Nowhere to Go

A guest post from Jo Bird. Jo is an American expat living in Shanghai with her husband and five children. She has previously lived in NYC and London but grew up in Boise, Idaho. Her experiences living abroad have given her a richer understanding of relationships and community.

Each morning I wake when the hazy Shanghai sun comes through my linen curtains. There is nowhere to go, nothing to be late for. There is no bus coming, no yoga class, no after-school clubs or piano lessons. I roll on my back and think only about if I’m going to go for a run. I don’t have to worry about whether lunch accounts need to be topped up or permission slips need to be signed. I decide a run sounds good and as I change my clothes my husband Richard rolls out of bed to wake the kids.

Three weeks ago Richard and I flew with our five kids to the Philippines for a Lunar New Year vacation. Each day during our stay in paradise, news about the coronavirus escalated fear and panic, and we received word that schools were closing, church was cancelled and the official holiday was extended. By our last day I found myself sitting on the edge of a canopied four-poster bed in a heated discussion with Richard about what we should do. My instincts told me to return home to Shanghai, but there were concerns with that plan and Richard was worried I wasn’t giving them adequate consideration. Will our access to healthcare be compromised? What will our options be for leaving China if the situation gets worse?

We lived in Shanghai for three months before our belongings arrived. They came just before we went back to the U.S. for Christmas, and we were all looking forward to a new year in a home that finally felt like home. Sitting on metal chairs at the Manila airport, feeding the kids Choco snacks for lunch while we talked and emailed with airlines and Richard’s employer, all we could think about was being home. We discussed flying to the U.S and staying with family, but for how long? We had just been there, we had barely recovered from the jet lag. Our parents love us, but no one wants house guests indefinitely. No one wants to BE a house guest indefinitely. We talked about returning to NYC but all we had with us was summer vacation clothes. It felt too impractical. Not to mention the possibility of being quarantined once we reached the U.S. I just wanted to be home, in my space, with my things.

* * *

I wake up my 15 year old to run with me. It’s before 7:00am but he doesn’t complain. We do the first mile together and then he takes off at his own speed. When I come by the house for my last loop around the neighborhood he’s sitting on the front steps, catching his breath, so I wave him back out to finish with me. When we’re done we stretch in the cool February morning and make small talk about our playlists and the air quality. The street is still, as if the empty houses are holding their breath.

Inside our house the other kids are at the table eating breakfast- hot chocolate, toast, fresh fruit. We’ve been ordering a lot of fruit, Mr. Deng delivers it right to the door with a shy smile and handwritten receipt. Our neighborhood and surrounding area is predominantly occupied by foreigners, and locals have built a micro-economy providing services to expatriates.

After breakfast it’s time for “distance learning.” The kids miss school and it has been a difficult adjustment doing classes online. I have to be vigilant or else they use messaging apps to spam their friends with gifs, or doodle with the drawing tools. We do this for a few hours and then sit down together for lunch. Except for the days when I take my lunch to my room because I need a break from these people.

The day after The Forbidden City closed due to the outbreak, we sat around our dining room table with some friends from London. They had spent a few days in Beijing and were now visiting us in Shanghai. We joked about how lucky they were to see the sites before the shutdown. Our conversation evolved into a discussion about how humans are notoriously bad at measuring their own risk. We found a humorous article online about all the things we are unjustifiably afraid of (terrorists, airplanes) and the things that are genuine risks (the common flu, antibiotic resistance.) We are an irrational species, with misguided ideas about where real danger is, neglecting reason as we make decisions. The probability of me contracting the virus in a city of 24 million people, with 330 cases, has to be less than .01%. If I had a .01% chance of being accepted to grad school I wouldn’t even apply. If I had a .01% chance of contracting Tuberculosis on a vacation, I would for sure still take the vacation. Who wouldn’t?

After we returned to Shanghai, I spent a day feeling relieved. I wasn’t afraid of the virus, I wasn’t panicked about food shortages. But by our second day I felt insecure about how many families had left. As I read through dozens of messages in WeChat groups I wondered if I’d made the right choice. Out of 25+ American families in our church branch, only three stayed. With similar ratios in our neighborhood and international school community.

My friend from church had a baby one week before things began to unravel in China. She is an expat like myself, and I’ve been there. I had a baby in another country and it was isolating and lonely. When I thought about leaving her, I felt the kind of gnawing stomach knot when one set of values collides with another and you have to decide if they are mutually exclusive.

I wanted to be sure that I was making the most responsible choice for keeping my children safe and healthy. But I also didn’t want to abandon my community. This is our home now. Who would order Mr. Deng’s fruit? Would my Chinese teacher have a source of income when all her expat students left? And what about the Chinese people in my church congregation for whom leaving isn’t an option? This is their home. What would I be saying by packing my bags and jetting out of town at the first sign of something unpleasant?

* * *

After lunch the kids finish up their school assignments and I send them outside to ride bikes. It’s a nice day so my daughter Amirah and I walk to the park at the end of the street. We pass three construction workers who have pulled their masks down under their chins while they have a cigarette. At the park, I push her in the swing and she chats in three year old nonsense.

