Adventures of Life in Beijing

This is the first in a series of posts on my reflections of living in China during the Coronavirus outbreak.

The events of the past few weeks swirl around in my mind as I try to make sense of things. How did we get to this new-normal where temperature checks and mask-wearing are part of daily life?

We first heard about an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan in mid-January. No need to worry, I thought. Pneumonia’s not contagious right? Besides, Wuhan is over 1,000 kilometers away from Beijing. I quickly  forgot about the news reports and started packing for our upcoming ski vacation to Japan over the Lunar New Year holiday.

Fast forward two weeks. By the end of January all public events in Beijing had been cancelled and school was closed until further notice due to an epidemic of a new coronavirus.

This wasn’t simply a few octogenarians in Hubei with a case of the sniffles; this was a major epidemic brewing that would alter our daily reality in many ways.

We heard it all started with a snake. Or was it a bat? Does anything good ever come from snakes? (Remember what happened in the garden of eden?) Did people fall ill from snake bites or eating snake soup? Later the blame shifted to the pangolin, whose scales are prized in Chinese medicine, making it one of the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world.

 

 

“Coronavirus? Isn’t that what happens to you when you run out of Corona?” My husband jokes.

”No, that’s what I’ll need to survive in-home quarantine when school doesn’t start for two weeks,” I replied. On second thought, you’d better make it tequila.

 

 

Advice poured in on social media on how to stay healthy. Chat groups argued endlessly about the various types of masks and which ones were preferred. Given the shortage, some people resorted to drastic measures.

 

How does he breathe?

 

 

I haven’t seen it, but apparently even dogs are covering their snouts.

 

Really?

China’s rich history of traditional medicine meant many tips for beating the virus focused on strengthening our immune systems. Here is some of the well-meaning advice I received.

  • Cut at least four whole garlic cloves into small pieces, add boiling water and drink garlic water twice a day (this surely will keep the virus away, along with vampires and my husband).
  • Coat each nostril with Vaseline (which is difficult to find here and almost as expensive as maple syrup. If I’m going to stick something up my nose I’d choose the syrup ).
  • Whatever you do, don’t  let yourself get thirsty. Drink every 10 minutes, preferably warm water (do you think I could substitute a salt-rimmed margarita twice a day instead?)
  • If you must go out, place a slice of ginger under your tongue.     (under your mask of course).

 

And it’s not just social media watching over us. Shortly after the outbreak began, fliers appeared on our doors from the local government, reminding us to wash our hands and check for fevers. Banners hang in public places urging proper hygiene.

 

Banners around town remind us to take care

 

Local parks, which thankfully have saved my sanity and negated my need for tequila, offer a platform to encourage public caution as well. In addition to banners, loudspeakers blare instructions in Chinese, urging us to wear masks, wash our hands and avoid gatherings. I’ll be a very clean, (hopefully sober) hermit by the time this thing blows over.

 

Loudspeaker inside the bear reminds me to wear a mask, wash hands and monitor symptoms

 

As the epidemic brews, we make final preparations for our ski trip to Japan, where the only face mask I’ll have to contend with is ones to keep away frostbite.

We don our masks leaving Beijing, and I struggle to breathe through the thick fabric. I’m either going to suffocate or be consumed by a deadly virus. Either way I’m a goner. I take my mask off and breathe freely, garnering suspicious looks from fellow travelers, all of whom are sporting  some kind of face protection, from black Darth Vader-ish numbers to flimsy Hello Kitty masks. We pass through security, apply a liberal dose of hand sanitizer and board the plane to Sapporo where a cold Asahi awaits.

 

 

 

 

Comments (20):

  1. Ainslie Lewis

    February 10, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks again for a well written blog spiced with humor and authentic emotions. There are many BSF Leaders praying for you and your family. We are praying for your health and your safety as you travel and your husband as he stays back in China.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:20 am

      Thanks for your kind words – I appreciate the prayers.

      Reply
  2. Maggie Sigiani

    February 10, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    Keep praying for you all!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:20 am

      Thank you Maggie!

      Reply
  3. Jackie Lewis

    February 10, 2020 at 2:02 pm

    Continuing to pray for you and your family. Keep the information coming.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:19 am

      Thank you Jackie- more updates coming soon!

