#31 再见苏州

Kicking and screaming (figuratively, for the most part), I left Suzhou on February 10th. I assumed this day would be long and full of bureaucratic snafus, missed flights, long lines, minimal food, and an excess of coffee. Sometimes, one’s predictions turn out to be exactly correct. But, in all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Just as setting one’s goals sufficiently low makes them much easier to achieve, assuming the worst can result in whatever does happen—however bad—being better than that worst.

My flight was a little after noon, so naturally my driver picked me up at 5 am to take me to the Shanghai airport. That turned out to be a good idea; it only takes about 90 minutes to get to PuDong airport (although we did have to stop when entering Shanghai to get our temperature taken), but I needed the time available. I had to fill out health forms, and because my baggage was overweight (all those books I planned to read in the Spring came back with me) I had to pay that. Not at the ticket counter, but at another counter, then return to the ticket counter to demonstrate I’d paid. My luggage and myself were only checked through to Toronto, not Philadelphia: not because of 2019-nCoV, now rechristened by the WHO “COVID-19,” but because the two airlines I was using did not—according to the ticket agent, who spent quite a lot of time on her phone translating things—have an “arrangement.” Otherwise, the Shanghai to Toronto connection went smoothly (although I was out 1000¥, or $145, for those books). 12 hours later the fun began, courtesy of Air Canada and the US Customs Service.

I check in for the Philadelphia flight; I knew I was going to be rerouted to a designated CDC airport for screening, but the very nice but underinformed woman at Air Canada did not. After 15 phone calls and a 30-minute wait, I was booked to Newark. Since Air Canada and China Eastern, as noted, did not have an “arrangement,” I had to go pick up my luggage, pay another overweight fee, get this ticket (now to Newark), then go back through security. I had four hours to do this, and by the time I got to Customs I had about an hour until my flight.

There is a Simpsons where Patty and Selma—Homer Simpson’s sisters-in-law—describe their work at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, saying “Sometimes we don’t let the lines move at all. We call those ‘weekdays’.” This, evidently, was the inspiration for Customs between Toronto and the US. I had moved about 12 feet in 45 minutes. One window was open. There was no chance of making my flight now, and I wanted to tell my daughter Emma that I was not going to make my flight (she was going to drive from Philly to Newark, bless her, to pick me up). But we were told that if we used our phones we would be escorted out (thus the threat was “you get to stand in this line again, but from the back”). By the time I got to the Customs agent, my flight was long gone.  But that didn’t matter, since Customs now took me to some room in the bowels of Newark Airport (if that isn’t poetically redundant) and I sat there for an hour waiting for someone to talk with me. There were a few others there; we had all been in China. We were all, shall we say, uninformed. Would we ever leave Toronto? Would we ever leave this room? Would I ever eat again, given the somewhat less than fabulous offerings on the flight from Shanghai?

If you dont hire enough agents, then you don’t need to open any windows. A ninety-minute wait at Customs between Toronto and the US.

Eventually, they called my name, I went in to talk to some Customs guy about China, establishing that I had never been in Wuhan, had never been in Hubei province, and had no symptoms. I did not mention that the last month, with the combination of New Years and COVID-19, that I had spent about four minutes total with anyone, and that the longest exposure I had to anyone in China was with a 服务员 at a restaurant ordering food.

I was now taken to another waiting room by another Customs agent, who told me I could text Emma to update her on the situation. He left; as I texted Emma, the Customs agent at the desk started screaming—genuine screaming—that I could not use a cell phone there because “there are signs all over that say that.” I pointed out that the signs had the proviso “without authorization,” which I had been given. This genius apparently thought “proviso” was some sort of devastating, possibly obscene, insult, and he then threatened to have me removed from the airport. So I put my phone away and waited. Eventually another Customs agent (I lost count; this was my sixth or seventh) came to escort me to my flight, a rebooked flight to Newark. We had about 30 minutes, so in addition to discussing the Knicks, the Yankees, the University of Kansas basketball team, and the differences between living in Toronto and Newark (where he used to work), he allowed me to alert Emma of the new arrival time. I thanked him as he handed me over—I was in some sort of custody, to be repeated when landing at Newark where I was handed over to another Customs agent—and told him he was the only person all day who had made any sense. The extent of my “screening” at Newark, which made all of this mishegoss necessary, was to ask me if I had been in Wuhan, or Hubei Province, in the last 14 days. I said no. They said have a nice day.

