Between the Quarantine and Quakes: Coronavirus Life in China

Chengdu, China

I was not planning to end up in the middle of a coronavirus outbreak here in the People’s Republic of China for my long winter break. I had been planning on increasing my one-on-one language classes to five times a week for a few weeks, then jetting off to the beaches of Da Nang in Vietnam to rest up before teaching my spring courses. Instead, I am quarantined in my home in western China, barricaded on all sides, and watching coronavirus panic sweep the globe from the comfort of my wheelchair and screen.

When the news broke about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in the final days of January, I could not believe that I found myself thrust into an unfolding global drama. I had lived in Lebanon through two dozen bombings, been tortured in Oman (rescued by the US Embassy), and attacked by a rabid dog in remote Mongolia. Tired of trauma, I had moved to China this September for a quiet life of contemplation, training in tai chi with kung fu masters in Sichuan’s Taoist mountain monasteries. Now, suddenly, I found myself just an eight-hour train ride away from a possible pandemic. I snapped into crisis mode and made sure to stock up on supplies in case we were in for a long haul.

I already had an arsenal of face masks, since I was wary of winter pollution when I moved here. I also had goggles and rubber gloves from America—I have traveled to around 60 countries and always try to be prepared for anything. For provisions, I wandered over to our local farmer’s market—where farmers sell fruits and vegetables from the back of their trucks—and loaded up on cauliflower and carrots. Everything felt manageable—until the numbers started to climb and the international mass media got hold of the story, sparking a pestilence of panic that brought anti-Asian racism and xenophobia out of the woodwork.

The “China” I saw being described in Sinophobic and anti-Asian racist terms on western social media was not the one I was living in. Every day of my incredible stay here in China, I have depended on the generosity, kindness, and compassion of Chinese colleagues, friends, students, and strangers, and been humbled by how much people are willing to go out of their way to help me. Racist jokes about dirty Asians and bat soup (that infamous video circulating on social media was filmed in Micronesia not China) and the callous disregard for the suffering of so many really sting—yellow peril in 21st century form. Before you know it, an American friend said, we’ll be throwing all Chinese people into internment camps (just like we did the Japanese). It’s not just America—anti-Chinese sentiments are rising in Europe, South Korea, and the Philippines too.

Sensationalist coverage of wildlife markets like the one in Wuhan where the virus is thought to have emerged disregards all cultural or historical context in favor of tired racist tropes: look at those dirty, poor people eating the gross things. Unusual culinary items, of course, stem from adaptation to low-calorie intakes—and famines have defined many periods of imperial and modern Chinese history. Many Americans do not realize that very elderly people in China lived through the Great Famine—and the generations after them also struggled to access adequate nourishment.

Famine comes up often in daily life—like professors who mention how much taller their students have gotten over the years due to better nutrition and explain that Chinese brides are expected to be rail thin on their wedding day because the body ideal (becoming more and more unattainable thanks to processed food) is rooted in a famished past. Most Chinese people shun the unusual proteins of wildlife markets which are seen as emergency fuel sources from hard days in the past—not every day dining options for today. Many Chinese have also been calling on social media for these foods to be banned, and condemning their fellow citizens who abandoned, and even worse killed, pets out of misinformed ideas about the virus—which cannot be transferred to cats or dogs.

Meat-averse myself, I’ve sat across from plenty of non-Chinese people in America and around the world feasting on frog legs, snails, camel meatballs, ram testicles, horse dumplings, fermented shark, and foie gras and been horrified—obviously, the double standards are unfair. Though the stereotype is that China is filled with dirty lanes of animal remains, the reality is that I spend my week dining out on delicious and nutritious food: Chinese vegetarian delights, meatless Indian dishes, American pizza, and even Tex-Mex burritos (with killer guacamole).

The racist charges that the Chinese have no regard for the environment or wildlife run counter to the reality I see each day on campus, at our local panda conservation centers in Sichuan Province, and at the lush, finely landscaped Taoist temples here in western China where I go to relax and do tai chi. In fact, I taught a whole course on nature this fall in China—from the Anthropocene to anti-natalism and beyond. My students wrote compelling essays on conserving wildlife, preserving the Amazon (lungs of the world!), slowing down urbanization, and reducing our carbon footprint. They also wrote about the bioethics of developing designer babies, posthuman cyborg bodies, and brain-computer interfaces. The apocalyptic threat of climate change is making environmentalists out of young people across the globe, and China is no exception.

For now, though, the reality is that I am quarantined in my home to avoid contracting coronavirus, and every time I go outside, my local environment seems to change. First, it was the gates to our complex being boarded up with big wooden panels—except for one gate, which is now guarded by a long table staffed with monitors checking residents’ IDs. Next, large barricades were erected around a large section of my neighborhood—cutting off our access to the local farmer’s market, as only residents of those streets can enter. The deserted streets with all the shops boarded up really do resemble a zombie apocalypse. When I went to stock up on food with a colleague at a Japanese supermarket, they took our temperature at the door and sprayed our hands with anti-bacterial gel. We are also supposed to report our daily location and physical condition too. While this all may seem alarming and over the top, it is also comforting that there has been such a well-coordinated and strong response to contain the virus.

From getting my elderly chihuahua his special food to helping me carry my overflowing bags at the grocery store, I’ve been helped by a number of gloved and ungloved hands. The mood on the street is one of curiosity mixed with suspicion, as we gaze at one another from behind our masks (do I know you?). There is also a prevailing sense of solidarity—we are all in this together, going through the same motions, sharing similar concerns. Each encounter with another human being feels special—our movements choreographed with lama level intention and awareness. But when someone sneezes, the whole block freezes.