      Reply
  4. Alison

    February 10, 2020 at 3:15 pm

    Have the tequila!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:19 am

      Ha ha – I’m not even sure if they have that here. I know I can get the Coronas though😂

      Reply
  5. Wanda

    February 10, 2020 at 11:51 pm

    Great blog… love your humor and transparency! Praying for you and your family.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 1:18 am

      Thanks Wanda!

      Reply
  6. Holly McCsll

    February 11, 2020 at 3:24 am

    Although it’s a very scary subject, you had ne laughing out loud! We are praying for you guys!!

    Reply
  7. Holly McCall

    February 11, 2020 at 3:25 am

    Although it’s a very scary subject, you had me laughing out loud! We are praying for you guys!!

    Reply
  8. Erin

    February 11, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    This is great! Thankful for your sense of humor in a scary situation. Continued prayers…

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 11, 2020 at 11:07 pm

      Thank you Erin.

      Reply
  9. Laurie Pytosh

    February 12, 2020 at 3:18 am

    Wonderfully written with a bit of humor …an excellent read!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 12, 2020 at 3:20 am

      Thank you Laurie !

      Reply
  10. Kara Lewis

    February 13, 2020 at 5:36 am

    This is amazing, Kirsten!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      February 13, 2020 at 5:57 am

      Thanks for reading, it’s very surreal in China right now.

      Reply

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Quarantine Prep

“Yes. No. Maybe.” Those are the answers to whether we will be quarantined when we fly back to Beijing tomorrow.

The government policy has changed several times in the three weeks since we left, trying to keep pace with the fluid nature of COVID-19.

At first the Chinese government announced that all incoming foreigners would face a 14-day quarantine; mere days later they retracted that statement, perhaps thinking that quarantining someone from a country without the virus was too restrictive.

Last week, as the virus flared up around the globe, the quarantine was reinstated for travelers coming to Beijing from South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy and “other severely affected countries,” which leaves room for interpretation.

 

Spread of the virus means stricter quarantines in Beijing.

 

What qualifies as a “severely affected country?” An acquaintance came back from Thailand yesterday, where there are a total of 43 cases, and yet his compound required him to stay confined to his apartment.

I’ve known others who were initially told they didn’t have to quarantine only to find out a day later they did.

Living in such a shifting landscape is like living with a toddler again; what was true yesterday isn’t necessarily true today.

The bottom line seems to be it’s up to management office of individual apartment compounds to decide. That’s the first place we will stop when we arrive.

With that in mind, I’m preparing for the probability that we will have to spend the next two weeks in “voluntary” self-quarantine at home in Beijing. What I’m really hoping doesn’t happen is any kind of mandatory quarantine at a government facility, which could happen if there is a suspected case of the virus on the airplane.

 

Photo by Bian Jingjing, taken on a flight recently arriving in Beijing. Numerous passengers were quarantined directly.

 

I’ve prepared for hurricanes, earthquakes and snow storms, but never quarantine. I’m heading into uncharted territory, kind of like setting off into the jungle without a map. What dangers await? Will I etch tally marks into the walls to count the days as my sanity starts to crack? Or will I find beauty in slowing down, enjoying times of quiet reflection?

 

How will my sanity hold up?

Quarantine. It even sounds exotic. Coming from the mid-17th century Italian for “quaranta,” it conjures images of the bubonic plague, scarlet fever and small pox. I think of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and Mary Mallon (aka Typhoid Mary) who spent nearly three decades forcibly quarantined on New York’s  Brother Island for spreading typhoid Fever.

Being ordered to stay in my apartment with my Nespresso machine and Kindle full of books sounds like a luxury staycation in comparison (that reminds me, I need more Nespresso pods).

But still, I’d like to be prepared, just to make things easier.  So here’s my quarantine packing list:

BRAIN FOOD 

A good book is a powerful escape from reality, so I grabbed a few at Barnes & Noble.

Armchair travel is the next best thing.

 

I also have crossword and jigsaw puzzles, a set of photography classes on disks and plenty of Chinese language study materials.

 

This should keep me busy for awhile.

 

SOUL CARE 

I always travel with my Bible and devotional; it’s critical to stay grounded in something unchangeable during such uncertainty. I also keep my writing journal nearby, because getting my thoughts on paper helps me manage stress.

