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‘Everyone is missing everyone’: First-person stories from Beijing

By March 15, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments

Liadán Hynes spoke to four people living in Beijing, Singaporean, Irish and Chinese, who are now almost two months into self-isolation.

In response to what we are all talking about this weekend, rogue wanted to give some sense of what we are heading into, because nothing is more terrifying than a sense of heading off into the absolute unknown. Studies even show that human beings find uncertainty more intolerable than actual negative outcomes, as such we’re grateful to our interviewees for sharing their insights in these unprecedented times.


Dawei (68-year-old male) 

“After Zhong Nanshan (the epidemiologist and pulmonologist who discovered the SARS coronavirus in 2003), said the transmission of Covid 19 is from human to human, people started to take it very seriously. Everybody started to wear a mask. If you didn’t wear a mask, the staff in supermarkets wouldn’t allow you to come in. When the government started to close Wuhan, they started to measure people’s temperatures everywhere, everyone was really getting a bit panicked. The people in Wuhan, when they heard the news, and they started to run away from Wuhan, and that caused the whole country to panic. That was January 23rd. 

We heard five million people were escaping. So after hearing that news, the government started to check passengers. If you came from Wuhan you had to be isolated for two weeks.

No matter if you were taking a ship or an aeroplane, train or bus, the government was monitoring all forms of transport. When you got on the train you had to have your temperature measured. If you get off the train, you had to have it measured again. Anyone who had come out of Wuhan had to report to the government. Anyone who was travelling, regardless of from where, had to report themselves to the local society, and be isolated for two weeks. That was the most panicked time. After the rules came out, we didn’t feel panicked anymore.

People were very disciplined after hearing the news of Wuhan. They were very cooperative. They wanted to stay at home themselves, to work together with medical doctors to help. They can’t do what doctors do, they do their best to do what they can. We are shopping online for food. It is left at the front door, and the volunteer security guard (young people who have organised to be at the front doors’ of apartments to record people going in and out), call you, and you go downstairs.

After picking up the food outside of the door, we started to spray ourselves with medical alcohol sprays, including the bottoms of our shoes, and the food. After doing that I could go back to the apartment. There I would take off my clothes, and use an ultraviolet light on my clothes, wash my hands and face. We are happy to do that, no complaints. We are really positive about it, we don’t find staying at home is boring or a lack of freedom, we are happy to do that, and to cooperate with what the government have done. 

The government extended the Chinese New Year holidays, and they gave people free heating for their homes, this has been extended again until nearly the end of March. We are working from home now. The government started to support the market, so you can buy everything online, food and things, it’s just the same as before the virus. 

Lingling (40-year-old female) 

“We can buy everything we want, just like before. The delivery service is very good. If you book things today, you will get them tomorrow. In the beginning, we couldn’t buy masks, but now there are plenty of masks. Now they deliver the food to a special place set up by the local society. We all volunteer for a couple of days, we take turns, we collect the deliveries from the truck and bring it to the spot where people collect it from. 

At home, we’re watching the news a lot. We exercise indoors. Students are taking internet lessons for school. The PE class is being sent out online to tell people what kind of exercise to do. We bought a table tennis set to play indoors.

We didn’t have a lot of time together before the virus, so we are using this time to enjoy being together, being with family. I feel very good. Sometimes I am bored because spring is coming, and it’s a special time. But I have my own duty. The government took responsibility for the people, and the people took responsibility to follow what the government was doing; both sides took it seriously. Now I can see that the situation is turning well. Even though I feel bored at times, I still take my responsibilities seriously.

In China, I feel we are seeing the end of the virus. In the most dangerous place, Wuhan, today there are no new cases. In China there are so many people; there are only in 11 new cases today. 

