“As the shards of bone flew, it felt like my old life being hacked apart…”

An American details her return to work in China during the coronavirus outbreak and aftermath.

I never planned to write about coronavirus, but given recent events I have found myself being asked to share my experience. I would like to say that if given the chance, I would prefer not having had this experience; however, like most things that happen to us, we can grow from adversity.

I am a foreign teacher manager for a privately-owned company in Northeast China that teaches K-12 students English in an after-school program. I have lived and worked in China since 2007, and have been at my current school since 2011. I am no stranger to events that happen here, including the historic 2008 southern China ice storm, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the Olympics, just to name a few. I have always found that the Chinese way of dealing with disasters can vary, but it’s usually pretty take-charge and get-it-done, once the initial shock wears off.

This latest adventure came in chapters. I had looked forward to going back to the U.S. at the end of December for a well-deserved break from my job. Prior to leaving, I remember reading a news article about a new virus detected in southern China, a fact I simply tucked away at the time. But my vacation home soon changed into a working trip, as I updated my teachers to be careful of this new virus being talked about. At that point no one really knew much. It was centered in Wuhan, (a city in Hubei Province), some people had gotten sick, and the source was said to be from a particular wet market in the city. Regardless, the virus had made itself known, and life as anyone in China had known it was about to change radically.

I continued to track the virus nearly hourly as things progressed…

Friends in the U.S. began to question my sanity about returning to China. Truthfully, at that point, I was not concerned. My province was still fairly virus free. It would be another week before new cases would even emerge. Even then I wasn’t concerned. In fact, I kept telling friends, “It’s just a flu, don’t panic.” It was just another stupid flu, and we were being told it wasn’t even as serious as SARS was some years back, so I wasn’t that concerned.

Then Wuhan was locked down, and after that, all of Jilin Province would lock down and anyone returning would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Even still, virus numbers were relatively small at this point. Heck, when you live in China and a “small” town is anything under a million people, numbers take on an entirely new meaning. My city of Changchun has a population of over 8 million people, and when only 20 have the virus you really don’t panic—at least then.

I was still nonplussed by it all and ready to go back to China. On February 4 I arrived for my flight from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco, but took pause when the person at the counter questioned my sanity for wanting to return to China. I responded by telling him that if I were to get the virus I’d rather be in China where at least they were now getting good at treating it, than remain in the US where there were only 4 cases at the time. He had to admit I had a point. On that flight to San Francisco, about half of the passengers wore masks. I thought it weird, really, as the virus was still mostly in China and the chances anyone on this flight had it were infinitesimal.

My flight from San Francisco to Seoul, Korea, however, was very different from prior times. The flight is usually packed with crying children and noisy people. This time 80% of the plane wore masks and it was deathly quiet. No one got up much during the flight and no one was speaking to anyone else. I had chosen NOT to wear a mask again, mostly because I didn’t feel I needed one.

In Seoul, the airport was a ghost town.

I’d never seen it that devoid of people or the frenzy of travelers. Many of the normal shops were closed and only a few food stands were open. I went to my connecting gate where most flights to China are scheduled for departure and it was nearly empty. Everyone had on masks, except for me; I still didn’t feel I needed one. I received many odd looks, but I felt fine and I really do hate wearing a facemask. But I had one ready for when we landed in China, where I knew I would have to wear one.

When we got to Changchun and got off the plane we had to be processed. I’d already been warned that they would take our temperature before going through customs. They did, three times and then a fourth under my arm. I raised some eyebrows as my normal temperature is not 98.6 degrees but rather around 97, but they finally let me go, I just had to give them my home address and phone number, just in case.

Outside of the airport I got into the car that had been sent to pick me up, as the subways, light-rail, and many busses had been shut down earlier in the week. On our way from the airport to my apartment we were stopped two more times and had our temperatures taken. The usually traffic-heavy streets were oddly silent and devoid of any signs of life. It began to sink in how serious this was and how different this new China reality was going to be. The closer I got to my apartment, the more it sank in. All the stores, restaurants, and shopping centers were closed. Very few people were on the street and those you did see had grocery bags—those were the only stores open. As I got to my apartment you could hear nothing—an oddly silent China greeted my return. It was so eerie, almost like everyone had packed up and left and forgot to tell me. After dropping my bags, I went to the local police station to check-in, normal procedure for any foreigner returning to China.

