‘Knock, knock! Secret police!’ The stupid joke since we moved to the People’s Republic. Now all too true, somehow.

It’s a Monday in late July. I am alone on an evening off.


*indistinguishable yelling in Chinese*

I’m sorry, whoever you are. I have been singing ‘Dust in the Wind’ a couple of times tonight. I had been trying to learn a song to sing to my students as a reward. A decidedly morbid choice, but still.

‘I have a friend who writes a blog,’ says my coworker, in a deserted Indian restaurant in May. Between incredibly awkward sips of beer in the attempt to force some break in a conversation about nothing at all, I oblige.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah. She’s had some really bad things happen to her because she writes a blog here.’

I take another sip of shitty lager.

‘What kinds of bad things?’

‘Oh, I can’t tell you.’

So….nothing truly bad at all. Nothing worth mentioning, much less warning a harassed coworker about, who is desperately trying to keep conversation afloat over mediocre curry.

‘Oh, uh…I mean, what kinds of things?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

So yeah. Nothing really happened. Or it’s all in one’s head. Or it’s annoying, but not truly bad. Or it’s an invention of the narrative about China that Statesians tend to have internalised. I don’t take anything that this particular co-worker says seriously. Her worldview is too different from mine, and so frequently shown not to be true.


The ‘knocking’ appears to have become a full-fledged effort to break down the door. I had immediately turned off the lights and the Kansas when someone started knocking, and thought about opening the door. I peered through the peephole and didn’t recognise anyone. Not the landlady. Not the landlord. Who could it even be? We don’t know anyone around here.

In my worried state, I post a somewhat desperate-sounding Facebook status.

‘Angry knocks on the door = Coleen sits in silence and darkness all night. It wasn’t the landlord. Who could it be?’

Russell won’t be home for at least three hours, and I want someone in the wider word to know that something wasn’t right if indeed the angry person manages to breech the door. I retreat to the laundry room. I try to be as silent as possible.

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG *yells into the door in Chinese*

It can’t be the landlord; they have a key to the apartment. They’d just come in if they thought there was such a pressing problem.

I move silently to the bathroom. At the very least, I can lock myself inside and slow them down with the glass door. I also have a window to the street below. As long as the grandmothers are friendly, I can call for help. From whom, I still don’t know.


They’ve seized hold of the door handle. They’re ramming it back and forth. I’m in the bathroom, with my phone, texting my husband. Useless. His office doesn’t have mobile coverage. Still, a record. I didn’t manage to deadbolt the door in the fray. I thought it would give away that I am actually at home.

A phone is ringing in the hallway.


I have no idea what they are saying. I can’t even catch the usual few words I know in Mandarin. More banging. More yelling into the phone. There is only one person out there. I consider whether my nascent Brazilian Jiu Jitsu could be of any help in this situation. This goes on for more than five minutes, while I send about eight messages from the bathroom.

And suddenly, it stops.

I leave the lights off in our apartment, and am silent for more than three hours. I light a candle, and then hear a voice that sounds like the one I heard outside our door downstairs in the garden. I blow the light out.

It’s been more than a month, and I still have no idea what it was all about. I assume that it might have had to do with a bill we had already paid or something to do with the previous tenants. Most likely, it was some drunk-ass dude who got the wrong apartment in his stupor. This has happened to me before in the States, Korea, and Italy. No big deal.

Nothing too serious, nothing to do with writing or living in China.

Just a strange incident on a random night in 2015.

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