Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Journey of Two China Expats through the COVID-19 Crisis

China: The Origin Story

While much of the world was just hearing vaguely about this "virus in China", the novel coronavirus was becoming a real concern for us as expats in China. We started hearing about it in early January from people in Wuhan, but it was still sort of a distant threat and even the word out of Wuhan then was that much of life was proceeding fairly normally. That quickly began to change. And, as a couple weeks passed, we started hearing about cases in Shanghai and getting nervous.

My husband and I had to go get a medical exam (for future visa planning) and I remember talking to our interpreter and the nurses about it. We all wore masks, but at that time there were just about 10-15 cases in Shanghai. I remember feeling especially nervous when we went to get our chest X-rays and a big group of workers came in for theirs while we waited. Most of our exam was in the "VIP" area of the hospital but the tests that required equipment were done in the main hospital. Those few days were when things really started changing.

We had a trip planned to Spain for the Chinese New Year holiday and everything was starting to shut down (as it kind of does in some ways at the holiday anyway). We wore masks, washed hands vigorously, went through temperature checks...and felt a mixture of nerves and relief when we got on the plane. We took a deep breath when we arrived in Spain, as if we had somehow "escaped the virus" (or probably more the feeling of escaping the coming "lockdowns"). Oh, hindsight...

From Holiday to Who Knows?

After about 10 days in Spain on a lovely holiday, I was due to fly to the US for another 10 days or so for two work conferences. Bryan was due to fly back to Shanghai. Somewhere along the way, I got a message from American Airlines that my flight back was canceled and they would not be going back to China until at least late April. This was the start of our truly unexpected journey.

I was constantly consuming virus updates from friends and groups in China. I truly enjoyed our holiday, but did often awake in the middle of the night with a high level of anxiety. Oddly, it never got bad in Shanghai. To this day, their numbers state there have only been a handful of deaths in the city of 25 million people. I don't know if all the #s are accurate (I don't think any country can really claim accurate numbers at this point, due to the rapid spread, lack of testing in many places, asymptomatic cases, etc.) but I do know that to this day I don't know anyone who even knows anyone who had the virus in China. Whereas I know numerous people in other countries, so there does seem to be something to the proportions.

Arriving in the US: Signs Things Were Likely to Get Worse

I proceeded with my CA trip and was shocked by how little screening the US was doing. They had banned non-citizens and foreign residents...but not, as is often claimed, banned flights from China or any other countries. When I arrived at LAX, I came in just as about 3 flights from China landed. The customs line was a mile long and I expected this was due to vigilant screening. What a surprise to walk through as usual, with no temperature checks or any overarching screening being done. The only difference was they were pulling more people from the China flight to the side for additional screening (but definitely not all or even most of them). They never asked me any questions about my travel history.

What to Do?

I spoke at one conference in San Jose, visited Apple headquarters, and then headed back to LA. There was vague talk about the virus and some unfortunate racism towards Asians and Chinatown businesses, but that was about it. I then had a few days to work from an amazing Airbnb in LA before heading to the next conference (and enjoyed a lot of delicious food in Ktown). I got a message from Airbnb saying I could cancel with a full refund due to the coronavirus situation, but that was really about it for the role the virus was playing then.

In the meantime, Bryan decided to extend his stay in Spain and we arranged a different (smaller, more affordable) Airbnb for him. He enjoyed some relaxing time there, though he was in the kind of limbo we have all now grown to know. At first, he was set to return to Shanghai a couple weeks later. We were in touch with people in Shanghai, some of whom said if you can avoid it, wait it out and don't come back (including our landlord). Various friends were struggling with these same decisions, scattered about, stuck in holiday destinations, some separated from family and pets and trying to decide on the right thing to do. After calls to different people at KLM, he was able to get a refund (well, none of these refunds have actually come through, but we've been promised they are "in process", now delayed by a couple months since the original promise) and booked a one-way flight to the east coast of the US where I would meet up with him.

We were lucky that my parents have an apartment in Maryland they don't use during the winter months, so we headed there. I am beyond grateful to them for being so generous with everything. They had to make changes to their car insurance and cable/internet plan and incur greater costs to accommodate us being there.

At first, life was proceeding in a somewhat normal fashion. I even took the train up to visit a friend who lives outside of Philly and surprise another friend in town for work.

Since I was staying in the US for now, I offered to attend a conference in Florida. One colleague opted out as he had a baby at home and the virus talk was getting more worrisome. We opted for a road trip to Florida, partly to save money and allow for a more leisurely trip and partly with the thought of avoiding airports (though perhaps hotels weren't much better). The conference proceeded, minus handshakes and with added hand sanitizer. That was probably one of the last in-person events for quite some time. We had numerous conference sponsorships lined up, and so far they've all been canceled through at least August. Within a week or so, Florida's cases started creeping up. But, we got the chance to see friends and family first.