At my local police station they took my temperature again—I thought, Trust me, folks, it didn’t change since I left the airport. Once I was checked back into town I asked for permission to go to the market to have some food in the house. I would have to self-quarantine for 14 days, but I’d be allowed every fourth day to go out food shopping. I was fine with that so I only bought enough to last a few days.

The next few days were spent on my computer 12 to 15 hours each day taking care of business. While we couldn’t open the school and we wouldn’t be able to for a while, we still needed to prepare for when we could begin work again. At that point, February 6, we thought that might be the end of the month. No one knew anything for sure. My job was to calm my teachers down and assure them all was okay and we’d be fine. Heck, people, it was only the “flu!”

Four days went by and as I was getting ready to throw my trash out and go shopping for food, I had a knock on my door.

Someone from my community had come to inform me that I could not leave my apartment for any reason. I was now under “house arrest” and if I left my apartment, I would be taken to jail. I was in shock. I couldn’t even throw my trash out and if I needed food I should tell them and they would get it for me. Being the total American that I am; I did not respond well to this news. I was upset. I shut the door and began to scrounge through my cupboards looking for what I still had in the house, wondering how I could stretch it for another 10 days.

It’s amazing how creative you can become when you have to. I discovered that you can stretch pasta for three meals, something I hadn’t done since my college days. You can make a can of tuna stretch if you make it with pasta, and can even eat that cold. Those old packets of Jell-O I had tucked away and forgotten about? Well, if you’re wondering when Jell-O goes bad, the answer is never. I found out you can also use up all the condiments in your fridge before they go bad, imagine that.

On February 13, one week after I began my quarantine, I awoke at 2am because I couldn’t sleep. I was fed up living with my trash, I was tired of being locked up and feeling abandoned, possibly even left to die alone. Okay, a little dramatic — but the reality was no one had bothered to check on me since I returned. I felt like doing something, however small, so I went out to my enclosed balcony on the second floor, threw open the window and chucked my trash out. It hit the ground with a loud bang. I looked around and no one even cared, maybe even didn’t notice. I brushed my hands off, closed the window, and went back to bed. At 4 am, I decided to check on my trash but it was gone. I had accomplished my goal and so now I knew I could chuck my trash out the window if I had to. I hadn’t violated my “house arrest” as I did not open my front door, I flung open a window instead.

Here in China, people tend to live in high-rise apartments within gated communities. Most communities shut off all but one access gate in and out, and all residents of that community had to check through that gate — only one member per household  can leave, and only to buy food. I live in a very old community; only 6 floors. It is not a gated community, either, so instead they put a camera outside my door. I wasn’t sure who was watching my door, but I stayed amused thinking of things I could do. I thought about writing a sign that said: “Hey, I’m still alive, just in case anyone wants to know?” I wasn’t sure if anyone would check on me, and what if I died and it took them weeks to figure it out. I mean no one had even bothered to check on me since they put the camera up, 5 days prior. At least my employer was checking on me daily, but that was because the government required that we send in a health report each morning stating our name, location, and health status. We’ve been doing that since February 7, and continue to this day.

February 20 was the day my “house arrest” ended. No one came to tell me; I was just allowed finally to leave my apartment. In those 14 days life was slowly coming back to the city. Two weeks prior nothing had been open—not the banks, small shops, and absolutely no restaurants — only delivery. The food delivery business was booming.

I emerged from my cocoon and called the person in charge to remind them I expected my door camera to be gone by the end of the day, then I went shopping to restock. I only live about 6 blocks from the grocery store, but when you are schlepping 65 lbs of food home, it can be a struggle. The following day I ventured out again, I went to get coffee at Starbucks. There were dramatically reduced hours, and they could only help one person at a time—you couldn’t go inside either. It’s now been one month since they re-opened— you can go inside to order now, but they must take your temperature and you have to write your name and phone number down so they know who came into the store.

The next day the camera was still outside my door.

I wasn’t happy with that, so I took a chair and shut the camera off and proceeded to take it apart. I then called the community person and told them if they didn’t remove it in the next 2 hours I would and they’d get their camera back in pieces. It only took them 20 minutes to collect it after that. While I’ve lived in China for over 12 years, there are times when I’m still very Western. I cherish my privacy, a foreign concept here.

You might be wondering what I was doing, during my “house arrest.” Well, I teach English to junior and senior high students (who may one day study abroad). I began Skype calls with my students. I’d love to say the students are excited about this new way of learning, and the lessons are wonderful, but I’d be lying. The kids hate class this way. I fight with them to turn on the video and the audio, etc. I’m so ready to be back in a classroom again, and so are they.

