'I Lived in China. I Got to Know the Chinese. They’re a Lot Smarter Than Us'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli who says that social distancing offers an opportunity to broaden the human experience, and a German who spent months volunteering in Israel

Noa Epstein
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Jonathan Storch.
Jonathan Storch.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Epstein

Jonathan Storch, 32, lives in Tel Aviv; arriving from Bangkok

Hi, can I ask where you’re coming back from?

From Bangkok. I was there for two months. Most of the time they were pretty complacent, but now they’re going into lockdown there.

Why did you go?

My brother is traveling there, and my father lives in Thailand, so I went to see them both. My dad has been there since he retired, for two years now.

What does he do there?

He’s a kind of vegan who drinks his urine. Every day he drinks the first urine of the morning.

That’s a special way to describe Dad.

It’s sort of New Age; very healthy, it turns out.

Yes? You were convinced?

No, but I’m trying to accept it. As long as I don’t see him doing it, it’s fine.

When you left, were the beaches empty?

It depended where you were. There are different types of travelers in Thailand. There are the hippies, who will never in their life move anywhere; I spent three weeks arguing with people who claim the virus is all an American invention. There are the sex tourists, who come for a short visit, and there are guys on a big trip, whose parents made them pack it in fast. The Thais worked very hard to keep the coronavirus under the radar, because their livelihood is tourism. They want to look after everyone, but they don’t want to be hurt economically. In Asia there’s a kind of mutual responsibility in crises like these. I know it from China.

Know it?

I lived in China. I taught English there when I was 21; it was “wow.” I lived in a hole called Hefei, six hours from Shanghai. I got to know the Chinese.

What are they like?

People say they’re not nice, that they spit. But when you get to understand their logic, you realize that they’re a lot smarter than we are and a thousand times better manipulators.

Give an example.

I have a bitch of an example. One time I was paid a lot of money to go to a business meeting and pretend to be someone from an international infrastructure company. I was taken to some power station in the middle of China and told that I was the representative of a Swiss firm, and the Chinese guy negotiated with them. At one point they all turned to me as though asking me a question, and I nodded, they apparently struck a deal. You just needed a poker face. It’s like here, only different rules.

Do you miss it?

No, because the sky is gray all year round, because of the pollution. But overall, I’m fed up with Israel. I’m a freelancer in digital advertising, and there’s no problem doing that from abroad. I’m planning to leave.

Aren’t there concerns about the business now?

There are. In the meantime, my numbers are higher than usual, because everyone is online all the time, but it makes sense that things will change. I see this virus as something normal. I mean, I hope no one I know will die, but I read about plagues in history, and the situation is pretty good now as compared to the past. What’s changing is the economy. We’re on the way to the new world.

What will the new world look like?

Super-digital. People will understand that it’s preferable, more productive. You work less and get a lot more done. In the past year I’ve been trying to learn how to work from home. It’s hard, but when you crack the code, suddenly you only need to work four hours a day.

A bit lonely, no?

No, just different. You have to understand that what was taken from us now is mainly leisure culture. But it wasn’t really taken, things just moved to different modes that already exist: Facebook, Amazon, WeChat. You don’t need anyone physically. Tinder is exploding now.

So we won’t see one other anymore?

I think that in the future a meeting will be an advanced stage of a process, both in business and in dating. I welcome that with open arms, because it offers new possibilities. I can meet someone now in a game where I look like a horse and he looks like a rabbit – that gives more options for the human experience. What looks now like a narrowing of things, will be a broadening for other things.

Sounds like “Black Mirror,” the optimistic episode.

More like three months after an episode of “Black Mirror.” Like, wow, it was scary, but now we’re used to it. And what now? Life itself.

Maja Fokerman.
Maja Fokerman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Maja Fokerman, 19, lives in Munich; flying to Minsk, Belarus

Hi, what are planning to do in Minsk?

I’m going from there to home, in Munich. I came to Israel three months ago, a trip before starting university. My plan was to travel for a year and spend a few months in Israel, because I have family here and people speak English and the weather is great. When I got here I hadn’t even heard of the coronavirus.

What did you do here?

I volunteered in three different places. First I was in Azuz, which is in the middle of the desert, where people live in mobile homes and buses. There’s a nice couple there who have a goat farm. A lot of Israelis want to go there, because it’s so different from every other place, so isolated.

What did you do there?

I herded 60 goats.

What does a goatherd do?

Basically it’s not a big deal, because the goats stay close to one another, they’re afraid to be alone. The problems begin when they split into two clusters, because then it’s hard to get them back into one group. The first time that happened to me I was alone and I got scared, and straight off called someone on the walkie-talkie.

How do you get them back together?

There’s a stick, but they respect the herder. At first they tested me, but they very quickly understand that they have to listen to you. You shout “Hop!” and you can hit them with the stick.

A stick?!

Yes. At first I was surprised, too, but then I saw how strong they were and that it didn’t faze them. You hit a goat and it stays where it is, as though it hardly felt a thing. You walk with them for three-four hours and go home.

How do you get them to go back?

After they’ve eaten enough, they want to go back and know where home is. Sometimes you have to make sure they don’t go back too early or run too fast.

Isn’t it boring?

Most of the time there were a few volunteers at a time with the goats, so there were people to talk to. But there were quite a few times when I was alone; then it’s like meditation, a kind of Vipassana. You’re surrounded by desert, but your thoughts can’t really wander, because you have to be mindful of the goats. It’s simple, repetitive work, but very pleasant.

Where did you go after Azuz?

To Harashim [in Upper Galilee]. I helped a family that has a kind of circus theater. At first I helped around the house, and then I looked after their little boy. I also got to help out with the shows and see them. I got close with the family, they're warm people. They took me with them when they visited friends or went on outings. But then things changed.

What changed?

Performances were canceled, mainly ahead of Purim, and I saw how their lives became different. It was sad. But then I went on to the place I enjoyed most, an eco-village near Ashdod.

What did you do there?

They grow vegetables and trees, though not in the most efficient way, because they are considerate of the soil, to maintaining a balance with nature. There were more Germans than Israelis when I got there. We would make lunch, plant trees and vegetables, spread compost. But at the end I was the only volunteer who stayed; all the others went home because of the coronavirus.

Why did you stay?

I was having a great time. I was getting to know the people and the whole subject more deeply; I wasn’t just living there. Before that I hadn’t really known what to do with my free time, but there I felt a true bond with people. They are leftists and vegans, which are not things I necessarily connect with, but they also love nature and love to dance. For the first time in my life I enjoyed dancing. When I get back to Germany I want to go on dancing.

You didn’t dance before that?

No. In the eco-village we danced a lot and there were also dance workshops. I learned a kind of dance where you improvise, you dance the way you feel. I discovered something new. But now I have to go back, and it doesn’t look like my plan of traveling for a year is going to happen. But maybe something good will come of this crisis.

What, for instance?

Maybe people will understand the beauty in simplicity, not just keep wanting things. The majority survive the disease, but maybe the fact that the world is stopping and the fear will make people understand that they already have quite a bit. Maybe everything will go back to being the way it was, but this is what I am imagining.

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