Not everyone around me is content to wait it out. Many ex-pats have fled to Thailand and South Korea—anywhere, at this point, that will take them. Vietnam Airlines canceled my ticket for my beach getaway. Are these fleeing ex-pats and airlines being irrational or taking wise precautions? In our province of 81 million, there has been only one death—that of an 86 year old. With a statistic like this, is it ridiculous to even be wearing a mask? Well-seasoned ex-pats tell me they expect the numbers to peak in the next few weeks and then taper off.

There are many, of course, for whom the choice of staying or going is not an option—like the millions trapped currently in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. It’s not just Chinese citizens who are trapped there—thousands of Arab, Southeast Asian, and African students in Wuhan are reaching out to their embassies for help as their supplies start to dwindle. I’ve seen posts from and about students from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. Some of them feel they are better off ending up in a Chinese hospital than one back home—others want to flee.

A 21-year old student from Cameroon in Jingzhou was diagnosed with coronavirus this Tuesday.

I was struck by how many foreign students and professors I encountered when I moved to China. I have had the joy of speaking Indonesian, Tajiki, Hindi, and Persian on campus. In fact, when I was staying in a remote yurt this summer on the steppe in Mongolia while doing research, I visited a nomadic family in a neighboring yurt whose daughter could speak fluent Chinese—she was home on summer break from studying in China for free. Most international students from neighboring Asian countries and Africa receive a generous scholarship from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, whereas in America most international students have to pay.

The western media’s one-dimensional framing of China as homogenous and xenophobic obscures its far-ranging foreign policy reach and impressive knowledge production at home—where they are pouring huge sums of money into education for citizens and foreigners alike. When I taught an entire course on Africa this fall in China, all forty spots were taken. From translating Classical Ethiopic and producing 3-D prints of the Great Pyramids to writing about colonialism and apartheid freedom fighters in South Africa, my Chinese students’ profound interest in Africa renewed my passion for teaching and made me think deeper about China in a global context.

With so much good stuff going on, I do not want to leave China—because there is no place I would rather be. I will confess, however, that I did pack my bags in fear for my life this week when a 5.2 earthquake struck Chengdu, and sent me bouncing in my wheelchair. Like others in Sichuan, I was forced to decide in an instant: stay indoors and risk being buried alive or put on a mask to go outside and risk encountering the coronavirus masses? In the wake of the quake, Chinese New Year’s resolutions on social media changed from buying a bigger house to just staying alive.

Though I did unpack my bags, I realized: even if I had to make a run for it, there would be a number of obstacles standing in my way. Going through the airport feels risky because I have a rare variant of Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, and I cannot know how my mutant collagen would interact with the virus. In the words of my geneticist: “I think we are in unchartered territory, and, of course, the best treatment is no infection.” No doctors in China that I have consulted have ever treated this syndrome, and complications (possibly deadly) could arise if I needed treatment here or in a neighboring country.

The United States government is urging Americans in China to leave and instructing Americans not to travel here. They have banned entry of foreign nationals from China and are quarantining American citizens—actions that run counter to the WHO, whose director called for no trade or travel restrictions. But even if I got myself to America and needed medical help from contracting the virus in transit, I would have no healthcare and a hospitalization could bankrupt me. After all, the lack of universal healthcare leads to 45,000 American deaths each year—which is a much more pressing public health emergency than a virus that only a dozen Americans have contracted.

Frankly speaking, I am downright terrified to return home to America. When I returned from my State Department-funded research this summer in Mongolia, I was detained and interrogated at JFK Airport. Exhausted from traveling across the planet and immobilized in my neck brace and a wheelchair, I had to endure—for an hour—the disturbing Islamophobia and vile racism of Homeland Security officials who ignorantly thought that Mongolia is a Muslim-majority country (“They have Buddhists there? I did not know that.”)—and that Iranians speak Arabic (Persian, you moron). They also wanted me to name all of the classes I took for my five Ivy League degrees.

“But you were really in RUSSIA, weren’t you?” my idiotic inquisitor said, holding up a Mongolian newspaper from my bag—ignorant that Mongolian is also written in Cyrillic script. When I asked them what they were doing in the wake of two mass shootings by white male terrorists that week, they looked at me like I had two heads. At this point, I would rather die of coronavirus in China than deal with the chilling fascism on America’s borders or the indignity of its corrupt and inhumane healthcare system.

In responding to the coronavirus outbreak, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Communist Party of China “the central threat of our times.” Last time I checked, it was America not China who was waging wars on multiple fronts, destabilizing the Middle East, and starting unnecessary trade battles. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggested the coronavirus outbreak is a good thing since it will accelerate the return of American jobs. Using the death and suffering of sick people for political gamesmanship is a low blow—such heartless biopolitics hurt our foreign policy and image abroad.

So though I was supposed to be spending this month on the beach in Vietnam, I’m stuck indoors in Sichuan—but making the most of it. With nothing but time, I am meeting all my publication deadlines, and enjoying quality time with my globe-trotting chihuahua. I even started a coronavirus quarantine cookbook of the meals I am scraping together from limited ingredients. Instead of the news, I’m listening to Buddhist nuns give dharma talks online, their gentle voices reminding me that we are always in a state of change and safety is an illusion—we are always one possible moment away from death. I’m seeing this virus as the perfect opportunity to contemplate how quickly everything can change in an instant, and how interdependent we all are on our local and global neighbors.

Will the spring semester start on time? What about our classes–will they be online? How many students will fill the quarantine facilities being constructed? Who knows. To cope with all the uncertainty, I’m re-reading Foucault’s analysis of how the plague enabled systems of surveillance and Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, which is set in the coastal Algerian city of Oran—where I gave a keynote speech this fall. Perhaps Camus put it best: “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”

Emily Jane O’Dell is an Associate Professor at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute in the People’s Republic of China.