be born Australian, behind the racism curtain.  Without rights.  In prison conditions from birth.  Any other western nationality would have been better; that’s true for all Australians in actuality.  No human rights.

It’s easy to write now that nothing happened and I got my passport without problems; but there were the days of waiting, spending money that was not mine.  I knew they had the power to not issue a passport, and if they’d refused then it would have been Sydney I suppose, though I’d thought to try Taiwan where I could arrive on a small stamp that would fit into my full but unexpired passport; then stay illegally?  It’s not something I would do normally.  Taiwan too needed a plane ticket and it was on the American side of things, like Australia: what would happen there?

Of course they didn’t refuse: issued the passport, and there is the thought that if they had refused I could have potentially appealed that decision which would have shone a little light onto their unending life-invasion. 

I’d sent several applications to various places across China, and one on a whim in Azerbaijan.  Only one application got through.  There was a job, not too far from Hong Kong in a city called Zhanjiang, pronounced Jan-tsiang.  I wish I’d known that from the start, because Jan-tsiang is a name that strangely I’d heard before, in Sydney.  Had it been Jan-tsiang from the start I would never have gone there: I needed protection from Australia not a mere relocation of the same, no longer endurable bollocks.  But I was pronouncing Zhanjiang in a stupidly foreign way.  It’s no wonder it was difficult to get the bus ticket-sellers to understand.

Zhanjiang.  It was a mistake.  It was a Godsend. It was my life.



III

The day I’d arrived it’d been to the astonishment of the university administrators.  How had I been able to find the way with only an address?  How could I speak to people?  The Chinese don’t travel a great deal in general, I understand, and even when I’d headed off to a nearby town for a day they’d raised concerns.  Most Chinese I imagine are grateful for a package tour.

The trip down from Hong Kong, it hadn’t been too difficult, despite the language issues and my failure to comprehend the bus would take nine hours.  I’d thought it might be two or three.  From the bus station in Zhanjiang I’d shared a taxi to the university gate with a young lady who just barely spoke English; but it got me there.  And for these efforts with the university administrators I was ‘adventurous.’ The adjective probably fits, but how little of it they knew!

Within minutes of my arrival I’d made my first cultural mistake.  They’d overlooked it, thankfully.  My crime?  To my welcome dinner I wore shorts.  I have to say in my defence it’s slightly understandable since in Hong Kong shorts were plentiful, no problem.  Shorts roamed all across the city in Hong Kong; but on the mainland, and I learnt this on some later occasion, when the embarrassment of that first day finally found me, shorts are associated with sport.  They are what you might wear to the gym, not serious clothes, not for meeting all the university high-ups, even the local Communist Party official.  Still, I’d done that; we’d sat in that special room, with a lucky number like ‘888’ on its door, and eaten worms together.  The Zhanjiang specialty is sandworms.

Chinese universities prize foreign teachers.  There were many dinners; the administration always attentive and helpful.  The apartment was large and fine, though it was on the ninth floor of a building with no lift.  I’d heard that Mao Zedong thought not providing lifts a good way to keep the people fit.  If that’s true then Mao was right.  Before long I could run up those nine floors without losing my breath; the same work that high-altitude hill had done about two years earlier in La Paz, Bolivia.

Life rolled on and my recovery from 2007 started, very, very slowly.  I got to write that fifty page complaint, the going-through-the-motions thing, as any aware Australian knows there will be no joy in such a thing.  That complaint kick-started the cover-up process, as anticipated.  But I’d wanted to make the effort anyway, so I could live without the guilt of being silent, of not at least attempting to prevent the inevitable future torture of others; in vain of course, but it’s important not to be silent and I have no guilt there.

In China I was also able to document 2007, some of it.  For myself I wanted to do that.

In China for the first time since perhaps the Caribbean I felt safe.  On nights when sleep didn’t come, usually from flashbacks and nightmares, I’d even wander off down the hill to McDonalds, the only place that opened well before dawn.  Actually I think it never closed.  There I’d have a pre-breakfast breakfast before walking home again as the sun rose.  It must’ve been a two-kilometre round-trip. 

But that sense of safety changed too at the very end.  Things were so odd those last few nights, after the neighbours had left and the ninth floor had become entirely without a breath apart from mine.  Those last nights I slept with a knife under my pillow; something someone in Bolivia had told me they once did.  As always it wasn’t China which worried me, only Australia.  Those people are capable of anything and Dhaka was close now.

As I mentioned, on the Communist side I’d found a degree of decency; and my time with the girl, and her family, I’d enjoyed.  She talked Scandinavian thoughts sometimes, so I felt, and I liked that.  And we’d talked Bangladesh, Hatiya but of course, and in general terms about 2007.

