When I joined a popular messaging group for expat parents in Beijing, it was so that I have somewhere to post ads about our ayi looking for more work or about second-hand baby items I wanted to sell. I suspect that most people in this group, despite the nearly 400 members and hundreds of new messages a day, are on there for similar reasons – only a handful are regularly active while the majority stay quiet most of the time, only popping up occasionally.
But equally, I suspect, there are a lot of people like me who are glancing at the chat on a whim while breastfeeding or loitering in front of the microwave, to see what extraordinary topic is being debated that day.
There are the straight-forward factual ones: Where can I find an English-speaking doula? Where can I get my child an imported rather than a local vaccine? These range from quite interesting to vaguely useful. Then there are the ones that provoke rather opinionated answers: Should I be giving my ayi time off during this national holiday week? Is it ok to put a pollution mask on my baby? These range from gently amusing to eyebrow-twitchingly fascinating. Then there is the most brilliant topic, the crown jewel of them all: Have you heard about how kids are getting kidnapped everywhere?
One recent conversation went like this. Someone re-posts a message by someone else from another messaging group, who said that their ayi had heard from some other ayis that children were getting kidnapped at a certain mall to be sold to childless couples or to be groomed for begging and so they sure as hell won’t be going to that mall for a while. Someone else in the group says they’d asked someone who should know about these things if there have been any such incidents and they had said no. The original person wonders aloud whether it may just be Chinese kids who are targeted and probably not expat ones, but half-Chinese, half-foreign ones are surely vulnerable. A third person then suggests that maybe people should refrain from spreading vague rumours and check facts, to which the first person balks and laughs at the notion that China would publish accurate figures on anything, just look at the manipulated pollution figures – and so the conversation moves merrily on to pollution, another favourite topic.
Another time it was a conversation about whether you should leave kids unattended to play outside that prompted the kidnapping debate, and yet another time it was a discussion about locals taking pictures of foreign kids without permission that sparked it. Usually it’s the same few people who throw their hats into the ring with a commitment and energy that’s quite remarkable, while the rest presumably, like me, quietly refresh and scroll down, eyes growing wider and wider.
I wish I could say that when I read these conversations, I merely laugh, cast my phone aside and carry on with my life feeling smug and superior. But no, I find myself thinking about it, then shaking my head, then after a while thinking some more, and gradually getting more and more worked up until I’ve become convinced that our ayi is plotting to kidnap our baby, and that the doormen and local residents who smile at baby as we pass are secretly noting our movements and passing the information on to kidnapping gangs. And naturally, of course, our baby being the cutest thing in the whole wide world, he would be an absolute prime target.
It takes a short but brutal conversation with DD, as ever the cool anaesthetic to my irrational obsessions and wild imaginings, to calm me down.
‘I’ve never ever heard of a case where an expat child has been kidnapped, and if it ever happened there’d be an absolute uproar,’ he says. As a diplomat working deep within the expat circuit, he should know, I tell myself.
‘And the ayi would never ever do something so stupid. Can you imagine what would happen if she kidnapped a child of a diplomat?’ It would go straight to the top and become an international crisis, I think to myself, and she would surely know that. And anyway she seems to genuinely love our baby, so she just wouldn’t do it, I say as I give myself a slap on the cheek and carry on with the washing up. Plus, I add a while later, we have a copy of her ID card, so she’d know we could track her down. Yes, exactly. I turn the bedroom light off. It would never happen.
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