Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Our Week 2020

Every year we like to put together a video of what a typical week looks like. Every year it feels boring and a little tedious, just like the year before-to the point where it never feels important. But the truth is, we love going back and watching all of them (links for: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019), so we continue to persevere with this project.

We have always made the videos at the end of January/beginning of February, right after Lunar New Year. Usually nothing special is going on, so it really captures typical. This was the plan for 2020 too. Then you know what happened. There was no "after Lunar New Year" there was just "lockdown".

After waiting and waiting for things to return to normal, we decided to just make the video anyway. There have been some changes over the past few weeks and some of that shows up in the video. School opened but just for grade 9. Jim has been going into work in a very strange, largely empty building. Some restaurants are open and skateboarding class has started again.

A lot is still very abnormal. The walls are still up and there is a constant sense that we may go back to lockdown at any time. There is still a lot of repetitive working at the dining room table, watching Price is Right, and playing video games. But for now this video is a glimpse of what things are like at the moment.

Grace and Ruby are in 7th grade, August in 4th. Jim is teaching History and Economics and Irish is doing the same job, and is also back in school starting work toward a doctorate at the University of Illinois. And this is what late April 2020 in Tianjin was like for the most part for the Farleys:

Monday, April 6, 2020

Waiting patiently

Like everyone we are paying close attention to what is happening in the United States and other parts of the world. We see the efforts at social distancing and shelter in place orders ramping up toward something like we have had here in China and we continue to  hear a lot from friends and family who are getting started with this. People understandably want to get a sense of what to expect and maybe now a sense of optimism about there being some end in sight.

Back in January and February as China was first locking down we were unprepared for the scale of the response and we were adapting to unexpected changes every day. The required masks and temperature checks everywhere were pretty easy to go along with. Then the roadblocks and walls went up around our neighborhood. Everything closed up, deliveries were stopped. The expectation, and really the only option, was to stay indoors. It all felt oppressive, and then gradually became just the day to day reality. Each additional restriction was a source of concern, but then just something we had to get used to.

We held on to the idea that it was all a response to an immediate crisis and that things would return to normal before too long, we just needed to be patient. The initial school closure of two weeks had been a surprise. When that stretched on for two more weeks, and then to an open ended closure we still thought that at least by Spring things should be returning to normal.  

When we decided not to leave China at the start of all this we thought we could use the money we would save for a trip somewhere nice during Spring break, it seemed long off, a time we could look forward to. We found ways to adapt and cope. And a second anonymous essay was published in the Huff Post talking about this sort of thing.

So now it is April. Our Spring break just ended and it was a week not very different from the ones before it, spent almost entirely at home. The roadblocks are still up in our neighborhood, the walls are still in place. School is still closed. More significantly all travel into China is stopped which means we can not leave if we plan on returning. Even if we wanted to leave the flights out are increasingly limited and it is not clear where in the world we would go.  

Before China stopped all foreigners from coming into the country they had shifted from in-home quarantine to a mandatory two week quarantine in government hotels. We have some friends who waited too long, missed the in-home option, and now they are finishing up their hotel stays. Their experience sounds somewhere between minimally tolerable and really unpleasant. Bad food, not enough water, broken refrigerator and TVs. Not stepping one foot outside the room for the whole two weeks. And as a family we would be confined to our room with our kids. It sounds like something to be avoided if at all possible.

We have been hearing about China easing up some of the restrictions over the past few weeks, but that has not been consistent throughout the country. The government in our city seems to be very cautious, and the local government in our part of the city even more so. We have heard that this is in part because we are close to the capital. It also seems likely that there are risks for them associated with easing restrictions compared to just keeping them in place. 

However, over the past few days there have been some small but promising changes.

