The New Yorker
A few days before my return to classroom teaching at Sichuan University, I was biking across a deserted stretch of campus when I encountered a robot. The blocky machine stood about chest-high, on four wheels, not quite as long as a golf cart. In front was a T-shaped device that appeared to be some kind of sensor. The robot rolled past me, its electric motor humming. I turned around and tailed the thing at a distance of fifteen feet.
It was May 27th, and it had been more than three months since my last visit to the university’s Jiang’an campus, which is on the outskirts of Chengdu, in southwestern China. In late February, when the spring semester was about to begin, I had hurried to campus to retrieve some materials from my office. We were nearly a month into a nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus, which had started in Wuhan, a city about seven hundred miles east of Chengdu. The university had informed the faculty that, at least at the beginning of the term, all courses would be online.
In those days, it still seemed possible to escape the disease by leaving China, and a number of foreign teachers at the university had departed. At the U.S. Embassy and consulates, nonessential staff had been evacuated, along with the spouses and children of the diplomats who remained. Throughout February, I answered e-mails from worried friends and relatives in the U.S. I reassured them that my family was fine, and told them that we had decided to stay in Chengdu, despite numbers that, at least at that particular moment, seemed frightening. On February 20th, when I visited campus, China’s official death toll reached 2,236.
Since then, the semester had crawled along, as everybody’s perspective on the disease changed. During the third week of classes, the epidemic officially became a pandemic; by week six, the U.S. death toll had exceeded that of China. That week, China’s borders were closed to foreigners, and the evacuations reversed direction — Chinese nationals in America and Europe, many of them students, were desperately trying to return home. China was the first to experience the pandemic, and it was also among the earliest countries to control the spread and enter what would now be considered normal life. In week eleven, my nine-year-old twin daughters resumed classes; in week thirteen, I boarded a plane for the first time in the post-coronavirus era. And now, on May 27th — week fourteen — I was finally back on campus.
I followed the robot until it paused on a street lined with dormitories. An electronic voice called out, “Daoda zhandian!”—“Arriving at the stop!” The street was empty, because most undergraduates hadn’t yet returned. One new policy was that students couldn’t leave after entering campus, unless they received special permission. Every gate to the university had been equipped with facial-recognition scanners, which were calibrated for face coverings. Earlier that day, when I arrived, a guard told me to keep my mask on while being scanned. My name popped up on a screen, along with my body temperature and my university I.D. number. As a faculty member, I could go through the gates in both directions, unlike students.
Now I waited with the robot, looking around at the silent dormitories. Finally, three students approached from different directions, masked and holding cell phones. Each of them entered a code on a touch screen at the back of the robot, and a compartment popped open, revealing a package inside.
One of the students told me that she had ordered her package through Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce site, which is owned by the Alibaba Group. Before the epidemic, students retrieved their packages at a campus depot managed by Cainiao, another company mostly owned by Alibaba, but now the robot was also making deliveries. The student said that the machine had telephoned and texted her as it approached her dorm.
For the next half hour, I followed the robot, assuming that eventually it would lead me to its master. Whenever I biked too close, a horn sounded; if I swerved in front, the robot stopped. There was no response when I tried shouting at it. Periodically, the machine pulled over—“Daoda zhandian! ”—and masked students appeared, clutching phones and making a beeline in my direction. On the silent campus, it felt like a scene from a horror film: “Children of the Corona.”
At last, the robot parked in front of a Cainiao depot in a far corner of campus. A worker in a blue vest came out and started loading it with packages. “We have three of these now,” he said. He explained that Cainiao workers returned to off-campus houses every evening, so the robot was a way to reduce interactions with students.
I got back on my bike and headed to my office. Along the way, I passed a series of white tents marked with the “China Health,” in English. In one, a masked nurse was seated behind a table with two glass thermometers in little boxes. She told me that, if somebody showed a high temperature at a checkpoint, that person was sent to a tent for a more careful reading. The next step, if necessary, was a campus clinic for a swab test. I continued to my office, where a package was waiting on my desk. It contained some tools that the university had provided for my return to the classroom: five surgical masks, a pair of rubber gloves, a box of Opula alcohol prep pads. Despite the three-month absence, everything looked fine in the office. Somebody or something had been watering my plants.
I had arrived at the university last August, to teach nonfiction writing and freshman composition, in English. My family and I moved to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in part because it’s the region where I served as a college instructor in the Peace Corps, from 1996 to 1998. In those days, Sichuan was relatively poor, and most of my students came from the countryside. I hadn’t taught since then, an absence that essentially spanned a generation—twenty-one years.
I had returned to Chengdu in the hope of reconnecting with Chinese education, and I looked forward to meeting young people in the classroom. But, when the spring semester began, I found myself shuttered at home, in central Chengdu, trying to figure out how to use an online platform that had been hastily prepared by my department. Nearly thirty million college students were being educated online, along with an estimated hundred and eighty million Chinese schoolchildren. Beginning at about eight o’clock every morning, these users started logging in to platforms that were sometimes overwhelmed by the increased traffic of the online semester. Many elementary schools didn’t attempt interactive classes. My daughters, Ariel and Natasha, attended third grade at a local public school, and their teacher posted short video lessons that parents could stream whenever their connection made it possible.
The American-style Zoom course, with everybody appearing onscreen, wasn’t used by any of the teachers I knew in China. Our students were invisible: if a camera was turned on, it featured only the instructor, although even that could be problematic. Early in my nonfiction class, I tried to live-stream a lecture, but the system froze and crashed so many times that I gave up. After that, I avoided video. Every week, I prepared low-resolution photographs, maps, and documents to share onscreen, and my students and I communicated through audio and text.