I’m just coming off my own one month of confinement in China during the first wave of the pandemic. And while I watch America’s fusion of apathy and panic spread throughout the country, I wonder why no one learned anything from China’s actions.
I’m angry that people weren’t listening. I’m angry people think this was another hoax or a variety of fear mongering techniques to control the American people. I’m angry that people were reducing the severity of this virus by wrongful comparison to other viruses. I’m angry that thousands of people died because of the ‘it won’t happen to me’ mentality.
People in China didn’t act this way. They didn’t trample over others for toilet paper. Mothers weren’t crying in empty diaper aisles. People weren’t hoarding thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and trying to sell them for $80 apiece.
I, like many Americans right now, underestimated the power of this virus in the beginning.
Americans haven’t seen or experienced the things I have. China and America are two different systems of govenrment and health care but not learning from China’s lessons will mean America will learn from Italy’s deaths.
On January 23rd, 2020, I finished the extra winter courses I had been doing for the past two weeks with EF Education First in Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. I walked down the hallway that looked out into a colorful lobby. The walls were a bright green and pictures of cartoon characters swung from the ceilings above. At the front glass doors, the older male security guard stood amongst a couple of female staff holding temperature guns in their hands. One of them scanned a young girl’s forehead. I hadn’t worn a mask that day, but all my students did.
Talk of the virus had been circulating in the office, but no one batted a single eye at it. Everyone was just thinking about their winter holidays and the tropical places they would be going for the next week.
That day, I advised some of my international coworkers to grab essentials at the supermarket for the upcoming week of Chinese Lunar New Year. I was a Peace Corps China Volunteer from 2014-2016, and if there was one thing I learned about China it was that most everything was closed during the holiday, including supermarkets.
I walked 15 minutes home where I charged my electricity and gas cards for the next month, then went to the grocery store downstairs from my apartment. I bought potatoes, avocados, ground pork, dumpling wrappers, tomatoes, frozen shrimp, brown rice, and four sticks of butter – enough to get me through the next nine days of vacation.
I had planned to stay inside for the whole week and finish the many projects I had placed on the back burner since moving back to China in October 2019. Being primarily introverted, I was thrilled to be spending a week inside just dedicating my brainspace to writing and reading.
That night, I hung red couplets over my doorway for good luck. I took a square piece of red paper with the Chinese character for “happiness” on it and taped it on the center of my door. I taped the character upside down – a symbol to neighbors that “happiness” had already arrived at my home.
I celebrated the holiday alone in my apartment and called my Chinese host parents who were in Sanya, Hainan celebrating underneath clear blue skies while ocean waves crashed in the distance. They told me to eat dumplings for good luck and before getting off the phone asked me if I had enough masks.
A few days after my holiday started, I decided to take a visit to the Starbucks downstairs from my apartment. News of the virus outbreak in Wuhan was starting to hint at it’s severity. People were outside still, but most everyone was wearing masks. My employers advised us to take precautions when going outside, to wear masks, wash our hands, and try not to touch anyone. Later that night I learned that China had already issued the largest quarantine in human history, isolating nearly 80 million people in Hubei to prevent the spread of the virus.
Slowly, I started getting messages from people back in the US: “Are you ok?” “How close are you to the virus?” Thankfully, I wasn’t close at all. I was over 700 miles north of it, actually. I told people I was fine and the virus wasn’t near me. At this time, the virus was barely frightening me, but I was still keeping a keen eye on the news. I still felt no worry. In fact, I was still going to the local park to take walks and find a quiet place to ground: take off my shoes and touch my feet to the bare earth.
So many people had traveled from Wuhan to other cities before Chinese Lunar New Year had even started. But around the time the world’s largest human migration was about to begin, most in-country travel was being shut down.
Each time I ventured out the door for whatever food item I was craving from the local 7/11, fewer people are out. Metal barriers and wire fences appeared here and there, and more security guards were placed in high trafficked areas.
