Chien-Chi Chang’s Jet Lag features photographs of the interstitial, alienating spaces of contemporary global travel, and reveals yet another unthinking system of disconnection and creeping oblivion. Available now from Hatje Cantz.
Outside the departure hall of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in southern Texas, I took a single photo overlooking the airport and the highway. After that, I realized that with every step I took, two to four people in uniform were following me.
It was peripheral vision meeting the peripheral visions of the shadows on both sides. Once I had passed the metal detector, three tall and fat TSA agents surrounded me. One asked if I wanted to be searched there or in a private room. I said right there in public. Wearing light blue plastic gloves, they searched and patted down every hair and every pore of my body for about thirty minutes. Three meters away, there were another four or five uniformed policemen watching attentively with their arms across their lower chests near their holsters. After showtime, their satisfaction somewhat met, I was allowed to rush to my gate five minutes before it was closed.
Why was my flight from Berlin to Saigon rescheduled six times, making the connection at Abu Dhabi airport an ungodly, nerve-wracking sprint from Gate 22 to Gate 70 with security and the metal detector in between? As I was murmuring As-salaum alaykum, with 35 kilos of gear on my back, I reached seat 19D, flight EY441, and, holy mackerel, I was in! Thank God! Thank you, Buddha, A mi tou fo! Phew! And now perhaps I could watch the other half of Gravity from 30,000 feet and the closest exit was to my left four seats up from me in this Airbus A330-200.
It’s just another wakeup in another nameless hotel. Stilnox works for about three hours. What time is it? Why is it so dark yet so loud? Outside, a tsunami of motorbikes that could drown the sound of the twin-engine Airbus A330 seems to wash in from all directions. Even with earplugs and an over-the-ears headset, there is still no escape. The hotel guests next-door have been moaning and redefining the Big Bang theory all night long. It was as if the wall could crack anytime. Switching on the television, it’s Gravity with Vietnamese subtitles. I was half asleep, half awake, or maybe I was sleepwalking. In five hours, I would fly to a commune’s health center in the countryside for a video job so as to buy rice and diapers for my family back home in Austria.
The next morning, when I landed in Cam Ranh International Airport in southeast Vietnam, I thought I must have got on the wrong flight—there were Russians everywhere fresh off a charter. I have not seen so many Russians in one place except five years ago in Moscow! The paging voice from the rustic speakers spoke in Russian and Vietnamese. Where was I? Three hundred kilometers north of Saigon, supposedly. Cam Ranh Bay was a U.S. navy and air base during the Vietnam War. In the end, smart people defeated and kicked out the people with smart bombs, and the Grand Duchy of Moscow marched in. Decades later, the bay area had become a favorite Russian vacation spot.
The long white sand beach was populated solely by sunbathing Russians who enjoyed the rays of sun while the local Vietnamese dodged the heat with traditional Áo dài dresses and Nón lá bamboo leaf hats. For the locals, white is right: Brownish suntanned skin signifies peasants or the lower working class.
Night fell. Under floodlights, motorcycles erupted from every alley and headed in all directions. The ear-piercing horns were deafening, pushing the soothing ocean waves further away.
Jet Lag book signing by Chien-Chi Chang at Magnum Photos in New York on Dec. 8, 2015
Time lapse by Shannon Simon & Martin Fuchs