“Mom, do you like to swing? I always do my best. Forever times I can’t believe it.”

I don’t bother trying to make sense of what she says, I just laugh. My phone buzzes. How are you? Are you terrified of going out? Daily I receive texts from friends and acquaintances from Shanghai who left.

No I’m great actually. It’s 61 degrees today and I’m loving this quiet life! I respond.

I have everything I need to be content, but it’s just out of reach. I have the opportunity to experience Shanghai without the social dynamics that crippled me in my first few months. I am sure that I’m doing what is best for me (and my family) even though that thing is counter-cultural and frowned upon.

Amirah informs me that she needs to use the bathroom so we walk home.

After dinner and a board game with the kids, Richard pops popcorn and we sit down to relax and watch a show. But first we scroll through the day’s news. I’m immediately frustrated with alarmist headlines and dramatic rhetoric. Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater would have a real cost. Shouting “Fire!” in nationalistic news articles has a cost too. I can see ways in which excessive travel restrictions, based in fear and not reason, are doing material harm in the lives of people I know. Families are separated, income is lost, vulnerable communities are disconnected from important supply chains.

The other day Phoebe came and gave my girls and me a manicure. Phoebe is a middle-aged esthetician who has built a business doing pedicure and manicure house calls for expat women. As she painted sparkly purple polish on Amirah’s tiny fingernails she told me that we were only her second client for the entire month. Her clientele vanished, but her rent and her son’s appetite didn’t.

The WHO asked countries not to close their borders, and then they did. Which led to difficulty for China to import necessary medical supplies, making treatment and patient care even more challenging, especially in smaller cities.

I lie in bed wondering when there will be a celebrity telethon to raise money for #CoVID-19.

Eventually I fall asleep, under the weight of my own insecurities and the awareness of China’s woes. I’ve been given an opportunity to slow my life down, strip away all the non-essentials and still, even under these ideal circumstances, I wrestle my demons. But in the morning, there will be no alarm, just the light coming through the curtains. With nowhere to go.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this Jo. I really enjoyed reading about your experience. I like that it gives me much to think about, especially as to the personal costs to individuals when things close down and their ability to provide for their families becomes difficult.

  2. Kristine says:

    Jo–I really like this. It’s easy to narrow our vision when threatened, and I love the way you have kept your perspective wider and tried to give heft and substance to the sometimes nebulous idea of “community,” that gets so quickly lost in the fog when we are scared.

  3. Is there any sign yet of life returning to usual?

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the lovely reflections, Jo.

  5. Thanks for this, Jo. I’m in NYC right now and wondering some of the same things.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    So beautifully written. Thanks for this window into your life there in the wake of the virus.

  7. Deena McArthur says:

    Thank you for sharing your feelings Jo! This was really well written. Glad life has slowed down for you, just wish is was different circumstances.

  8. Please use Lunar New Year. Many people other than the Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year.

  9. Jo, you are so adept at capturing the nuances of whatever you’re writing about. This article should go national! I’ll do my part and forward it to anyone I can.

  10. hokiekate says:

    Beautifully written. I really appreciate your perspective and agree that the panic seems disproportionate to the risk. According to the CDC, there have been 18,000 to 46,000 deaths in the US from influenza this winter (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm). Of my vaccinated family, two of the five of us had the flu. So we wash hands and life goes on.

  11. I really appreciated reading this!

  12. Jo Bird says:

    Peterllc – sort of! Life in Shanghai is slowly returning to normal. Many people are still working from home, non-essential businesses like museums and theaters are still closed and the schools likely won’t open until April, but traffic is getting worse each day so I take that as a positive sign.

  13. Jo Bird says:

    vajra2 – Thank you for pointing that out to me. I’m a guest poster here so I don’t have the ability to change it in my post- but going forward I will be sure to do so! I used “Chinese New Year” simply because China is where I’m currently living and my kids school holiday and husband’s work schedules are dictated by the Chinese government calendar. But I want to be inclusive and culturally sensitive and I appreciate your point.

  14. Kristine says:

    Jo, I took the liberty of changing it for you.

  15. Thanks Kristine!

  16. Caution is of course in order. The virus is obviously very contagious, and the death rate is now being adjusted upward. But you can’t just stop all life from happening in the world. It’s a tricky thing. Lucky we have Trump in charge here to spread disinformation and make sure nobody trusts our medical experts.

  17. Very beautiful reflection Jo! Loved it!

  18. Kim Neurath says:

    Bravo!!!!

  19. Julie Stevens says:

    Hi Jo,
    Your mom gave me the link to your article, it is really good and so eye opening. I know I can’t imagine how you are doing and yet I feel peace with what you are saying.
    I think about you guys often and pray you are ok and doing well. You and your family are such an inspiration and are always on an adventure that I enjoy through your posts and blog. Keep writing and sharing your experiences and life lessons. Love you all, Julie S.

  20. As always, so very insightful & well written.
    We are always amazed by your honesty & optimism!