Home » before & afterthoughts

After: Wearing sandals in China

By 3 July 2009 One Comment

“Whatever you do, don’t bring sandals,” someone told me as I readied for my trip to China. I couldn’t imagine what would be so different about China that I couldn’t wear sandals, but I almost left them behind on the advice of those who’d traveled that road before me.

Meanwhile, while packing, I fretted over simple prescriptions, like antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea, and how I would explain  myself to Chinese customs officials in what would inevitably be an interrogation upon stepping off the plane.

“Should I bring this book? What about my notebook?” I asked myself, imagining PRC authorities flipping through the pages and questioning me about my political beliefs. I made sure everything was as copasetic as could be. I tore pages out from notebooks and left them behind, and took only books I thought would be innocuous in any country.

On the plane to China, we were given questionnaires asking us where we were flying from and if we had any physical symptoms of swine flu. I thought for a moment about lying about where I had departed from. I’d already read about the Chinese government and how it was putting anyone coming from Mexico directly into quarantine. San Antonio, after all, is only a three-hour drive from the border.

And then I landed in Beijing.

At first, I thought my fears were fully realized. Officials in white uniforms, wearing masks, gloves and goggles, boarded the plane and went to each passenger, pointing a little laser gun at each forehead to read the body temperature.

When we were finally let off the plane without any problems, there were two more swine-flu checkpoints before reaching customs. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this is where they open up my luggage and question me about my books, my prescriptions, my audio recording equipment.”

“Hello” and “bye-bye” were the only two words they said as I walked up and handed them my passport and then walked through the gates. On the other side, my luggage was waiting for me on the conveyor belt, untouched.

A few days later I got a call from the Chinese government, along with a little package from the Dongcheng Community Health Care Center. Though I was never told a reason, I was to take my temperature twice a day and report it to the hotel staff who would then relay the information to the local government. If anything were abnormal, I was to assume, I would immediately be placed under quarantine. The package contained some masks, a letter from the Chinese government, and informational pamphlet (all of it in Chinese) and a thermometer. I signed a letter saying that I would report daily and refrain from going out in public as much as possible.

“Will they watch me take my temperature?” I asked one of our local hosts, who I figured would be more familiar with the procedure.

“No,” he told me. “You just take it and then tell the hotel what it is.”

The process immediately illuminated a few things about my views about China, my views as an American and the ways of the Chinese government and its citizens.

For me, the whole thing seemed a bit absurd. If I found out that I had a fever, I was to tell the government and therefore subject myself to quarantine? Why would I ever want to do that?

Only in a society where social controls and supporting cultural values are this strong would a self-reporting system, such as my temperature-taking routine, actually work.

I was exhibiting some stereotypical American attitudes. Why would I value the good of the society over what was good for me? That’s what they were expecting me to do, after all, wasn’t it? At the same time, my views of China had already restricted my actions in many of the same ways that they restrict Chinese citizens. I had self-censored, not bringing in any books that might disrupt the status quo.

Sure, it was out of a fear for my own well-being, but effective nonetheless. And as my time in China continued, I found myself lowering my voice as I spoke of things like Tiannamen Square, Falun Gong or Tibet. Yet, never did a helicopter descend on my location with men in black jumping out to take me away.

I do not mean to say that fears are unwarranted, but rather that social controls are more effective in so many ways than the physical, political, tangible restraints of the Chinese government.

Yes, there is someone on the other end of the DSL line and they are watching. Yes, there are little microphones in all the taxicabs in Beijing. Yes, there are cameras down every street and alleyway. But China has a little more breathing room than one might imagine and it is the imagination that might be holding them back. Whether it’s something as simple as bringing sandals or books containing subversive thought, it is self-censorship and social control that is truly holding China where it is.

Throughout our trip in China, we met up with journalists, both foreign and domestic, and self-censorship was the common theme. Self-censorship is nearly its own subject in journalism school. The director of one journalism school in China said that, while they try to instill familiar Western ideals of truth-seeking in their students, they also tried to teach a realism and a self-censorship seen as necessary to survive. And often, it wasn’t that the government had to tell a newspaper that they could not print a story – the editors just knew beforehand that they couldn’t print it. There are stories that the Chinese government explicitly tells the news organizations not to cover, many journalists told us, but many other stories are not covered simply because someone “knows” that it isn’t allowed.

And by the way, for anyone wondering – there is absolutely no reason to not where sandals in China. The ground here is made of dirt too. My feet have remained connected to my legs, my toes to my feet, and so far there is no evidence of any flesh-eating disease or terminal illness as a result of my decision.

I hope, for China’s sake, that more and more people start deciding to ignore their friends’ advice and start “wearing sandals” too.

One Comment »

  • Bob said:

    I read a story in the mainstream press where every passenger on a particular flight into China was quarantined in a not-so-nice hotel for several days because one passenger showed an elevated temperature on the laser tester. The author missed his convention, but had mostly positive things to say about the experience otherwise. 245 passengers on a full 767. Personally, I don’t like those odds…

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