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


  1. Gosh I hope you all are ok - what a crazy challenge. And test of strength. You will be ok!

  2. are all pretty amazing, thank god you are all smart
    And writers bc at least
    You each have your wit to entertain. The boredom would be so tough. Hell, it would all be so tough. Thinking of you, praying for you and and praying this is over soon. Stay safe
    And sane❤️

  3. Fantastic write up, thank you so much!!! Stay safe!

  4. You all are in our thoughts. Looks like you are a few months ahead as US now deals with similar issues and closures. Good luck and hopefully cases slow down and we can get back to normal by.....summer? Sorry no March madness invite this year. I guess we have a diff. kind of MM! All the best. The Coates