Watching the winds of history blow through.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How 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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