Dispatches from a Pandemic
“ As the shards of bone flew , it felt like my old life being hacked apart …”
I AM NO STRANGER to experiencing lifealtering events in China . I was here during the historic 2008 southern China ice storm , the 2008 Sichuan earthquake , and the Summer Olympics in Beijing , just to name a few . But even after living here for years , I was unprepared for a pandemic to take hold of China — and of my life .
Last December , I visited the U . S . for vacation . I had read an article about a new virus detected in southern China , a fact I tucked away at the time , but still warned my teachers about . At that point , no one knew much about it , but COVID-19 soon made itself known , and life as anyone knew it in China changed radically .
When I arrived back in my city of Changchun in February , my temperature was taken four times at customs . Outside , a car picked me up because all public transportation was shut down . The usually traffic-heavy streets were silent and devoid of any signs of life . The closer I got to my apartment , the more the graveness sunk in . All stores and restaurants were closed , except grocers . When I arrived at my apartment , an oddly silent city greeted my return . It was so eerie , almost like everyone had packed up , left , and forgot to tell me .
After dropping off my bags , I went to the local police station to check in , the normal procedure for any foreigner returning to China . There , they took my temperature again . I asked for permission to go to the market so that I would have some food in the house . I would have to self-quarantine for 14 days , but I ’ d be allowed to go out food shopping every fourth day . I was fine with that , so I only bought enough to last a few days .
But four days into my self-quarantine , I heard a knock on my door . Someone from my community informed me that I could not leave my apartment for any reason . I was now under “ house arrest ” and if I left my apartment , I would go to jail . I couldn ’ t throw my trash out , and if I needed food , I was told someone would get it for me .
To monitor my apartment , they put a camera outside my door . I wasn ’ t sure who was watching and I thought about making a sign that said : “ Hey , I ’ m still alive , just in case anyone wants to know .” The only person who checked on me was my employer , because the government required that we send in a health report each morning stating our name , location , and health status .
One week after I began my quarantine , I awoke at 2 am ., fed up with living with my trash , being locked up and feeling abandoned . I felt like doing something , however small , so I went out to my balcony , threw open the window , and chucked my trash out . It hit the ground with a loud bang . I looked around , but no one either noticed or cared . I brushed my hands off , closed the window , and went back to bed . A few hours later , the bag was gone . I reasoned hadn ’ t violated my “ house arrest ,” as I hadn ' t left , after all .
At the end of my 14-day quarantine , I emerged from my cocoon . I called the person in charge to remind them that the door camera was to be gone by the end of the day , then went shopping to restock . I only live about six blocks from the grocery store , but when you are schlepping 65 lbs . of food home , it can be a struggle .
The next day , the camera was still outside my door . I grabbed a chair , shut the camera off and proceeded to take it apart . I called the community person and said if they didn ’ t remove it in the next two hours , it would be returned in pieces . It only took them 20 minutes for them to collect it . I ’ ve lived in China for over 12 years , but there are times when I ’ m still very Western . I cherish my privacy , a foreign concept here .
Because most of our town is still closed , I often cook for myself , but it ’ s a challenge . I have no gas in my apartment , so I use a hot plate , rice cooker , crockpot , microwave , and small oven . I make a lot of stews and soups . I ’ ve taken to making “ bone ” soup , a new fad I ’ ve adopted . I bought a large beef soup bone , and while the butcher was kind and broke it in half for me , it was still too big for the crockpot . The smaller half just fit , but for the larger half I needed a meat cleaver to hack at the bone .
Breaking a bone with a meat cleaver is like chopping down a Christmas tree with pruning shears . Still I hacked away , bone chips flying all over the kitchen . My anger at everything since the beginning of my quarantine began pouring out of me and into the cleaver I wielded . As the shards of bone flew , it felt like my old life being hacked apart , never to come back together again . I felt oddly empty when I finally accomplished the feat . I looked at the two pieces of my newly broken beef bone , and all I saw was my broken former lifestyle . In that moment , I knew I could either let this pandemic define me , or I could forge a new “ normal ” for myself and move forward .
You don ’ t have to hack apart a beef bone , although it was therapeutic . But don ’ t think this will be over soon , and don ’ t think things will go back to what they were . That world is gone . I ' ve realized now is the time to figure out what you will do after , who you will be , and where you want your life to go .
Lori Rai ’ 78 is an American who has lived in China since 2007 . She is a foreign teacher manager for a privately-owned company in Northeast China that teaches English to K-12 students .
60 TRITON | FALL 2020