I told her that I’d been writing it down, so as to capture details.  As things had been in the habit of going walkies from my e-mail, from the laptop too, I’d mentioned that I might leave a pen drive with her, for safekeeping.  It’d been a throw away thought; there were better ways than through her.



IV

The plan had a few little tricks to it.  The first was about money:  I had so little, only a splash of savings from China, but much better than when I’d first arrived in China.  I could last a few months at best I knew, without having a salary.  I didn’t know if it would even be possible to find a new job in Bangladesh, if I could stay; so I’d had to calculate on returning.  I signed a new contract with the university for the following year.  It’s something I really hate that I did, letting them down when I didn’t return, but there was no choice.  I’d also bought a return ticket, cheaper than two one-ways and better for getting the Bangladeshi visa.  I’d resigned myself to the possibility I’d never use the return portion, learnt to think of that economic loss as a symbol of success.

The second reason I had to sign a new contract with the university was because the Bangladeshi Consulate in Hong Kong would only issue a visa if I were resident in Hong Kong or China.  Without a new contract my residency would have ended and they’d be telling me to pick up a Bangladeshi visa in Canberra

There’s a funny thing: CB’s plans that missed the obvious.  His Kunming route was impossible for I needed a visa from Hong Kong.  I’d even explained it to him once, but his language and listening skills, or the moment had meant he hadn’t caught my meaning.  And the talk of schedule changes on the Kunming to Dhaka route continued.

My little secret flight went from HK, with a five day space allotted to the Bangladeshi Consulate to stamp my visa in.

‘Did you book your flight to Kunming yet, because there aren’t many seats left,’ CB’d say.

‘Something like that.’

Just here I wish to mention something amusing.  It happened on my way back from Hong Kong on another occasion; after posting the complaint to the Inspector-General of Security in Canberra.  The bus was late and I arrived at the Zhanjiang bus station after dark.  There was a guy on the bus who wanted to help me but I already knew the drill, so organised a motor cycle taxi to take me from there back to the campus where I was living.  We pulled out of the bus station and, well it’s embarrassing, there was a small contingent of People’s Liberation Army or Civic Guard or something, on motorcycles, that accompanied me.  They’d just been sitting there waiting until my motorbike taxi had passed them; and they’d followed.  I think there were four of them, two in front and two at the back, like what a minor dignitary might get.  You can say it was nothing, maybe you’d be right, but it seemed so obviously an escort that eventually I waved hello as they rode alongside us.  After that they left.

When I got back to the apartment, and I think it was already midnight, there was a call from CB.  ‘I was really worried about you,’ he said. 

‘Why would you worry when I’m getting a military escort?’ I thought.

In the days just before departure, to Dhaka, CB had finally plucked up the courage to ask the question, ‘what does ‘something like that’ mean?’ 

‘It means ‘no’,’ I said. Shock! Trying to remember the circumstances; all the statements I’d said ‘something like that’ to. 

In those last days too he said, ‘I want you to consider me a true friend.’  It’s mean but with all the stresses of the half-sentences, in-the-car, out-of-the-car, ‘aren’t you worried about being overrun,’ ironic given in Australia that’s what people will say about the Chinese too, from all of that I opened my mouth and it came: ‘give me a written application and I’ll consider it.’

There was a third statement I recall, a kind of ongoing refrain. ‘You’re going to escape from China,’ he said, not once but many times.  I kept saying ‘no, it’s not that,’ the truth, he kept pushing.  In the end with some annoyance I said, ‘those are your words, not mine!’  There seemed to be some importance to liking China.  And I can’t say I didn’t; but I could have like it much more had I arrived under different circumstances, and been able to explore it without little under-the-surface agendas.



V

I left in the afternoon; I’d tried to clean up the apartment as best I could, and take everything on the most optimistic scenario that in Bangladesh I’d stay.  I was already running late for the bus when I finally locked up and started downstairs.  The landlady, Mrs Chen, lived in the building.  I had to stop there to drop off the key; and as I’d already anticipated she didn’t wish to take it.  ‘You’re coming back?’ she asked, ‘keep it with you.’ 

I would have made an interesting tale of the mighty Meghna, ships in the night, jumping onto muddy island banks where even wharves fear to go.  About the on and off rickshaws where a key can easily fall out unsuspected, or the vagaries of village houses with their general lack of locks and flocks of people from wherever inside them.  I would have come up with something nice to explain the gist: that I would lose the key in Bangladesh so it was better she keep it with her; but for the language gap the simplest version was all I could manage.  Still she wanted me to take it; but I refused.

