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Finding Faith in Beijing
A heartwarming tale of the kindness of a stranger
By V. Apurva | NO. 34 AUGUST 24, 2017

A wallet was lost in an unfamiliar city. Shock, stress and fear ensued predictably, but were unexpectedly short-lived. A maiden encounter with the city police, 12 hours of self-berating and an unknown benefactor later, the wallet was returned. The Good Samaritan who made the effort to return it will remain unknown. For now, let us call her Beijing.

The wallet in question was left behind on the seat of a shared e-bike on August 8. I was attempting the online registration required to use the service and needed identification cards. My attempt failed since the e-bike is available only to Chinese citizens. I switched immediately to a shared cycle and pedaled away.

Minutes later, an awful realization dawned. The wallet—with my credit, ATM and identity cards, gate passes, house keys and not to mention a few hundred yuan in cash—was still on the e-bike seat. Racing back proved futile since the e-bike was no longer at the parking lot of the mall in Chaoyang District where I had left it. Beijing had pocketed my wallet!

Among thoughts of a depleted bank balance and an impending business trip to Tianjin the following day, I turned to the police. This was an authority I was encountering as a foreigner for the first time, and I didn't know what to expect.

Would I be able to communicate? My Chinese was limited to ordering food. Would they ask for identification? My passport was at home at least 3 km away. And should I even bother going to the police, considering it was my fault to begin with?

Finally, I met an officer from the Hujialou police station and explained my predicament to him with the help of a Chinese friend on speaker phone. The officer asked me to show him the location where I saw the wallet last and then said I would have to file a report at the police station.

The man offered to drive me to the police station in his vehicle. This was new. I was in the back of a police vehicle feeling strangely secure. The officer, who knew little English, attempted to rally my spirits through a language translation app on his phone. He spoke a sentence into the phone and then handed it to me. I wrote back an answer, which the app translated into Chinese. Each conversation took a few minutes.

"Did you lose much money?" he asked.

"About 400 yuan ($60)," I replied.

A sharp intake of breath. "Which country are you from?"

I hesitated and said, "India."

"Oh India. Lovely country." This was surprising. I had expected something else considering the rhetoric between the two countries over the current border dispute, but the police officer carried on unconcerned.

"Are you here on work?"

"Yes. I am a journalist."

"Wow. That's great."

More hospitality ensued at the Hujialou police station. Using the same translation app on his phone, the officer carefully took down an inventory of all that I had lost with my wallet. This was double and triple-checked.

Another 30 minutes later, he handed me a stamped and signed report, which he said would be required to apply for a duplicate set of the documents I had lost.

By then, I had downloaded the app he was using and asked, "What are the chances of getting my wallet back?"

He shrugged expansively and smiled. "There is always hope," he said.

The next day, when I was in Tianjin with hope receding and making do with the little money left in my mobile payment app, I got a message. A friend from my apartment complex had texted to say he had my wallet. He said a stranger had come by in the morning, left the wallet with a guard at the gate and gone away.

Beijing had returned my wallet! And after taking a lot of effort too, I realized. The wallet contained no contact information, no business cards and no documents about my address in Beijing save one access card to my apartment. Yet Beijing took the trouble to hand-deliver the wallet. She had left everything in it intact. All the money was accounted for, as well as my bank and identity cards.

Megacities are chaotic. They are often fast, furious and mean. But this random act of kindness in a city with over 20 million inhabitants changed that perception. However, I have a regret still. I will never be able to express my gratitude to the Samaritan who restored my wallet—and my faith.

So I will thank Beijing instead.

The author is an Indian journalist currently on a media fellowship in Beijing

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