Andrew (35-year-old male from Singapore living in Beijing)

“When the news broke I was on my way back to Singapore for the New Year celebrations. In China, everything went into lockdown immediately. It didn’t seem so abrupt at the time because everyone was going off for the Chinese New Year holidays, traditionally everything goes into shutdown. Beijing is empty anyway. So at the time, it felt like ‘oh yeah, it’s not such a big deal, because everything is closed off for the holidays’. I think it’s only after I returned to Beijing, after the holiday period, that things started to settle in, and it felt like ‘ok this is getting serious’, and increasingly you’d see more and more checks. It’s just a mainstay now. You go onto any housing estate, convenient store, malls (if they’re open), you have to take your temperature. You have to record your name and contact number. It’s become like a norm. I think the anxiety played out firstly around the depletion of stocks for hand sanitizers and masks. From my knowledge, there’s been no shortage of anything bar masks.  

The only things that are open right now are supermarkets and convenient stores. We have been making almost daily trips. From my observance, everything is in full supply. The only creepy thing is that everything is closed. Other than that it’s life as normal, just with the added inconvenience of having your temperature recorded. Where I work is only two blocks away. 

It’s somewhat comforting to know that everyone is in the same boat, the same predicament. Everyone misses everyone. You get friends checking in on you. Everyone’s just waiting for this to blow over. And hopefully, work resumes. I’m concerned, that’s for sure, but I think we’re all part of this bigger problem. But I would say in terms of our daily lifestyle, we’ve not actually been very affected. Sure we would love to go out for a date night, you know, grab some burgers. But we have to stay indoors. It’s a necessary inconvenience is what I’ll say. What has been very concerning for people in the arts industries and freelance, in general, is that work has halted. That is highly worrying; it’s on the horizon for me. I’ve been working on projects I committed to before the beginning of this, but they will be finished at the end of the month. What goes on after that? We are going to be severely financially impacted this year. 

I went to visit my in-laws. They have these loudspeakers in the streets, they play these pre-recorded messages twice a day every day, “stay indoors for your own good” “increase social distancing” “be socially responsible”. You see these banners as well. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram YouTube all these are blocked off. There are Chinese equivalents. We all know it’s an open secret that the government policies all these platforms. They can shut down articles and comments almost immediately.

Before the news about Italy shutting down broke because the numbers were dwindling off in China, in general, we all felt that it was a Chinese problem, and if China could get a grip on it, things would be looking up. I would say things looked very sanguine, optimistic even. It probably would die off a natural death like Sars. 

Everyone was like ‘I’ll see you soon, after this outbreak’. Now with the outbreak worldwide, it’s become like ‘oh no, this could drag out longer than expected’. But I feel that actually, this could be a good thing. Because previously it seemed like only the Asian countries were concerned about it. And the Asian groups were putting together groups to try and find a cure and understand the virus. No, it may be a good thing on the flip side if more countries take note of it, and pour more resources into understanding this virus. Because SARS died a natural death, it feels like there was no impetus to find a vaccine or cure. We’re in this together, and we can build on it by learning from it. If climate change can’t make people come together, then it may be this. If we have to find a silver lining in that sense, it may be this.”

 Daniel Callaghan and family. Photo used with permission.

Daniel Callaghan and family. Photo used with permission.

Daniel Callaghan (28-year-old Irish male) 

“A week before there was any news my wife went back to her hometown with our five-month-old son. I was in Beijing by myself for a week of blissful sleep and work – I found out from my wife about the virus the day before I was to go to her hometown for New Year. That was Jan 22nd – I had a show in the Marriott hotel that night and the musicians seemed to be the only people wearing masks. Nobody was taking it seriously at that point. 

The train station was kind of scary, but nobody was checking temperatures yet. When I got to my wife’s hometown the pollution was so bad that the highway closed down, my driver had to take the back roads for four hours to get to her house. We went through so many small villages on the way, nobody was wearing masks, it felt like the end of the world. After a seven-plus hour journey, I saw my son Isaac. I was so happy to see him, but I couldn’t hold him, I had to take a shower and change my clothes first. My wife and I talked that night and decided that we had had enough and wanted to leave China. We were planning on coming home at Christmas but now we just wanted to go as soon as possible. I think a lot of it has to do with our son, if he wasn’t a factor we would probably just stay here, although I’m getting older and sentimental and I suppose I just miss my Mammy too!