Vacation time for myself and my coworkers was quickly approaching its end and international teachers in my cohort were starting to feel uneasy. School being such an important part of society in China, it wasn’t shocking that schools would still try to open up in the midst of an outbreak that was spreading faster than anyone thought it would.
Many of the international teachers were preparing to rally together and fight going back to work on February 3rd. They didn’t feel safe being in a building full of kids who never washed their hands. I was prepared to support them, because who am I to deny the real fears my friends are having around this virus?
On Friday January 31, 2020, my employer announced our winter holiday was extended until February 10th, 2020, in response to the growing severity with COVID-19, which we had come to call it. In that same week, notices appeared in elevators advising everyone to stay inside. But even with the notices, security was not taking drastic measures to keep us contained. We could still get food delivered to our front doors and I could still walk to the park.
Three weeks had gone by and my concept of time and routines were array. Some nights I would stay up until 5:00 am to write or read. Other nights, I would stare out into the dark city and count the number of illuminated windows in the distance. Then there were nights I would open all the windows in my house to let the cold air come in. Without cars on the road, the pollution wasn’t as bad anymore.
It was so quiet. I had never heard China be this quiet. “People in Xi’an don’t screw around,” I told my mom and dad over FaceTime, “Like, they flat out did not fight being isolated at all.”
On a normal day in China, it wasn’t uncommon to brush shoulders with strangers on the street or in a supermarket. Sometimes you were so close to your neighbor on a subway you could read their text messages. But now, no one would touch anything without a single slip of tissue between their hand and a surface.
On February 8th, I woke up to the profound smell of bleach burning my nostrils. I don’t clean my house with bleach. My apartment building had heavily sterilized the hallways. The night before, my bosses warned us deep sterilization measures would be happening on the roads through the city, and we needed to all close our windows no matter what floor we lived on. I lived on the 25th floor.
At this point, the entire province of Shaanxi was on a “Level 1 Public Health Emergency Protocol”– their highest level response to help contain COVID-19.
Everyone taking public transportation needed their passport or ID card to get anywhere. Taxi drivers and businesses could refuse people without masks. All other rideshares were shut down until further notice. Schools were closed all over the province. Some businesses were only operating with essential personnel. But the one thing that primarily stayed open were supermarkets.
Every resident in my city was required to visit the nearest real estate office to acquire a blue pass that would show proof of their residence and allow them in and out of their apartments every two days. Curfews were enforced to make sure no one left their apartment between 10:00 pm and 7:00 am. Officials were starting to track who lived where and make sure people stayed inside. Those who violated orders would be punished.
Security stopped letting cars out of parking garages. Large immovable barriers seemed to pop up each day and were positioned around the plaza to keep people in. They separated complexes in the plaza from one another using more metal barriers and wire.
On February 10th, I checked my slip of blue paper to see I still hadn’t left since being on this more severe lockdown. I got dressed, fastened the black N95 mask around my face, grabbed my shopping bags, slipped on some shoes and walked out my door. The hallway smelled intensely of bleach, as if I had just inhaled an entire swimming pool. I sucked in a toxic breath and tried to hold it for the next 25 floors down to the lobby.
Once I left the building, I let out a breath and took in another. I walked past the single salt-and-pepper-haired security guard at the gate near my complex.
“Ni qu mai dongxi ma?” (Are you going to buy groceries?), he asked.
“Shide.” (Yes), I said.
“Zhuyi anquan.” (Pay attention to safety), he said.
In my first 100 steps, I came upon a panoramic view of the eerily deserted plaza that was usually crowded with people. I crossed the center of the plaza noticing the darkened interiors of clothing stores and restaurants around me. I saw one or two people coming from opposite directions toward the same area I was headed.
I walked underneath the dozens of dull red lanterns hung up for Chinese Lunar New Year and the big sign in yellow characters that read: “Wo zai Daduhui guo nian” (I celebrated the holiday at Glorious Plaza). Those lanterns and signs were meant to be photo opportunities for youngsters trying to get followers on Chinese social media.
When I got to the mall where the grocery store was located, I wrote my name, phone number, and passport number on a sign-in sheet. A man in white coveralls, rubber gloves, and a mask scanned my wrist for my temperature before letting me inside. The only signs of life in the darkened mall came from the grocery store.
