Christmas break doesn’t exist in China. We might celebrate the holiday with the children we teach, share the joys of secret gifts, Christmas carols, candy canes, and flying reindeer – but we don’t get the week off, or even the day. For those of us in this foreign country, the holiday we look forward to the most is Chinese New Year. The date follows the lunar calendar so it’s not the same each year but usually occurs between late January or February. What does remain standard is the entire country goes on holiday for a full seven days! Foreign employees often get 2 to 4 weeks of holiday during this time.
My son and I have been living here since he was 12 years old, he’s now almost 16. We were counting the days in January to the start of our vacation, the 17th. As he helps out as my assistant and also has his own part time jobs tutoring English, we both were more than ready for a break. January 17 found us at the Beijing airport flying to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Our only worry is how to navigate a new foreign country and would we be able to communicate with our Airbnb host to find their location.
In my experience, people rarely text in China. Instead we use a social media platform called WeChat. Through WeChat, we connect individually or with like-minded people in any number of group chats. There are groups for foodies, dating, politics, etc. Most foreigners are, at least, in a city specific group or some form of expat support group. Business is all conducted through WeChat as well. Your boss could contact you on the platform at any time of the day or night. Your company will often have many groups that include any number of organizational branches. For example, I’m in a group that includes all the employees of my school’s umbrella organization, a group with all the employees of my school, a group with all the teachers at my school, groups with the teachers and parents of each class in my school, and a group of everyone at my school who wants to learn English. All this to try to draw a picture of how those of us in China are connected to our communities, at all times. Information, real or fake, spreads at an alarming rate, perhaps even more so than on Facebook. While the government does have final oversight over the app - they can flag items, photos, files, etc to not appear when shared – it doesn’t prevent rumors, or truths, from getting out.
While we were in Cambodia, we were still monitoring WeChat and communicating with friends and in our groups. Information about the new virus was causing worry. New protocols were coming into place daily. My son and I started wondering if we should return to the U.S. or stick it out at our home in China. After discussing at length with friends and family we ultimately decided the financial and long-term risks were worse if we abandoned our jobs and life in China. We considered that we were both young and healthy and understood appropriate hygiene. We purchased a box of paper masks in Cambodia, after hearing of the shortage in China, and prepared to board the plane to Beijing, on schedule, on January 27.
At the time, new information was coming fast. I think all of you back home recently experienced something like that. It started as a blip on the radar, nothing to be very concerned about. Then suddenly it was everywhere. Like in the movies, a call came through from my mom as we were finding our seats on the plane, “I’ve been seeing more news reports, I think you should come home.” Unlike in the movies, we didn’t change plans at the last second. We returned to our home in Tianjin as scheduled. We hired a driver to take us the 2 hours from Beijing to Tianjin as there were rumors that the trains had stopped between the cities and, even if untrue, driving would decrease our risk of exposure. On the highway at the entrance to the city limits, workers in hazmat suits stopped all traffic to take everyone’s temperature. At the entrance to our neighborhood, workers with gloves and masks took our temperature. At the entrance to our apartment building, more workers took our temperature.
In our home, we kept a designated space for anything from outside, as we have heard that the virus can stay alive outside of the human body for long periods of time, why risk it? Coats, shoes, masks, everything stayed in one place and wasn’t touched without washing our hands again. Grocery items, purses, bottles of water, everything stayed in that space. Refrigerated items were washed before being put away or stored on a shelf by themselves and washed before use. We also kept alcohol wipes or spray to wipe down our phones.
My biggest worry since our return to China, on January 27, was running out of food or water. That never happened. The government kept grocery stores open and stocked and enforced strict measures against price gauging. If anything, food has seemed to be cheaper during this time. We’ve been warm, had running water, plenty of food. The government also enacted a policy that everyone should receive full wages for the month of February, despite not being able to work, because the work stoppage was government mandated, not through any fault of the worker. If companies can’t afford to pay their workers, government loans are apparently widely available.
For March, it’s a little different. Wages have been reduced to a “living wage” for most employees. This equals approximately 2000 RMB per month or 250$. However, this is a wage for every citizen whether or no they are currently allowed to work doing their normal tasks. If employees are still engaging in status quo work or taking care of tasks from home, then their wages do not change. It might be worth noting that, in China, rent or mortgages are an average of about 2000 RMB. Any government owned properties are not charging rent during this time.
After we were home for about a week, we woke up one morning and metal sheet barricades had been placed around the entire neighborhood to limit movement to two specific areas. This meant that the workers checking temperatures in every building could schedule themselves to only 2 or 3 at a time at each neighborhood entrance. After a couple more weeks we received notice that we had to apply for residential permit cards to enter our community. These were quick printouts of our address and scanned copies of our passports that were then laminated. Everyone living in the community had to show these to enter.
During this time an app on WeChat was also developed to show “up to date” data on the number of infections and deaths, in the country and in each area. Further, everyone had to register for a health code on WeChat that was scanned every time we went anywhere or did anything. Getting in a taxi? Scan the code. Going in the grocery store? Scan the code. The app would then show a green, red, or yellow check mark. Green meant you hadn’t had any exposure to anyone with the virus. Red meant police and guys with hazmat suits were on their way to pick you up. Yellow meant you were supposed to be self-isolating in your home due to possible exposure. Luckily, we’ve only shown green. It’s my belief that these increased restrictions on personal tracking and movement will not go away when this is over. I believe that this will continue to be part of life in China from now on.
The city we live in is called Tianjin. It is 30 minutes from Beijing by fast train. The population of Tianjin is about 15 million people. From official reports we only had around 140 confirmed cases of the virus. I’m inclined to believe that the numbers for my city could be true, for one very obvious, if unscientific reason – no one I know knows anyone who was even infected, let alone died.
China shut down intercity travel, isolated neighborhoods, forced the entire population to wear masks. There were people checking temperatures and monitoring the health app at every residence, bus stop, and business in the entire country. Food supplies were constant, toilet paper was constant, every screen showed public service announcements about hand-washing. There have been huge infringements on personal freedoms and possibly a lot of misinformation about what exactly happened here, but we’re safe, everyone we know is safe, and everyone they know is safe.
The flowers are blooming here now, parks are open again. Restaurants allow a limited number of patrons to dine inside at a time. Traffic is back to normal, unfortunately. Schools have yet to open in my area. We’ve been “on vacation” since January 17. Everyone is still expected to wear masks in public and temperatures are still being checked everywhere, but the worry seems to be alleviated. My Chinese friends are openly apologetic about the actions of their peers in causing this global crisis. They hope that the world won’t hate them.
I have one plea to you at home. Be kind to each other. Be kind to people from away who might be stuck there. As things seem to be getting back to normal, the local population here is looking at people returning from abroad and potentially bringing a new, more severe, wave of the virus. Xenophobia is growing. My foreign face causes strangers to step back in fear. I’m denied entry to the homes of my friends purely on the basis of being foreign, no thought about my proofs of health or lack of recent travel. Taxi drivers quiz me, restaurants refuse to serve me inside. Understand the reality of this virus. If you wear a mask, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands, you are unlikely to contract it. Outsiders aren’t increasing your risk; in fact, they are probably more afraid than you because they have the added panic and stress of not being in the comfort of their own community. It will get better. It will get worse before it gets better, but it will get better. Conduct yourselves in a way that will make Mainers proud after this is all over.
Carolyn Remley has been teaching English in Tianjin for about five years. She is the granddaughter of Estelle Appel of Boothbay.