Coronavirus Stories: Life in China vs. USA During the COVID-19 Pandemic
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Welcome back to Coronavirus Stories. A collection of short stories written by YOU, our readers from around the globe, sharing how their lives have been affected by COVID-19.
Today’s story is written by an American expat currently living in China with her young family. She shares her experience of first fleeing to the US, and then later returning to China with her family as COVID-19 spread from China around the world.
Pre-Pandemic Life in China
Two years ago our family moved to China with a six-month old and began the long process of culture and job acclimation and language learning. While it has been an uphill battle at times, we have settled into a calm routine of life here over these past couple years. Our city is on the smaller side by Chinese standards and boasts beautiful parks, ocean views and mountains, so we spend time hiking and playing outside as much as possible.
With convenient access to Macau and Hong Kong, we regularly travel there for medical appointments and church services. A typical day includes playground time, a picnic lunch, catching up with a local or expatriate friend and convenient grocery or food delivery for dinner. But come late January of 2020, things took quite a different turn.
How it All Started, A New Virus Emerges in Hubei Province
News of a virus originating in Hubei began to circulate just as Chinese New Year began, which typically marks the biggest mass exodus in the world as people travel to visit family. Instead, Chinese cities began a process of self-isolation that would eventually become a complete quarantine for almost the entire country, even our city which lies far from the virus epicenter.
The first change I noticed was with mask wearing, which became obligatory at the end of January. This measure was quickly followed by the closure of non-essential businesses and temperature checks at the essential ones, such as the grocery store. Fewer and fewer people were enjoying the beautiful weather and very soon after, going outside became almost completely limited.
Returning to the USA
At the recommendation of US travel warnings combined with employer and family concerns, we made the difficult decision to return to the US in the first days of February. The period was filled with uncertainty regarding China’s reporting of cases and a lack of knowledge surrounding the disease, such as the death toll and what population groups might be most at risk.
Fear about our children’s safety and the difficulty of staying inside for countless weeks with two kids ages two and under motivated some of our decisions, plus concerns about being unable to return to the US if medically necessary. Sadly, of course, we have now seen how the virus would take a turn for the worse worldwide, particularly in our home nation.
Upon arrival in the US, no quarantine measures were yet in place, but we self-quarantined for two weeks to ensure we didn’t contribute to any spread unknowingly. Surprisingly, we were not followed up with by any governing agency, and, upon entry, the immigration officials didn’t flinch or ask follow-up questions when we notified them that we lived in China.
For 6 weeks we enjoyed treasured family time and outside adventures, but it soon became obvious that the virus had spread worldwide much more rapidly than anyone anticipated. We realized our need to return to China quickly as border after border closed. Four flight cancellations and rescheduling later we finally had a flight that would take us the “long way” through Europe and Southeast Asia in mid-March.
A Mad Dash Back to China Before Borders Closed
At check-in, the Atlanta airport was shockingly deserted but also had a laissez-faire feeling to it, with not a mask in sight. But the closer and closer we came to China, the sense of urgency and seriousness escalated. On the last leg, from Bangkok to Guangzhou, masks were mandatory and many passengers had donned gloves, plastic ponchos, and make-shift face shields. The entire three-hour flight consisted of preparations for processing upon arrival and our passports were bestowed with the expected, yet dreaded, orange stickers of quarantine.
After 48 hours we had arrived, it is safe to say, to a picture out of a post-apocalyptic novel. It was complete with dim lighting, hundreds of faceless marshmallows in hazmat gear, countless checkpoints, and repeated questioning. Members of the overheated and profusely sweating staff graciously sped up the process for the sake of our babies, but even so, three hours passed before we cleared the health inspection and immigration process and boarded the bus to our home city.
Quarantined In A Hotel in China
Another three hours later, at 5 am, we arrived at what would be our home for the next two weeks: a quarantine hotel. The situation was better than what many families have experienced, but the first few days we felt thwarted by the inconsistent treatment of those undergoing quarantine.
Most others, both foreign and national, returned to their homes to complete quarantine if they tested negative for the virus, but no matter how much effort we made, a faceless local “committee” would not approve our request and would not give a reason for the denial. Making due, our new indoor normal with babies included lots of singing and dancing, some tablet time and bathtub “swimming” and copious amounts of take-out after we gave up on the hotel restaurant on day three. Chicken feet be damned.
We entertained ourselves by documenting the ridiculousness of our daily lives, from the bizarre room decorations to the leaf raking in full PPE, to the copious amounts of disinfectant sprayed on every surface both inside and outside of the hotel. Finally, after testing negative a second time and fulfilling the 14-day requirement, we returned to our own home.
Life in China Post COVID-19
The China we came back to was a bit different from the one that we left. Suddenly, we are more isolated than ever as nearly all of our expatriate friends are stranded outside of the country, many of whom will likely not return. For the first two weeks the local population seemed to be resistant to our presence as some representation of those outsiders who were “bringing back” the disease. But, after the borders had been closed for a while, the fear seems to have lessened.
The sun is shining, the weather beautiful, schools have reopened and people are wearing masks less and less. We are thankful for the sense of safety in our daily lives that so many in the world currently lack.
The beginning of this year was filled with worry and self-doubt as we made decisions with limited information again and again. Nonetheless, we are grateful for the time spent with family in the US, particularly in light of the extensive worldwide travel limitations in place for the foreseeable future.
When we decided to expatriate, regular visits with family were a major priority due to the young age of our children. You try telling your mom you are moving with her only grandchild to the other side of the world— I guarantee it won’t go well. We are sad for our parents as they will miss many of the memories that they expected to make with our kids during visits in both directions, but there isn’t a more unique time in history to be in this situation.
In spite of the barrage of distraction from living in the digital age, those same tablets and phones allow us, even for a few minutes, to feel as though we never left the States. China is our home for now, and we are thankful to be here. But, we, as are the others experiencing separation and displacement during this inscrutable time, look forward to being with the people we love most again soon.
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