Lines to check out were very long, and there were a lot of people. I was surprised everything was stocked, although produce was definitely dwindling. Employees rushed around frantically trying to keep shelves full. Given the current state of things, and because China is home to millions of people, I was certain stores would be even crazier than usual. But they actually weren’t as bad as everyone kept saying they were. I never saw anyone argue. I never saw anyone hoard items. I never saw people fighting with each other. Everyone was seemingly calm and patient.
I picked up my few items, a full force of anxiety flaring up within me at being in the midst of this crowd of people. Finally, I found my way to the checkout line. The woman beside me looked hopefully into my cart and fidgeted with the small handheld register within her fingertips. She paced back and forth from each line to each person at self-checkout. I could see she was anxious to get people out of the store as quickly as possible. She found a customer with five items and scanned them with her handheld to save time.
I couldn’t imagine being her and having to put myself at risk every day to be in a grocery store swarmed with people. I felt the same way about the security guards stationed outside every supermarket and complex throughout Xi’an. I felt sad for those having to be away from their families though grateful they risked their own safety to make sure people were fed and protected.
That afternoon, I put together a food basket and marched downstairs to give it to my security guard. He tried to refuse it (a politeness in Chinese culture), but I insisted.
“Xie xie guanxin women,” (Thank you for watching over us), I told him in Chinese.
“Tai gan xie ni.” (Thank you greatly), he said.
After getting back upstairs, I washed my hands with hot soapy water before taking my mask off. My phone lit up with a message from a friend of mine isolated in Chongqing that read:
“Kelly, you should go back to America. It’s not safe here.”
My time was occupied with teaching my students online, who were still out of school until further notice. The release of the online teaching platform with my school wasn’t happening that rapidly. It still felt like I was on vacation with the amount of time I had to myself each day.
I was starting to get incredibly bored with Netflix and YouKu, and instead switched over to music on Spotify. A lot of the time I would just sit on my couch and stare at things in my apartment, do Zumba, clean, or cook.
Now that we were teaching online, some of my coworkers decided they might as well travel to a country with less COVID-19 problems since they could work remotely. But I didn’t have that luxury.
I was watching suitcases for a friend who had already finished her contract and returned home. She was unable to send her bags back to the UK since all delivery services were suspended in Xi’an.
Around the same time, a coworker tricked me into watching our boss’ cat for 1-2 weeks so he could escape the insanity of confinement and travel to Malaysia and Thailand. He’s still traveling and yes, I’m still salty about it.
Because of this, I couldn’t go anywhere. China continued to tighten restrictions on inbound and outbound travel from outside countries. And some teachers were stuck in other countries without computers and equipment to teach online, forcing them to take unpaid leave.
I missed my best friend. I missed my parents. I missed my coworkers from EF. I missed going outside and feeling the sun on my face. I was angry that I was stuck here while everyone else escaped to somewhere else for rest and relaxation. I was jealous I wasn’t neck-deep in coconuts, my feet in the sand of some beach far away. I felt trapped and overwhelmed.
Every few days, my Scottish friend checked on me to see if I was ok. She was grateful to have her boyfriend with her, knowing full well she would have gone mad if he wasn’t there. She knew it couldn’t have been easy for me to be doing this all by myself. I pretended it didn’t bother me, but it did. It bothered me a lot. I just never told anyone.
“Make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D and exercising,” reads a text I got from my dad. My parents love me. The text makes me cry. I’m suddenly reminded that my mom and sister won’t be visiting me in Xi’an this April, and that my parents’ living room from where my dad texts me is an ocean away. My parents, not the worrying type, believed everything would be ok soon.
I know my dad can feel when I’m upset. Week five was feeling like the hardest week of them all. I spent a lot of days crying, and it took very little to trigger it. I had virtually no human contact except for one or two hugs in the last five weeks.
On February 25th, 2020, over 77,000 cases were confirmed in China. Only 245 cases were confirmed in Shaanxi province, 209 had recovered and sent home, and there were zero new cases.
