Life in Beijing 50 Days and Counting During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic

The view of the apartment community courtyard from our bedroom window in Chaoyang, Beijing.

Part One: Normalcy Shattered


This is currently my fifth year living and teaching in China. I have had amazing experiences all over the country and everywhere here the Chinese people have consistently been sincerely welcoming. The country is not without its problems, none are. I have expanded my horizons, as cliché as that sounds, in ways I could not have anticipated when I jumped into the deep end back in October 2015. I expected and wanted to be out of my element back then, in order to really get it and hopefully in turn gain perspectives that also inform my understanding of my own country.

It seemed during the past couple of years here, that the shine was wearing off somewhat. Maybe I was even getting jaded with some unsavory aspects. Maybe there wasn’t much else for me to absorb; that’s completely false though, I could live in China for the rest of my life and still fail to grasp everything about it. That lull and that complacency was shattered by a novelty I could never have anticipated beyond being a theoretical distant threat. That happened on January 23, 2020 when the novel coronavirus outbreak shattered the normalcy by landing at our collective doorstep.

Leading up to it, my high school had just finished its semester and everyone was looking forward to a much needed break after submitting grades. Beijing winters are bleak, dry, and cold. Chinese Spring Festival was just around the corner. I had been ramping up with a new band and had recently played our first paid live show together. My fiance Natalie was also about finished with her work as support staff at a private dance company. Throughout the prior month I had my finger on the pulse of something going on in Wuhan. The U.S. Embassy website had a lukewarm warning posted that I happened to come across in late December. With a lack of information there was nothing to worry about however.

The Day Things Changed

While I was snoozing and trying to squeeze out any last bits of sleep mid-morning, Natalie was poking around on her phone beside me. Eventually, I rolled over and she told me that it’s looking like we probably shouldn’t travel to her hometown for Spring Festival with her family. The night before things were starting to come out, but I was surprised when I heard it from her. The power of exponential spread at work. I didn’t want to be the ‘bad foreigner’ and ask that we stay put to be cautious because I knew how much the holiday means for them. Her family, both immediate and extended, only see one another during this time of year. Think of it like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined, and it’s that way for most Chinese families.

Keeping a very worried mother informed that day.

Surprise was followed by a potent mixture of both relief and dread. Relief that hopefully staying put would be what we needed to do and not some overreaction. Dread because, even with Natalie at my side, a sudden and sharp anxiety of being a foreigner in a strange land resurfaced in a way that could be legitimately life-altering. I can’t remember if the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, but that was the feeling. China, historically, is often the place to be when its united and times are good. Throw a dart at historical times and places one would want to live in for a relatively stable existence, and it’s likely that the dart would land during some period of China’s 5,000 year history. However, there are spans when that breaks down and their so-called imperial ‘Mandate of Heaven’ fades; the people experience devastation to unfathomable degrees each time. A likely irrational rush of paranoia entered, maybe now is actually a time when we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We both had many questions and, of course, not enough answers. On Natalie’s apps she was getting more info with each passing moment. It seemed the central government was opening the floodgates of getting information out there, and the populace was responding. Whether that information was legitimate or not wasn’t the point. At least we knew something was up without a doubt, and the degree wasn’t the issue anymore. For better or worse, the dragon was awake and readying to fight back against the predator.

That evening Natalie read and translated for me a blog post from a Beijinger who had experienced the 2003 SARs outbreak as a college student here. As I listened, I poked around the internet about details and images of that crisis. The accounts of that time in Beijing are harrowing, and that lady’s heartfelt description was impossible to dismiss. Back then most Chinese people had the same naivety about viral outbreaks that is abundant in the US and West generally, so they weren’t prepared then. Beijing and Hong Kong were hardest hit. Descriptions of the insidiousness of the SARs spread made me question what the current spread actually was. Like, should I be regretting having gone out the prior weekend to perform music in a crowded bar? Descriptions of the panics and shortages had me questioning my life choices generally for the position I found myself in. This ‘kneejerk’ psychological response is proper and rational though. It’s the evolutionary trait that allowed humanity to survive, for example, a threat as immediate as a big cat lurking in the shadows preparing to pounce.

As it turned out, Beijing and the rest of the country proved itself admirably. Their collective memory had preconditioned them for readiness as their understanding of the threat was internalized deeply. Regardless of the early stages of the virus in Wuhan, where stories abound of incompetency and even cover-up, once the reality was apparent the response was day and night.

Initial Reaction

The next day, Natalie and I made a trip to the local supermarket and pharmacy at my insistence. The plan to me was clear: stock up for at least 2 weeks on everything we need and don’t go out hardly at all after that. We already owned masks due to the pollution, but she also had ordered a bunch of them in the days leading up and we were well stocked on that front.

This was the day we were supposed to be departing Beijing by high speed rail for Natalie’s hometown Jingzhou, Hubei. That afternoon news broke Wuhan was put on lockdown along with Hubei generally. Natalie’s sister and her boyfriend had arrived already at their parent’s house in rural areas outside of Jingzhou. This meant they would be trapped there. They still are trapped there. Poor boyfriend. In later days that became a running joke of how people were handling this odd Spring Festival time. You sometimes hate the holidays? Imagine that but extended for months.

The change in the air was palpable when we stepped outside our apartment community. Already 80-90% of the people outside in public were wearing masks. This is important, if seemingly over-cautious. Masks, no matter the type, at least have some level of effectiveness in personal viral protection despite the flaws. As it became proven later, it was the absolute necessary level of caution because of the asymptomatic behavior of the viral spread. Any mask is good to wear because if you don’t know you’re a carrier it protects others from your outward spread. The advice was clear and consistent early on that everybody out in public should wear masks.

