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A guy once tried to stab me in China—Shanghai, to be specific. No kidding, he pulled out a pocketknife and made multiple swings towards my head. And in all honestly, it was partly my fault.
It was my first year in China. I was 25, working at an English training center in Kunshan and having the best time of my life. My school had recruited a new ESL instructor, and in good faith, I took it upon myself to show him around Shanghai for half a day.
Shanghai was a blast as usual. We caught wind of the Bund, ate some good grub, stopped at a bar, and picked up some much needed Western groceries from an international supermarket underneath Jing'an Temple. We were just about ready to head back to Kunshan when I had a sudden urge to show him a local bar/club street in the area. And that's where sh*t hit the fan.
That street? Huashan Road, which I had come to learn only later was not just notorious for its couple of nightlife joints, but was also a somewhat shady street where you can occasionally find drunks, hawkers, and your fair share of all-around weirdos roaming the pavement under the dim orange lights. And well, that's exactly what we found.
As he and I strolled the street—carelessly chatting away and minding our own business, mind you—a stocky, local hawker, donning fairly thick facial hair and a cast on his left arm approached us, mumbled some Chinese, and held out some items for us to buy.
"No thank you." We politely declined and went about our way. And then it happened—we were less than 10-meters in the distance when he turned and shouted "F**k you!" at the top of his lungs.
Whoa. Neither one of us was expecting that; after all, most locals we encountered were generally nice towards foreigners when it came to things like loitering. I guess we just found one of those weirdos I told you about.
And no matter how much I wanted to brush it off as just another example of an annoying, bothersome incident I had experienced in China—a lah being called ‘waiguoren', or foreigner, having my photo taken without permission, being stared and pointed at—on this particular day, I wasn't having it.
I walked back to within a single pace of him, stood in an intimidating pose, and yelled "What!?" several times right in his face. It was very unlike my character to provoke situations like this, but I'll get to that later.
He was quiet then and even backing off like he didn't want any trouble. "Chump!," I thought. And as he continued to step back away I bellowed out a 'F**k you!' to return the favor.
Just as I turned, though, he took his right hand, dug into his cast, and whipped out a small pocketknife. Shit. "Fuck me, no fuck you!" he expelled—it was probably the only English he knew.
He took a swipe at my head. I ducked back. Then another. My first instinct led me to whip my backpack around to the front—yes, fortunately I had a backpack full of groceries and 2 large bottles of salsa dip—and proceed to use it as a shield to block the attacks. I even managed to give him a front kick to the thigh to push him back.
In the meantime my friend tried yelling at the hawker to stop, but with no luck he pulled out his phone to call the police as the action ensued.
After awhile he became less active and moved on to taunting me with his blade, faking like he was going to swing just to see my reaction. I can even recall him laughing under his breath. This nut thought the ordeal was a joke.
What's more, he picked up a large 40 oz. bottle of beer that just so happened to be perched next to a trashcan. My luck just kept getting worse.
He motioned his hands as if he was going to launch the bottle at me, and after several more taunts, he did just that. Wham! As he threw it I lifted my bag to block it, and in doing so, the glass bottle hit my pinky and completely shattered. My finger was covered with blood, and yet, that wasn't the end.
Not a second after I dropped my bag, dug into it, and grabbed my jars of salsa to throw right back—hey, it's all I could think of in the heat of the moment.
I guess he thought I was grabbing a weapon, because as soon as I stuck my hands into the bag he immediately bolted across the street. I gave a little chase and launched both jars at him—it was a failure of mass proportions—but he was long gone.
The police arrived just a few minutes after the altercation ended. They asked if we wanted to ride with them to look for the hawker. It was a nice gesture, but I declined. The situation was over with, I was safe, and I ended up learning several valuable lessons about living in China, and living abroad in general, of which you should also take heed:
#1. Don't Provoke Situations
Let's just get this one out of the way: this was a situation that I never should have been in in the first place. Provoking or escalating situations is very unlike my character unless I'm defending myself. In this case, the very instant I turned to approach the hawker I became the 'tough guy' looking for trouble, even if it was him that actually started it. And karma literally made a swipe at my head when he whipped out the knife. Be smart, stay safe, and ignore the miniscule bullsh*t. It's definitely not worth it. Lesson learned.
#2. Be Mindful of Where You're At
You ever hear about that American tourist in North Korea that wound up in prison after trying to sneak a propaganda poster? Or what about the two American tourists in Thailand that recently ended up in jail after posing for pictures at a sacred temple with their pants down?
Any time you travel to another country it is imperative that you not just respect the laws, customs, and practices of the region, but, as in my case, are also aware of your interactions with its local people.
At 25 and having lived in China less than a year at that point, it's no doubt that my arrogance of the surroundings helped aggravate the situation. Here was some poor, lonely, and surely uneducated local hawker roaming the Shanghai streets, versus I, an urban, athletic, smart kid holding a passport from the 'greatest country on Earth.' Surely I could take him and walk away unscathed. And besides, Chinese people were generally peaceful; he'd back down if I confronted him, right? Wrong.
Be mindful of where you're at. Not only was starting some sh*t on a dark, very dim lit street in the big city a bad idea, but thinking that I'd win a 'fair one' in a confrontation just because of his socio-economic status was ignorance beyond belief. In fact, all things considered, I should have known that he fit the bill for most likely to pull out a weapon and fight dirty under the circumstances.
#3. People Fight Different
You must be careful about how you approach confrontations when traveling overseas because every culture's handling of conflicts isn’t the same. Having lived in China over the past 6 years, for instance, I've learned that although conflicts amongst Chinese people—and amongst Chinese and foreigners—usually end with a bunch of loud arguing and no punches thrown, I've also seen that when sh*t hits the fan it can involve weapons, multiple assailants, and dirty tactics. Additionally, cameras are everywhere and good luck with finding people trying to help de-escalate the situation; everyone'll just stand around to watch.
Thinking that you may just settle your dispute by squaring up for a street fight and then walking away Scott-free is probably something that isn't going to happen.
#4. You May Be the Enemy
There may be a time where you're considered the 'enemy', or wrongdoer, in a confrontation when traveling or living abroad, even if the entire episode isn't your fault.
Take for instance the story of Wendall Brown, who, on a night out with friends in Chongqing, China back in Sept. 2016, was reportedly approached by a group of local guys and invited to drink. After declining, a hostile exchange of words took place that ended with punches and bottles being thrown, and even worse, it landed Wendall in a Chinese detention center where he remains behind bars and fighting for his freedom until this very day.
From what I gather, Wendall became a target for, well, simply not wanting to be bothered, which can happen to anybody, especially in a region like China where foreigners of his complexion and build—6 foot, 225 pounds, and dark skinned—stand out and can easily become the center of unwanted attention.
Furthermore, China lacks any kind of American bail type system to get him released, so not only will he have to wait out his term until a final verdict is decided, but he’s going up against a system where prosecutors have a whopping 99% conviction rate.
Even if you're the victim, you may still appear as the 'wrongdoer' in the situation and face severe punishment.
#5. Avoid the Trouble
And lastly, like any true martial artist will tell you, sometimes it's best to just walk away. Avoid any trouble or potential conflict that may arise for the sake of enjoying your experience and quality of life. ALWAYS defend yourself if absolutely necessary, but for others just remember to ask yourself,’ Is it really worth it?
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->