Corona Update #3 from Beijing

“Far from such din, when blessed silence returns, I can listen to the butterflies that flutter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible. Loud breathing is enough to drown them out. This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing.”
― Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I have just finished watching a movie in French called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” about a man who endures a massive stroke and is left with something called “Locked In Syndrome,” a physical condition in which the body is completely paralyzed but the mind is fully intact. The main character could hear and see and process information but could not speak or move. The first third of the movie told from his perspective is achingly intense. I held my breath for much of it. And as the story unfolds and you learn more about his life, you begin to see what he characterizes as the “outer links of the chain of love that surrounds and protects” through the personalities of his young children and elderly father.

At one point in the film, his father phones him and has a painful one-sided conversation in which he declares that his aged state and resulting inability to walk up and down the stairs of his building also puts him in a state of being locked-in, unable to enter into the world, sharing a similar fate to that of his son.

Perhaps it’s only in these moments of disconnection that we realize just how and to whom we are truly connected?

I looked up from the screen and out the window, and it was at this juncture of the film that I wondered what the hell I was doing watching a movie about being locked-in during the Chinese coronavirus lockdown. The streets outside my window are still so quiet, it’s like a ghost town. An occasional car, a random pedestrian disguised by a face mask and keeping a quick pace.

The kids weren’t with me. The house was silent. I have also resumed a practice of meditation thanks to this lockdown. (And daily guitar practice and lots more Chinese study, for example). My children spend half the time at their grandparent’s house especially now that my home recording work has started to come in and generate some income—a relief. School closures have been extended until March 23rd, though. The constancy of kids and homeschooling is a regular exhaustion, so sometimes when I’m alone again at home, all I can do is just sit and stare at the wall for a while. I listen to my thoughts. I listen to the wind. I hear pitches in everything, weaving their harmonies around the space.

“To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention.”
― Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The other day, I rode my bike to a friend’s place. I broke with this rule of self-quarantine, I know, and I did it with conscious awareness. When I crossed the large intersection near my home, I didn’t need to wait for the green light. There were simply no cars. No need to obey the crosswalk symbols. Just pedal, I told myself. Go.

The visit with Lily—a single woman who has been self-quarantined for two and a half weeks as well and hadn’t seen anyone else besides her parents—was very nice. She came to fetch me at her compound’s gate and then we disappeared into her apartment and drank wine with our legs curled up on her couch, the tight, high-pitched ping of long-stemmed glasses clinking at two in the afternoon, toasting to a face-to-face conversation—finally.


Later, I stood at her window looking out and noticed two Chinese kids on bicycles chasing each other in circles, the compound’s courtyard otherwise empty. Surely their parents had been driven crazy and relented. Surely this is driving everyone insane.

211581653351_.pic_hdChinese social media is full of a sense of humour about this. Videos flood my feeds every day. Pop songs with new made-up lyrics about the virus or people practicing swimming on their beds or dogs that go to the courtyard entrances to pick up deliveries on behalf of their quarantined masters. One video showed a collective “burpee” exercise being done indoors by dozens of trapped Chinese people trying to maintain some kind of fitness routine. Another shows innovative games being played by families going stir crazy like bowling with family objects or dressing up with toilet paper as dress-making material. Because really, what can we do but laugh? It’s a better alternative to the twisting panic that tugs at your ankles and threatens to pull you down into dark pits of worry.


My biggest problem these days has been my ex-husband. He’s been like a panic vine clawing at my feet with every step. Some days, he sends 25-30 articles filled with details and data and question marks. Up until just a few days ago, I was receiving regular panicked phone calls urging me to leave China, sometimes right when I’m cooking dinner or when I’m the arbiter of a kid fight—the worst moments possible for absorbing an unrelated emotional spin-out. He never stops to ask what he is interrupting. Each time, for a new reason, he launches into an appeal to re-think my decision to stay put and ride this out. (It was, in fact, a collective family decision more than a week ago. Mentioning that is useless, however.)

The problem with his panic is that it’s slightly infectious. Even the most level-headed and rational person can become worn down by someone freaking out. I have questioned and re-questioned my choices. When I hear things like, “Because of you, we all have to stay in a dangerous situation!” I am nearly tugged into those worry pits, doubting myself and my competence as a parent, and struggling with the resulting rise of anxiety that burns in my chest cavity. When I’m teetering on the edge of the pits, those peaceful moments spent listening to the quiet house seem far, far away.

“Loud breathing is enough to drown them out.”
― Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

He is convinced that this will get much, much worse before it gets better. I think he’s probably right about that…

You see, he and I agree that the official numbers simply aren’t accurate. Westerners read this and instantly balk at a lack of transparency from the Chinese government. Having lived here so long, I’ve long realized it’s just a given; we don’t get all the information from the Chinese government. One clear difference between these two political systems is that we Westerners delude ourselves into believing that we *do* get all the information from our governments, whereas Chinese people are resigned to the fact that they don’t. Period.

