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Before The Storm: On The Ground In China

Watching the winds of history blow through.

Chinese family on ebike

On Monday, July 27, 2020, at the US consulate in Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, the Stars and Stripes were lowered, boxed up, and prepared to be shipped back the Unites States. By then, all the documents had been removed and the premises vacated. On the streets around the consulate, crowds of Chinese gathered, young and old, some traveling long distances, to watch and snap photos with their smartphones.

I think a lot of Chinese had mixed feelings. They know that they’re returning to a period of isolation from the rest of the world. Yes, they’re kicking the Americans out, but they’re also shutting themselves in. To fly to the US, students and visitors need to apply for a visa at a US consulate. For those living in southwestern China, that now means a long flight to the four remaining US consulates in the country.

Last week, I made a trip from here in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, to Shanghai, a three-hour ride by bus, to pick up a new passport at the US consulate there. I still have a student visa in my old passport. That visa expired just a couple days ago, on July 26, but all students visas, because of the coronavirus, are automatically extended for two months, giving me until late September to locate a flight for elsewhere.

Elsewhere, however, as you Vagabonders know, is not that easy to find. The airports of most countries are still closed, while the countries that are open are few and scattered. And then there’s the cost—the prices for a lot of flights are exorbitant. I’d like to jump on a plane for a quick flight to Taipei, just ninety minutes from Shanghai, but Taiwan is still closed to non-nationals. So it’s a waiting game.

While waiting, I’m riding my bike around Ningbo and snapping photos. A good time for photos is around three o’clock in the afternoon, when all the kids at school get picked up.

Chinese family on ebikeI grew up in a small town in Iowa and we walked to school. I envy the kids of China when I see ones like the little boy standing and holding onto the mirrors. I would have loved that view as dad zips in and out of traffic.

Chinese kid and mom on ebikeNo helmet? Can you imagine the condemnation that would come down on the head of an American parent for endangering a child like this?


High school in China is pure hell. All the students cram non-stop for three years before taking the gaokao, a two- to three-day series of tests whose cumulative score decides their future. Students have no time for anything else.

Once in university, however, it’s easy street. You just need to attend class and you will be guaranteed a diploma after four years. So what does that mean? Well, it means that for most Chinese real dating only begins in university. So here we see a couple—potential future husband and wife—strolling across campus.

Young Chinese coupleNote that university life also allows Chinese women to indulge, for the first time, in some serious styling.

And what do Chinese guys do when not attending class at Wanli or strolling with their girlfriend? Studying? Nope. To the basketball courts they go every day.

Chinese playing basketball***
Ningbo is one of those noisy Chinese cities that is always under construction. The building frenzy is intense. Each day I pass by brand-new construction sites where sunburned migrant workers are hurriedly putting up towers of concrete apartments, most of the structures starting to crack even before completion.

Chinese construction siteChinese man with tire***

At the entrances to the construction sites, you will always find security guards. A few weeks ago, as I was passing a site, I pulled over to snap a few photos. A security guard came over and told me to stop taking photos. Instead, I lifted my camera and took his photo.

Chinese security guardHow do you read his face? How does he feel about the closing of the US consulate in Chengdu? For me, that expression captures a bit of the ambivalence Chinese have about waiguoren (outside country people) in China. I think that Han Chinese prefer to live by themselves and I’m okay with that.

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  • Vagabond Journey July 30, 2020, 12:02 pm

    This is the perfect Vagabond Journey post. It simply records what is going on in a certain place at a certain point in time. I wish I had the capacity to have a web of chroniclers all over the world doing just this. This is what I find interesting.

    Are you getting apprehensive about being stuck there? Especially as the political situation is showing signs of breaking down? Answer in your next post 🙂

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  • Vagabond Journey July 30, 2020, 12:32 pm

    I also like how you used your camera. Yes, take pictures of people — especially when they are telling you not to take pictures.

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    • Jeffrey Schuster July 30, 2020, 10:06 pm

      Wade,

      Yes, I’d say a bit apprehensive because it’s taking so long for countries to open up. Also, I don’t want to blow a lot of cash just to get out.

      One trick with taking photos is to plant yourself somewhere and blend into the scene and just wait for the right shot to materialize. And sometimes you’ve got to think: Hey, I’ve traveled thousands of miles to be here and snap these photos.

      Now, of course, you have to respect people’s privacy. Yesterday, for example, I was taking shots of a dilapidated, broken-down ex-mall. Along the side of this dump an elderly Chinese couple were living in a small concrete house. They had created vegetable beds all along the side of the building. I smiled and them and said hello. They returned my hello with a smile. Although my camera was in my hand, I didn’t take any photos. They were living in humble circumstances in a country with many Bo Yangs.

      The ethics of photography? Yeah, that’s a tough one. But taking of the photo of the security guard was just a gut reaction, and I got lucky to capture that expression on his face.

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      • Vagabond Journey August 3, 2020, 12:31 pm

        The ethics of photography seem to be something that only amateurs worry about. The pros seem to understand that what they are doing has a higher purpose than what the act means in the moment. Think of how our notion of history would change if photographers always asked permission before shooting or worried about what the subjects thought? To be a good street photographer you also have to be kind of a dick. However, my take comes from working in news. Those guys seem to know that it’s oddly unethical to let ethics come between them and properly telling the story. It’s kind of weird.

        As for me, I generally use the camera as a social tool. I take pictures of people not because I really care about the pictures but because it gives me a reason to talk to them. If used in this way, the camera becomes a device that can bring you closer to people rather than separately you from them.

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  • Trevor Warman July 31, 2020, 2:08 am

    Hi Jeffrey.. was a long time after you had posted a comment here mentioning people being ‘disappeared’ . Thought you had being been picked up by the Gong An

    Hope to see many posts from China !!

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    • Jeffrey July 31, 2020, 10:49 am

      Hey Trevor,

      I’m okay. I even made it to Shanghai and back by flashing my health code app at the bus stations in Ningbo and Shanghai. I don’t like smartphones at all. The battery on my old smartphone wouldn’t hold a charge when not plugged in, so I had to buy a new smartphone just for the trip to Shanghai for the new passport.

      I bought it new for 600 yuan, about $90. Works fine, but I leave it at home plugged in and sitting on a table as though it were an old landline phone. Maximum disrespect. Yes, I know they’re essential in today’s world. But like Bartleby the Scrivener, “I prefer not to carry a shouji.”

      I’ve been looking for flights out of China. Tonight, I came across this round-up of countries around the world and their current status:

      Country by Country Guide.

      Yep, a bit sobering.

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      • Trevor Warman July 31, 2020, 12:45 pm

        Hi Jeffrey seems like Kenya will open up routes to China. . Fly there, stay a while then fly outta again. Lol . A few countries are indeed open, EU is as long as ur there already. Im in Kosovo. Ive been Trevor’ed. Again. Wade’s term for being ‘stuck’ as i was in Kenya. I think they stopped cross border busses for the EID weekend. Me and Sarah are in competition to see how many countries we can get Trevor’ed in. The #NewNormal

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