Additionally, I purchased a few coloring books and a fancy set of colored pencils. I’m hoping I can channel the first-day-of school excitement with my new supplies.

 

I’ve purchased some new skin care products so I can pretend I’m at the spa.

 

They smell like a tropical vacation

 

And I think junk food counts as soul care doesn’t it?

 

I’m trying to add some Girl Scout cookies, but no luck so far.

I decided to pick up a some seed packets because watching plants spring to life has to be more exciting than watching my hair grow.

 

I’m kind of excited!

 

TECHNOLOGY

This is a biggie. Of course I’ll make sure my phone and battery pack are charged, and I have my laptop in my backpack. I’ll  get some new books on my iPad, download some uplifting music from Spotify and try to find some binge-worthy episodes on Netflix (suggestions?).

Acess to the Internet has been problematic in Beijing lately, so I’m arming myself with a few new VPNs also.

I’m not sure what will happen when we touch down in China, but it feels good to be prepared.

What would you bring if you were packing for quarantine? Drop me a note, I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fear in the Air

This post is a continuation in a series of my impressions of living in China during the Coronavirus epidemic. You can read my most recent post here:

 Stay or Go

 

We board the flight from Tokyo to Beijing, bellies sated from last night’s Waygu beef dinner and pockets stuffed with Kit Kats (orange and raspberry are my favorites).

I’ve got butterflies in my stomach, kind of like the first day of school. I’m excited to be going home to Beijing after two weeks of vacation in Japan, but nervous about how the spread of the Coronavirus has impacted daily life. Depending on what things look like, the boys and I will decide to stay in Beijing or leave for awhile.

Everyone in Asia is on high alert now; a fellow traveler coughs and we all take two steps back. As we fill out health questionnaires on the airplane, I can’t help but glance at the guy across the aisle in 35C. Like a guilty school girl, I sneak a look at his paper to see his answers: Have you traveled to Wuhan recently? Do you have a fever? Are you having trouble breathing?

We pass uneventfully through immigrations and baggage claim. The airport is empty, and roads are bare on the drive home. It’s an eerie feeling when life just seems to stop in such a vibrant city. It reminds me of the freeways in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, when curfews were enacted to keep people off the streets.

Near my apartment, most restaurants and shops are closed and the streets are deserted. It feels like a ghost town. It’s so quiet.  I never thought I’d miss the sounds of the city: traffic, people talking too loudly and believe it or not, even the spitting.

 

It feels like a ghost town in Beijing these days. Even the bone setter / Chinese medicine office is closed.

 

Where did everyone go? Familiar faces are missing, like my favorite security guard outside my building who always greets me with a smile and a song. And where is the ruddy-faced chef at the corner restaurant who makes my fresh, pork-filled baozi every morning? His place is closed, with an official sign on the door I can’t read.

 

Oh how I miss my baozi for breakfast. I hope the restaurant owners are OK.

 

With around 10 million people leaving Beijing in last two weeks for the Spring Festival, I worry that some of my local friends might have traveled to virus-infected provinces and fallen ill, or ended up in quarantine somewhere. Are they OK? Are they coming back?

Many of my ex-pat friends have left as well, either out of safety concerns or by the order of their home country’s government.

With hiking trips, hot pot lunches and outings with friends, the pieces of my life in Beijing were just starting to fit together nicely, like a puzzle taking shape to reveal something beautiful.

 

Hot pot lunch with friends earlier this year

 

In the past two weeks as the virus spread, the puzzle has started to crumble with closures, quarantines and restrictions.

As I walk around the city, I feel an uneasy sadness I can’t articulate, like an achy tooth or favorite necklace gone missing. The suffering and loss for China is profound, and we all feel it. We do the best we can, settling into school online and working from home.

Chat groups share the latest statistics, where to find groceries and hygiene supplies and how to find the closest infection sites to our home. There’s even an app to check our last flight to see if we traveled with a suspected carrier. Sometimes too much information is not a good thing.

I make chocolate chip cookies to keep everyone’s spirits up, and share some with the guy at the desk downstairs, who seems to be working 24/7 right now.

Adding to my feeling of depression, there’s fear in the air in Beijing. It feels as heavy as the pollution right now, which sways between “unhealthy” and “hazardous.”