Interestingly, no one even mentioned that I was supposed to be going to Philadelphia, except the Air Canada desk clerk, who told me that—this is pretty much a quote—once I was in Newark I was on my own, and that I would be responsible for arranging (and paying for) the flight from Newark to Philadelphia. I can’t really get this all straight, but I think I’d been going about 36 hours without much food or much sleep, so I just shrugged and mumbled something in Chinese (through my mask). It might have not been adulatory of Air Canada.

At any rate, I got to my hotel in Philadelphia courteous of the supererogatory efforts of my daughter Emma and her beau David at about midnight. It was still February 10.

The next morning at 4:30, thank you jet lag, I’m up and ready to rock. I delayed long enough for places to get open, and headed for one of the few things I missed in China: a traditional unhealthful American breakfast.

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia

#30 死成

Somewhere around January 28th, all the Fulbright scholars in China were told to leave the country. If we stayed, we would lose our Fulbright status, and our funding. (But as I tell my Introduction to Philosophy students, it is not as if the Catholic Church did not give Galileo a choice.) We were also told we were not coming back.

Many of us are very unwilling to go; some are trying to ride it out in Thailand, or South Korea; others are already back. I’m writing this on 02.07, and I return to the US, I hope, on the 10th. Unfortunately, a lot of flights are cancelled—some whole airlines have quit flying to China—so it should be, um, interesting to see what happens trying to get out of Shanghai.

It sort of reminds me of the old bartender’s last call: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

In other words, I have to leave China, but it is not that easy to get out. My fellow Fulbrighters have shared various horror stories, including 3-day nightmares (3-night daymares?), 6-flight sequences, 3 hours in customs awaiting a health check that was then determined to be unnecessary. [(Overreaction leading to panic +  commercial interests) + (insurance companies + (n > 3 x government bureaucracies) {including the biggest country in the world})] = unpleasantness. We shall see. I’m pretty safe in Suzhou, I’m following standard precautions (although some suggestions have been a little conflicting: don’t leave your house, but get plenty of exercise). Instead, I now get to hang out in one of the busiest airports in the world for who-knows-how-long, then get in a very enclosed space for 14+ hours with who-knows-whom. Odd approach to preventing a communicable disease, to provide ideal conditions for communicability.

Mostly, I just feel very goddamn sad.

My colleague put it best: “I a little want to weep because of sad.”

I will miss my students, my colleagues, my friends, my Ayi (阿姨). I will miss Suzhou and the phenomenon that is China (not all positive, but always amazing). I will miss continuing to embarrass myself in Chinese—back to the more traditional self-embarrassment in my native tongue, I guess—and I will miss the chances to travel within China to Yunnan and Zhangjiajie. I will miss going to Berlin for a week on my way home (although it is not clear I will miss having to pay for a lot of that). I will miss the food, and the old ladies screaming on the bus, and drivers trying to kill me, and motorscooters trying to kill me, and taxis trying to kill me, and buses trying to kill me, and the chicken feet drying behind my apartment, and the pagodas, and the convenience stores, and the gardens, and the thousands of things to see here every day that are different, entertaining, intriguing, bizarre, or as quotidian as you can get. And while I am working on some things, it is not clear that I will ever get to return, other than as a tourist.

The virus—amazing how easily one begins to refer to “2019-nCoV”—is not something to dismiss. It is killing people. And the government here is doing a lot—some vital, some perhaps not—to mitigate its spread and effects. (To be sure, the government has its share of critics, many much better informed than me. And I have not addressed here the tragic situation of Dr. Li Wenliang.) It has also turned all of us into amateur epidemiologists (although some of my contacts on WeChat are closer to being professional epidemiologists), and there is a lot of information flying around, some very helpful, some not so helpful, some idiotic. (I heard from an American student that her co-worker thought she might get this virus by ordering food in a California Chinese restaurant, which is only slightly less absurd than those who think this virus has something to do with Corona beer. There is a lot wrong with Corona beer—”beer”—but this isn’t one of them.)

I have gotten my temperature taken at Costa Coffee, Starbucks (most are closed, but not all), a restaurant, getting on the subway, and getting on the bus. It is difficult to get in my apartment complex, and apparently I cannot leave after dark, or at least it gets quite difficult. Virtually everything is closed except places to get food and phones (the two Chinese essentials for life). I was in the biggest shopping mall the other day (pictures below), and two workers were playing football (soccer) in the hall. There is almost no one on the street, and virtually 100% of those who are are wearing masks; every place open that I saw requires one to wear a mask to enter.

So Suzhou is a ghost town, which is pretty creepy when a town of 10 million+ people looks like this. I’ve provided a number of pictures below from my jaunts (said jaunts being generally advised against). Everyone is waiting for things to get back to . . . normal.

