Monday, May 7, 2012

Unlike a Chinese Engineer I was not Questioned For Photographing a Stopped Vehicle

James Fallows recently wrote about a Chinese-citizen engineer who during a work trip to the U.S. took a picture of a bus stopped on a road. If you have not already, please read the post "Annals of the Security State: China vs. America Department" before continuing further. It explains why the photograph was taken and what the ensuing events say about America's "security consciousness". It also sets the stage for what follows here.

The post by Fallows resonated with me for two general reasons.

One, I had a quick reaction to the photo taken by the Chinese engineer. Although many Americans may be puzzled as to why someone would feel compelled to take such a photo, after more than 5 years in China the reasons seemed obvious to me. In fact, they are similar to the reasons why one day in Macau, China I took this photo:

truck stopped to let an older woman cross a street in Macau

It shows a man who had very suddenly stopped his truck to allow a woman to cross the street even though he could have zoomed by without likely hitting her or have honked his horn to dissuade her from crossing. That the truck driver did not chose one of the latter options greatly surprised me since they would be typical in many places elsewhere in China. Yes, it appears there may be a traffic signal which I did not notice at the time. The point remains that prior to living in China, what I perceived at this crosswalk would not have surprised me or caught my attention. And like looking at the photo shared by Fallows, it felt surreal to find unusualness in something that was once so ordinary.

The second reason the post resonated with me is that like the Chinese-engineer I too have been questioned by police after taking some photos in all innocence. I will share that story another time, but it lead to the eye-opening discussion described in the post I wrote last year: "Detained in China: My Chance to Hear a Policeman's Views on Revolution and More". But I do want to say one thing about it now. Even after that experience in China, I can still believe I face fewer potential problems as an obvious foreigner in China taking the types of photos that I do than I would if I were in the U.S. and "looked suspiciously like a foreigner". Even in my current incarnation I wonder if I would have more problems in the U.S. Like Fallows, I am concerned about the "photograph-pathology that has emerged in the United States".

I can appreciate why the Chinese engineer was so fascinated by the scene at the stopped school bus. And although I think some aspects of driving behavior in China may not be best described as disorderly but instead as having a different type of order from what can be observed in the U.S., I am glad the truck driver seen above stopped for the older woman. And I am also glad he did not feel the need to call the police even though he may have been baffled by my choice of scenes to photograph.

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