There must have been a frantic phone call because about two minutes later as I headed towards the gate the administrator of the English department found me.  ‘Why did you give your key to Mrs Chen?’ I was asked, the administrator really concerned about it.  It was what I wanted to avoid, that question, that confrontation.  I felt such shame but realistically what could I tell her: that I would be back, don’t worry.  There certainly was no other certainty at that moment, so it wasn’t a lie as much as a probable outcome; just not for me the desired one.  I was asked to go back to Mrs Chen’s apartment and re-take the key; but I was late for the bus I explained, so I couldn’t.

They were really nice to me the university people.  It was a terrible thing not to properly resign; but there really wasn’t a choice in the matter.  In 2007 there is no doubt there was security sector interference in my job applications in Sydney; in Hong Kong when applying by e-mail I’d suspected the same.  In Dhaka, who knew? 

And I’d tried to find a Bangladeshi job online first; I’d even taken to faxing a few places to avoid the possibility of blocked e-mails.  No results.  Not overly surprising, to be fair: the Bangladeshi online job market at the time was still quite poor.  There was simply no opportunity to resign and be financial secure, meaning in terms of food.  It’s the sort of insecurity I could never, ever have found myself in without the kind assistance of Australian security.

And so I missed the bus to Zhuhai, near Macao.  The next one was due to depart several hours later, so, although I’d hoped for a speedy departure there was nothing to do but wait it out on a seat in the bus station.



VI

My plan for a rapid departure had been a good one and missing the bus wasn’t a good idea.  Before the bus was ready to leave my mobile rang.  On a few occasions it was CB.  I didn’t answer.  Then it was the girl.

She was really emotional.  She said on the phone that recently she’d been down by the gates of the local park when a stranger had come up to her and said, ‘don’t go near Andrew!’  The girl said that she was frightened, it’d been threatening, and that’s why she’d not been visiting like before.  I asked for a description of the stranger: she said it was a woman, Asian but not Chinese-born.  The details were sketchy.  I told her, if she was worried, to go to the police.

About that phone call I came to wonder if I wasn’t supposed to rush off madly to the girl in peril, to give comfort and forget the departure.

The bus was finally ready to depart; on it I sat.  Before the driver arrived I noticed a People’s Liberation Army official, judging by the uniform, walking along the row of buses, looking into each one for a minute or two before moving onto the next one.  He stopped outside my bus, looked inside, looked straight at me, and then got onto his radio set.  It’s the usual thing that might be nothing, but I tell you, I so much wanted to get down from the bus and go and shake his hand.  ‘Thank you,’ I would have said, and meant with all sincerity, ‘for keeping me safe this year.’  Because for all that happened I had been safe as it turned out; but the phrase in Chinese was well beyond my Chinese language ability, and I wasn’t even out of China so it could have been premature… didn’t want to tempt fate.

A few hours later we were rumbling along those smooth Guangdong freeways with the nondescript scrubby, patchy farmland I knew to be along each side though by then it was dark.  The phone rang.  It was the girl, a second time.

‘I can’t do it,’ she blurted out.  I was lucky, for I genuinely had no idea what she was talking about.  ‘Do what?’ I said instinctively; the right answer.

‘I can’t take your pen drive.’

‘No of course not,’ I said, ‘don’t worry I don’t want you to.’  Or some words like that.

The conversation soon done, I wondered about that phone call:  was it the Judas attempt, the set-up attempt number five thousand three hundred and sixty two, part b, clause iii? There had been many attempts to push crime into my life over the years, over ten years, almost solely in Australia, always by Australia.  Was this the last attempt to stop me getting to Dhaka?  Maybe you think I make too much of it, maybe I do, but when you think about it, while to me the girl was the girl, my friend still as far as I am concerned, to Australian security, potentially in an Australian court, it would so easily be painted as giving ‘national secrets’ to a foreign power.  Not that I consider there are national secrets in anything I wrote, it was just my life you see and I’m really sorry but whether they like it or not, Canberra does not own that.  Nor am I responsible for the only transparency they achieve: through the amateurism of their efforts.

These were my thoughts, right or wrong: but the phone call was odd and the girl, Judas, on her own would simply not have spoken like that.  Even from her voice I thought there must be something wrong, even without thinking, before the analysis I’d wondered if she wasn’t being told what to say.  She was nearly crying and there was the coincidence in timing: she didn’t know I was on the bus.

Some hours later she rang a third time.  This time she said, ‘forget everything I said.  I was wrong, don’t worry about it.’  Words like that.  She sounded freer then but I couldn’t be sure….  Zhuhai was on its way and I hoped only for Dhaka.

