Trying to stop a pickpocket – or – How to look foolish on the bus

Yesterday at the bus stop, I noticed a man wearing all black waiting by the back of the mass of people getting on the bus. He would get pushed forward, and then purposefully work his way towards the back; it seemed suspicious. I know from friends that pickpockets like to use the moment of climbing on the bus to snatch wallets and mp3 players as people crowd onboard, so I kept my eye on him.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Just as the woman in front of him took her first step on, he reached up and placed his hand on her purse. At that moment everything we’d discussed here on the blog about apathy and the evil of “minding our own business” flashed through my mind. You would never have known if I had chosen to stay out of it, but I wouldn’t have been able to face you today if I had remained silent like those around me.

So I pulled his hand off her purse and loudly said, “Gan ma?” (What are you doing?) He took a few steps back and barked something at me that I didn’t quite catch. Sensing the crowd starting to turn against me I pointed at the man and said, “Xiaotou” (pickpocket), and then explained to the woman, who was now looking through her purse, that I had seen him reaching towards it.

I had stopped a thief before in Guangxi, and knew that his buddies could show up at any moment to threaten me. I felt a surge of adrenaline, and my hands were shaking as I beeped my bus card.

At this point I realized my nerves were for nothing as the woman yelled at me for grabbing her husband. Apparently, he holds her bag for stability as he climbs the steps instead of the railing on the door.

Perhaps I was a bit overzealous; a friend had just told me a few days earlier that he had been on a bus when someone noticed their phone was stolen. The victim ordered the bus driver to keep the doors shut while another passenger attempted to call his phone. For a minute everyone froze and listened, but the thief had already turned it off. “Of course he turned it off,” an old woman growled as she pushed towards the door.

Giggles spread through the bus as I moved down the aisle, and one person even took a picture of me with their phone. I felt like a complete idiot and desperately wanted to get off the bus. I decided to ride it the rest of the way home (about 30 minutes), I told myself that I had just been trying to help a stranger so there was really nothing to be embarrassed about. Maybe it would give courage to someone else to take action the next time they saw something suspicious.

When I retold the story to co-workers this morning, they agreed that this kind of behavior should be promoted (people actually talk like this). They also reassured me that there were too many people like this woman, who complain when someone is just trying to help.

But then the conversation quickly switched to how I should be more careful in confronting thieves on the street. *sigh* Should I mind my own business next time?

28 responses to “Trying to stop a pickpocket – or – How to look foolish on the bus”

  1. hooey_ru says:

    As usual, my solution is simple: mind your own business in lawless countries like China or Russia, and help as much as you can in decent countries like Hong Kong or the US.

  2. @Tom Although your intentions are good, you really need to be careful when attempting to be a good samaritan or thief-buster. If that man (who was actually the woman’s husband) was an actual thief and he had accomplices on the bus or nearby, and they had weapons, the outcome wouldn’t of been the same as it ended up being. You really need to ask yourself in any particular situation: “Is it worth you getting hurt over?” You have a wife and family that needs you and if you’re risking your life to help someone else who possibly doesn’t really need the help or appreciate the help you give, then it’s best to let it be. My advice: only accost someone who is attempting to harm you or someone close to you. Remember, you’re in China and the value of life here is not the same as it is in your homeland. Be careful!

    • C. Custer says:

      Meh. Sure, criminal gangs are dangerous, but they’re not (generally) that stupid. Is it worth stabbing a foreigner in broad daylight on a crowded bus (or bothering to follow him long enough to stab him later) just to get revenge for one failed pickpocketing attempt? Even if it was a real thief with accomplices on the bus, as long as all he was trying to do was stop the theft, I can’t imagine they’d bother to do much more than glare.

      I agree you did the right thing. Embarrassing that you were mistaken — and I probably would have waited until he actually had taken something, that way it’s pretty easy to prove you’re right — but your heart was in the right place, and if the woman didn’t appreciate it that’s her problem.

