The Adventure of the Disheveled Desk

Here's one for the Sherlock Holmes fans out there. Imagine that you have just entered an unfamiliar place. Your surroundings are shrouded in darkness, above you is a drip that keeps licking from the ceiling, and the ground beneath you is unfurling like a great Persian rug that can be swept from under your feet at a moment's notice. You have never been more aware of your surroundings. Everything is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying and you're half-expecting some bedraggled skeleton to sneak up from behind you at any minute. A position, where the door at the end of a long hallway holds every hope and fear you have ever imagined. You move slowly forward to open it, with each heavy breath and passing moment leading you closer to the end. And you have the uncanny sensation that soon—perhaps very soon—you will uncover that thing you've been searching for, or, in the infamous words of 50 Cent, die tryin'.

This feeling, often reserved for underground caverns, dingy narrow alleyways, and only the seediest of London bars, is curiously the same sensation I have in Taigu after returning home from a long vacation. In the year-and-a-half that I've lived here, I haven't had a particularly good track record when it comes to going back home. Take my return from a summer of travel last August—entering my room only to be met with my posters and tapestry ripped savagely from my walls, my books and papers lying in unorganized heaps across my shelves, and everything on my desk either shoved aside, toppled on to the floor, or lumped on top of my bed. I soon learned that the Foreign Affairs Office had hired workers to come in and repaint and repair our houses while we were gone, though no one had bothered to tell us before we left that we should expect to return to rooms that looked as though they had been ransacked by thieves.

Exhibit A: My desk in utter ruin following my return to Taigu in late August of last year.

For anyone who knows me, I keep my living space meticulous. Books are never so much as misaligned, stacks of papers are neatly squared, and every item on every table surface retains its composure and spatial placement in harmony with those around it. It's not to say that I don't have clutter, because I do, but even the clutter seems to have an imbued sense of purpose and resolve for where it exists and why. I joke with James that if he so much as came into my room and used a tissue, I would notice, but in all honesty (and haplessness), I truly believe that I would. What's great about my relationship with James, though, is that rather than criticize each others' obsessive compulsions, we provide mutual commiseration for their breeding. Case in point: James has to check the front door three times before he leaves the house to make sure he hasn't left something undone (unplugged the space heater, turned off the stove), whereas I go into a mental flurry when I realize that someone has been in my room, borrowed something from my kitchen, or washed their hands in my sink, no matter how seemingly insignificant the infraction.

It came, then (at least to me), as little surprise that someone had once again come into my house uninvited during the time I was away during break. As far as I know, the only people who have the keys to my house are me, James, and, perhaps ironically, the Foreign Affairs Office. In the past, they have used this privilege for both good and evil—sometimes to fix leaks in our bathroom when we are out of the house, but also to ambush us on Saturday mornings with news that we have an impromptu banquet to attend or a scientific paper that needs English revision. To most people, this would come as a gross breach of privacy, and to be sure, it took me a while to put aside my American need for personal space and accept the notion that I can be walked in on or interrupted at any moment. But since there was nothing I could do to change that, I realized that I'd simply do my best to plan accordingly.

What I haven't yet been able to put aside, however, is the thought of someone entering my house without forewarning while I'm away and making a mess of my belongings without a legitimate reason to account for the intrusion. In the case of the summer, the mess was attributed to house repairs. This time, it may have been a simple matter of having a clean room to greet me when I returned. The irony, though, is that whatever “cleaning” was done in the way of dusting corners and sweeping my floor, was undone in the sheer amount of time I had to dedicate to painstakingly rearranging back all of my belongings to my liking. However, the strangest thing about all of this is that unlike the summer, when all of my possessions were somewhat understandably tousled due to the refurbishing, this time around, there was hardly rationale to explain why someone would have been as deeply entrenched in my belongings as they were. Rather than simply being stolen or indiscriminately scrapped, many of the situations in which I found my things were so utterly bizarre that I had to make a list detailing all of the oddities:
  1. Flash drive inserted into one of the ports on my USB hub, despite the fact that it wasn't attached to my computer.
  2. Cap to my flash drive found at the bottom of my laundry hamper.
  3. Two AAA batteries removed from their box in my drawer.
  4. Empty bottle of jasmine tea found on the shelf above my bathroom sink.
  5. Discontinued 10 RMB currency note missing from my collection of foreign money.
  6. Five blue binder clips separated from a box of multicolored clips in my drawer and arranged in a circle on my desk.
  7. A single match removed from my matchbox and lit.
  8. A short clip of staples removed from a box of staples in my drawer and put on my desk.
  9. External hard drive noticeably manhandled and instructional insert removed from its case.
  10. Student gift unwrapped and separated from its cardboard sheath.
  11. Peacock feather removed from my wall.
  12. Two napkins used and discarded in various parts of my room.
It helps to reiterate here that none of these acts, even in my wildest dreams, are things I could have possibly left unattended to leading up to a two-month vacation. The real mystery to me is that aside from the 10 RMB note, nothing (to my knowledge) was explicitly stolen, and it's not like there weren't other valuable things in my room—all kinds of foreign currency, books, electronics, clothing, etc. And still, there are so many other questions left unanswered, like: Why specifically blue binder clips? Why take only one bill and leave the dozens of others untouched? Why light a match? Why mess with my flash drive and external hard drive but not actually steal them? The only thing clear to me now is that whoever had come into my room was not trying to be discrete, or at least, didn't know who he was dealing with. After I showed pictures I had taken of the state of my room to the other foreigners, some joked that a similar thing could have happened to them and they wouldn't have even noticed. Is it my fault for being entirely too anal?

I'm questioning even now whether or not I should bring it up with the Foreign Affairs Office. There were no signs that my house had been forcibly entered, so they are the only people who would have been able to come and go. And although I wouldn't accuse them of foul play, I don't trust the integrity of the workers they hire to come in and do repairs. To this day, they have never mentioned a single bad thing associated with their mid-vacation check-ins, and even if they did trust that I was telling the truth, it still may be impossible to pin down exactly who was responsible for the hi-jinks. I'm upset with myself for letting this get to me, but at the same time, it is frustrating and really quite eerie knowing that someone was so clearly taking liberties with my belongings, potentially lifting information from my drives, or at the very least, being crude and disrespectful in a stranger's home.  I still can't help but feel violated. If I can't be sure that my own house won't be broken into every time I leave it, then I can't truly feel safe in Taigu. As Scooby and the gang might say: It looks like we got a real caper on our hands!