Despite my loneliness, I had hope that this would be over soon. Two days later, everyone in Xi’an was required to register for their own personal QR code. Each QR code was color-coded to show your personal risk level. My QR code was green.
We were now able to come and go whenever we pleased and there was no curfew. Days went by and the streets filled up again with cars and foot traffic. The city noise returned to the hushed atmosphere and the lights of the buildings around me weren’t so dim.
However, things were far from over and the nation still hadn’t issued a formal statement about the country being safe from COVID-19.
I ordered a big bowl of curry and a side of three samosas from a local Indian restaurant and had it delivered. When I waited at the gate to pick it up, I watched men outside the plaza barriers smoking cigarettes and chatting. Cars sped by honking horns at each other and small children sprinted around the plaza stretching their little legs.
The sun was high and bright and it was warm outside. I could even see a few kites floating in the air. I traced their invisible lines to the park where I used to find a place to ground.
My friend in Chongqing told me he hasn’t received his salary this month and his finances are insanely tight. The same is happening all over China.
On March 3rd, 2020 shopping malls started to open again, city bus lines resumed operations, and ride shares became available.
On March 6th, 2020, Shaanxi province downgraded from a Level 1 Public Health Emergency Protocol to a Level 3 Public Health Emergency Protocol. I could feel the city breathe a sigh of relief.
Week 7 to Present
I’ve been consumed with working from home, but glad I can leave my apartment at any time to stretch my legs. I feel less isolated but I still haven’t seen any of my friends since February 17th.
Now as I watch the news of COVID-19 in America, it seems no one is concerned about the virus.
My friends in Colorado keep sending me loads of messages asking about COVID-19 and what they should do: “No one around me seems to be taking this seriously and I’m afraid. What do you think I should do?” I tell them to stay inside.
For two weeks, I spend much of my time furiously commenting and posting about the importance of staying inside. I tell people this isn’t the time to pretend this isn’t happening or blame the media for fear mongering. This is the time to get inside and stay there until this thing dies out. This is the time to take care of each other.
I shout very loudly and often. Very few listen. They don’t care that I just went through this and have seen how it was handled. My opinion is: the US isn’t handling this well and they learned nothing from China.
On March 16th, I spoke to a friend of mine in the Chinese Communist Party. I learned about all the ways the CCP supported people through COVID-19 when it was at its worst. She told me people lost their jobs and got severance packages. Rent was waived around the country. Asian celebrities and millions of members of the CCP donated millions of dollars to help aid in the fight against COVID-19. People who didn’t comply with the government orders to prevent the spread faced consequences. People who were infected were treated for free.
People on social media criticize socialism in the US. They say shortages of toilet paper and empty shelves in supermarkets are a taste of socialism saying, “is this really what you Americans want?” But America didn’t see how China reacted during COVID-19.
I do my best to educate.
On March 19th, 2020, the US State Department posted a Level 4 Travel Advisory advising US Citizens living abroad to come home immediately or be prepared to stay in their current country for an “indefinite period”.
Some scientific models say the virus peaks in 45 days and will be over by August. Others say this is going to be around for the next 18 months. I don’t know which model is true or if I get to come home this year.
I’m not in the Peace Corps anymore and I’m not prepared to stay in China for two years without seeing my family again. I planned a trip home in June to visit everyone I love back home.
In the meantime, I lose my shit in the emptiness of my apartment and bawl furiously.
I call my mom and dad crying hysterically. I’ve been in my apartment for weeks, I practice envisioning the days I get to embrace those I hold dear. I think about the tears I will shed in happiness, the weight that will lift from my shoulders, and the relief I will feel. I envision sitting in my living room with my dad and hearing his laugh, standing barefoot in my parents yard with my mother, or lounging on the couch at my best friend’s house drinking coffee.
“You should stay in China,” my mom says, “ It’s not safe in America.”
Kelly Branyik, is a writer for PULP Colorado. Her travel writing can be found at travelbranyik.com.