      Having stuff stolen is a big pain in the ass, and if you have a chance to save someone that pain in the ass safely, I think you should. In this case I can’t imagine you’d have been in any real danger. “The value of life” may be less here than in the US, but people don’t get stabbed on public buses for busting pickpockets because (1) pickpockets may be criminals, but there’s a big difference between petty crime and murder (2) murdering someone on a crowded bus is utterly idiotic unless you’re suicidal and looking for the death penalty (3) assaulting a foreign national is even dumber, because (unfair as it is) police and authorities will pay more attention to that kind of crime (hurts international reputation, tourist industry, loses face for local government, etc).

      • @C. Custer
        Did I ever mention in my comment that a foreigner would be stabbed on the bus? NO
        Did I ever say anything about someone getting murdered from a gang attack? NO
        Do people who disrupt gang activity in China pay the price by getting beaten or stabbed? YES
        Do some of those victims die? YES
        Are some of them foreigners? YES

        The point in my comment was one of caution, not fear. One must consider all things before taking action, because every action has a positive or negative reaction! I suggest you leave your ignorant comments to yourself and write about what you know to be true and nothing more.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I might have had my eyes closed, @California Kid, but I hadn’t noticed any stories about foreigners dying in such incidents. Do you have some story links? There was the story of a young Canadian model murdered in Shanghai, but the circumstances were different.

  3. As someone who’s had my stuff stolen before, as well as helped stop pickpockets on a crowded China street, I think you did the right thing. Thanks for doing that, I appreciate it, even if the woman you were trying to help didn’t.

  4. yaxue c. says:

    Tom, I think you did exactly the right thing. The moral burden was on you to call out a thief when you think you see one even it turns out not to be so. I hope the couple will go home, think about the event, and at least one of them would say, you know what? He was trying to help us and we ought to thank him for that. If they do that, it would be for them a life-changing moment–changing for the better, albeit slightly.

    I agree that one has to calculate the risk involved. But I don’t agree that since China is a lawless place and people there tend to be less appreciative, we should all shut us down to be apathetic just like everyone else.

  5. I agree that you did the right thing. Chinese people always told me how safe China was and that there were no such thing as petty crime because they didn’t want to lose face.
    One of my friends was followed by a pickpocket at a mall in Beijing, he tried multiple times to take her wallet from her bag. When she finally noticed and started yelling, other Chinese women around her started yelling too and the thief took off. I also had an experience where my wallet was stolen and some neighborhood 黑车 drivers helped me chase the guy.

  6. SHA YI SI ? says:

    Kudos for trying to help, Tom. so what he was actually her husband?your intentions were noble.That is no reason to decide not to help in future as most people here do. what kind of man holds onto his wife’s purse for support anyway?

  7. Anonymous says:

    The circumstances were such that it looked like a crime was being committed. It was a good choice on your part. The fact that he was her husband never would have occurred to me either, but I suppose now you know, and all of us who read this and would have helped know, to wait a moment longer to see if he actually takes something out of the purse before confronting them. You’re actions are something to be proud of. Cheers!

  8. Mark walker says:

    In China, the U.S. or anywhere, there is always an inherent risk in stepping forward to do the right thing. I have in the past and been fortunate to keep my job. I just had a parishioner who lost his for doing the same. We choose the kind of world we want to live in and accept that there are very real dangers.

  9. Lorin Yochim says:

    Your story reminds me of a similar experience I had, Tom. In this case the xiaotou really was pickpocketing, but was also literally very 小, a street kid and no doubt the agent of an adult keeper. My interruption of the pickpocketing in question was fairly instinctive and unobtrusive. I merely pushed the child’s hand away from the shopping bag about to be picked. The response was something like a hiss in my direction. The men sitting on the very crowded street who saw the incident merely laughed. I suppose if I had much more of scene the danger to me might have been heightened. Equally likely I might have been placed at the centre of one of the giant street gatherings in which two people fight at the centre and the rest mostly gawk.

    I learned later that a school for street children had recently opened in that city. It had 200 beds and housed at that moment about 60 kids. In my very short visit, the most interesting thing I learned about that school was that it actively encouraged physical contact between teachers and the children, which I observed myself as the principal himself hugged several small children during my visit. Those with experience in China will understand the significance of those seemingly mundane acts. About ten years have passed since then. I’m not sure what’s become of the school and whether or not it has had much impact on the problem of homeless/gang involved children.

