Happy to be posting our first guest ‘blog’ post!Written by Lily Chang – Original post here:
“14 Days of Sacrifice”— by Lily Chang
An engaging and detailed piece written about her experiences of travelling back to China from America at this testing time of restrictions and uncertainty during the Coronavirus / Covid19 pandemic.
Via www.medium.com 21-10-2020 14:52 – 2 hours ago·15 min read
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, I followed a trail of Asians and their suitcases to international departures. In normal times, this would be a completely unremarkable event, but the masks on their faces and the tension in their brows betrayed an abnormal situation. It is October, 2020. In the age of COVID-19, international travel is an ordeal not to be undertaken lightly. I watched these people, families with toddlers, seniors, students my age, wrangling their luggage in the direction of gate S16, and wondered what their stories were.
In the end, I knew only my own. My mother in the US had warned me before I made the decision to travel to China — even though I was a citizen, it would be no easy task. There would be forms to fill out and tests to be done and a fourteen day quarantine before my family could so much as see my face. That’s okay, I said. It is what it is.
‘You will get a real feeling for China’s anti-COVID measures’, my father in China said, sounding both ominous and impressed.
The first step in the process began immediately after I purchased the ticket. I had to get a negative PCR COVID test, and the report had to come out within seventy-two hours of the departure. I called my university’s health services, and they told me to get lost because I didn’t have symptoms or suspected exposure. In the end, I went with CVS. I made an appointment online at a drive-in testing site, poked both my nostrils with a cotton swab, and was told to wait two to three days for the result.
I waited with irrational anxiety — it was highly unlikely for my test to be positive, but what if? Would I lose the massive amount of money I had paid for the plane ticket? Two to three days of nail biting later, I got my result. It was negative. But there was a problem. The PDF report only cited the date the test was performed, not the date the report was printed. That wasn’t good enough for the government’s requirements. Thus, at 1 AM in the morning, less than three days before my flight, I found myself furiously googling a solution, and found that I could make an account with the actual lab that did the testing to get a more detailed report. It worked. I let out a sigh of relief.
Then I had to apply to get a personal QR code that verified I had tested negative, a “health code”, or jian kang ma. As instructed, I went into my WeChat, and looked up a mini program called, translated, “infection prevention health code, international version”. Straight from my smartphone, I filled out a form with my personal information, flight information, and uploaded a picture of the test result. A yellow QR code appeared in the middle of the screen, and I was instructed to wait patiently. A few hours later, my application was approved, and the QR code turned green. I was all set to go to the airport, where I would face the next step in this gauntlet.
In the hours leading up to takeoff, harried-looking airport workers herded us into lines across from the duty free store in the deserted international departures terminal. They held a piece of paper with a QR code on it, which we scanned using WeChat’s QR code scanner. It took us to a customs form, which we filled out and submitted to receive another QR code. Upon verification that we had received our second personal QR code, we were shuffled along to a guy with an IR thermometer, who took our temperatures. Upon confirmation that I had my green negative-COVID-test QR code, my new customs QR code, and my temperature taken, I got a small sticker on the back of my passport with the date on it, and was released to wait for the plane in some semblance of peace. Looking around, I saw more people than I had seen in one place since 2019, all of them Chinese, several of them in PPE, one person also wearing a large pair of googles. I wondered if I was not taking COVID seriously enough.
After I boarded the plane, I quickly realized that despite how full the waiting area appeared, the plane was at less than half capacity. I had a full row of three seats to myself, which I gladly took advantage of to lay down and get some semblance of sleep. During the stop, a flight attendant thanked us in Chinese for choosing the airline, and commented that we had invested a lot of time and money into being here. I appreciated the shoutout to the fact that my ticket to Shanghai was five times as expensive as my return ticket. Such was the times.
As the plane approached Shanghai, the flight crew served breakfast, and the flight attendant emphasized that we should eat, because we had a long ordeal ahead of us after getting off the plane. I raised my eyebrows, and chomped down on my egg and cheese croissant with renewed gusto.
