The Evacuation of Friendship and Knowledge 一场友谊与知识的撤离

By Austin Frenes 冯翱森

HNC students evacuated from China last year (clockwise from top left): Cooper Brehm, Nick Kaufman, Daniel Wethli, and Austin Frenes 去年从中国被撤离的中美中心学生:裴治雄,高宁,文丹,冯翱森

NANJING, CHINA — Strange doctors on subways, an evacuation car ride through the countryside, quarantine on a military base, tears in Bangkok, and a normal train ride to Shanghai. This is a tale of four HNC students who had their lives and plans uprooted very early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, when they found themselves evacuated from Peace Corps service and Fulbright research in China. Within weeks of the evacuation, Sino-US political tensions ultimately brought these programs to an end.

中国,南京 — 在地铁上遇到神秘的医生,穿过农村乘车撤离,在军队基地隔离,在曼谷放声大哭,然后仿佛什么都没有发生一样地坐火车去上海……这是四个南京大学-约翰斯·霍普金斯大学中美文化研究中心研究生不得不撤离中国的故事。这四个学生中有两个是美中友好志愿者(亦称和平队),另外两个是富布赖特项目研究者,他们的生活计划在疫情初期发生了剧变,而他们撤离中国几个星期之后,这两个项目也因中美之间紧张的政治局势而被暂停了。

I was a Peace Corps volunteer serving as a university teacher in Chongqing Municipality’s Fuling District at the end of January 2020, when I found out I was to be evacuated from China. Weeks earlier, during our inter-service training, we woke up to Marco Rubio doing a victory lap online over the end of Peace Corps China. Hours later, we were suddenly informed by strange men in suits from Washington D.C. that the program will be “graduated” because China is too developed for the Peace Corps. As a result, I was told to finish my service as planned in July 2021, and not to worry about COVID-19. Obviously, events progressed more rapidly than we ever imagined back then. Several days after Chinese New Year, headquarters notified us to prepare for a temporary two-week evacuation to Thailand. The goal was to wait for transportation networks in China to resume normal operations so that volunteers would not be stranded with no easy way to leave.

笔者于2020年1月底收到了撤离通知,当时笔者作为美中友好志愿者正在重庆涪陵区的长江师范学院任教。两个星期之前,笔者和其他志愿者在服务培训的最后一天发现马尔科·卢比奥竟然在推特上为参议院下达的美中友好志愿者撤离通知鼓掌叫好。几个小时以后,一位西装革履、来自华盛顿的官员对我们发表了一通演说,告诉我们中国太发达了,不再需要美中友好志愿者,因此这个项目也要 “毕业”了。不过,服务中的志愿者还可以按计划进行服务,笔者也可以在原定的2021年7月完成服务。那位官员还说,没有必要担心新型冠状病毒,但是大家都知道,后来疫情发展的速度远超所有人的想象。春节之后没几天,美中友好志愿者中心就通知我们撤离到泰国并停留两个星期,直到中国的交通系统恢复正常,因为中心担心如果让我们继续停留在中国,一旦有志愿者发生事故或出现身体健康问题的话将无法轻易离开中国。

I had less than 24 hours to pack, not knowing if I would be back, not knowing if I would see anyone in my community anytime soon. I packed my camera, laptop, and some summer clothes to prepare for the Bangkok heat. The next morning, I was rushed into a private car that ferried me off to the distant Chongqing airport. The countryside that surrounded the freeway was one that I had seen previously from the high speed train, and was much more easily appreciated from the slow speed of a car. Expecting to be back in a few weeks, I promised myself that I will venture out and explore rural Fuling upon my return.

笔者有不到二十四个小时整理行装。笔者完全无法知道以后会不会回来,更无法知道什么时候会再见到朋友、同事、学生和其他人。笔者把相机、电脑和夏天的衣物(曼谷一月份一般比较热)收入行囊,第二天一早就乘坐一辆私家车赶往重庆机场。途中经过的高速公路旁边的村子笔者以前在火车上也看到过,此刻笔者默默向自己保证,从曼谷回来以后一定要去那些村子看一看。

Austin Frenes (left) and Vanessa Gomez (middle) about to board a private car to the Chongqing airport. 冯翱森和王一删准备乘坐私家车,前往重庆江北机场

As with most things at the time, getting on the flight became a tense situation due to the tickets having been booked that morning, but not having been registered in the airline’s system by the time of check in. Fortunately, the airline held the gate open for dozens of people running a marathon through security.