Suzhou, how I hope to see you again.

Suzhou Center, weekday afternoon
Outside Suzhou Center [苏州中心], weekday evening
Traditionally busy street close to Suzhou Center
Suzhou Center
Ping Jiang Street, usually crowded with tourists
Ping Jiang Street
Suzhou Center
Like a bad science fiction movie. With dumplings.
Subway, 3pm [15]
My old neighborhood from China Institute days
Three people on this bus: the driver, me, and the guy taking temperatures.
For some reason, my entry #4, which is nothing but pictures of gelato, is by far my most popular. Especially in Russia. Consider it tradition.
Tony Bennett had San Francisco.

#28 新年:第二

Part Two of the New Year’s Holiday report.

You want quiet? Come walk around a large Chinese city on New Year’s Eve. Or New Year’s Day. I’ve been in louder libraries. I live in a town of about 10 million, and this is what my street looked like New Year’s Eve at about 8 o’clock (a Friday night):

I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of what this street normally looks like, but suffice it to say that it is quite dangerous to cross (I’m getting better at it, though), and there are a lot of restaurants, convenience stores, jade shops, clothing stores, and, of course, the hooker bars. This is what it looked like on New Year’s Day:

One of the busiest streets in Suzhou, usually full of locals and visitors, is Guan Qian Jie, with high end stores, very famous and very old Chinese restaurants and candy stores, coffee shops, a Taoist temple, a Pizza Hut, two McDonalds, and all sorts of other things. It looked like this on New Year’s Day, the middle of a Saturday afternoon:

Ping Jiang Lu, also always so chock full o’people—tourists and locals—that one can hardly walk or avoid being run over by a motor scooter, looked like this:

One thing one gets used to in China—if one plans to survive—is people everywhere, all the time, and a lot of them. The first complete Chinese sentence I think I learned was the standard complaint “中国有太多人”/”China has too many people.” So seeing Suzhou, or Guiyang, as a ghost town is not just a little unnerving; it can be a little creepy.

Pretty much people hang out with their family, eat, maybe drink, and many watch the New Year Show that is all over the TV and various other media platforms. Which is kind of cool. So I did my part to participate.

This quiet, of course, was not helped by the Coronavirus issue emerging from Wuhan. But, to be honest, I don’t think it would have been any different without the health emergency; there was no Coronavirus last year in Guilin, and I would not have been surprised to see a couple of tumbleweeds roll through on New Year’s Eve.

The outbreak of the virus has, of course, put a damper on a lot of things. It is not unusual to see people wearing masks, but most do not. Yesterday walking around, I would say that 60-70% of the people I saw were wearing them; today was closer to 80%.

A lot of public gatherings, including in Beijing, were cancelled; people generally followed instructions (wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, use sanitizer, avoid live animals [human and non-human?] and live animal [human and non-human?] markets, be careful about what you eat.

Wuhan, a town of 11 million, was completely shut down; the closest analogy I can think of is closing down Los Angeles—nobody in, nobody out, including LAX—on the afternoon of December 24th. Some people are suspicious of the government reports on the Coronavirus, given some of the things that happened in the past (e.g. SARS). From my angle officials seem to be doing a pretty good job of keeping people informed about what to do and what not to do, and they have extended the range of the general shutdown to include some 56 million people. But people travel, and Wuhan and its environs has a lot of folks, so it remains to be seen what the contagion vector is here. Yes, I just said “contagion vector.” It also makes me wonder what the moron in the White House (I realize this is unfair to other morons) would do with this kind of emergency: or any kind of emergency, for that matter.

In any case, things will be calm for awhile. Then school starts, I head to Taiwan for a week, and come back to warmer weather. I will close with a thank you to my lovely and wise Chinese tutor Emily, who gave me this electric blanket. I told her she revolutionized my world; she said I exaggerated. I’m not sure I did; down here in the southern part of China (江南/Jiangnan) people act like it never gets all that cold. So the apartments aren’t all that equipped for cold. I think it is cold. Not Chicago cold, not Murmansk cold, but pretty damn cold. Emily saved me, and I’m getting a lot of reading done since I can do that in the warmest place in my flat.

And a quick thank you to the family for my Christmas delivery; a sweatshirt from a fine university (part of trying to stay warm) and some candy, the life expectancy of which was disturbingly short. Not too sure about the flip-flops, but one can never have enough.

Oh, OK. A couple of food pictures, as is now de rigueur:

Excellent noodles from YangYang Dumplings
Yes. I risked Coronavirus: going outside, mingling with the masses, and eating street food. But these here taters are darn 很好吃!