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US kidnapping should be a lesson for all

By <P>Berlin Fang</P> | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-06 07:42

A photo of Zhang Yingying released by the police.

The disappearance of Zhang Yingying, a Chinese visiting scholar at the University of Illinois, has drawn public attention to Chinese students' safety in the United States. Subsequent analyses on WeChat platforms are pretty wild, reinforcing old prejudices and creating new ones. One writer warns against drivers of Saturn cars, as the suspect was driving a Saturn to pick up Zhang before she disappeared. This widely read writer argues that someone with good social status would not drive a Saturn. Others, after reading about the suspect, conclude that introverts are a risk to society, themselves or both.

It is absurd to make such generalizations based on just one incident. Such sensationalism also takes attention away from the real measures that Chinese should take to protect themselves against crime while working or studying abroad.

Overseas visiting scholars constitute a fairly vulnerable group. Their stay in a foreign country ranges from a few months to a year. Given the brevity of their stay, more often than not they decide not to buy a car or learn to drive, and thus have to depend on either friends or the public transportation system, which can be infrequent, at least compared with that in China.

However, despite the despicable crimes, it is not right to profile people based on race, personality, or the cars they drive.

Generally speaking, we can never go wrong with quick acclimatization to local environments. It is essential for Chinese students and scholars studying or conducting research abroad to learn about and adapt to local conditions and public life. Take transportation for instance: When living in a college town where most of the people do not depend on public transportation, it's no use being nostalgic about the convenience of buses and subways in China. Just get used to taking buses according to their posted schedules. Take a bus schedule flyer. Download an app. Public buses in the US do not run as frequently as they do in China, but they are fairly punctual and reliable. Simply learn to adjust.

Campuses with large numbers of students also have transportation services that could save lives, especially late at night. Some universities, such as my alma mater Syracuse University, offer late night shuttle to transport students when public bus services are not available. The university also provides escorts to help students to walk safely to bus stations. For most US campuses, it is standard practice to install blue light stations with emergency call features to help students in times of danger. In fact, US campuses are fairly safe.

But since such services are often unknown to new students and scholars, it's always better to get informed. There is no excuse for a kidnapping, but I hope future students and scholars can receive prior warning, or learn from Zhang's case to never get into a stranger's vehicle, a hidden rule of defensive living, which for Americans has become second nature. The best place to learn such things is the campus orientation session for newcomers. Do not skip these sessions, for they offer "more important" things such as studying for "real courses".

Getting educated about how a community operates should be a priority for newcomers, as it can go a long way in making their stay safer.

I still remember a simple but highly useful tip our campus police gave us when I started my studies in the US about 15 years ago: "Carry a whistle. Blow it as hard as you can when you are in danger." These safety orientation sessions are filled with useful information such as safety routes, dangerous neighborhoods, and situations that may pose danger. I would recommend all students to attend such sessions, and to seek out information when they are not sure. Get informed. Knowledge about local environments is a much better guarantee of safety than ignorant profiling.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

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