February 23 the public schools began online classes with ALL students in the city. Our internet has never been very fast, now it’s about the speed of a racing snail. Imagine over one million kids all online at the same time; then add to that mix the other 7 million people who live here and have no other way to do their work. It’s like trying to push millions of gallons of water through a garden hose. You just have to have patience but there are times when it can drive you insane.

In the six weeks after I first returned to China the toll became evident for many small businesses—they will never re-open. Our school is holding on, but if this drags on we may not survive. We hear rumors but nothing is certain. It’s hard to plan when you don’t have or know a timeframe. We wait and we hope.

My attitude about it all has changed, especially watching the virus take itself on a “world tour” as other countries face the new realities that we have come to face here. I’ve watched from an insider’s viewpoint how China dealt with this. Yes, they took draconian measures, but in the end those measures paid off for the most part. Yet just as it appeared we were virus-free, in mid-April, things changed again. It seems Chinese citizens returning from Russia brought the virus with them. North of us, in Harbin, 22 new cases were discovered. This has delayed some students returning to public school, which is critical to our business, as no training schools like ours can open until all children return to public school.  On the bright side, however, the government has finally given us permission to open up formal, online classes to our current students. Thankfully, many of our students want to return.

Our weather has also been very odd this year.  Normally we would be into spring but the last week in April we saw freezing temps and snow.  Having snow so late is highly unusual, and presents a challenge because over here, the home heating is supplied by a central government facility and in March they shut off the heat. Every year they do that, some date in March and suddenly no heat.  For weeks I sat at home working with my heavy winter coat on and a blanket wrapped around me. My fingers were so cold it was hard to type. All in all, I have learned to manage, because in this time of COVID, we are all learning to manage and navigate new waters.
One incident from yesterday particularly illustrates how this “new normal” is affecting us. I have to cook now, which is dicey at times. I do like to cook but cooking here is a challenge–I have NO gas in my apartment, so I use a hot plate, rice cooker, crockpot, microwave, and small (and I do mean small) oven. I make a lot of stews and soups.  Recently I’ve taken to making “bone” soup, a new fad. Yesterday I managed to buy a large beef “soup” bone and while the butcher was kind and broke it in half for me, when I got it home it was still too big for the crockpot. This meant I had to figure out how to break it down even more. The smaller half just fit, but for the larger half I needed a meat cleaver to hack at the bone.  If you have ever done this, then you will understand breaking a bone with a meat cleaver is like chopping down a Christmas tree with pruning shears.  As I hacked away, bone chips flew all over the kitchen, at one point my anger at everything I have endured since Feb 6th poured out of me and into the cleaver I was wielding.  As the shards of bone flew, it felt like my old life being hacked apart, never to come back together again.
When I finally accomplished the feat, (I’m sure my neighbors were wondering what the heck I was doing), I felt oddly empty. Instead of joy at accomplishing my goal, I looked at the two pieces of my newly broken beef bone and all I saw was my broken old lifestyle. Here is the point–none of us are going back to what had been “normal” before this happened. This event (like others before) will forever change us.  However, we get to choose how it does that. In that moment, I knew I could let COVID define me, or I could forge a new “normal” for myself and move forward.  I wasn’t about to let my broken life be defined by this anymore.
I wanted to share this because those in other countries are not as far down this path as I am. I want everyone to know this will end, and when it does, you must be ready.  Now is the time to figure out what you will do after… who you will be, where you want your life to go. It’s time to plan ahead, see the future and make it happen.  For me, and my company, we have decided to forge on and go on-line for now. We plan to make our teachers qualified to do this and not make this a band-aid effort. We are going to do on-line classes but once we can go back into the classroom our on-line classes will remain for those students who want them.
Non-traditional teaching will be the future. Educators must see that future now and prepare for it. We need to see this not as a step into the void, but a step into that future, one with a promise of better outcomes. I see this opening up new opportunities to reach students who were not reachable before this.  More affordable options, greater access, not less. We’re all right now at a crossroad, and we can forge ahead with confidence that the road is not that bad, and may even provide more than we’re able to see right now.
You don’t have to hack apart a beef bone… although it was rather therapeutic. But don’t think this will be over soon — it won’t, and don’t think things will go back to what they were…that’s gone, but we can instead begin today to see the road ahead and prepare.