笔者在机场遇到了麻烦,因为机票是在那天早上订的,所以航空公司的系统里还没来得及上传机票信息。幸运的是,笔者的航班一直没有起飞,直到我们几个终于完成马拉松一样漫长的安检,成功登机。

Down south in Guizhou Province, Cooper Brehm, an HNC Certificate + MA student currently in Bologna, received the same notice: evacuation was imminent. Brehm recently returned from travelling with other Peace Corps volunteers in the region. He was preparing big plans for the upcoming year in which our cohort would close out the program and cement its legacy. Unlike in Fuling, Cooper was largely alone at his Peace Corps site, with nearly all colleagues and local friends having left for the recent Spring Festival. Upon receiving the evacuation notice, Cooper had a strong suspicion that he would not return. He packed his valuables, and rendezvoused with other Peace Corps volunteers at a central location in the provincial capital of Guiyang.

在贵州省,裴治雄,一个在博洛尼亚学习的中美中心研究生也收到了撤离通知,他当时刚刚和其它美中友好志愿者旅游回来。因为我们的项目即将暂停,他当时正计划着在接下来的一年里大施拳脚,为项目留下最后的”遗产“。和笔者身处热闹的涪陵不同,在他所服务的学校,春节以后就什么人都没有了。撤离通知使他十分怀疑他可能回不了中国了,因此他收拾了一些贵重物品,在贵阳市中心与其他志愿者汇合。

Over a hundred Peace Corps China volunteers trickled into the Royal River Hotel in Bangkok over the following two days. The nine days in Bangkok felt like a month. A couple of days in, we were all informed over webcam that we would not return to China to finish our service. Unfamiliar men and women from the Peace Corps came to help close our service through medical checks, document signings, and an emotional closing ceremony. They were preparing us for life back in our American homes, places where we would find normalcy only very briefly, before the virus swept the States. Most Peace Corps volunteers cried on the spot, whereas others were relieved to know that there was finally a certain outcome. I stared blankly in disbelief, and cried days later on the plane home. As the spectre of evacuation and separation loomed over us, we said our goodbyes to each other, laughed, cried, and were on our way to a world we would soon cease to recognize.

在接下来的两天中,一百多名美中友好志愿者纷纷入住曼谷的Royal River酒店。虽然我们在曼谷只待了九天,但感觉像过了一个月一样。来曼谷两天后,我们接到了通知,得知我们将不能回中国完成服务。和平队中心的陌生工作人员来到了曼谷,帮助我们完成提前结束服务的流程,包括医疗检查、文件填写,以及一场令人伤感的完结典礼。他们的任务是帮助我们回到美国,并回归正常生活——虽然这样的生活并没有持续很久,因为后来疫情很快席卷了美国。接到通知的时候,大部分的志愿者哭了,但也有的志愿者因为终于知悉结果而松了一口气。笔者当时则惊呆了,感到难以置信,但几天以后,笔者在回美国的飞机忍不住哭了。撤离和分别的阴影笼罩着我们,我们相互道别,我们相拥而泣,然后各自回到了即将变得无比陌生的世界中。

Downstream from Fuling in Wuhan City, Dan Wethli was conducting Fulbright research on how Chinese museums portray China’s 1911 Revolution. He experienced first hand what it was like to be at the epicenter of both a program evacuation, and a US government evacuation from COVID-19’s initial epicenter. From December 2019 to the end of January 2020, Dan witnessed ominous signs that something big was about to happen. In early January, a mysterious local doctor came up to him and his friend on the subway, urging them to wear masks. A tough bout of what turned out to just be the flu had him questioning for months if he had been stricken with COVID-19. (He subsequently tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies). 

文丹是一位富布赖特项目研究者,他一直在武汉研究中国博物馆如何描绘1911年的革命。他不但经历了项目的撤离,还经历了美国政府的撤离。从2019年12月到2020年1月月底,文丹看到了一些奇怪的事情,这些事情让他不仅怀疑剧变即将发生。一月初的时候,一个医生在地铁上接近文丹和他的朋友,并敦促他们戴口罩。文丹后来还得了比较严重的流感,并且在几个月之后都还在因为这场病而被怀疑是新冠肺炎病人(他后来的检测显示他没有新型冠状病毒的抗体)。

As January rolled on and the impact of Covid became increasingly profound, Dan was put in contact with the US Consulate in Wuhan, which was arranging for an evacuation of all Americans in the city. Initially, Dan was told that he would most likely have to conduct his Fulbright research in another Chinese city. However, it soon became apparent that the consulate would have to help Americans vacate the country, as opposed to busing them out to Shanghai for what would have been a temporary stay.