  10. Lin Jie says:

    You did the right thing and that first comment about lawless countries is ridiculous. You showed integrity, which is what “lawless countries” like China needs more of. It might be dangerous but ultimately it’s worth it if you’re helping someone who is being violated. I would totally have been embarrassed too, but also glad that I stood up for what I said I believed in. Apathy is for wimps. 加油!

  11. Augis says:

    Here is an interesting post about pickpocketing in China – with chopsticks!
    Watch the video – that’s really nice how they do it 🙂

  12. Morally, you did the right thing without doubt. People reacted surprisingly only because stand-up is rare and they don’t used to it. And it’s not just China. As you may know, in Japan, females are often groped by guys in the metro, but those females just don’t fight back or yell out. They just bear the humiliation because they think if they fight back or yell out people would know that they are groped. So it’s better groped than being known. Japanese government in fact constantly educates Japanese females “please stand up for yourself” and warns the guys that groping girls is a crime.

    But be careful next time since the people stood up were killed sometimes. You need to distinguish the situation where there are bad guys with lethal weapons. Several of my friends (kinda good guys) keep knives in their pockets everyday. They said it’s for safety but who knows. You may keep one if you really like to stand up, just in case the bad guy has a knife too.

    It’s a jungle, a Hobbs’s jungle, where life is nasty, brutish, and short.

  13. SteveLaudig says:

    two years ago, about this time of year I was riding a bus around 930 on a thursday evening on a chilly, wet and rainy evening, I was seated in a sideways looking seat. I had earlier noticed a middleaged woman clutching her purse on her lap and nodding off seated next to a man in his late 20s-early 30s. she started yelling and pointing at the man. from what I could gather she’d dozed off and then awakened to find his hand in her purse. she whacked him with the purse twice then was joined by a couple of men on the bus who punched the guy and shoved him towards the doors. they yelled to the driver who stopped the bus and opened the doors. they kicked him into the gutter. he wasn’t bloodied but as the bus pulled off he was sitting in water shaking his head. Why call the police. everyone needed to get home and he’d been punished enough. This was changsha. and it was entertaining.

  14. Chopstik says:

    Tom, you did the right thing. I like to think that I would have done the same. But I also know others who would simply have let it happen and considered themselves lucky that it wasn’t them being stolen from. For what it’s worth, even if it was the wrong situation, it was the right reaction and hopefully others will learn from your example. A better society always starts with an individual standing up for and helping not just themselves but their neighbors as well. Kudos.

  15. sinostand says:

    One of my students once told me how in school she was taught about a heroic man who warned a woman on the bus about a thief…then was followed and stabbed to death by the thief and his cohorts. The student it was quite cunning how they portrayed the man as a hero, but the implicit message they were supposed to take away was pretty obvious.

  16. C. says:

    Wait, if the man was the woman’s husband, why did she look in her purse to make sure nothing was stolen?

  17. M says:

    you did the right thing and I don’t think it’s big deal you was maybe little bit humiliated when trying to help in wrong situation, anyway even if people may agreed with yelling woman at beginning if they think about it for minute they would agree with your good intentions and if they are not able to think about this in this way, they don’t deserve your time, so anyway no big deal, nothing bad happened, maybe your ego was little bit crushed, but it’s actually funny story so you should smile at it

  18. Chip says:

    Just caught a pickpocket at the park last week. A couple was sitting on a bench, and some guy walks up behind them and reaches for the girls bag. After I shouted out “Hey!”, the guy ran off. The couple, of course, said nothing to me afterwords.

  19. DocnChaos says:

    Upon entering the Train, I always say very loudly,
    “If I catch anyone with their hand in my pocket, they can expect a broken arm or maybe more.”
    However, last week on the train, between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, I watch as a young man drop his pants and taped packages of drugs to his legs in his loose fitting pants. I knew very well that he was NOT ALONE and I kept my mouth shut!

  20. DocnChaos says:

    Most Chinese are “TOTAL COWARDS!”
    You should never fear any encounter from ONLY ONE of them but, being out numbered
    is common and is ALWAYS their way against the foreigner.
    Also, don’t ever expect other Chinese to help the foreigner,
    even if he is trying to protect another Chinese.

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