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Whenever I think about the situation facing my family right now, I’m taken back to the ending of the movie The Perfect Storm. There’s a moment when you think everything’s going to be OK, when the sun breaks through the clouds and there’s a sense of hope that makes you want to laugh out loud at the disaster just narrowly averted. Then the skies turn black again, and you’re consumed with a sinking realization that, in fact, the worst has yet to come.
Recently, I’ve sat each morning in the small breakfast room of a Comfort Inn in Raleigh, North Carolina, watching “Good Morning America” and experiencing a surreal mix of culture shock (having been away from America for over 20 years), and déjà vu. I look across the table at my wife and say, “Do you remember when this happened in China?” And each day, the walls feel like they’re closing in on us a little bit tighter.
The other day, I walked into the breakfast room to find the manager in latex gloves, folding up the chairs, apologizing that breakfast is canceled until further notice.
My family and I were in Luoyang, Henan when the virus hit, visiting my wife’s hometown like we always do for Chinese New Year. Luoyang is a mass of urban sprawl under heavily polluted gray skies, filled with massive apartment complexes, each holding more residents than the average small American town. Both of our children were born there.
Henan Province sits just beside Hubei, ground-zero of the epidemic. The city of Wuhan is about a 5-hour drive away. My wife and I know Wuhan well and have spent a lot of time there. It’s an odd city, dominated by a newly-built, faux European town center, complete with a Notre Dame-style fake cathedral. If you walk inside the cathedral, it’s actually a shopping mall and food court, complete with wooden church pews, but with a McDonald’s sign exactly where the crucifix would be.
But I’d like to clear up the fact that the vast majority of outdoor wet markets in China, including the one near our home in Jiansgu where we regularly buy our food, don’t sell exotic wildlife. At worst, you’re likely to find live seafood and chickens. My wife not only doesn’t eat bats, she was vegan when we met – and it was me, a Texan, who converted her back to eating meat again. Although eating exotic wildlife is considered a delicacy and an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine in some parts of the country, in general it’s a very small percentage, and most people would find it off-putting to say the least.
When we heard the news of the virus, the thought flashed through my mind that it might affect us, but it still seemed far away. Just get through the holiday, I told myself. Soon we’ll be in Bali.
What happened over the next few days was a nightmare that unfolded slowly, almost imperceptibly, where each day brought with it a “new normal.” First masks, then panic buying, then empty streets, then lockdown quarantine.
Mercifully, the government was allowing VPNs to function so we could access news and social media from outside. Usually during politically sensitive times, the government cracks down on VPNs and shuts them all down. My Facebook feed was filled with concerned messages from friends and family. People offered us prayers and support and were shocked and fascinated by the photos I posted. Looking back, what I should have said was, “Dear world, get ready because this is about to happen to you.”
In total, we spent over a month in lockdown, with four adults and four children, ranging in ages from 2 to 5, all crowded into one small apartment. The entrance to our gates were guarded, requiring temperature checks and a special government-issued pass to go outside. Only one person per family was allowed out every two days for a maximum of two hours to buy food. Your temperature was then checked again at the grocery store entrance by staff in hazmat suits and goggles.
We did the best we could to keep our spirits up. We made a little home school for the kids, with each parent taking turns teaching different subjects. We took turns cooking meals and tried to keep a daily routine. But toward the end, I felt both my sense of time and sanity slipping away, as I hadn’t been outside for days on end. And all I could think of was finding ways to get out. Some of the residents in our compound did eventually crack and try to escape over the fences, only to be caught by security guards and sent straight back home.
Finally, after jumping through a number of bureaucratic hoops, we managed to escape. Our bags were checked by airport staff in white bubble suits and goggles. My wife and kids had already made it past the last checkpoint when the computers suddenly went down. I had to scramble back to the check-in desk to sort it out, and in doing so, set off temperature sensors that got me thrown into a special quarantine zone at the airport. I sat, sweating, with a thermometer under my armpit, listening to the boarding call for my flight. My heart was pounding as I practiced meditation and breathing techniques. Finally, I was cleared and allowed to board.
Opening the shades and seeing the soft early morning sunshine on my daughter’s face as we flew over JFK International Airport was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. That feeling lasted for a few days – until the small signs slowly began to reappear. Someone with a mask on the street. Empty shelves at the grocery store. More bad news from “Good Morning America.” And now the darkness is pulling us back into its clutches, just like George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in The Perfect Storm.
Ironically, the one place in the world that seems safe to me now is China. And I wish we were back there.
What scared me about China was the fact that if a family member had the virus, they would be taken to a hospital, with no visits allowed. If someone died, you never saw them again. No funerals. No goodbyes. Just cremation. This seemingly harsh measure was necessary to prevent further exposure to the virus, as government officials worried that funerals would be ideal places for contagion. But for a parent, the prospect of never seeing your child again is difficult to imagine. Also, families of an infected person were subject to mandatory home quarantine, with their doors often sealed with tape and sometimes even barricaded from the outside to prevent them from escaping. At night, I would lie in bed and fall asleep to the soft rumbling of troops of disinfectant trucks, spraying heavy fog into the abandoned streets.
What scares me about the U.S. is the reaction people would have to those trucks, considering the distrust and contempt many people have for the government here, and the fact they’re armed. What made China successful in battling this virus is what’s at the heart of the difference between our two cultures: tough pragmatism and a population of people who are incapable of going against the will of the government, versus a country that shuns pragmatic choices and a populace with the potential to openly revolt and turn on each other in a combination of The Purge and World War Z. I’m also concerned about the increasing incidences of violence against Asians as the anger spills over and people start looking for someone to blame.
The potential economic fallout is similarly tied to cultural differences. Forty percent of Americans are one paycheck away from poverty. Many of those people have no extended family support. Chinese, on the other hand, save more than 30 percent of their income on average. And the vast majority of people have the option of returning to a relative’s home if their situation becomes dire. The homeless rate in China is nearly zero.
If you think Americans are experiencing panic now, wait until the hospitals start becoming overrun and this rock-solid system that has never been stress-tested starts to fall apart. I pray that doesn’t happen. But if it continues to follow the same trajectory that we followed in China (and so far it has), then that’s where we’re headed next. I asked the manager downstairs at the Comfort Inn if she thought they’d stay open. “I’ll be the last one to leave here,” she says with a reassuring smile. “The captain always goes down with the ship,” I reply.
I think of the sunshine on my daughter’s sleeping face, with the quiet Jersey seashore down below. And I remember the look in the captain’s eyes as the skies suddenly grew dark again.