A section of one of the blue walls was opened this week to allow pedestrian traffic.
There are still guards there checking IDs but they seem more casual than the ones at the roadblocks, just waving us through when we held up the ID. Significantly this allows us access to the market across the street from our school. It was incredibly nice to see the vendors doing a  thriving business. We went around and bought fruits and vegetables along with some snacks. Then we got takeout dinner to bring home.

the gap in the wall

waiting for our dinner

Irish thinks its funny that I take my scooter driving very seriously

There is another new app for our phones that creates a green QR code if you report that you are healthy and have not traveled anywhere. It seems like this system relies on people being honest as they fill it out. But with this app Didi drivers are now able to come in to our neighborhood. This is a huge shift for us. We are able to get around the city again.

Irish riding in the front seat, kind of defeating the purpose of the plastic barrier

Ikea has opened, with employees strangely covered from head to toe. We are still watching the Price is Right in the middle of the day with our dog who is thrilled we are around so much more. We are getting some more exercise with a new pull up bar as we wait for the gym to reopen. 

Ikea workers being extra cautious

lunch with the Price is Right

Irish waiting outside a grocery

Some restaurants are opening up in a limited way. On Friday we met friends at a mall. This place has outrageously expensive retailers, Gucci, Prada, we have never been able to understand how they do enough business to stay open. But the mall also has a great pizza place. There is a rule that there can only be two people per table, so we took up five tables and had a great time. We have been spending very little money recently so we were feeling rich and over ordered by a little.

a pretty night outside the mall

Throughout this there have been a number of small losses and disappointments.
Nothing on the scale of the medical crisis that is happening or the economic catastrophe that seems to be taking shape. But these small things are still real. It stung as we watched planned events get cancelled. The girls had a model UN trip to Beijing they had been looking forward to. There was going to be a teacher workshop in Bangkok. Augustine had grown remarkably interested in baseball watching spring training on the MLB network until all sports were suddenly cancelled. The kids experience of 7th and 4th grade as a whole will have been an unusual one. As teachers we feel for all our students as many of them struggle, in particular grade 12 students who will not be able to take the IB exams that they have prepared two years for, or have any of the concluding experiences a normal school year provides.  

Looking ahead we are increasingly aware that for the first time in 8 years abroad it is likely we can not come back to America in the summer. This will be sharply disappointing. There is a lot that we like about living in China, but there has always been comfort in returning, seeing family and friends. And for now and the foreseeable future that may be out of reach.

Over the past 10 weeks it feels like we have gone through several waves of changes in our lives. We went from this being a distant news story to something that affected us in a very immediate day to day fashion. And now, we are increasingly aware that it is not going away any time soon. Our jobs appear to be secure for next year, though the school will have to make adjustments to changing circumstances. We are cautiously optimistic that in small ways our lives will be less constrained over the coming weeks, and we are also aware that things could turn for the worse at any time.  Beyond that we are waiting patiently again. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Update: Same Same

Over the past few weeks we have been reading the news a lot, we see the number of new cases in China appear to be dropping significantly. So far that has not translated into any big changes in our day to day lives though. Depending on our mood it can be unbearably frustrating or boring occasionally a little frightening. And then often it is just the routine we are getting used to.

The walls are still up in our neighborhood and the roadblocks at the entrances are still there. The New York Times had an article featuring our city and the Great Blue Walls  (Tianjin does not get represented very well in the article, it really is a nicer city than they suggest).

Still checking

There continue to be no visitors and no didi (like Lyft) or taxis allowed in to our neighborhood. In fact, other neighborhoods have followed and many are now just as restrictive as the OC. Soon after our last post there was a new rule issued saying we had to use an app on our phone to scan a QR code every time we went into a public building. It seemed like big imposition when we were told about it, very Orwellian. But in practice the only places for us to go is a grocery store up the road and one convenience store. So we just scan and tell the government where we are every time we buy food.

As the cases in Korea and other countries have increased there seems to be a lot of fear of it coming back and starting again here. Restrictions for people who have been travelling are getting more rigid. Formal two week quarantine in home for everyone returning. And people living in apartments or residential hotels appear to have particularly close attention with sensors put on people's doors making sure they don't leave.

