The New Normal
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“When are you going back?”

It was February 11th and I was visiting my boyfriend in England. We were getting drinks with some of his friends and several of them had asked about the situation in China. At this point two flights to return to China had already been canceled in the previous two weeks. I had booked a third flight but was just waiting for it to be canceled as well; I was sure it would be.

“The 23rd hopefully, but we will see, fingers crossed.” 

A week later the third flight had been canceled. I was starting to panic. I needed to get back.

“Just stay here until things improve at least” someone had counseled.

The thing was, I couldn’t.

I work in China. I’m an English teacher at a kindergarten in Shijiazhuang so I have a work visa. The thing about work visas in China is you need a valid residency permit to essentially prove that you still have work and are currently employed. These residency permits can last six months to a year usually. Mine was expiring February 28th. If you don’t have a valid residency permit, you don’t have a valid work visa. Which would mean you have to restart the entire work visa process from scratch, and I simply didn’t want to do that. It was just unfortunate about the timing of the residency permit, but I had to get back.

I booked a fourth flight. Heathrow to Beijing. I would leave Monday February 24th, and this one wasn’t canceled.

The day of my flight I woke up to a text from my boss in China saying the community I live in might not allow me to re-enter without a statement from an embassy saying I was in healthy condition.  Since I was due to leave that day, this was impossible and gave me even more reservations about returning home. I explained it would be impossible to get this, and she said she would continue to communicate and negotiate with my community.

For the past month, communities in my city as well as all over China have heavily restricted the amount that people can come and go from a community in order to prevent spread of the coronavirus. No one from a different community can enter, and for every family one individual could leave every two days to get food and groceries. This has since lightened up to once a day with no time limit.

Since I have been traveling, the policy for returning travelers to their home city is two weeks of self-quarantine in their respective homes. My boss alerted me about this, and I agreed. I needed the residency permit.

I said goodbye to my boyfriend at a coach station in Oxford. As I hugged him goodbye, I felt like I couldn’t let go. What if I just stayed. What if I didn’t go back. The only thing compelling me to let go of him was that he needed to go back to work. I boarded the coach and as it pulled out of Oxford, I just felt a sense of panic flooding me,

“No, no, no, just stay here” my mind seemed to repeat. The day was overcast and rainy, but I was the one with more waterworks as I cried into tissues at the very back of the coach. I kept praying that this flight would also be canceled and that it would simply be out of my control. If it was canceled, I wouldn’t have to make the decision, and wouldn’t that be nice? I could stay in England with my boyfriend because of things out of my control. But it wasn’t canceled.

As the flight boarded, everyone was already wearing masks. I donned one as well to be safe. As I boarded the flight, they took our temperatures and they took them again before we landed. We also filled out a form detailing where we had been traveling recently and if Wuhan or anywhere near it had been on the itinerary. The airport customs and baggage process went as usual only faster because there were so few people traveling in China. Still wearing my mask, I stepped out of the airport in Beijing and got a bus to the train station. While I waited for said bus, an airport official was walking around spraying sanitizing product on all the benches. The train station was also dead. While trains in China are often packed, this one only had about six other people in my carriage. When I arrived in Shijiazhuang, I got a cab to my apartment. I had to give the cab driver my last temperature and phone number before the ride began. There was no one in the taxi line which had never happened before. As we drove through the city at seven pm., it seemed like a ghost town. There was a smattering of cars on the highway, but every business was closed. The city of over eleven million was entirely asleep aside from some grocery stores and pharmacies. Except it wasn’t asleep. It was waiting, watching, worrying about this coronavirus just as much as I was.

When I arrived, my boss met me at my community. She had convinced them to let me in as long as I signed a form, pledging I would partake in the fourteen-day quarantine. Things were going smoothly until she told them I would need to leave the following day solely for the residency permit renewal. They then said once I go to my apartment, I couldn’t leave under any circumstances for fourteen days. They said I should get a hotel. My boss tried to negotiate for a little while longer, I turned and tried to compose myself. I’d been traveling about twenty-four hours now. I just wanted to rest and maybe cry a few tears, but they were adamant.

“There’s no other option. Get a hotel for the night. There’s one open down the road.”

So I lugged all my belongings down the road and went to two nearby hotels. One was closed, and the other wasn’t admitting guests due to the virus. My boss made a phone call to the principle of the school.

I would stay the night in the school. It was nearby and seemed like the only viable option since I couldn’t go to anyone else’s community due to the no outsiders policy. 

My boss brought me some fruit and I settled in for the night. I felt extremely anxious. What if some new issue arose tomorrow when I went back to my community? I’d been struggling just to get in the country. I did think getting into my own home would be such an issue. I slept fitfully in the cold school on the doctor’s office’s bed covered in several children’s sized blankets that they used for nap times. 

It was the only humor I could find in the situation. I, the teacher felt like the student taking naps against my will in a place I didn’t want to be. I thought fondly of all my students and sympathized with their parents. They’d been cooped up for a month already and were probably going stir crazy at home. My heart went out to them all.

The next day we went for the residency which went without a hitch and returned to my community. They let me in and said that I could order groceries using the popular food delivery app waimai and the security guards at my community would bring it to my door. I would take my temperature twice a day and report it both to my employer and my community.

As I stepped in my home, I felt relieved and thankful to finally be home,  however the worry, anxiety, and sadness that had all cumulated during the last several weeks was asking for an outlet and I broke down for a bit. Acutely aware I would be very alone for the next two weeks; loneliness was already setting in after less than thirty minutes.

Trying to bring myself out of my wallowing, I asked myself if I had the virus.

No.

Did anyone I know or love have it?

No.

Did I live in Wuhan where the situation was more at risk and even more locked down?

No.

Was I able to make it home?

Yes.

Did I have loved ones who cared deeply about me even if they were a bit far away?

Yes.

It helped put perspective to my situation.

My heart goes out to China. China is my home. I’ve lived here three years. I’ve got my livelihood here and, I’ve built up a life I would be averse to give up suddenly. The last month I’ve worried that maybe I wouldn’t be able to return home, and that’s a terrifying feeling. And even now that I am home, it has only unraveled a new set of questions as a new way of life in an epidemic begins. On one hand I try to keep positive, but on the other hand there is simply so much that is unknown at the moment and the virus continues to spread with no seeming end in sight. I just hope we can all get through it okay.

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