I had been to Pudong International Airport many times, and it was completely unrecognizable. New signs were everywhere, and most areas had been blocked off, leaving only narrow paths to herd us toward the obstacle course we were about to conquer. But the most alarming change was the airport workers, all of them dressed head to toe in biohazard gear, white full body suits, disposable gloves, covers over their shoes, face shield, medical masks. Light reflecting off the plastic of their face shields, they reminded me irresistibly of cartoonish astronauts in spacesuits, not unlike those in a recently popular online game. From behind their masks and face shields, they told us to get out the customs QR code we had obtained at the airport in Seattle.
At the front of the line, an astronaut checked our customs QR code, and gave us each a form to sign — a consent form for the PCR COVID test we would soon be subjected to. In the area ahead, more astronauts were set up behind desks, each with a tablet. More astronauts herded each family unit to sit in front of a desk and wait their turn. When it was my turn, the astronaut checked my passport, then my customs QR code, asked me a few simple questions — what did I do in the US? I was a student. How long had it been since I last came back? Two years — and had me sign the form. I was then told to continue along the path, form and passport in hand.
A lengthy walk later, I arrived at a long desk with multiple astronauts sitting behind it. On the desk in front of them was a large box filled with what looked like sample tubes. I showed my QR code again to an astronaut behind the desk. He took my consent form, and put a barcode sticker on it. I was handed a plastic baggie with a sample tube inside, and sent downstairs to another line for testing.
A temporary building for testing had been set up on the tarmac outside. Inside were numerous stations, each manned by an astronaut in even more extensive PPE. In front of me in line was a family of three — a young couple and a tiny baby who couldn’t have been more than a few months old. The father was holding a plastic baggie with three tubes inside — even the newborn baby had to be tested. I entered the building, and was pointed to a station.
A nice astronaut took my consent form and test tube, and asked me a bunch of questions about my nose. Had I had any surgery, had my nose been injured, do I have a deviated septum. An ENT doctor in the US had told me I had a deviated septum, but it wasn’t serious enough to need surgery, so there was a bit of back and forth over that before I was directed to face toward a light and tilt my head upwards. Both my nostrils were painfully violated, and I was sent along on my merry way, tears in my eyes, the screams of toddlers angry at being poked and prodded ringing in my ears.
I followed the path to the baggage claim, passing several astronauts, some standing, some seated at their stations, several on their phones, none of them looking all too happy to be freshly disinfected and shoved into a stuffy suit at 4 AM in the morning. The entire baggage claim area was empty except for a few other of my fellow passengers who were waiting around the carousel. This was perhaps the most normal part of the experience — there was a delay in our baggage arriving because someone messed something up, everyone waited around the carousel with their carts, the bags arrived, we got our bags and piled them onto the carts, and headed through customs. An astronaut sat behind the X-ray machine, hands in his pockets, watching the screen.
After heading through customs, we came to a fork in the road, marked by two big signs. Astronauts asked us where we were headed — those who were heading to other provinces were sent one way, and those whose final destinations were Shanghai — me — were sent the other way. I followed the path, directed by various astronauts, and ended up in another line. There was a big sign with yet another QR code, which led to yet another form. I didn’t have a Chinese phone number to authenticate the airport wifi, so an astronaut connected my phone to his phone’s hotspot. This form generated yet another QR code, the third personal QR code in this process. We were told to take a screenshot of it for further reference. After obtaining the code, we were set free into a long hallway, which I believe was the sky bridge between two terminals. As I walked, I heard an older couple complaining behind me — they were confused. There were too many QR codes, it was all too complicated. I sympathized. As a younger, tech-savvy person, my head was also spinning in circles.
The sky bridge had been repurposed with temporary signs everywhere explaining quarantine procedures and directing travelers. It was separated into areas for each district of Shanghai, marked by big, blue signs on pillars. Each area had a desk manned by two to three astronauts, and a small table with free snacks and drinks. My district’s didn’t have the chocolate pies I wanted, but I grabbed a carton of milk to replenish some protein. The astronauts took my passport and had me sign a form consenting to the quarantine process. I checked the box to do seven days in the hotel and seven days at my local address, a Shanghai policy called “7+7”. Contrary to what I read in some places on the internet, I was not given a choice of which hotel to stay in — I would be taken to the designated one for my district, and charged 400 RMB/day for the room and 100 RMB/day for food, 500 RMB/day (about 75 dollars) total.
