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US Kidnapping should be a lesson for all

The disappearance of Yingying Zhang, Chinese visiting scholar at University of Illinois, brought attention to campus safety for overseas Chinese. Subsequent analysis on Wechat platforms is pretty wild, reinforcing old prejudices and creating new ones. One writer warned of drivers of Saturn cars, as the suspect was driving a Saturn to pick up Zhang before her disappearance. It was because, argued this widely read writer, someone with a good social status would not be driving a Saturn, which somehow got white vans off the hook. Others read about the suspect and concluded that introverts like him are risks to society, themselves or both. 
 
It is absurd to make such sweeping generalizations based on the sample of one. Such sensationalism takes attention away from real measures Chinese can take to protect themselves against crime when they are aliens on another land. Even after despicable crimes, I don’t think it is right or beneficial to profile people based on race, personality, or even cars people drive. We cannot build a model to make a practical and accurate prediction based on a few elusive variables. Tragedies like Zhang's result from evil acts of criminals.  The victims deserve nothing but our sympathy. 
 
However, if there is any general lesson to learn, I think we cannot go wrong with quick acclimation to local environments. It is essential for Chinese students and scholars in a foreign country to learn about and adapt to local conditions and public life. I'll use transportation to illustrate adaptation issues. Other may offer perspective on other aspects on campus life in the US.
 
Generally speaking, overseas visiting scholars constitute a fairly vulnerable group. Their stay in a foreign country ranges from a few months to a year. The brevity of stay often makes it undesirable to buy a car or learn to drive. They have to depend on either friends or the public transportation systems, which can be seen as infrequent and inconvenient, at least compared to similar systems in China. However, such comparison does not motivate one to get used to local environments.
 
When living in a college town that does not depend on public transportation, it is useless to be nostalgic of the convenience of Chinese buses and subways. Just get used to taking buses according to their posted schedules. Take a bus schedule flyer. Download an app. American public buses do not often run as often as Chinese ones, but they are fairly punctual. Simply plan ahead to avoid rushing. 
 
Campuses with large student enrollments 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 bus services have stopped.The university also provides walking escort 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 a time of danger. I would say that US campuses are actually fairly safe.
 
Yet the services and precautions mentioned above are often unknown to new students and scholars. It rarely hurts to get informed. There is no excuse for any kidnapping, but I hope future students and scholars can receive some warning, or learn themselves from Miss Zhang’s tragedy, not to get into a stranger’s vehicle, a hidden rule of defensive living, which many Americans know as a second nature. 
 
The best place to learn such things is campus orientation when students first arrive at a new school. Do not skip orientation sessions for “more important” things such as studying for “real courses”. Learning about a community's operations should be a priority for newcomers. Such learning can go a long way. I still remember a simple but highly useful tip our campus police gave when I started my studies in the USfifteen 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.
 
China Daily, July 6, 2017
 
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