It’s a beautiful, early spring afternoon in Shenzhen. The sun has succeeded in fighting its way through the hazy white blanket of clouds. There’s a gentle sort of heat, a light breeze barely shuffles the palm leaves surrounding an empty swimming pool. An unseen bird chirps somewhere in the distance, answered by the shrill calls of scooters and assorted construction vehicles. People are walking, cycling, scooting, running by. And I’m watching it all unfold from the safety of my 13th floor balcony, wishing I could too be headed off somewhere with such urgency and conviction as the people below seem to possess. But I am under quarantine, day five of fourteen, and I have nowhere to be. Rather, there’s nowhere that I’m allowed to go for the next nine days.
Nearly two months ago, I sat here in the same spot watching a much different scene below. In early February, the mood was silence and stillness. Nobody hurrying off anywhere, no cars honking their horns (I never thought I’d miss them), and only the odd delivery man on his telltale yellow scooter appeared now and then to break the visual monotony. The grey, slightly chilly February weather only added to the general feeling of gloom and looming anxiety. Shops, restaurants, and bars were swiftly beginning to close their doors. Neighbourhoods were locking their gates to non-residents. Masks were in short supply, but going anywhere required wearing one, submitting to temperature checks, and sanitizing one’s hands. Nearly all our friends had left for greener pastures, many choosing to wait out the chaos on some tropical island in Southeast Asia, many simply flying home. In any case, nobody was visiting anybody anyway. But we, having rescued a street cat a few months back, couldn’t just up and leave, and so we were faced with a mental dilemma: “Do we stay or go?” or perhaps it was more like “Can we leave, or are we stuck here?”.
This was the first instance where we got really lucky. Our connections at the local animal shelter helped arrange the mind-boggling task of getting all the paperwork needed to bring our cat to Canada, and we are forever indebted to them for this. I’ll say it again – we were really, really lucky. We had somewhere to escape to, somewhere we thought we could wait out the storm. However, this is also the first instance where I can now see how naïve I was.
Canada was our safe place, somewhere with no masks, no temperature checks by hazmat-suited security guards, no worries, or so it seemed. I felt bitter reading posts on Facebook from people in Canada and other western countries, fretting about this strange new virus from China. There were so few cases in Canada, I thought, people are just acting out of blind fear or attention seeking. They have no idea what we’ve gone through, not knowing when we could return to our schools in China, not knowing if we would be paid, not knowing when we would get our lives back. But now, in some strange sort of irony, the tables have turned. Turns out, I was wrong. This thing has now spread into a worldwide pandemic, and most ironic of all, it seems as though the safest place to be is back in China.
Now, here I am back in my apartment in Shenzhen, and I am the one that the outside world needs to be protected from. I’ve come from abroad, and carry with me the potential to bring the virus back into my community. We got really lucky a second time, and were somehow allowed to self-quarantine at home, rather than a converted hotel “facility” – but other friends were not as fortunate. We have personal QR codes telling anyone who scans it whether we are allowed to be out of quarantine, and we’ve been added to a WeChat group where we can ask our apartment management to bring up our deliveries of food and other goods. I have a real sense that things are under control here, even if that means being forbidden from leaving our home.
So what can we ascertain from all of this? Well, firstly, I can now see a major upside to China’s authoritarian society – if the government orders people to stay home, they actually have to listen. And they have. I’m certainly not saying other countries need to emulate China in all realms of society, but I think this crisis is one that requires a certain amount of authority and control. People might not like it, and certainly there will be those in the “the government can’t tell me what to do” camp, but we really need to take this thing seriously. China did, and now it seems like the virus is on the downswing here. The light at the end of this tunnel is steadily growing clearer.
This leads me to my second belief: if people listen, stay home, isolate themselves, and take all the necessary precautions, then this thing can be controlled in other countries too. With major events being cancelled and businesses locking their doors, it may feel like the world is coming to an end. But we should take these things as a positive sign that this is being taken seriously and measures are being taken to keep everyone safe.
My last point doesn’t really have much to do with the other two, but I think it’s just as important nonetheless. We need each other more than ever during this time, and we need to talk to each other about how we’re feeling. We need to talk lots. I don’t know how I could have gotten through these last couple months of confusion and uncertainty without friends and family to confide in, question my sanity to, and rant with. I’ve stress cried more than a few times, sent a few hundred frantic voice notes, and gratefully received check-in messages when this was still just a ‘China thing’ and we were in the thick of it. To those friends and family members: I’ve appreciated these things more than you know.
Now, I’m opening the gates to anyone reading this who needs to talk this thing out. I’m here to listen. Whatever you’re feeling, I’ve probably felt it too. Feelings can seem irrational even when we’re not facing a global crisis, but the least we can do is give ourselves permission to experience whatever emotions this arises in us. We’re in this together, and together, we will make it to the other side — maybe a little battered and bruised, but ultimately, stronger. Let’s laugh, cry, complain, share memes, whatever it takes to feel normal again if only for a little while. Sometimes, at a time like this, that’s enough.