I’m now sitting on the steps of a bus in Minqin county, Gansu province, very far into northwest China. Except for the chatter of five gentlemen a dozen yards away and the singing of birds overhead, it is a quiet afternoon.
Such moments of solitude are rare for a journalist covering China under an official itinerary—which makes this brief isolation more precious.
As I hammer out this editorial expecting the silence to be broken any minute by the rest of my party returning, I’ve come to appreciate the isolation I’ve experienced for the past few days. There is no Facebook in China.
There is no Twitter, no Gmail (the China Business office e-mail is run by Google), and trying to google anything is an unrewarding, multiple hour experience.
(I’ve momentarily had to stop because the bus driver returned and, not knowing I was seated on the steps, nearly pinned me shut beneath the door! This would have been a posthumous editorial had my screams not shattered the silence and stopped the driver from whatever it was he was doing that would have been the death of me. China is always an adventure.)
As I was saying before I almost died, I have been isolated from social media for the past three days. And it has been brilliant.
Despite the challenge of staying in touch with the editorial team back home, these three days of social media silence have been wonderful. Rather than spending the entire trip with my nose stuck in my phone answering e-mail or updating my statuses, I’ve spent the time on the bus talking to journalists covering China.
I have met Boon Tat from Malaysia, Tharaka from Sri Lanka, and Kurt from America.
Of the three, I’ve had the longest chats with Tharaka, who became my seatmate after, as Boon put it, somebody hijacked his seat.
Tharaka is an advocate of conflict. He believes conflict is the solution to all the problems that ail Sri Lanka and the Philippines. But, he says, there are two problems: half the people do not realize they are in conflict and the other half do not know what to make of it.
If that sounds like so much gobbledygook to you, let me tell you, my Sri Lankan pal’s photos have been published by both TIME magazine and The Guardian UK. He is a multi-awarded photojournalist and he is all of twenty-six.
I think he will be very famous someday. I knew it the second I caught a glimpse of a couple of the photos on his iPad. A typical, self-deprecating Asian, he doesn’t believe me when I tell him this.
I spent the four-hour bus ride yesterday talking to this young philosopher about everything from geopolitics to subatomic particles. And, of course, we talked about the latest ill-fated Malaysian commercial flight.
I know foreigners complain about it and students at university have found a hack for it, but China having no Facebook and Google is mighty fine by me.
I think if the Philippines had less social media and more government follow-through like China, I would no longer have to fly for half a day to write about real development.