 We left about four days later, pretty early to go back after the New Year’s celebrations but we hoped to beat the crowds in the station. We were afraid for our son because he couldn’t keep a mask on, in those four days there was so much reporting about it on the news, when we arrived back in Beijing we ran straight to the taxi stand, there were about two hundred people in the queue and no cabs. We got to skip the queue because we had a baby with no protection. A cab came soon after and the cab driver told us on the way home how his daughter was in hospital with the virus, poor guy. The streets were completely empty. We drove straight home, didn’t stop once, no traffic, no people outside, which is crazy for Beijing. After that nobody used the phrase quarantine but everyone in Beijing just decided to do it anyway.  

I was just thinking the day we got back to Beijing we had to take Isaac to get an injection. That was scary; about thirty of us parents crammed into a small room waiting. But we went for another injection last week and they have a system set up so that there are only a couple of people in the waiting room. They book a time for you so we were in and out in ten minutes. 

After a few days home, my housing area got a makeshift wall surrounding it so there is only one way in and out and you get temp checked coming in. We order vegetables and anything else we need. It sucks being on quarantine but we had Domino’s Pizza for dinner the other day so it’s not as bad as you think. We each have an ID card to get in and out.

It was very difficult to get the application for my son’s passport going. First of all the embassy was closed, then we couldn’t find anybody to witness his application. The embassy can’t do it for security reasons with minors, but I got it sent anyways. We’ve been waiting about two months for it, after that, he needs a Chinese visa to leave the country and my wife is Chinese so she needs a visa to go to Ireland, but the Irish visa office keeps extending its closure every week. It’s very, very frustrating but there’s nothing to be done about that, the situation is a lot worse than when we decided to leave so we’re not even sure if it’s worth leaving now. 

Things are definitely slowing down and life is slowly getting back to normal. I think people were anxious the first week but the government can lock everything down so fast here, there are so many people to deploy and set up checkpoints everywhere to check temperatures. The cops even call a few times to make sure I’m ok. Anyway after the first week people were already calming down.

I have my first gig next week which is good because I’ve been burning a big hole in my savings the past 2 months; bars have very strict rules for how many people and how far apart tables have to be so this particular club is paying me about thirty euro less than usual due to only being able to have half-capacity, but I’m looking forward to working again. I had to submit some details over the phone though to prove I’d been in Beijing for over 2 weeks so that I can get into the club next week.

Being inside such a small apartment for so long is very tedious. Last week was a struggle, I felt like I had no energy and I got a terrible migraine – my wife has a good sense of humour and our kid is great but his teeth are coming in and it’s difficult not being able to just go outside for 5 minutes to calm down. We have a roof garden and we can go there to breathe without a mask on. I’ve been staring at the trains going by like a lunatic and counting how many cars they have for two months now. I go up there to read a lot. My house is full of board games so my wife and I play something every day, I’m super into that hobby, so it’s not so bad being in quarantine. 

It’s easy to get what you need – you can even order out a subway if you don’t want to cook. I’ve lost a lot of weight eating so healthily though. I’m cooking much more than I usually would and have been doing yoga again to stave off boredom – yoga with Adriene – I’d recommend it for quarantine, the 0-30 day yoga journey! My wife’s weekly phone statistics showed she was using social media 7 hours on average every day, that was scary. We had to have a talk about phone usage and staying away from sensationalist and nationalistic news; it’s not her fault, just being stuck inside all day you get into bad habits like that. We got out to the park for a family day and to unwind, that was very nice, but so stressful because you get stopped and scanned a million times to get there and back home again. 

We’re still waiting on my son’s passport. I hope I can get home, I really miss my family. 

You need to keep your hands clean – I don’t understand the toilet paper thing back home, that hasn’t happened here. Wash your hands a lot, and change clothes if you’ve been in an area with lots of people 

I know from some of the Irish group chats we have on the WeChat app here that a lot of the people who have gone home have said people reacted in insane ways when they said they had recently been in China. A girl told us how she went into the dole office and the lady interviewing her screamed and left the room and nobody came in for ten minutes to speak to her, little stories like that. I hope that gets better before I come home.

Some names have been changed.


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