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The Virus Diary of an Expat in China

The Virus Diary of an Expat.

Dr Rob Burton

Xiaxia, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China.

As of February 3rd 2020 it has been fourteen days since the days (18th, 19th, 20thJanuary 2020) when I could have become infected by the Wuhan virus. I was a teacher and a judge in the China Daily heats of a national speaking competition held on the campus of Zhejiang University. There were over 300 students. I taught four classes of over 80 students each over the first two days and then spent the Monday judging the competition. We stayed in the same hotel, on campus, as many of the students. All went well, and I enjoyed teaching, meeting and judging the high school aged students.

Wednesday 22nd January: I received a WeChat message from the organisers of the competition that around 30 students had come from Wuhan and they were trying to follow them up to check on their health status. My Chinese colleague also reports having a cough that evening and will be going to the hospital first thing in the morning. The next day he reports back that he is free of the virus and has a common cold. I start to consider my own health status.

Saturday 25th January: Most of us have masks in the house, one or two for those days when the air pollution is bad. But recently the air is good so it becomes a bit of a hunt around the apartment to find them. Once we have them we decide to go to the supermarket to stock up on some food, just in case things get worse as the advice is to stay in and not go out. The pharmacy across the road is open so we go in to buy some more masks. The shelf is nearly bare and even as we look at them there is a steady stream of people coming in to make the same purchases. We buy four masks and some hand sanitizer. We should have bought more – hindsight is a great thing.

At the supermarket around 50 percent of the customers are wearing masks. There are none for sale neither is there any hand sanitizer. We buy food and the goods we need spending around 1000 RMB which is more than we usually spend on one shop.

Sunday 26th January: My wife is going to Changzhou to visit her mum. She is following the news and decides that it is safe to go. DiDi is still working so she gets to the station in good time. By now temperature checks at the entrance to the station have been instigated. Once on the train she sends me a photo. She is the only person in the whole carriage.

Monday 27thJanuary – Friday 31stJanuary: During the week she is away I am still concerned about the possibility that I might have been infected at the speaking competition. Staying in the house alone—‘bugging in’ as the pepper’s have it—brings with it its own problems. Psychologically, it does get tough, not going out, not meeting people. The only window on the world is WeChat and other media accessible through one’s computer. WeChat quickly becomes a place of myth and lies. Numbers and conspiracy theories abound, racism and untruths about the genesis of the virus are bound together.

I try to maintain a level, logical head. But every cough, sneeze, wheeze, ache and pain becomes suspect. Have I been infected? Boredom quickly becomes one’s default position. There are only so many cat videos one can watch on the various websites we use. I binge watch a few movie trilogies, Beverly Hills Cop, The Bourne movies. I am usually a creative person and can fill my time with writing, painting, reading but my brain seems to have become zombified – maybe the zombie apocalypse is not bought on by a virus but by boredom.

I go out around the community grounds, the dog still needs to be walked. The place is empty. When I do come across another person out walking we give them a wide berth. One day as I was peering out of the entrance to see if the pharmacy across the road was open an ambulance turned up and men in full hazmat suits got out. I high-tailed it back to my apartment. Out of my window on the 9thfloor I watched the ambulance park outside the apartment block next door. I thought maybe they were coming to check all the resident’s temperatures, as I had seen this happen in one of the videos I saw on the internet. But no, next time I looked the ambulance had gone. “Maybe someone is ill” is the next thought you have as your anxiety levels jump up another notch. The week passes boringly, I eat all the snacks in the house and run out of wine.

Friday 31st January: My wife returns from Changzhou. She tells me that it was impossible to buy masks there as all the pharmacies were sold out and her mum and brother only have a few. While she was away I purchased masks from eBay in the UK and a friend will courier them out to us. Amazon UK had sold out, yet ironically was in stock for masks that would be “shipped from China.” We will not receive these masks for at least another seven days or more.