As a part of this new concern we were told the local government would be coming door to door checking on every foreigner in the neighborhood and checking our passports. In that context we were warned that the trip to the embassy in Beijing might lead to quarantine. This was frustrating, but then it took days and no one came to the house and eventually we were told we could just send in our information and they would come to us if they had any questions.

In the middle of all of this an article was published on the Huffington Post written by an anonymous couple. If you look closely at the blurred out picture it is not too hard to sort out one of the two authors. And if you follow us on Facebook or Instagram it is not much of a mystery at all.

It was meant to be a simple account of what it has been like living in this strange set of circumstances, similar to what we have been posting here. It was in no way a political commentary, and in writing it a lot of effort was made to not identify a city or a particular workplace. 

It was sent off just to see if there was interest and it was flattering and exciting when they bought it. Then when it was posted it moved up from their personal stories section to the featured section and that was exciting too.  The response from friends was great.  It seemed to have been read and shared with others in the way we intended. 

However it is the internet, filled with lots and lots of strangers and it turns out the internet is not always a place for thoughtful nuanced discussion. We had been divided on whether to even read the online comments. Among the themes repeated were the following:
  • Living in China and not hating China means the authors are shills for the Chinese government, or hopelessly naïve about the country they live in.
  • Conversely the authors should be listening more closely to the government and they are not following the rules closely enough. 
  •  Going for a walk or a run in the neighborhood despite there being no rules or suggestions against it is dangerous and means you want to get the virus.
  • If you mention getting coffee at Starbucks you are shallow and dumb, not worth listening to.

So that part was depressing.  But on the whole still good for those anonymous people to be published authors. Writing it was a fun and remarkably collaborative process and a good way to pass some time.

The quarantine has also spread over our annual birthday season. On February 15th, 25th and March 1st we have three of our family's five birthdays (Grace and Ruby are in July).  It was all pretty low key. Breakfast in bed, lots of TV, cakes made with varying degrees of success by the girls. And then right before other neighborhoods got locked down friends took our kids for a sleepover and we were able to get away for one night at Four Seasons hotel. 

Great room, nice view at the Four Seasons

a very nice breakfast with very few people

Irish's birthday 

Jim's birthday

For Augustine's birthday we ran out of cake mix so he had birthday brownies and put together a virtual party of sorts. One friend from the neighborhood came over and then they played the video game Fortnite online with seven friends from all around the world. August was remarkably understanding about the limitations of what is possible. And honestly he loves that game enough that he might have wanted to do it that way even if we were not under these restrictions. 

we also ran out of birthday candles so we just lit 10 candles from around the house

Over the past few days there have been the slightest changes which we hope are like the first little buds that appear in spring time.

There was a negotiation to allow the import store DMart deliver to homes in the OC. We can order some food from them that isn't available at the local grocery (cheese!).  They have also started delivering packages to a central parking lot where you can pick up your package in the afternoon between 2:00-6:00.

Lady Elizabeth Porkchop checks out the package center

Sam's Club is open and part of the mall closest to us opened too. Not Starbucks, but a few other stores including H&M. So now we can get $15 sweatshirts with sequined pictures of Garfield to wear to the grocery or around our house or back to H&M. But still. Is this something? Is this a hint? We hope.

There are also rumors of school opening for the upper grades as soon as next week... or maybe the following week...or possibly in April.

Safety first at Sams Club,

...and at the mall

...and in the didi

For now we continue with our routine. We are still working in the office upstairs while the kids are at school downstairs in the dining room. We go for a run almost daily. We have been watching movies and are fully up to date on TV shows and podcasts. We have been playing a lot of games as a family, both board games and on the PS4. We continue to work through this monster of a paint-by-numbers portrait. All told we are holding up as well as can be expected. 

hard at work?

staying pretty

We keep following the news, watching this start to play out around the world, hoping for the best.  Just a few months until summer break, and maybe a new quarantine when we come to visit the United States?


