Tuesday, May 30, 2006


It finally happened after 8 months in China - I had something stolen. First, let me explain that this was very upsetting to me, not because I was particularly attached to the item stolen, but rather because I have never been pickpocketed or had anything stolen from me prior to this, and it was a blow to my feeling of being aware of my surroundings. The whole ordeal left me feeling very un-spy-like. I think I'm going to be even more alert that I used to be from now on.

That said, my cell phone was stolen. I realize that this happens all the time, but the way in which it happens in Beijing is particularly agonizing. On a college campus in the US, if you lose your phone, there's actually a fairly good chance that you can call it and get it back. Sometimes, even if it's been stolen, this will work. In Beijing, though? There's a very special process that unfolds after you realize that your phone is gone. This feeling of mine was confirmed the next day as I serendipitously came across an article about precisely this subject in the back of That's Beijing, the magazine I'm working for.

The loss of a cell phone usually begins in a cab or in a club. If you're in the cab group, the phone's usually fallen out of your pocket or bag, and you realize it after you close the door. If you're in the club group, you've either left the phone unattended somehow for a minute, or you have it tucked into a pocket that isn't quite deep enough to keep it from sticking out of the top. I fell prey to the latter situation. You have to understand that two things were working against me in this situation: 1) that phone was a bloody monster. It was huge, and it had a giant antenna sticking out of the top of it. 2) Girls' pants' pockets are notoriously shallow and basically useless. I want all of my pants to be cargo pants so I never have this problem again.

So I checked to make sure my cell phone was still in my pocket throughout the whole night. My friend Stefanie and had been dancing and talking, and eventually (around 3) decided that we would get going. She came over to where I was dancing so we could get going, and I checked my pocket again. My phone was gone. I had checked it not three minutes ago, and it was gone. We looked around on the floor and asked people around us if they had seen it.

This is where the second stage of cell phone loss comes in. Everyone does this. Stefanie got out her cell phone and called mine. It rang! We waited for someone to answer as we kept looking around. No one answered, but the music was loud, so maybe they just didn't notice it ringing. We waited another five minutes and called again. Nothing. No answer. The same thing happened on the third try, but with every ring, we thought someone might pick up. We looked around for someone agitated by a phone. No one.

On the fourth phone call, the third stage of cell phone loss kicked in. instead of a ring, we received a power off message. The person who had my phone turned it off so we wouldn't bother them with calling anymore. This is how we knew for sure that someone had it instead of my having just lost it. At this point, I gave up. I resigned myself to having lost my ridiculous looking phone, and told Stefanie we should just go home.

I sent a text message to my phone from Andrew's phone the next day that said in both Chinese and English, "If you found my phone, please call Andrew or Stefanie." Of course, we received no reply. I realized that I was going to have to buy a new phone. Luckily, having read the That's Beijing article about losing phones, I was armed with the knowledge that I could get my old number back. I went to China Mobile and purchased the cheapest phone they had. That phone isn't even on display. They showed me a 500 kuai phone, and I said, "I know you have a cheaper one. It's a Motorola. Where is it?"

They went to the storeroom and got it for me. It was only 388 kuai. It's actually a nice little phone, too. Getting my number back on a reprogrammable SIM card was only 20 kuai, also. When I turned on the phone with the SIM card inside, I received the text messages I sent to the thief. That means the person never turned the phone back on.

What happens when the phones get stolen is that the thief/phone collector turns it off, trashes the SIM, and then takes it to a vendor for resale in illegal stores. The stolen phone vendors have huge stockpiles of phone accessories in their shops, too, so it doesn't matter that the thief didn't steal the charger. How do I know this part? Because my friend who had his phone stolen on New Year's Eve went to one of the shops to replace his.

The unfortunate thing about doing that is that the phone you're buying are either a) stolen, or b) fake. How can you have a fake phone? I wondered the same thing, but when my friend's phone stopped working, I went with him to shops to try and get it repaired. Every shop's repair person said the same thing.

"The main board is fake. You see this here? This is obviously fake. The board should be blue, not green. And look at how they wired this together. Plus, it has three boxes, and it should only have two. We can replace the board, but the entire phone is fake, too. The faceplate, the LCD screen, even the buttons."

The phone looked like a Nokia. It was perfect looking, and it was all fake. China can counterfeit anything.

So, I guess, in conclusion, watch your phone here. Watch where you buy it, watch where you use it, and watch where you store it.


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