Almost every foreigner who has dedicated a significant amount of time in China has had that fearful moment when they realize they could have been kicked out the country or, even worse, landed in a Chinese jail. For some, it’s smoking or buying weed. For others, it’s drunken belligerence or late night altercations with Chinese. There are plenty of ways I’ve seen foreigners wind up in trouble and there are many more possible ways to get in trouble. Yet there is one situation that I never worried about being even a remote possibility for myself, my friends, or any other sane laowai living in China. That is to say, I never worried about getting in trouble for trying to move 222 kilos of meth out of the country.
Perhaps you’ve seen the news. Robert Lloyd Schellenberg was recently sentenced to death in China for attempting to smuggle 222 kilograms of meth from China to Australia. Some say the sentence is politically motivated. Others say the sentence is too harsh. I agree with both of these sentiments. But…
I’ll just come out and say it.
I have a hard time mustering up sympathy for this guy, in the same way that I can care less each time another missionary gets arrested in North Korea for crossing the border to spread Christianity and then waits in prison until Bill Clinton of Dennis Rodman shows up to bail them out of trouble. Or, take this John who was recently killed by the arrows of a native Sentinelese tribe as he tried to bring Jesus to their secluded and government-protected island.
The real reason I wanted to talk about this laowai sentencing is because I wanted to share a strange observation I made about the whole matter, specifically the cultural symbolism and irony of being busted with and sentenced to death for 222 kilograms of meth in China.
The number 2
The number “2” in Chinese is pronounced “er” and sounds like the English letter “R.” On the one hand, 2 is a lucky number because it is harmonious and speaks to the dualities of everything in life–the yin and yang, so to speak. For example, when you give gifts in China, it is best to give them in pairs. But in popular parlance, “2” is frequently used as an adjective to describe people in an unflattering way. If you call someone “2” then you are really calling them stupid or an idiot. This is certainly not the most insulting way to call someone an idiot, and it is usually reserved for closer relations, sort of the way my friends call me a dumbass or fucking idiot in that playful, loving and familiar way. When we look at the quantity of drugs Laowai Robert got busted trying to move out the country in this light, you can’t help but think how much of a triple dumbass he was for attempting such a brazen move.
The number 4
But the symbolism doesn’t stop there. While China (and basically every other country in the world except the US) uses kilograms to measure weight, the Chinese also love a unit of measure called the jin, which is exactly half a kilogram. When you go to the supermarket to buy food, everything is measured and sold in jin, not kilograms. Thus, if we do a little simple math, we can see that 222 kilograms of meth is actually 444 jin. While 4 is often seen as auspicious in Western culture, it is arguably the most unlucky number in Chinese culture–akin to 666 in biblical lingo. For example, the number 4 is rarely used in telephone numbers and to label floors in apartment buildings–in some buildings the 4th floor is labeled 3B. Why? Because 4 (pronounced sì) is a homophone for the word death (pronounced sǐ). Even though the tone is different, in some dialects it sounds the same. Thus, 4 is a number that Chinese people try to avoid like the plague.
So far the podcasts and blogs have primarily focused on how foreigners are made in China, but I thought it was worth taking this opportunity to point out how foreigners are also unmade in China. And, of course, what better way to do that than by linking Chinese numerology to current political and social events.