Giddy Up.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Things are getting stranger

The responses to our last post suggested we had conveyed a sense of optimism and a positive attitude in the face of trying circumstances. It is possible that was overstated by a little bit, but it was nice to be seen that way. So we have been on the fence about following up with a slightly gloomier post. It has been both interesting, and incredibly boring here over the past week and some things are getting strange.

School had initially been closed until February 17th, and we were expecting that to extend until March 2nd. On Sunday Irish and I went in to a meeting at school and learned the closure would be  extended to March 9th. With a full month away from school this would allow some people who wanted to get out of China the opportunity to travel.

We talked about it and there are a few things that make getting away complicated for our family. One issue is that my passport has less than six months left before it expires. I kept making appointments at the embassy over the past few weeks and then they would be cancelled because the embassy was closed. A lot of countries, most notably Thailand, will not let me enter with less than six months on the passport. We considered the Philippines but found out people we knew from Korea had been turned back at the airport in Manila because they had been in China. Vietnam has similar passport issues and is similarly unhappy with people from China arriving now. We thought about flying to the US but realized a lot of people might not want to see us for fear of contagion, and that we might have a hard time renting anywhere to stay, and that we would likely be expected to self quarantine for two weeks, and that it would cost a lot of money. So we decided (/it was decided for us) that we would stick it out in China.

I did eventually get an appointment at the embassy for early Monday morning. After the meeting at school on Sunday I took the train up to Beijing. I had my temperature taken at least five times on my way there. In a 7-11 before I could buy my Diet Coke and peanuts the clerk had to take my temperature and write it down on a clipboard where she asked me to write my name and passport number.  On the train I had to fill out paper work saying where I was staying in Beijing, and again my passport number, and again a temperature check

arriving in Beijing the station was nearly empty

I was staying at a Holiday Inn not far from the embassy and Beijing felt even more shut down than Tianjin. I think in part because it was an area that was normally very busy but getting out of the taxi it was deserted. Checking into the hotel was eerie. I asked if any restaurants were open. The clerk said I could get dinner inside the hotel but nothing outside was open. So I went to the second floor and had the saddest meal as I sat completely by myself in a silent dining room while the waitress stood nearby with her mask on. After eating I went outside briefly and looked up at my room and realized I might have been the only person checked into the hotel.

Beijing streets outside the hotel

sad dinner

My room is the one with a light on

When I woke up Monday morning I had a slight headache and realized that if I had any fever at all, even for a reason unrelated to this virus I would have a fairly big problem on my hands in terms of getting back home. The trip to the embassy went fine. I got my application in and they let me keep my current passport. I can still use it to travel if there is an emergency.  After the embassy I got my stuff together and  arranged a car back to the train station with some sense of urgency about getting home.

Back in Tianjin things have definitely not loosened up or moved towards more normal. There had been rumors of Didi (the Chinese version of Uber/Lyft)  and delivery drivers being banned from our neighborhood. Driving back from the train station we came to a road block. Initially they were not going to let the driver through but after some yelling and negotiating they let him pass. That was Monday afternoon, since then it has grown more strict.

On Tuesday the most notable change was the walls being put up all around the neighborhood. Every road and sidewalk out was blocked with blue metal walls by Tuesday night.  At this point the only way in or out of our neighborhood is through two road blocks, each around a half mile from our house in opposite directions. We were also told that no one at all could leave or enter the neighborhood between midnight and 6 am.

walls going up

one of the road blocks with walls being added

From what we understand one case of the virus was reported in our neighborhood. The area we live in, called Original County or OC, is pretty big and broken up into a number of sections. The rumored case is not in our section. But this was still enough to shut down everything. There was also an outbreak in a section of Tianjin far to the north of us where a lot of people who had been to the same mall got it.

Yesterday the restrictions grew a little tighter as we were told they were issuing ID cards and only people who lived here could come in. So no visitors. And they were only giving our family of five 2 id cards. All of this is particularly frustrating because our Chinese neighbors all own cars. Stopping Didi and delivery drivers does not affect them much. And one of these ID cards can be used for an entire car. So while the rules limit us pretty dramatically it is not the same for everyone.

