Corona Update #4 (Months!) from Beijing

It’s one week into May and I’m sitting here typing this in Beijing, on my quiet couch, marveling at how nearly half a year has sped by during a time of global freeze. Life as we knew it stopped more than four months ago, but “time waits for no man” (or virus). We always have time. Time is all we have. It moves forward.

Something about this comforts me.

I keep hearing people say that everything is “back to normal” in China—whispers of resentment about this from an economic perspective, as though China is the only country who can truly profit from this. Thus, I’ve decided that I must write this blog in order to counter such misunderstandings.

Things are definitely not back to normal in China. Period.

China has suffered greatly, just as all countries have, and full recovery economically, socially, psychologically, holistically—this may never come.

After four months of a changed reality, it’s very difficult to change it back. Beijing only had 9 official deaths due to this virus—amazing, considering the population is officially 21.7 million—but restrictions throughout this ordeal have been so intense that some new habits, I predict, are here to stay.

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Take new tracking measures for example. Despite the fact that most restaurants and bars have re-opened, there are new rules. Protective masks are mandatory for entry, you must sign-in, go through temperature testing, and scan the QR-code that connects you to an app (pic above) identifying your recent whereabouts and official health status. Phones are the new tracking devices. From here on in, this will never change. Pandemic justification.

Housing compounds are still patrolled by community workers and a police officer, which means that everyone must have an entry-exit permit or be formally “signed-in” by a resident, i.e. further tracking. Even public parks require you to “scan in” before you can enter through the park gates. It takes the joy out of taking a stroll, I say. What if a person doesn’t want to bring their phone with them all the time? Unplugging is becoming a non-option.

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My kids left Beijing in late March with their grandparents but I had to stay here for work. They travelled back to their dad’s home province to a city the size of Toronto (but considered small by Chinese standards) called Zibo.

Before leaving, my (ex)in-laws procured formal health certificates for everyone, which provided the necessary clearance from their local residence committee in Zibo to not only arrive, but also avoid doing a 14-day quarantine. This was awesome because the kids were finally able to play outdoors in the spring sunshine, help their grandparents harvest some spring delicacies (香椿芽 see pic above—young shoots of Chinese Toon trees), pick cherries from their cherry tree and even plant a garden.

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They were also elated to see their little cousin (technically their second cousin) and just play with another child besides each other.

Everyday, I spoke to them by (often unstable) video chat while I recovered from the relentlessness of two months of lockdown, which, as you know, included the evils of home schooling. Phew. I needed an elogated deep breath.

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But, just after they left, Beijing put in a mandate that anyone leaving the city would have to do a strict quarantine upon re-arrival, which made it impossible for me to go and visit them. Returning here to a hermetically-sealed and monitored quarantine would have been unbearable, not to mention the impact on my work.

So, I didn’t visit. I couldn’t. Besides, with the phones (linked to passports) as the new tracking systems, I couldn’t just “sneak away” and come back inconspicuously. It was a new kind of lockdown all of a sudden, in which I couldn’t go to the them and they couldn’t come back to me.

On March 28th, after all the cases in China proved to be imported from overseas returnees and mandatory quarantines for all travellers in hotels (at their expense) had been going on for weeks, the Chinese government suddenly forbade any foreigners from returning, even if they had an active or valid Chinese visa.

Many people got “stuck” outside of China. Some families have been separated now for weeks and the policy is still in place. Friends of mine were unable to return to their Beijing home from their holidays in Canada and asked me to help them pack up their house so their things could be shipped to them. So strange to help friends move without them being present, let alone not being able to hug them goodbye. I’ve since heard of this scenario from many people—so many ex-pats have had to move out of China remotely by abandoning their things or getting them shipped by third party moving companies. I can’t imagine the stress such a circumstance would cause.

Another result of such policies was the sudden presence of an anti-foreigner energy. In that April climate, my in-laws directly asked me not to come to Shandong, even though I was considering doing the quarantine. Despite previous rules otherwise, my foreign face would have forced me into a quarantine on that end as well, my persistent presence in China throughout all this notwithstanding. I get it. I represent otherness—now the virus is coming from outside—and this sparks fear in a country of people who have been traumatized for 4 months.

I took the subway for the first time since January on April the 9th.  It was only half full, which itself was bizarre. When I walked on and found a seat, the people nearest to me stood up and made sure to leave a wide buffer around me. I must say, it was an exceedingly comfortable commute across the city to a recording job I do bi-annually, with not a single soul elbowing me or breathing down my neck. But, how bizarre to be seen as “the leper.” No one was cruel or unkind to me; I just saw their fear and anxiety.  I’m sure this is a glimpse of how Asian people felt the world over when China was first seen as the virus villain.

A month went by without my kids. I don’t know where the time went when I look back at it. I wasn’t even social on a “distancing” level—I’ve been enjoying the quiet—and besides my freelance gigs (one of which was quite interesting and worth reading about here), I mostly just buckled down and got some work done. I did a new round of edits on the memoir (more info here), I finished the final tracking for my new album (more news about that here), I filmed a live online concert from my apartment in Beijing (links and info here), and I practiced a lot of guitar. I just kept my head down. Laid low.