Someone on the internet was pooh poohing the idea that the virus was so voracious given the massive population in China. But my experience shows how just happenstance can be the catalyst for infection. The day after my wife returned from Changzhou her mum told her on WeChat that two people in her community had been tested positive for the virus. These were people who had ‘escaped’ from Wuhan. This shows it does not pay to let one’s guard down. Then, when seeing how the news had been suppressed in Wuhan, I realised that I, myself, was in Wuhan on the 2ndand 3rdof November 2019 when the virus was surely abroad. Life really is a matter of chance.

Saturday 1st February: We once again ventured out to the supermarket. On this occasion 100% of the shoppers were wearing masks. We were able to stock up on food and there was little or no evidence of panic buying. The government has already stated that keeping supermarkets, vegetable markets and pharmacies open was a priority. The only shelves that were nearly empty were the instant and dried noodle shelves. Otherwise we could buy everything we needed with no problems - this time we spent around 1100 RMB. We even stopped off and had a Starbucks and a cake sat outside in the warm February sun. For a brief moment everything seemed normal again.

Since my wife has returned, she has been watching the news. One has to be impressed with the dedication of the doctors, nurses, police, army, ancillary workers, workers in the factories making masks and hazmat suits, down to the delivery guys and taxi drivers still working, and to our own community cleaners who rigorously disinfect the lifts and the community spaces every day.

Tuesday 4th February: Things have not gone from bad to worse, but have significantly changed––things are still bad. Just three days after visiting the supermarket to stock up on (see video of the trip here locality went into lockdown. What that means is we are all confined in the community. Most people who live in the high-rise apartment blocks in China live in communities. They are gated and walled. There are gates with security guards on them 24/7 – this is normal. We have to stay in our apartments although we are free to walk the grounds, for example taking the dog for a walk. Now, however, the rule is only one person can leave the community to go fetch food and essentials and they can only do that every two days.

Previously when walking the dog, I would just carry my mask in my pocket, because the place was empty and if I saw another person I would just walk the other way. Now I wear a mask all the time when I’m out. We heard yesterday or the day before that the virus could be airborne so better safe than sorry. We do not have a large supply of masks. We had some around the house and my wife managed to buy another 6 on a Chinese website.

Wednesday 5th February: My employer has asked me to prepare online lessons for when the semester restarts on February 24thso I have something to do. But as ever the 24thseems a long way a way at the moment so it does not have my full attention, however I have managed to do a couple of hours work over the past few days. Nevertheless, this is a new departure for me and I really don’t know how to provide online lessons for 30 plus students, I have been asking on the various TEFL Facebooks groups and got some ideas from other teachers.

Thursday 6th February: I found a few more masks in a box in a cupboard that had been given to me as a gift by my last employer. The masks from the UK have been dropped of by my friend at the pick up point in the UK, but we are not sure whether the delivery will get here, we will see. I was speaking to an American friend yesterday who works at my last school, he was given a box of masks as a gift before the news of the virus broke, he didn’t want them so he gave them to his cleaner. Now he is using eye masks to protect himself as he cannot find any to buy.

Friday 7th February: My wife went out to the only local shops available to us. There is a small vegetable shop and the pharmacy. We were told that the bigger fruit and vegetable market, further down the road, was closed because of the infection. The vegetable shop is also selling meat and milk. My wife managed to get the last carton of milk that day. This is a box of 12 small cartons. These usually cost 30-40 rmb but she had to pay 60 rmb. The shop is well stocked with fruit and vegetables and the local government will make sure it is well stocked so there is no panic. The vegetables were double price and the pork on sale is 40-50% dearer­––clearly some people will get rich from this crisis. The meat is another source of concern and we will not buy it.

In terms of food we are now on the Covid-19 Diet, which means rationing the booze, because in rookie error we didn’t buy it in suitable amounts as we didn’t realise we would be locked down. We are also having smaller portions of food so what we do have lasts longer. I usually have muesli for breakfast but that means burning through the milk and I also need milk for tea. (A first world problem because I can drink green tea) So I have been balancing that by having toast – we did stock up on bread but it will disappear and we cannot buy bread locally – because we cannot get to the supermarket as the taxis have stopped working. I am also skipping lunch or just having and a biscuit and a cup of tea. I’m British, so a cup of tea makes everything better, doesn’t it?