We received a copy of a message titled "A Letter to all Foreign Friends" explaining some of the decision making process. It included this passage which is meant to be reassuring but somehow isn't.

We would like to reassure foreign friends in Tianjin that the municipal government will fulfill its international obligations and respond to concerns by foreign citizens in Tianjin in a timely manner, and also safeguard the security of all foreign friends in Tianjin with a responsible attitude. We have full confidence and good capability to win the battle against the pneumonia outbreak by relying on concerted efforts,

I think it is the reference to safeguarding our security? I just had not thought about that being necessary, and I'm not certain what it entails.

Over the past few days Irish and I have both swung between being calm and relatively accepting of our circumstances towards an occasional sense of frustration or slight panic. The new rules are a little frightening because they do not make much sense. Like the masks everyone is wearing, it feels like a big effort at enforcing compliance just to show something is being done. Again, understanding that I know nothing about public health or disease prevention, but this seems like it is either an overreaction, or  things are much worse than we are being told.

Still, trying to keep a sense of perspective the reported numbers relative to the population of our city, or China as a whole, remain very very small. And absolutely everything we are reading says for most people catching the virus is basically like having a cold. For the small number of people who are gravely affected, most of them were already sick with other things. But then we walk outside and see the blue walls and that sense of perspective gets shaky.

We are keeping our days fairly structured and full. It turns out trying to teach online takes a lot of effort. We are sleeping a little later but then working a full day and often into the evening.  The kids keep busy with their classes through the morning. They have been reading, playing too much PlayStation, watching a little too much TV, and to their credit really not complaining or fighting with each other. Yet.

the girls hard at work

teaching from home in our office

Over the past year I had become very good about going to the gym 4 times a week and lifting heavy weights. It has been good for my sanity and made me stronger. With that unavailable Irish and I have tried to exercise in the house with limited success, and now we have taken to going for runs around the neighborhood every afternoon. I am not really built like a runner but it has been good. Old ladies think it is funny to see my bare legs in shorts on a cold day. We stop by the grocery at the end of each run. I keep buying more canned goods and rice. I honestly do not think it will be necessary but I feel better having them in the house.

Where things stand now- There had been a slowing of new cases over the past few days and that seemed promising, but this morning there was a spike as they changed how new cases were identified.  This afternoon we read that Hong Kong schools have extended their closure until March 16th. (though it sounds like the city has not shut down like things have here.) Our school's director wrote this evening warning it may mean our closure will go on longer- to the 16th or beyond. So it is not clear whether the end is even in sight. There has to be some limit to how long they try to keep us in our houses though?

For right now we are fine. Nothing to worry about. It is an adventure. And we will keep track of things as they progress, hopefully to a calm and peaceful resolution.

outside for a breath of fresh air through the masks. 
grocery clerk in goggles gloves and mask

that last measurement isn't great

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Shining 2: Tianjin

2020 started out well, better than most years, even. We had the laziest Thai beach vacation ever and second semester started off with both of us chaperoning a model UN trip to Shanghai.

But right around the Chinese New Year holiday we started to hear about the new virus in Wuhan (Wuhan is pretty far from us- if Tianjin is roughly parallel to where New York City is Wuhan is roughly around eastern Tennessee). By the time we heard about it, we were nearing another week-long vacation for CNY. The New Year break started off just as every other year-not much going on, but some talk of the new virus.

Happy New Year celebration at school

We went to Beijing to meet up with our good friends for a fancy New Year dinner. (Peking duck and a show with traditional dances and such.)  There had been talk of the virus but nothing like what it has become.  On the way to the train station we noticed the lack of traffic, the lack of people in the station and that everyone we did see was wearing a mask. We thought maybe things were quiet because of the holiday-we couldn't quite remember-are things usually busier at the train station or quieter on the actual day of the holiday? Still, it all felt strange and on the train was the first time a stranger approached us to suggest we put on masks.