一月底的时候,新型冠状病毒的影响进一步扩大了,美国在武汉的领事馆因此开始准备撤离武汉所有的美国人。文丹首先被领事馆告知,他可能要在中国另外一个城市继续研究;但领事馆随后发现,事态已经严重到大家不能仅仅是坐大巴去上海短暂停留,而是必须撤离中国。

The streets were empty on the way to the Wuhan airport. Whereas Dan was directly supported by the US Consulate in getting there, other Americans had to walk as much as 20 miles to secure a seat on the flight out. After a long day, the plane finally took off in the dead of night on route to a military base in southern California. In Alaska, they stopped for fuel and were given food and clothes. “They said anything we did not take would be incinerated in case the virus was on it,” Dan commented.  For the next 14 days, the Americans were subjected to federal quarantine protocols. Nobody tested positive in the end, and Dan found himself on his way home.

文丹前往武汉机场的时候,马路上空无一人。文丹当时有美国领事馆的支持,所以直接抵达了机场,但当时有的美国人不得不跋涉二十英里去搭乘撤离中国的飞机。漫长的一天之后,飞机于半夜起飞,来到了南加州的军事基地。为了给飞机加油,他们半路降落在阿拉斯加,有人送来食物和衣服。文丹补充了一个可怕的细节:“他们说为了防止病毒传播,我们没有带走的东西都会被烧掉。”这些美国人随后接受了十四天的隔离。最后没有一个人检测出新冠病毒阳性,于是文丹终于得以回家。

Daniel Wethli (middle) finishing quarantine at a California military base with fellow evacuees.文丹(中间)和其它被撤离的人在加州军地完成隔离

Farther east in Anhui Province, Nick Kaufman was also conducting Fulbright research on the region’s demographic trends when he received his evacuation orders. Unlike Cooper, Dan and myself, Nick’s evacuation went extremely smoothly. After he received a notification from Fulbright, Nick simply packed his bags, took a train to Shanghai, and boarded an international flight home.

高宁也是一位富布赖特项目研究者,他当时正在安徽省研究该省的人口趋势。他在某天突然收到了撤离通知,随后简单整理了行装,订了去上海的火车票,然后从上海乘飞机回美国。

Set against the broader context of Sino-US tensions under the Trump administration, the COVID-19 pandemic marked the end of an era for aspiring sinologists. The Peace Corps China program and the Fulbright Program not only built friendship and understanding between the US and China, but also prepared Americans for rigorous academic programs like those found at SAIS. Each evacuee interviewed agreed: without these programs, future expertise that could be developed just will not be developed, and future friendships that would have been made will just never be made. For example, without Peace Corps China, famous authors such as Peter Hessler and Michael Meyer may have never had a chance to develop interest and expertise in China. By extension, these sinologists would not have gone on to inspire more people to pursue academic pursuits and careers relating to China.

在特朗普执政期间的中美摩擦之下,疫情对有抱负的美国“中国通”们来说代表着一个时代的结束。美中友好志愿者和富布赖特项目不但建立了美中友好关系、促进了两国人民互相了解,还能帮助美国年轻人对申请SAIS这样的知名学术项目做好准备。这场事件中的每一个撤离者都认为这两个项目对未来中美之间的相互了解和友谊构建至关重要。如果不是因为美中友好志愿者项目,何伟和Michael Meyer这样的作家甚至可能不会去写关于中国的书,更不可能去激励更多的人学习中国文化、研究中国或从事跟中国有关的工作。

Indeed, motivation and opportunities for future China scholars has been dealt a tough blow. For Cooper, Dan, Nick, and I, we decided we would not let this be the end of our pursuit of friendship with, and study of, China. For this reason, we subsequently enrolled at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Others chose to pursue careers in the federal government, and some even returned abroad to continue teaching or doing research. Just as we were shocked to be evacuated, we were surprised to find ourselves in-exile at SAIS Europe, sharing our stories with each other, eager to go out into the world and make even more stories.

毫无疑问,中国通们未来的机会将比现在更少,但我们四个人都决定继续对美中友好的追求以及对中国的研究,因此我们先后都申请了中美文化研究中心的项目。至于其他志愿者和研究者,他们有的在美国政府部门找到了工作,有的回到海外继续教书或做研究。我们当初万万没想到会撤离中国,而更让我们想不到的是,我们后来被“放逐”到了SAIS的欧洲分部。我们在这里互诉衷肠,交流经历,一起期待着早日踏上新的旅程,书写新的故事。

Austin Frenes is reporting from Bologna, Italy. 冯翱森从意大利博洛尼亚报告

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