Saturday February 8th: The days seem to blend into one. There is only so much YouTube you can watch. We watch the news on CCTV1 every day to keep up with things and developments. Do not believe the Western press or the haters on social media telling you things are being covered up––they are not––Trump is right most of it is fake news. The UK Masks have been picked up at the UK depot.

Sunday 9th February: This Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat, will be remembered for a long time. This morning as I was walking the dog the community workers were removing the decorations from the front of each apartment block. We, in the West mainly remember the Rat for being the carrier of the Black Death, it seems that this new virus may be traced back to the Pangolin, which although is a protected species is still hunted for its meat in China. Hopefully, these markets will be shut down by the government and lessons will be learnt.

Monday 10th February: Day 21 since I taught at least 300 students from Wuhan in the big speaking competition I was a teacher and judge at here in Hangzhou. The incubation period of the virus is between six and fourteen days apparently so we are well out of the woods now. But later today I hear that the incubation period could be 24 days. Doh!

Tuesday 11th February: I received my class lists yesterday. My Public Speaking class is 50 strong. 50! A Public Speaking class is about getting students to speak. 30 was hard enough when the class is just 90 minutes long. 50 will be impossible – watch this space.

Thursday 13th February: The masks are booked in at the depot in Hong Kong.

Friday 14th February: – Valentines Day. Walking Snooky is now the only reason to go out and break the tedium. And when one is out it is remarkable how silent it is outside. At night it is almost eerie because nothing is moving, no cars or roar of lorries on the main road which is quite a distance away, but nevertheless one can normally hear the traffic noise. No clatter of the three wheeled delivery and work carts which are ubiquitous around this area where building had been going on apace. The sound of the airplanes coming into the airport which is not so far away is missing from the normal soundscape. One of the things that does plague China is noise pollution. If they can use a loudspeaker to announce something they will. In shops and the shopping malls there is a constant racket of competing claims for whatever it is they are promoting. So the still of the night is something to be welcomed. There might be the occasional disembodied voice in the distance calling out shattering the stillness. During the day the birdsong becomes more apparent and evidence that life does go on whatever the circumstances. Spring is coming and they need to get busy.

Saturday 15th February: The VPN has stopped working. China has ramped up its Great Firewall so no cat videos, Facebook, Twitter or Youtube to break the tedium. I miss reading the Guardian newspaper before bed every night. It also means Gmail is down. So I have to use my iCloud account to tell my family and friends back home that my silence is a technical glitch and not biological.

Sunday 16th February: Over the last few days I have been seeing more people out around the community. Probably stir-crazy from sitting in for so long they are enjoying the warm sun and meeting friends for a gossip. Some of the older residents are power walking or using the exercise equipment while the youngsters are expending some of the energy they have stored up by being indoors for so long––it is good to hear the laughter and shouts of the kids as they play. The masks still haven't arrived, I'm wondering what's happened to them. I wouldn't be surprised if they have 'gone missing' at the depot in Hong Kong because there seems to be a bigger panic there than here in China.

Monday 19th February: Hurrah the VPN has come back, but I am getting increasingly irritated at the poor performance of this app. It is an important lifeline to the rest of the world and sometimes is just so bad connecting. We have also been able to use other apps for buying food and alcohol for Watsons a local 7-11 type convenience store. Whisky galore Hic!

Tuesday 18th February: Things have eased up, public transport is working, we can go outside of the community. I have my Hangzhou (Alibaba) green cross code and Abracadabrawe are out on the street, taking Snooky to the vets for her annual rabies shot. It’s mundane – but it’s exciting. This is the first time out since going to the supermarket on the 1stFebruary. The masks have finally arrived in China, so we should get them soon.