I handed the forms to the astronauts and asked where the restroom was. It wasn’t until I was halfway there did I realize they hadn’t given me my passport back — as I read about online, they would be holding it hostage until I arrived at the hotel. I passed biohazard bins for disposal of the astronauts’ space suits and several hand sanitizer stations. In the restroom, there were signs saying to use without worry, everything had been disinfected.
After a wait of about an hour, an astronaut called for the people going to my district, and led us down the hallway. At the end of the hallway was another desk with yet more astronauts, who scanned my newest QR code and my passport. We took the elevator downstairs and outside to where the normal airport buses would be waiting in normal times, which seemed like a million years ago. The astronaut led us to a bus and loaded our luggage into the luggage compartment. A sign on the windshield said “city charter bus”. Another sign said “all for one and one for all to get through these hard times”. I got on the bus, which was driven by another astronaut and smelled very strongly of disinfectant, and tried to sit as far away from other people as possible.
When we arrived at the hotel, I saw some of the first people who were not in space suits — security officers, outside. They watched us warily from afar. We fetched our luggage and dragged it inside, where our passports were returned to us. The lobby of the hotel was completely unrecognizable as hotel. Many areas had been blocked off, and an astronauts stood behind a long table in the front, on which were placed several plastic buckets, one in front of each seat. I took a seat and was promptly handed my room card and a massive stack of paperwork to fill out and consent forms to sign.
I read the paperwork and listened to the astronaut explain. I should have known that quarantine was going to be no vacation. We would be required to take our temperature twice a day, and someone would call us to record the reading. We had to disinfect the toilet after using it. The buckets I saw upon my entrance contained thermometers, alcohol wipes to disinfect said thermometers, and disinfectant tablets, which we would dissolve in water, measured by markings on the bucket with Sharpie — six tablets in one liter water, twelve tablets in two liters. We were not allowed to have any cooked food delivered to us from external sources — only sealed packaging, like chips and instant noodles. Meals would be delivered to our door, contactless. Medical staff would be in every day to disinfect and take out the garbage — we were to wear masks while they were in the room, of course. We would be tested again on the third and eleventh day of quarantine — more fun with nasal swabs. I asked the astronaut how my father could pay the hotel costs for me, as I had no RMB payment method. She asked if he could transfer the money to me with WeChat pay — no, I had to have a Chinese bank account to receive money, we had figured that out earlier. She told me not to worry, and that the hotel would definitely find a way to get the money from us.
On the way to the elevator, I passed an arrangement of several dozen gallon containers of disinfectant. We got into the elevators, one family unit at a time, and pressed the buttons covered with plastic wrap. My room was on the ninth floor. The hallway smelled of disinfectant, as did every space I had found myself in thus far. Outside every door, there was a plastic stool where food would be placed. I unlocked the door to my room and dragged my suitcases in with considerable effort. Inside, a tarp had been placed on the floor, and twelve bottles of water were on the writing desk. A hot water kettle was plugged in on top of a chest of drawers. Two in one shampoo/conditioner and body wash were available by the bathtub. There were towels, but we had been told they wouldn’t be changed for the duration of our stay.
To my surprise, we had options for the food — we could choose between Chinese food and “western” food every day. “Western” food included curry pork, Korean BBQ, and teriyaki chicken, so I guess “western” really meant “not Chinese”. Breakfast was pastries and a hard boiled egg with yogurt or milk, lunch came with a piece of fruit, and dinner came with soup and a bottle of water. The food was perhaps a bit better than school cafeteria quality — it wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t gross, and the portions were more than big enough. My major complaint was the overabundance of cauliflower. Didn’t they know how much I hated cauliflower?
As promised, every day at around 10 AM and 2 PM, the phone rang, and I reported my temperature. At 8:30 AM, 12 PM, and 6 PM, food was placed on the plastic stool in front of my door, and I would receive a phone call shortly afterward to remind me that my meal was ready. In the mid-afternoon, an astronaut would knock on my door, I would don my mask and let him in, and he would spray my room with disinfectant and take out the trash.
On the third day, my nostrils were painfully poked once more. The result must have come back negative, because I was not whisked away to the hospital. On the sixth day, they called me for payment — ask my dad, I said; I have no RMB payment method. Oh, have him add our WeChat, said the lady on the other end. We’ll just request the money from him — 3500 RMB (525 dollars) for seven days. An envelope was delivered with my dinner — inside, an invoice, and an official notice that my test on the third day had come back negative.