Frankly, I prefer it this way. Meaning, I prefer knowing that I am being misled and that this is the status quo rather than believing I am being told the total truth and only later realizing that, in fact, even in the West we are not provided with full transparency on a grand scale. I heard a American (CBS) news report that kept repeating this line: “The Chinese government tends to want to control the public narrative about large issues.” Please people! Every government wants to control the public narrative about their country! C’mon…

Besides, does anybody really have the whole truth about this? The details are as rampant as the virus itself. They can’t be contained.

Last Thursday, there was a spike in cases because apparently the government shifted how it is cataloguing diagnoses. Over 14,000 new cases appeared “overnight” and the world gasped in fear. One Republican US Senator called the Chinese government incompetent on this matter. (Funny, I can’t find the video of him saying this online now… I wonder who is deciding to “edit” that narrative? Hhmm…)

Maybe this can give you some perspective: Beijing is a city of 25 million people that sits on a huge area of land: 16,410.5 km2 (6,336.1 sq mi). So, we don’t live jostling against each other like vertical sardines, in other words. There are probably 14,000 people living in just my neighbourhood alone…


Last week, a couple of images appeared online that showed a death toll in the morning that then fell in the afternoon. Apparently, some people came back to life! The Chinese social media platforms went crazy with that one. “It’s a miracle” circled the net for a day or so. No surprise here.


Honestly, I don’t think the West has any clue what China manages to effectively deal with every day on a resources and infrastructure management level for such an enormous population. If our governments had to handle this, could we do it better? I doubt it. Could we build a hospital almost overnight? Could we effectively quarantine 11 million people in the epicenter and now dozens of other cities as well?

What I’m saying is that these numbers freak the world out, but they’re small numbers for China. If I were in charge, maybe I would have been slow to release accurate numbers too. The panic these high numbers cause triples the havoc that the virus has already created.

Aside from typical reprimands and face-saving measures that typify the beginning of any catastrophe like this for any country (and China is guilty of doing this in Dec/Jan), what is happening now is a full-scale international effort to get this under control. Maybe they’ll succeed. Maybe not. Either way, I’m impressed with China once again. “A” for effort.

Evidence of a need for control goes right down to the apartment compound level with residential cadres “policing” single entrances (all alternative entrances to compounds have been blocked), required registration for residents and temperature checks at the gate, 14-day self-quarantines for anyone returning back from holidays, traffic-blocked side roads that lead to the ungated “hutong” or alley housing areas so that all entering and exiting are screened, some compounds issuing Entry/Exit badges, etc.


Imported goods in the foreign supermarket are slowly disappearing from shelves, but the staples of rice and grains in the Chinese supermarket are in high supply. Fruits and vegetables are well stocked.

We are not going to starve.

I finally put my foot down about my ex’s constant volley between accusations for not leaving and appeals to my “common sense.” I first acknowledged his love and concern for the kids. Then I told him that there were a few ways he could express this better, i.e. he could provide financial support required to cover the flight costs and overseas living expenses (he can’t); practical support of childcare on a day-to-day basis (he wouldn’t/doesn’t); emotional/psychological support required for people cooped up with kids in the way of encouragement and positive thinking rather than scare tactics (he doesn’t know how); educational support for the homeschooling (he doesn’t speak the languages required). These are the things we need, I explained, not what you’re doing. I also asked him to allow me, an educated and aware adult (more educated than his entire family put together!), to consume my own news and to form my own judgments about the situation. I ended with this appeal to be a united front and to “hang in there.” 希望大家能团结坚持!

My message, crafted carefully and texted to the family group chat (a typical tactic in Chinese family dynamics that provides two additional but silent witnesses), was initially received with his defensiveness, to which I did not respond. Then the fearmongering loosened its grip on my ankles ever so slightly. Fewer messages are now being sent to me personally. He’s been quieter. Relief.

“Far from such din, when the blessed silence returns…”
― Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Later, my mother-in-law told me in person that she and my father-in-law fully agree with my position on the matter.

More relief.

So, we may be locked in for the moment, but at least we can move and talk and write and create. At least this will be temporary, in the end.

I think we all have the equivalent of butterflies fluttering around inside our heads if we just listen hard and long enough. Sometimes it takes the world stopping around us to give us that chance. These kinds of huge calamities (forest fires, viruses, locust swarms, floods, earthquakes) are telling us that we are all connected, that our collective fate is something we are all chained to whether we like it or not, and the only thing to do is to find meaning in each moment, to extract the love, no matter how hard or trying.

So this is me, trying.

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Corona Update #2 from Beijing

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