I always enjoyed Zhuhai, a city of little adventures.  I had a whole day to spend there which I was happy with, meaning the place, if not happy with, meaning the wishing to continue towards Hong Kong and Dhaka.  I had only one task, to change my yuan into dollars: as usual, disorganised me, I hadn’t done it yet.  It was my entire savings, not much but enough that the first bank didn’t wish to do such an amount.  I insisted and to their absolute credit, they had one of their bank managers drive me across the city to another branch where they could get the approval or whatever was required to change the money.  He did that, and then offered to drive me out to the Hong Kong ferry terminal.  He did that too.  Normally I used to go through wonderful, fantastic Macao towards Hong Kong, but this time I’d decided to take the direct Zhuhai boat.

As I boarded the ferry, following the queue, there was a security guy.  He looked at me and then got onto his radio set.  Honestly probably nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help but smile.  ‘He has left the building,’ I imagined him saying.  I wanted to thank him too.



VII

The next day my father was due to arrive in Hong Kong, from Australia.  I’ve written about Hong Kong elsewhere so need not do so again.  Only I think of a certain text message I received, for my mainland mobile set still worked in Hong Kong.  ‘Hello Mr Something-Like-That,’ it read, ‘have you left yet?’  Ah CB, when all is said and done you’re not entirely bad, I’ll give you that.

Meanwhile the Bangladeshi Consulate had improved its efficiency in the six months since I’d last been there.  It no longer took five Hong Kong-expensive days to process but only three; I was able to shift my flight forward a day leave with marginally less-dwindled Chinese savings.

For the four-hour journey through the evening darkness, south to Vietnamese skies, across Laos, Thailand and Burma, I was ecstatic; though it’s not really a reaction sufficiently fit to mark that particularly important journey for I had always arrived in Bangladesh hugely excited.  There’s never been an exception; just as I’d rarely left without tears.

Having passed through immigration I stepped out of the terminal building into a strange thing, a kind of freedom and much better, higher level security.  For the first time in several years there was an opportunity to build a life independently, to have opinions, to write, to live with my brain switched on and without fear.  Look at the Dhaka traffic: Bangladeshis are hardly conformist.  It wasn’t all smooth sailing, of course, but this was the world’s heart* no less, so it would never be possible, no matter what happened, to but wake each morning in that absolute joy of realising in which country I was.

Life did not end there, of course.  There was getting a house, getting a job, working my way through the Bangladeshi visa processes.  There were many things to come, of course, and it’s not a journey yet complete; but in Dhaka I’d finally found enough peace and the freedom to really start recovering from 2007, slowly, slowly.  It’s still going on.

There were the many friends to help me, but especially Situ.  Hey, after e-Bolivia got me through most of 2007, after telephone-Ukraine helped me stay alive on one crucial evening, after in person-China gave me refuge for most of a year and through an election, and well, should mention some good came from some inside Australia too, for it’s not that the entirety of the Australian people are a problem, just the bloody, unaccountable, contemptible, corrupt and racist security systems and those involved there; after such an international relief effort, and there were more who helped than just those abovementioned, it was really about time Bangladesh played its part.  And it’s no small part, the part of the heart.

Remember the Bagerhat man?  ‘Bangladesh is paradise,’ he’d said, fifteen years ago.  Well, it’s not that, but it is a country I’m so much honoured to consider my home.  The Howardites be damned!








* I referred to Bengal as the world’s heart in ‘Saccharin Hatiya’ also.  Since writing that I felt guilty because although I have used the term to describe Bengal for several years, it is something I poached from a small kitchen in Eastern Ukraine.  There I was told that in Soviet times people used to say that America was the world’s muscle and the Soviet Union was its heart. 

I can’t vouch for the Soviet Union as a whole, but Ukraine as world’s heart is an entirely sound conclusion to draw.  But to the Ukrainians I ask you grant me the indulgence to shift the term to Bengal since in the experience of my life it fits nicely there, without taking anything away from Ukraine.  Indeed if Ukraine really is the world’s heart then you will grant my request from kindness, though you may beg to differ on its conclusion.

And to the owner of that kitchen I would say that we had so many wonderful arguments in which I was quite adamant about various things, as were you; though these days I find myself willing to concede to many of your points, which we might discuss one day, or argue over; but in return for my concessions I would ask you not to mind my using the ‘Bengal is the world’s heart’ phrase; come here and you’ll see it, and remember I swapped from Bangladesh to Ukraine something too, for as you know, as I said, ‘Ukraine is a tiger,’ a royal Bengal tiger.

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