Beijing, China – As COVID-19 accelerates outside of China, life in Beijing has resumed a cautious rhythm. In recent weeks, I have taken solace in a new ritual made necessary by increased restrictions: at the start and end of each day, walking through the century-old traditional gate that leads to our hutong-alley compound.
In “normal” times I take a more direct path home, bypassing the gate entirely. These days I am routed first to a sign-in table where a local health employee records my temperature and passport details before I continue my journey home through the sprawling courtyard beyond this inner gate.
Over the course of a day, my temperature is recorded five or six times, sometimes more: at the entrance to grocery stores, offices, restaurants and shops.
Everyone wears masks, which are readily available and required by law. Above all, a mask signals to the people around you that you are in this fight too, and that you understand the gravity of the crisis.
Some people remain at home, but many are gradually settling back into old routines, seeing friends after months of self-quarantine. Restaurants are open for business – officially allowing only one person per table.
Speaking with Chinese friends, my impression is that the restrictions are not seen as a threat to their freedom. At the height of the outbreak, people stayed inside to protect themselves and their families, and because they wanted to play their part – however small – in breaking the chain of transmission.
When the outbreak first accelerated in January, I was in Beijing.
Stay or leave?
I spent my time indoors, obsessively monitoring news updates. The city was quiet, already half-empty for Chinese New Year and made more so by the outbreak. I was concerned for my partner, who had left for Wuhan to report on the virus before the borders closed behind him. I worried about my asthma and the prospect of ending up in a Chinese hospital far from home.
I dithered over whether to stay and in late January I made a decision: I flew home to the United States and spent the next two weeks self-quarantining alone in Virginia. Around the same time, my partner was evacuated from Wuhan by the Spanish government.
As the threat became less immediate, my anxiety eased. Speaking to other foreigners who had also left, we felt a sense of great relief, and guilt, too: awareness of the enormous privilege that came with having the resources to leave, for having somewhere else to call home when so many of our Chinese friends and colleagues had nowhere to go; and finally, a mild shame at having fled China the moment our adventure abroad felt less than fun.
I spent a restful five weeks in the US. I watched the numbers in China rise, and then plateau, as life seemed to go on as normal around me. For those of us who were following closely, the virus was always going to arrive in the Western world. But from within the comfort of the American bubble, the crisis did feel less than real, a disaster that seemed to exist only on our phones.
In early March, my work called me back to Beijing. My family worried it was too soon; friends messaged to ask if I was doing the right thing.
Sense of relief
Ironically, I felt safer the moment I landed. The heavy restrictions and declining infection rates combined to provide a sense that Beijing had regained control, just as the crisis was beginning to accelerate in the US. No one knows whether the reported numbers in China are accurate, but the sense of relief here is genuine.
As the epicentre of the virus has shifted away from China, other tensions have emerged. China and the US are fighting through spokespeople, the press and on Twitter, of all places – quibbling over the origin of COVID-19, a conflict that seems to crescendo every time Trump invokes the “Chinese virus”.
Recently a restaurant in Beijing suggested I leave, blaming a faulty thermometer at the door even as guests before and after me entered without trouble. I suspected it was because I was a foreigner. I thought I recognised the fearful, ignorant impulse that has driven anti-Asian sentiment in the US, now beginning to echo in China as new coronavirus cases arrive almost exclusively by plane from overseas. Other foreigners have reported similar experiences.
In more than five years of living in China, I have never felt unwelcome. I have faith that the warmth and kindness I have experienced are more true than this moment of fear we are living in now.
I expect that life here in Beijing will not return to its former shape until the virus has run its course outside China. For now, I am taking refuge in my quiet hutong-alley, passing most days at home. I learned recently that the gate to the compound is a “Chuihuamen”, a door through which a hundred years ago, female family members were not allowed to pass until marriage. Today it is my way home – a little longer, but far lovelier.