After visiting my parents, we started making our way back to Maryland. I remember an increasing sense of anxiety about the virus and being exposed with bathroom breaks, hotels, and restaurant stops. But, I also look back fondly on those last days of traveling. And, we even got to stop and stay with a good friend along the way.


We pretty much arrived back to Maryland just in time. I remember going to the store, but then deciding to go out to dinner as we remarked it may be one of the last opportunities for a while. While I think a lot of people here envisioned these shutdowns being a couple weeks, we'd been to this rodeo before...or at least heard all about it, from our friends who'd been on "lockdown" in China. Things started shutting down and soon the Governor closed all but essential services. We settled in and started thinking about slightly longer-term decisions now that our journey had landed us here.

Tough Decisions

Throughout this time, we had considered trying to get flights back to China. Early on, we thought it was not wise due to what seemed like a risky situation in China. Then, we became worried due to the quarantine process and restrictions there. They were being quite strict and arriving passengers had to do a 14-day quarantine after a pretty lengthy arrival process. You could do it in your apartment, but you were first taken to be tested and await results, and, if negative, you could go to your apartment if conditions were right (no roomates, etc. though families could be together). You had to stay 100% in your apartment during the 14 days, with daily temperature checks. Depending on the date and district, you may be locked in or have an alarm on the door, etc. And, if you tested positive or there were any concerns, you had to go to a facility directly (eventually, they removed the option of quarantining at home and everyone went to a facility which was really a hotel turned into a quarantining facility).

While a little inconvenience is well worth it for safety, it was tough to make that choice when we had options. And, then I committed to the conference and we were in the midst of the trip. And by the time we arrived back, it was feeling like a bad idea to expose one's self to travel. At so many points, we struggled to know the right thing to do.

All our belongings, minus the one suitcase we each had, were in China. And, of course, we had left thinking we were going away for a week or two. But, as time passed, we saw this was going to be a while...

So, we struggled with continuing to pay rent. And, our lease was almost up anyway. We didn't even really know how we would renew that not being there and didn't really want to pay to keep the place while we were stuck elsewhere indefinitely. So, we made the hard decision to give up our home and get some items packed and shipped to us.

Fortunately, one of the best things about our time in Shanghai has been the many connections and friends we've made. Shanghai (and China more generally) seems to always have a service to meet every need or a way to get things done, if you know how and who. So, through my many WeChat groups, I linked up with a service that helps people pack and ship (or store) belongings, even if you can't be there. Unlike the big moving companies, they would help even if you had few belongings to send. We had no furniture and had always planned to leave just with extra suitcases, the same way we arrived seven years prior.

Our ayi ("auntie", the word used for caretakers such as nannies and housekeepers in China) had our key, so she met our friend and the packers at the apartment. In the middle of the night our time, we did a video call with them to pick out what to pack. We foisted a number of things on our friend and ayi (I say foisted, but I think they got some pretty nice stuff, though we wish they'd let us do more for their time and efforts). It was surreal seeing our home of over five years and all our belongings through the screen, knowing this was goodbye. They methodically went through our closets, drawers, etc. with us. We had prepared a list beforehand (to be honest, I'd started doing this when awake in the middle of the night with anxiety as early as our Spain holiday). It was over amazingly fast. And, we had the belongings within a couple weeks.

We gave the key to another friend, who went and got a few more items and helped us do a final look around the place. He then "kuaidi'd" the key to our landlord (got it delivered). And, like that, it was done. For now. We hope it won't be our final goodbye to Shanghai. I really think we need a real goodbye to the place and people that gave us so much.

What Now? One Day at a Time

We don't know what the future will hold. Of course, when do we ever? We have been lamenting over the use of the phrase "in these uncertain times" lately. It bothers both of us because everything is always uncertain and impermanent. But, I know we all like the illusion of control and this all feels especially unsettling. I'd still like to see commercials stop using that phrase, though.

After all this dwelling over different decision points, it is sort of a relief to really not be able to make any decisions for now. Our focus, as for so many, is just on staying healthy and doing our day-to-day tasks. We are enjoying a return to cooking and a less frenzied pace. After years with a tiny kitchen and eating out almost every night, this certainly is nice on the budget and the chef of the family loves having an oven and so many options. 

We're fortunate that we can get outside. In this suburban setting, it is easy to do without being around other people. The local golf course closed, so I now have a whole new space for walks.

What we have learned throughout this journey is that you can't put exact timelines on it or know what will happen. You have to truly take things one day at a time. I am grateful for SO much. We are fortunate, we have a lot. And, as a friend mentioned to me, perhaps we were especially well-prepared for this as we have learned to be adaptable over the years. We have a lot of freedom and flexibility. I am especially grateful for all the wonderful people in our lives. 

I am also so thankful that we embraced all the adventures we did. There were many times we hesitated...should we spend money on this trip, event or expensive dinner? I don't regret a single thing I choose to do, but I know, especially now, I would regret missed opportunities. This is one of my favorite quotes (commonly attributed to Mark Twain, though it appears this may be an internet myth). We will sail away again, but for now we are happy to have a safe harbor.