One of the first things Yating Liu did when she came to the United States in late August was buy herself a little blue purse.
Ting, as friends call her, is a native of China who is currently a junior exchange student at McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead. She said she bought the purse, which is about six inches long and looks more like an oversized wallet, while shopping with her host mother, Joan Sattler of Hampton Bays, and Fiona Yang, another international student living with her at Ms. Sattler’s home.
Ting needed a new purse for her nearly year-long stay in the country. After purchasing it, she filled it with bank and identification cards, family photos and hundreds of American dollars.
But less than a week later, the purse was gone — lost while shopping at Tanger Outlets in Riverhead.
“I got very nervous about it,” Ting, 16, told the News-Review.
Figuring the purse was gone for good. Ting replaced the bank cards and cash inside the bag and settled back into the rhythm of going to school and doing her homework.
It wasn’t until three weeks later, on Sept. 28, that she received an unusual message from her mother back in Nanning, China.
“She said she had very important things to tell me,” Ting said. “She said a Chinese man from Beijing just wrote a letter to her that told her about a blue purse story.”
As it turns out, the little blue purse bought and lost on the North Fork had been found by a complete stranger and returned to Ting’s home in China on a more than 8,000-mile journey halfway around the world.
“How [did it get to] China?” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
“It’s almost like it had little wings or something and flew off,” Ms. Sattler said. “It says so much for people … It’s very heartwarming to know there are good people.”
Ting and Fiona had been shopping at Tanger Outlets the afternoon of Sept. 7, when Ting must have put the purse down somewhere and forgotten about it.
She realized it was missing when she tried to buy a pair of shoes, but by then it was too late: She and Fiona retraced their steps but couldn’t find the purse.
The next morning, after talking to her mother in China, Ting told Ms. Sattler the purse was gone. Ms. Sattler called the outlet center but they said they didn’t have the bag.
Unbeknownst to Ting and Ms. Sattler, it had already been found.
Annie Wieland, store manager at Easy Spirit in Tanger 1, said employees there discovered the purse while cleaning the same day Ting lost it.
Ms. Wieland said she immediately contacted the mall office next door.
Yet no one came to claim the purse after numerous announcements were made over the loudspeakers. By then, Ting and Fiona had already left.
Ms. Wieland said she didn’t feel comfortable giving the purse to the mall office. There were hundreds of dollars inside it, along with pictures of Ting and her family.
“I could tell she was a young girl,” Ms. Wieland said.
She decided to keep the purse inside the store safe, in case anyone came back to claim it. She had considered taking it to the police but figured that wouldn’t do much good.
Ting’s identification cards were entirely in Chinese and Ms. Wieland assumed the wallet must have been lost by one of the Asian tourists who frequently visit the outlets during their stays here.
A few days later, as she weighed what to do, Ms. Wieland met Dengyin Xu, a Chinese tour guide who walked into the store with a group of visitors. This, she determined, was her only chance to get the purse back to the girl smiling in the photos.
Mr. Xu translated the ID card and tried to call authorities in China, but the time difference made it impossible to reach anyone there. So Ms. Wieland approached Mr. Xu with an odd request: Please take the purse back to China with you and bring it to its owner.
“I just figured it was her best shot of getting it back,” Ms. Wieland said.
The man assured her the purse would be safely delivered.
“I knew he would,” Ms. Wieland said. “I don’t know how to tell you that I knew he would, but I knew he would.”
Weeks later, Mr. Xu returned to Beijing, hours away from Ting’s hometown on the other side of China. Once there, he immediately contacted her mother.
At first, Ting thought it was a prank — a trick by a thief to get her mother’s personal information. But the blue purse arrived in the mail a few days later, no worse for the wear.
Inside was her government ID card, bank card and photos, all untouched. Ting’s mother counted the cash: $320, more than Ting remembered putting inside the purse. She can’t explain how more money ended up inside it.
“I was astounded,” Ms. Sattler said.
Ting and Ms. Wieland met last week in person for the first time after sending messages back and forth online. Ting thanked her repeatedly for bringing her purse back. It’s waiting for her in Nanning, where she will return in July.
Ms. Wieland told the News-Review she just had to get the purse back to its owner. It’s what she would want others to do if it was her child, she said.
“I have college kids,” she said. “I would hope if my kids were traveling in another country and they lost a purse full of cash and no one could read their ID … I would just hope that’s what you would do.”