Wednesday 19th February: We go to the supermarket. There are a few empty shelves, notable the snacks and noodle shelves, but we buy everything we need to buy. We spend another 1000rmb – but it means we can stay in longer. While things have started to feel like they have normalised a bit we still need to be vigilant. There were more people on the street and cars on the road. Unfortunately, Starbucks was closed so no coffee based treats today.

Thursday 20th February: Good news the masks sent from England have been delivered. For a while I was worried they might get “lost” at a depot by workers who were desperate for masks for their family. In other news, I decided to purchase another VPN Astrill as ExpressVPN who, to be fair, have carried me over the last 8 years in China very well, but this year the Express geeks have been fighting a losing battle with the China geeks it seems. So far I am happier with Astrill’s better performance.

Sunday 24th February: We go out. It’s the last day of my Spring break holiday which started the end of December. We were in Thailand between the 2ndand 12thJanuary and came back to this. We have been indoors since the 21stJanuary – over 4 weeks now. With the quarantine regulations relaxed we decide to go to West Lake. It’s a world heritage site and usually teems with hundreds and thousands of visitors. But we knew this time there would be fewer people, on the locals – we’d seen TV footage on the news the previous day. You can see video of our trip on my YouTube Channel as well as our trips to the Supermarket and so on. We get Starbucks, KFC and walk around West lake clocking up around 10 kilometres according to my step counter on my watch.

Here’s some poetry from some of the famous poets that the lake and Hangzhou is famous for:

"The lovely Spring breeze has come

Back to the Lake of the West.

The Spring waters are so clear and

Green they might be freshly painted.

The clouds of perfume are sweeter

Than can be imagined. In the

Gentle East wind the petals

Fall like grains of rice."

—Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), excerpts from Spring Day on West Lake

"Green mountains surround on all sides

the still waters of the lake.

Pavilions and towers in hues of gold

and azure rise here and there.

One would say a landscape composed by a painter.

Only towards the east,

where there are no hills,

does the land open out,

and there sparkle, like fishes' scales,

the bright coloured tiles of a thousand roofs."

—From Daily life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276[4]

Monday 24th February: My semester starts. I have to do online teaching. My first two 90 minute classes start at 08:15. It’s Oral English and the classes are about 30 strong. I’m awake at 04:50. I’m quite stressed about these classes, I’m not quite sure how to go about teaching them. The university offers no help, advice or support. I do know that a ‘supervisor’ from the university teaching staff will be dropping into my lessons. A Chinese/Australian colleague tells me as far as the university is concerned I am the ‘Foreign Expert’ so I should know how to do these things. I finish at 11:20 exhausted. My head is spinning and the tinnitus in my ears is ringing from the noise. But we got through it. I post some thoughts on a TEFL Facebook site and get back some good advice such as find the ‘mute all’ button. Then I have a nap – which is really unusual for me. The final class of the day is Public Speaking – 50 students! How in the hell am I going to do that – this is the most stressful task. But, good news, I find the mute all button, struggle through all the other technical glitches and finish the lesson. My head is spinning and the noise in my ears still load. Red wine seems to be the answer.

Tuesday 25th February: No work today apart from my usual one to one online classes I have been doing for about a year – I have one later today. It pays the rent. When we came back from West Lake on Sunday we just waltzed through the gate with no temperature check. But today my wife went to get a parcel and the checks had been reinstated. The government had insisted they continue so that people would not get sloppy and allow this virus to escape again, now it seems to be contained. The one thing we know about this virus is it is very good a jumping from host to host – so we need to remain vigilant. We have a delivery of masks from one of my wife’s friends whose employer has gifted a large number to their employees, so that is very welcome they are better than the Blue Medical Masks we got from the UK that I have just reviewed on YouTube.

Tomorrow? Who knows?

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

Lao Tzu

Here are some of the videos I have posted on YouTube - you can catch up on all of them by subscribing to my channel.

Supermarket trip 1 -

Walking the dog during the virus -

Hangzhou Lockdown -

Check out my website

Twitter: @trebornotrub

Instagram: trebornotrub

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