Grand Junction resident Ralph Miller poses with wife Jiang Wei in 2017 at the Great Wall of the Han Dynasty in the Gobi Desert. As an “international snowbird,” Miller and his wife spend their winters in her native China, a routine trip that was complicated this year by the onslaught of COVID-19. Their planned return to Iowa never happened.Miller resides part-time in Shenzhen, China, a city of about 20 million. “They took it seriously from Day 1,” he says of the Chinese response to COVID-19. This banner, pictured in March, warns: “Don’t eat together, don’t meet up, don’t be indifferent to the epidemic.”Miller resides part-time in Shenzhen, China, a city of about 20 million. “They took it seriously from Day 1,” he says of the Chinese response to COVID-19. This banner, pictured in March, warns: “Don’t eat together, don’t meet up, don’t be indifferent to the epidemic.”This is retirement: Miller and Jiang ride camels on the Silk Road in the Gobi Desert of East Asia. At home in Grand Junction, Miller taught his wife how to drive.

ONE YEAR IN CHINA

Grand Junction man left for China in October 2019 — then Covid came

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

At first, Ralph Miller was truly stranded in China as flights were canceled and borders closed in response to the pandemic.

Then a weird thing happened.

For the record, he’s still more or less stranded. The Grand Junction resident was due back April 1, and getting home to Iowa from mainland China is now akin to taking the proverbial slow boat, complete with a compulsory, 14-day quarantine as soon as he would cross over into Hong Kong from Guangdong province.

Oh, he needs to get home, eventually. His license plate expired. His taxes are still unpaid.

“I don’t want them to put my gas station on a sheriff’s sale when I’m gone,” Miller said, referring to the vintage service station building he owns on Main Street in Grand Junction, a monument to his hometown’s past.

But at the same time, Miller, 74, is now in no hurry to actually leave China. Ironically, he feels like he’s safer there —  ground zero for the new coronavirus — than here, a country run roughshod by the virus.

“I don’t even know if I’d go back (if I could),” Miller said.

Spending another winter in Shenzhen (pop. 20 million) won’t be the worst thing in the world.

“I might just take the vaccine here,” Miller reasoned during a recent conversation via FaceTime. “I trust the Chinese more than I do the Americans anymore.”

His wife visited the nearest hospital — Shenzhen No. 2 People’s Hospital — and managed to get him the blood thinner and heart medication he’ll need to make it well into March.

“Probably cheaper than in the United States,” Miller said. “It’s all made over here, too.”

So what’s a guy from Grand Junction doing in mainland China, anyway? Well, for one, enjoying retirement. Two, being a dutiful husband and son-in-law.

Miller, who worked as a conductor for the Chicago and North Western railroad, always figured he’d “die an old bachelor.”

At best, he’d retire to Arizona or Texas “and find a girlfriend there.”

Instead, he began exchanging emails with a woman, Jiang Wei, newly divorced at the time with two children, from the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen.

A relationship blossomed. 

Miller and Jiang will celebrate 13 years of marriage in January.

“I’m now what you call an international snowbird,” Miller said.

Located in South China, Guangdong province has the kind of humid, subtropical climate good for growing bananas. In other words, Miller was fairly miserable this past summer — the time of year he and Jiang are normally back in Junction — as he watched from afar as America grappled with the worst pandemic in a century.

“It’s a lot safer over here,” Miller said. “They have the virus under control.”

Miller, his wife and his elderly in-laws may live in an apartment within sight of No. 2 People’s Hospital, but it’s hardly just the party line he’s spouting.

President Donald Trump’s messaging on the virus — referring to it as the “China Virus” and accusing China of “unleashing this plague onto the world” — has led a majority of Americans to believe, incorrectly, that the communist country (the world’s most populous nation) botched its response, according to The Lancet, a world-leading medical journal.

China, in reality, moved quickly to halt transmission of the coronavirus, according to an article in The Lancet on Oct. 8.

As of Oct. 4, the journal wrote, China had just 4,739 deaths from COVID-19 to 209,382 deaths in the United States. (As of Nov. 2, the U.S. death toll was at 230,383, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Within weeks, according to The Lancet, China had tested 9 million people for COVID-19 in Wuhan alone, the now-infamous city in Hubei province where people first started falling sick in late December to a pneumonia of an unknown cause.

Wuhan itself was locked down for 76 days.

Eventually identified as a novel coronavirus, China on Jan. 12 shared the genetic sequence of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization, an organization Trump ultimately disparaged for its handling of the pandemic. For its part, the WHO officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, citing the disease’s spread and severity, not to mention “alarming levels of inaction” by the world’s governments.

“They took it seriously from Day 1,” Miller said of China, adding that most factories there were reopen by Valentine’s Day.

The Lancet also reported the Chinese readily adopted mask wearing, noting the culture’s commitment to the greater good.

“Masks are just about mandatory wherever you go,” Miller said.

He said that people in Shenzhen still seem leery of dining out, and schools weren’t going to reopen until officials were “100 percent sure kids were safe.”

Miller can’t speak Chinese  — he uses an app on his iPad to communicate with his in-laws, who can’t speak English — and hasn’t seen another American since October of 2019, when he and Jiang first settled in for the winter.

Old friends from the East Greene High School Class of ’64 connect over Zoom every other Friday night to keep him company.

“When we tell him what’s going on in Greene County and Iowa, he just literally shakes his head on the screen,” said Jan Scharingson, of Grand Junction, a longtime friend and classmate.

Scharingson looks forward to the Zoom talks — despite the 14-hour time difference — knowing it gives him a chance to keep in touch with other Americans.

“We’ve told him not to come back here,” she said. “He can’t quite understand what’s happening here.”

Miller also manages to find his way around the so-called Great Firewall of China to access Facebook and YouTube, sites that are blocked in mainland China.

“It’s part of living over here,” Miller said. “I always find a way.”

He jokes that WeChat — a Chinese social media app — looks like Facebook from “years ago.”

“It’s mostly just recipes and grandkids,” he said, explaining that posting misinformation to WeChat can be reason enough for the police to hold you for two weeks.

Scharingson said she wasn’t surprised 13 years ago when Miller and Jiang got married, saying, “He has blossomed into quite a wonderful man.”

“He’s very open to new adventures,” Scharingson observed, “and he’s very open-minded to the people and their customs.”

One particular Chinese custom — the so-called “wet market” — has come under scrutiny since the pandemic began. The earliest cases of COVID-19 were all seemingly linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a wet market in Wuhan that purportedly offered everything from live wolf pups and bamboo rats to turtles and crocodiles for sale as food.

While it was perfectly conceivable as a point of origin for COVID-19 — an estimated 70 percent of all new viruses come from animals — the attention also seemed to reinforce a Western view of Chinese culture as something bizarre and “other.”

Miller has visited wet markets.

“I’d never seen any bats or anything like that,” he confessed.

He said his wife buys most of their meat at the local Walmart.

And if there’s anything peculiar about Walmart’s meat selection in China, Miller explained, it’s that chicken breasts are always cheaper than chicken feet.

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