Happy New Year!

After a great night out with our friends we returned to Tianjin on New Year's Day (Jan. 24), with plans to go back to Beijing midweek. Within a day of returning to Tianjin, we knew we probably wouldn't be going back to Beijing, at least not all 5 of us together. There was a rising sense of concern about the virus. On Sunday the 26th we learned that school would be closed through at least the second week of February. We went to Sam's Club to get supplies in case we got stuck.

The New Year break is usually quiet for us anyway. It's very expensive to travel that week, so we usually just stay home and even in a normal year all small businesses are closed that week. For the rest of the break we watched lots of TV. We ate snacks all day. We got together with some friends (don't tell anyone). We were a little nervous about what was going to happen next but not panicked.

Before going on about our experience, you should know that at this point, we have been getting our information primarily from American news-so basically we have the same information as you. We are in no way experts in epidemiology or the prevention of pandemic.  That having been said, as far as we can tell there is very little risk  for us related to the virus. In a country of 1.4 billion people the number of people who are sick is incredibly small. In our city of 14 million people there are less than 100 cases, and it seems to be life threatening to a much smaller percentage of that already small group.

To the extent that we are worried it is related to the response. We understand that a lot of this is an excess of caution. It is a response to a disease that is not fully understood and probably best to overreact a little. However, some of it is challenging.

Everything we have read says that masks are important for doctors and nurses dealing directly with people who are sick, but will not do much if anything for everyone else. Still we can not go outside without a mask. Some of this is formal, stores will not let us in without a mask, drivers are not allowed to pick us up if we aren't wearing one. Some of it is informal- strangers will stop you and insist you put one on. It is an argument we don't need to win so we wear the masks now.

double mask!
While the city of Wuhan and the surrounding area are on a formal quarantine with everything locked down, the rules for our city are not as clear and seem to be enforced largely by peer pressure.

We are not legally required to stay indoors, but when other foreign teachers have been outside neighbors have taken pictures and complained to the school. While the insistence on masks seems excessive it is understandable, but there are other rumors about the virus spreading in the wind or in the snow that seem absurd but they are getting repeated.

Going to stores, or leaving or entering our neighborhood there are people taking everyone's temperature. We have been stopped by the police more than once to have our temperature checked and they are writing down information on everyone they stop. It is not entirely clear what would happen if we happened to have a fever. Increasingly we are aware that we just can not go outside much at all. 

We're stuck here at home until the 17th at least. At the time of writing this it looks like we will  probably be at home until March 2. We've started online school which is a totally new experience as both teachers and parents. It's interesting and difficult and boring and fun.

Two weeks of increasingly being stuck indoors has been challenging already. Another three weeks of this is a daunting prospect. We are trying to stay busy and not kill each other. We send the kids on errands to the grocery every day though, just to get them out. We bought a badminton set to knock around indoors with our high ceilings. We have seen all of the Oscar nominated movies and have opinions on them all.

paint by numbers project

We watch "the People's Court" for our lunch break every day!

recess: Just Dance

Team meeting

Going forward there are a few things we are watching for. So far finding food has generally been fine except for bread; we may have to live on chips and cookies, but it's food. Groceries and gas stations are operating as usual. If getting food or water is at all difficult that would be a source of concern. If hospitals become difficult to access that would also be a something we would pay attention to.

It seemed strange that the US consulate left Wuhan right at the time citizens would likely need help. The US embassy in Beijing has been closed over the past several weeks with a phone number available for emergencies. In nine years of living overseas we have only been to the embassy to renew passports, but right now we are paying a lot of attention to them. If things get worse we have options. There are commercial flights available, and in the worst case we can get on an expensive charter flight. But none of that seems likely in the short term.

For now we will keep on doing our thing. Teaching in sweats. Connecting with friends when we can. Wearing our masks and quietly staying calm and sane.

(If you would like to make yourself a little crazy watching a running total of how many people are sick Johns Hopkins has this site  that you can keep refreshing over and over again.)