But by then, I really missed the kids. We had never gone beyond a month without each other and daily video calls just aren’t enough. I sent them care packages and recorded them stories to listen to nightly, but it’s not the same as having them near me physically. Sometimes we parents truly want a rest from our kids—a vacation, and I’m sure many of you in the West need it now—but a forced separation is a whole other dimension.

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Two weeks ago, I had to go to the bank to pay a bill and when I got to the plaza where the branch is, I couldn’t access it without walking around the full city block to where there was one central access point to the whole “strip mall.” Everything else was barricaded. As a result, people were lined up (ironically, too close to one another, probably) to go through an allotted archway, sign-in, get temperature checked, etc. After crossing through this gateway, I walked back to the side of the plaza that houses the bank and found myself at the exact same kind of gateway.

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“I just registered myself at the main gate!” I said to the staff person who was the bank’s official ‘gatekeeper.’

“Each place has their own records,” she said.

“Seems silly not to share them,” I replied, and she just raised her eyebrows at me, the authority-questioning foreigner. I signed in diligently. I am obedient—as you must be—but I refuse passivity.

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When I was inside the bank, I got yelled at for taking this picture of the new seating requirements in the waiting area. The seats with signs on them read: “Please conscientiously maintain one meter of safe distance.” I just smiled at the security guard who barked at me. I put my phone away. These are the moments I rely on my foreign face as deflection because surely I just didn’t understand the Mandarin rules…  😉

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As of May 1st, the standing committee for the city of Beijing, who had met every day for over 90 days for a press conference, finally broadcast their meeting without wearing face masks. This was significant. It’s officially no longer a requirement to wear them, legally, but, as mentioned, many businesses still enforce the policy. A few days later, I went out for a run without my mask on and no one stared at me menacingly. I even saw some Chinese people without masks on for the first time in months. People are starting to have faces again! Hurray!

But, honestly, I’ll predict that face masks are here to stay, perhaps indefinitely. This pandemic will forever have shifted our views on the matter, both scientifically and aesthetically. It’s one of many responses we’ll have to our speedily changing world whose balance we as a human race haven’t done much to protect.

Speaking of which…

In late April, a movie was released about this topic of taking responsibility for the destruction of our environment and the resulting human demise while simultaneously shirking that same responsibility. The film includes some footage of me with my (then) band from a festival more than a decade ago. It’s a powerful film (more info here).

To date, this movie has been viewed by more than 6 million people.

Similarly, that interesting freelance job I did in February was posted online and, so far, has been heard by 7.6 million.

WHAT???!!!

All this has me ruminating on the nature of numbers and “exposure” during such unlikely times of isolation and loneliness.

STATS.

It’s all we seem to focus on these days:

* The number of cases.
* The number of deaths.
* The number of online views.
* The number of “likes.”

Isn’t it funny that “exposure” is what we’re trying to avoid right now, in terms of a virus? Not to mention how the term “going viral” will never quite have the same ring to it…?

In the end, it takes a film like this—or the overall pandemic itself—to make me really question whether what I do for a living is of any value whatsoever. Some days I think it has none. Other days, I think it’s invaluable.

Nevertheless, be it on screens or my quiet couch, I continue to make music whichever ways are possible to me. In my view, music just needs a space and a reason to be written. What those spaces or reasons are is irrelevant. Just keep writing, I say. Keep going. Keep the music alive. Surely it’s part of the healing.

The quarantine bans were finally lifted here as of May 1st, 2020, alongside of the mandatory face masks. My kids’ grandparents decided they still had work to do in their home city and have scheduled to bring them back for May 10th. This extra 10-day delay is one I decided to just take a deep breath about. Ten days isn’t too long. I will hold my babies again. They will be in my arms soon. I’m counting down.

No word yet on when schools for the little ones will re-open or if they even will this term. I’ve long ceased thinking about this. The kids will be fine, I say. The whole world is in the same situation, so no kid will be left behind by virtue of no kid being able to get ahead.

Overall, China is a stricter, more risk-averse culture than I grew up in (or near), so as I see US states opening for business while infection numbers are still on the rise, I just shake my head. Protective control measures have stayed in place here much longer to ward off a resurgence and with such densely populated areas, you can’t blame the Chinese authorities for this. On the contrary, a few early blunders aside, I think China has done an incredible job at managing this pandemic. The country deserves an applause.

By the time everything resumes a rhythm in the West that is “as-close-to-normal-as-possible,” things will likely do the same here, I imagine. But, until there’s a globally available vaccine, this virus is here to stay alongside of the new control measures—particularly the tracking—which are now, transparently, occupying a perpetual presence in our social infrastructure.

It was just a matter of time, right?

I shall end this blog with a link to a story that encapsulates this virus in a way that reminds me of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Perhaps it’s the cadence or the rhyme structure, but I quite enjoyed it. To extend the analogy, “The Grinch” is COVID-19, but “Cindy Lou of Whoville” is each of us, welcoming it, learning from it, and eventually we shall humbly claim it as part of our own family stories.

~Ember

 

Live Online Concert in Beijing - April 24th, 2020
Planet of The Humans: Jeff Gibbs & Michael Moore Film

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