On the seventh day, I was told to be ready with my stuff packed early in the morning, and a bus would come to take me home for the remainder of the fourteen days. When I arrived in the lobby, I saw several others waiting with their luggage, watched over by several security guards in spacesuits. Several of my fellow travelers took the opportunity to expound on their complaints with their stay — the hotel was too old, there weren’t enough options for the food, there were too many limitations on what could be delivered, the staff was rude, they didn’t like the staff’s attitude, they were going to call the lao ban (boss, or manager) and get the staff fired. Evidently, entitled customers are a universal phenomenon. They weren’t even complaining about the most egregious problem, I thought, the dial-up speed hotel wifi, overloaded by bored people with nothing else to do.
When the bus arrived, one of the guards called our names, helped us get our luggage on, and got on the bus to see us to our destinations. We drove around, dropping off each individual/family at the doors to their apartment communities (xiao qu), where they were greeting by a welcoming committee of — yet more astronauts.
At my destination, I was greeted by the secretary of the Home Owners’ Association (ju wei hui) for my apartment community, clad in a spacesuit, and looking very disconcerted by his getup. In China, a HOA for a xiao qu is basically a group of often middle aged people who serve the community, doing things like arranging activities for children and elderly, resolving neighborly disputes, putting up all the signs telling you to cooperate with the census, etc. I wondered if he had ever imagined, when he took the job, that he’d be doing things like this. We waited for the arrival of doctors from the district government, who would then see me to my apartment. He told me that he had picked up his biohazard suit at a local hospital, provided by the government, and remarked how impressive it was that doctors could wear these suits for hours at a time, because he was sweating to death. He gave me the number of maintenance, as well as his own cell phone number, in case I had any issues. He told me not to open the door too much, because an electronic sensor had been installed on my door to track how many times I had opened it, and if I opened it too much, he would get a text telling him to interrogate me about it. I found this rather unsettling when I first heard about it, but immediately realized, it’s not really a quarantine if I can just leave.
While we waited, we got a lot of weird looks and stares from the people
coming and going, and security told them to stop staring and be on their way. A guy on a motorcycle stopped on his way into the complex and asked the secretary a bunch of questions about where I was from, and how long I was going to be in quarantine for. I knew it was just people who had known each other for years making conversation, but I still felt extremely self conscious.
When the doctors arrived, they took my luggage, and saw me to my apartment. They took the documentation I received from the hotel. They gave me a packet of disinfectant tablets, a pamphlet about safe practices in quarantine, and a notice telling me to be good. I was not to open the door any more than was necessary. People would come to collect my trash. Someone would come take my temperature twice a day. I voiced my gratitude for their hard work. And thus, I was home, free to use my own wifi and cook my own food, devoid of excess amounts of cauliflower.
Later I would find out, there was a strip of paper stuck across the gap between my door and the wall, that read in big green letters, “At home quarantine. Do not visit or disturb. Let’s all cooperate to get through these hard times together.”
There was that message again. We would all get through these hard times together.
On the twelfth day, I was tested again, no less painfully than the other three times. On the fifteenth day, I went to go to the security office and picked up official documentation that I was not a public health hazard, and free to have contact with the outside world. After a painful wait, I could finally see my father, after being in the same city as him for fourteen days, only able to hear his voice from the other side of the door. You were right, I got a feeling for China’s anti-COVID measures, I told him. It was quite a thing.
Fourteen days of quarantine — that I could have spent with my father, with relatives I had not seen in two years, shopping, going out to eat, and enjoying each other’s company.
Fourteen days of my life, in near complete isolation, scrolling mindlessly through social media, counting down the days. I wish, and I know all my fellow travelers wish, that we could have these fourteen days of our lives back. But if this is what it takes for my elderly grandparents, everyone else’s elderly grandparents, and the rest of the country to be able to go outside and live their lives without fear of a deadly virus – I, at least, am willing to make some sacrifices.
WRITTEN BY: Lily Chang
‘Just an ordinary Chinese student studying in the US who likes cats and dislikes ignorance.’
by Lily Chang: Original post here:
Thank you Lily Chang for this very detailed and personal account of travelling back to China!Barrie (for Best China Info)
For our main author blog go to: Best China Info Blog!