It’s not every day you see a man lying face down in a ditch with blood trickling down his head. Next to him an old woman wailed in despair. Three or four men crowded around but didn’t touch the man whom I could see was still breathing.
We were being driven in a car past this scene in rural Zhangjiajie, China. The single-lane road was steep and narrow and I was just inches from the commotion outside my window which was rolled down. Our driver honked to clear the road and continued up the hill.
Fear gripped me and suddenly I felt isolated and in danger. My happy tourist bubble was replaced with the cold hard realization that I was a foreigner in Communist China and not a soul would save me if I got into trouble here.
Turns out my feelings were misinformed. When I arrived at my B&B about a mile from the scene I related the event to a worker there. The driver had also told her about the incident. What I failed to see was the overturned motorbike in the ditch. The whole thing was a traffic accident, not a gruesome murder and a mother grieving her son in some gang war which might catch me in the crossfire.
[slogan]I was relieved beyond belief to have sized up the scene wrongly. It taught me a lesson — do not overreact; stay calm and get all the facts.[/slogan]
My fear led me down a path of negative thoughts about the village and my personal safety. We were only two days into our two-week stay where I was eager to wander around taking photographs.
Eventually, I did just that. This village in scenic Yangjiajie turned out to be filled with friendly and intriguing faces — old men and woman playing games in the street, mothers fussing over their only child, butchers torching meat, and women selling street food.
I find it awkward to photograph people on the street, but also incredibly rewarding so I forced myself to approach people, although I always respectfully and mindful not to overstay my welcome. A big smile goes a long way and one of three things would happen: 1) A few older people waved me away; 2) Proud mothers pushed their awe-struck children in front of my camera; 3) People turned the tables and took selfies with me.
Yangjiajie in the Hunan Province sits at the foot of the mountains that reportedly inspired “Avatar” and though the national park brims with tourists (mostly Chinese), we were the only foreigners wandering the streets. The weather that October morning was chilly but humid as the fog has not lifted for days. The air smelled alternately green (farmland) and sooty (trash burning). The village had a quiet ease so different from our jolt into city life when we arrived in Shanghai.