I’m a writer and a photographer, teaching English on the side for money.
These are the words I wrote down on a piece of scrap paper, shortly after our arrival in China almost eight months ago. I stuck it on the bare bedroom wall of our 15th floor concrete box with a grim mixture of resignation and defiance. Staring at it every morning as I got dressed, it was supposed to serve as a reminder of who I really was, and why we came here in the first place. It didn’t do much to calm the fiery dread gnawing away in my gut as I straightened the lumpy Windsor knot around my throat (I’ve never owned a neck tie up to this point, let alone been initiated into the finer aspects of formal coiffure), but it did help me to remember who the sorry fucker in the mirror was. Out here, on the cutting edge of consumerism and control, that’s surprisingly easy for a once-freewheelin’ lily of the field to forget.
Since then, of course, everything has changed. Everywhere.
In a way, I should be grateful. The neck ties are now hanging like limp, brightly coloured snakes, aching for a bite of my Adam’s apple, in the darkest corner of my cupboard. Let them hang, the slinky bastards.
I’ve lost my job – though it’s mostly back to business here, all schools and learning centres remain closed – and I have little hope of finding another one. I’m going broke, but for me that’s nothing new. At least I no longer have to try and soothe my conscience for helping hordes of conquering neo-economic heroes gobble up whatever’s left of the world after this by brushing up their international business communication skills.
I can get drunk whenever I want on cheap Tsingtao beer, and stop giving a fuck about the fudgy six pack under my T-shirt finally morphing into a keg. My woman is gorgeous and she loves me just the way I am.
I also have the time now to once again roam the streets with my camera around dawn – something I’ve always loved doing – and to be stared at with growing xenophobic suspicion by fellow patrons of the morning light (China has closed its borders to disease-carrying foreigners some time ago). I guess that styling, azure surgical mask really makes my baby-blues pop.
And, it would seem, I am writing again.
So, apart from the world tumbling headlong into a dazzling shit show of smoke and mirrors of late, all things considered, my life isn’t so bad. I have some (borrowed) time to smell the roses, thorns and all, in an iron-fisted country that has supposedly flicked the dreaded superbug off its knee.
Still, I can’t seem to shake the the haunting possible scenario wherein, twenty years from now, some kid (I don’t have children of my own, which explains the occasional bouts of self-obsession) will come up to me on the street and ask what I actually did during this critical time in human history.
It goes something like this:
SMARTASS KID: Hey, homeless wino.
ME: Hey, kid. What are you doing out after curfew?
SMARTASS KID: Nevermind that. It seems like you’ve been around for a while. I’ve heard the world was a free and beautiful place once, a long time ago. What did you do when The Great Covert Global Control Clampdown of 2020 started rolling out? Did you try anything to stop it?
ME: Well, I was stuck in eastern Eurasia at the time. No one could get in or out, so I couldn’t get back to my friends or family. I was strung out, it was tough. I had a blog where I sometimes tried to warn people of what might be happening, but I didn’t have any real ideas on how to stop it.
(Long, uncomfortable silence.)
SMARTASS KID: What? Is that all? Fuck you.
ME: Do you have any spare change?
No, no, that can’t be right. By the looks of things, cash will definitely not be around by then.
But seriously, let us hope and pray that I am wrong. On all accounts. Because, say what we will, this current horror story is so much bigger than just poor old us in the here-and-now.
Sadly and selfishly enough, though, at this point in time I’d just be happy to have a conversation with anyone on the street that understands me, and who I can understand in return. Small mercies.
While a locked down humanity endured a heart-wrenching, global descent into suffering, madness and fear porn over the last few weeks, we’ve had our own unique brand of perpetual isolation, social distancing and loneliness to contend with around here for months, long before the virus volcano erupted.
For foreigners in these parts, it’s called life.
Wittgenstein famously quipped: “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.” He may as well have said: “If a dragon could talk, we still wouldn’t be able to make sense of a single fucking word he says.”
‘Cause to outsiders China is, and always will be, an utterly alien place. Sure, the language – the spoken form being an incomprehensible tonal tongue-tangle and the written an undecipherable quagmire of ancient hieroglyphics, with no sense of contextual bearing to any earthly linguistic base whatsoever – plays a crucial part in this. But, at the heart of the East-West inability to truly communicate lies a divide so great that it makes the term “culture shock” seem like a mere spark in what is truly a high-voltage cable of fundamental disconnection.
For all practical purposes, my woman and I are living on a different planet. Though we’re still breathing oxygen, far as I can tell, given the air pollution levels of late. Houston, we have a problem.
All being said, we’re a tough pair of explorers. Since our arrival, we’ve been able to endure the on-going duress of our particular, self-inflicted form of social quarantine (strictly for the sake of digging ourselves out of a financial hole) with the promise that one day, at the end of all this, we’d be able to return to the nurturing, quintessential familiarity of what we know as home.
Lately it has begun to dawn on us, however, that home, as indeed we once knew it, may simply not be there anymore, even if we could catch a steel bird out of here. For the dear disaster that is South Africa, along with almost every other country on earth, is facing irreversible economic, societal and authoritarian change to an extent that has not been witnessed before in collective living memory. Overtly totalitarian tactics like mass surveillance and crude censorship, once looked down upon wearily by the West, is spreading like wildfire across the globe.
The sad reality is that normality no longer exists, anywhere. And if you think it will somehow return once the pandemic is deemed to be over, you’re simply not paying attention.
Right now, we are all strangers in the world.
And it breaks my lonely heart.
So please allow me, for an instant, to return to what I know. At this stage of the game, words fail me. And photography has always served me well as a cathartic reflection of the overall fuckery of existence. If nothing else, it sure beats you watching me cry into my beer.
Hopefully, the photographs below reveals the strange, spiritual distancing that defines this glossy social desert I am now forced to call home.
Stay strong, dearest, distant brothers and sisters. Now, more than ever, may eyes everywhere, baby-blue or not, be used for watching closely.
And the heart, broken or whole, for seeing far and wide.
All images © Jac Kritzinger 2020.
For more of my work, please visit http://jackritzinger.co.za/
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