An example of a social media post going around during that time to get the word out.

Masks are also good because the mentality of defending against the virus spread becomes internalized through action, not just theory. You have a feeling of wearing a ‘helmet’ and see others protecting themselves similarly. If you see somebody without the mask, they feel the pressure that they should alter their behavior and take whatever is going on seriously.

Natalie and our apartment building behind her. Our modest dwelling is visible partway up.

It felt eerie and surreal. It likely felt similar somewhat to the reality shift the US is currently undergoing. The local pharmacy already seemed to have shortages on some items, but that got resolved fairly quickly. At the supermarket, it was same as always, except for the mask-wearing. I filled our cart with an eye-popping amount of stuff, Natalie wasn’t sure it really would be necessary and was more confident in her country’s ability to keep their needs met. I wasn’t going to make that gamble. She was especially perplexed by my large selection of canned foods and pasta items. I just assured her that even if the concern was unwarranted, the food could be used well into the future and so there wasn’t any waste here. She bought in and grabbed an extra large bag of rice. Additionally, I went to a few different general stores to buy multiple 5 liter jugs of water. We didn’t know what would go on with out regular water delivery. That store owner was a Hubei person and had just become stranded there. His store is still sitting closed.

Our shopping cart and Natalie right after checking out. Other trips were made aside from this one to another supermarket but this was the main one. Notice, no toilet paper. We had plenty already and the way they roll it here is much more space-saving.

It turned out that, while the prepping was useful for keeping us indoors and away from supermarket crowds, my fear of empty shelves and getting caught up in a dangerous panic thankfully didn’t pan out. The calm and collected mood here in Beijing was and is highly commendable.

A loose end I had to deal with was making a taxi trip to the city center. After our most recent performance I had left my electric guitar at my bandmate’s apartment. It was too much to carry along with my electric keyboard, so it was more convenient to keep it there for when we met up for rehearsal. He and his wife are American and she works for a US department overseas in Beijing. In the days after the crisis began, they took the chance to depart with their young daughter. I could see the fear in her face when I picked up my equipment and she said I should think about leaving as well since the word in the government was pointing to travel being cut off sooner than later. It was, but I was never going to ditch Natalie in Beijing. Looking back and seeing the crisis unfold as it has, I’m more and more thankful for that decision. It may have been a case of ‘jumping from the frying pan into the fire’.

The most noteworthy thing in that brief trip into the downtown was how much it had changed throughout the city. Highways and streets were largely empty. Public buses were chugging along like usual, but nobody except the driver and security person were on board. It was a ghost city of 20 million. Granted, some of that inactivity was due to the start of the Spring Festival. Many had been able to leave with few travel controls initially exercised, but many who would’ve traveled had made the decision to stay put as we had. That emptiness persisted until maybe only a couple weeks ago.

Honestly not sure if this is Beijing, it resembles the streets that even through and that part of the city. Usually crammed rush hour streets. Photo found on the Weird World facebook page.
Also from the same facebook page, This for sure is the Sanlitun Soho sunken plaza. Not long ago Natalie’s job was in a building you can see to the right. We’d often come here and it’s a bustling center in normal times.

After all our preparations, we readied ourselves to bunker down and limit going outside as much as possible. I wanted to be sure neither of us were symptomatic in addition to limiting our risk. The timetable for that was about 2 weeks it seemed.

Early Stage of Our Isolation- From Adaptation to ‘Groundhog Day’

Well, not exactly ‘isolated’. ‘Isolated together’.

Mostly we relaxed like any other vacation time. Some video games, binge watching shows, a few personal hobbies, and reading. Instead of my usual exercise routine I figured out some extra things I could do within the apartment as replacements. Lacking in-home gym equipment other that a pull-up bar, I managed to use the numerous jugs of stored water as a substitute. An awkward substitute, but it worked. Days and days passed, Natalie took to learning Spanish more and later poked around at learning coding. I focused increasingly on practicing piano and attempting to learn a high level song I had been putting off.

You know it’s serious when the sticky tack comes out.

I could benefit from the normalcy back home that was still going on, notably with the usual sports cycle. Having some beer while watching the Superbowl and other events alone wasn’t ideal, but at least it was a good distraction. It would have been better at a Beijing bar or with my co-worker and his family, since Natalie likes to spend time with his Chinese wife and baby. They stayed put and self-isolated just like us. Nevertheless, looking back that sports cycle was something to be appreciated genuinely. I know many now in the US are shocked and feeling empty by its absence.

Tallboys of German beer have been a not so proud part of my ‘sanity maintenance’. At least Taobao delivery was not interrupted very much for these puppies.

Another time-consuming activity was preparing Natalie’s immigration visa paperwork, applying for the fiance visa since the plan was to return in the summer and marry. It was tedious and made more difficult by the current situation and who knows the status of how things are progressing with that under the current circumstances. But, we got it finished timely enough.

After a while things really started to take on a feel of ‘Groundhog Day’. Monotony led to boredom and steadily lowering morale. And that’s where we’ll pick up next time!

Conclusion Part 1

I hope you have come to take this outbreak seriously and that my reflections can help you internalize the reality Americans and the West have been entering during these past few days and weeks. I will continue my account with another post detailing the measures that took place in our immediate vicinity throughout these months and currently.