 

View from my apartment. Recent pollution adds to the oppressive feeling in Beijing.

 

People stay inside as much as possible, and when they do go out, they move quickly, minimizing social interaction. Masks cover their faces, but I can see the stress in their furrowed brows and eyes that dart quickly, as if the disease could jump from one human to another by making eye contact. Some wear goggles or heavy glasses, just in case.

If I felt like an outsider as a foreigner before, the anonymity of wearing a mask and the weariness of being sequestered to our apartment (we aren’t allowed visitors at the moment) has added to the feeling of isolation.

The atmosphere is emotionally charged, with rumors fueling the fire as they circulated on social media and news reports. One day we heard that the government would be spraying disinfectant from above, using drones and we should all stay inside after 4 p.m. That didn’t happen, but drones have been deployed to give public service messages in some provinces.

When masks became mandatory, it was announced that lack of compliance would be met with reprimands or possible arrests. Instructions came down from the top that anyone hiding the illness from authorities would be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame” and neighbors and colleaugues were encouraged (sometimes with monetary rewards) to report anyone who might being trying to cover up an illness.

Videos in Western media soon went viral of the authority’s efforts to squelch the virus: people being dragged from their apartments into quarantine, one man being chased by police as he tried to avoid being sent to the hospital, and an infected passenger being wheeled from the airport in an isolation tent. Others showed residents being quarantined in their home, effectively  being held hostage with police tape over their front door. (Of course these can only be viewed with a working VPN).

The images are powerful enough to make us feel uneasy. On a recent trip to meet friends for lunch (a rare treat) I encountered 6 temperature checks along the way. I am perfectly healthy, but each stop heightened my anxiety, like the feeling you get seeing a police car in your rear view mirror even though you know you are not speeding. What if a thermometer malfunctions? Will I be hauled away on the spot? It was worth it though, to linger over lunch with friends. I savored the freedom from my mask and the company more than the spicy shredded potatoes and pork with chilies that I was eating. I wanted to linger.

I asked several Chinese friends why everyone is so afraid and I heard a common refrain. “The government takes this very seriously.” While I was keeping up with the news to the best of my ability, my lack of Chinese language skill acted as a filter from the incessant reminders that we were living in a global health crisis.

My Chinese friends, on the other hand, were being bombarded all day long with We Chat notifications, public announcements, banners, and e-mails instructing them to stay inside, pay close attention to hygiene, not get too hot or too cold, monitor their health, avoid social gatherings and not to panic. I’m sure I would be much more jittery if I consumed as much information about the current situation as they did. Here are a few examples of slogans from banners appearing around China:

If you hang out in public today, grass will grow on your grave next year.

Everone you encounter on the streets now is a wild ghost seeking to take your life.

A bite of wild animal today, see you in hell tomorrow.

A surgical mask, or breathing tube, your choice.

Some of the signs simply remind us to wear a mask, wash hands, avoid crowds and encourage ventilation

 

Who wouldn’t be scared!

Equally disturbing is having a front row seat to watch the spread of fear as it slithers around the globe, morphing into something more evil: xenophobia. From Italy to Singapore, Chinese are being banned from restaurants and hotels. In the U.S., ugly remarks are flung at Asians on the metro, a high schooler is bullied by virus-fearing classmates and a woman is attacked in New York for wearing a mask. Asian restaurants are hurting because people are afraid that they are unclean. Unless they they are serving pangolin as the daily special, I think you’re pretty safe.

It was the thought of weeks or possibly months of living this fearful, monastic lifestyle that swung the balance in favor of leaving China for a bit, more so than the fear of actually contracting the virus. It’s not a breakup, it’s more of a cooling off period.

The boys and I are visiting family and friends in Seattle now, where the coffee is strong, the air is fresh and the pussy willows are blooming. The signs of spring with new life soothe my soul.

 

Pussy willows blooming

I miss my husband, but I feel lighter here. Freedom of movement, clean air and good food will recharge us. The boys continue school online, while I write and keep up with my Chinese studies because I know we will be going home soon.

Beijing is home, because that’s what I call the place where all four of us are gathered safely under one roof, no matter what kind of craziness is happening outside our front door.