Every day is exactly the same again. I fight through the daily necessities of maintaining my body and our home, trying to carve time for my work, my writing, and my guitar. My pajamas are the uniform of my service, except when I put on outdoor clothes for my daily COVID test. I sit by the heater, warming my toes, and try to stay peaceful and an island of serenity in a turbulent ocean of uncertainty. It’s just a Christmas day, over and over again, day after day, and I’m going to be just fine. The first time we did this, I was full of fear, mostly about what would happen to my dreams if I died unfulfilled. Today, I smile, looking at the books I wrote during this tough time, knowing that no matter what, I did what I always wanted to do. There is nothing left to fear.
It’s been 1033 days since the world changed. Well, that’s not specific enough; the world is constantly evolving. I guess I can say it’s been 1033 days since I stayed home to avoid a highly contagious, quickly mutating, potentially lethal virus that was almost certainly airborne (although most people ignored that evidence for months or years, leading to millions of deaths and a global pandemic outside of China, in China, we were cautious, and mostly, have been pretty safe from the worst of it, at incredible sacrifice, and at great cost). It’s been over 1000 days since I stopped going out. Well, that’s not entirely true, either. After about 100 days, Chongqing had been pretty good again. Things like restaurants, schools, shopping malls, and movie theaters had opened again, COVID-free, with some caveats and a couple of weeks of ‘let’s all stay home and cut the spread’ after every holiday – about every two or three months when inevitably, the migration of millions of people in the world’s most populated country caused a little surge or an outbreak. This, however, is different. The river spirit that’s protected Chongqing for most of the last three years is out to lunch…and I’m on day 16 of our latest no-holds-barred lockdown at my school. They say it might last until the new year. The situation, again, is fluid, but one thing is for sure: it feels like it’s going to be a long one this time.
I wake up at the crack of 9:30 and make coffee. I’m hoping to play NHL Hockey with Canada online and get caught up on the latest news, but we’ve got to hustle out the door and get COVID tests again. Luckily, this happens on the school campus, and we can wait until the line has died down. It’s our first test in 72 hours because the local volunteers and health workers have been swamped in the community all weekend. We had spent last night trying to order some food online – just slightly concerned that if this goes the way of the Shanghai lockdown, we could be in it for three or four months, and the absolute lockdown procedures had food trucks parked, rotting, at the city entrance, while some in the core starved. Our shopping attempt did not work, as all the online outlets in our district were sold out of food. We went to bed with the intention to go out for our’ once every two days, one household member can leave for two hours to shop for food’ pass, even though the school has been encouraging everyone to stay in, no matter what – I mean, ordering online is fine if the stores have food, but they were sold out… so we got our test, went to the gates, and found a small fiesta, the second one this week, as a makeshift curbside market sold vegetables. Mostly they were in government-decreed packages, but Xiaolin picked some sweet-looking corn and other greens up. Still no potatoes. The whole city seems out of potatoes as panic-buying has cleared every shelf in our sealed-off city district.
I wait by the gate as Xiaolin scans her green health code, and the timer starts ticking – she makes two or three trips back with bags of veggies she’s found in a couple of shops that are still open up the hill, and I race them back home, back in time for her next trip.
We head home, have a quick lunch, and I get ready for my second week of online classes. Today I’ll be teaching an analysis of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ a 100-year-old classic that feels especially apt today. I send it off to my teacher contact so that 900 kids in the general stream can put it in their cue for weekly classes and prepare to deliver it live to a couple of international classes. I check my WeChat and found out things have changed again.
No one is to leave the school barring a medical emergency, and we’re requested not to walk outside our houses (on the campus for exercise) anymore due to the risk of transmission. So right now, I’m hella glad we made that last shopping trip before the gates closed, and we can say we’re good for at least a month or two. We take stock of supplies, and I dust off the old sprouts growing machine; time to get gardening again and fast.
We walk by the school gates and hear yelling. An older lady is trying to go shopping. Several teachers, and volunteer bouncers, tell her no ins and outs (a phrase that rattles around my head after two decades in the music business, of course, it does). Xiaolin shakes her head and says, “there’s nobody quite as unreasonable and difficult as a Chinese woman once they get older.” I smile and nod. We’re close to an epiphany.
We try to order more spring water – a staple of my ex-pat life here for the past decade and provided free by the school in 18l jugs – but the waterman is also quarantined in his compound, and no one can make the handoff. I start asking around, and it seems boiling water will have to cut it for now when we run out and be safe enough, at least for a little while.
I can’t imagine the amount of work going into managing this city, much less all of China. Although, if I were to start a new business, I’d say the fence-builders are doing great. Everywhere we look, there are new fences somewhere to keep us safe, to keep us in. Videos online make us laugh as neighbors on either side of fences tell those on the other side to stay put.
That said, we’re in good spirits. Things are decidedly different this time. The first one was scary, full of unknowns. Gone is the anxiety, the fear, the ennui, and instead, just a resignation to do the best we can with our time. As a stoic, I enjoy the gratitude of having limited supplies. The last avocado was the best avocado I’d ever had. Each morning fresh coffee tastes all the sweeter, knowing we might run out any time and be unable to get any more. It’s that conscious mindfulness of life’s limitations and our limited resources that makes every moment feel more alive and all the more precious. The pandemic has been a bummer for all and a tragic loss of life and livelihood for many. Still, for those fortunate enough to weather the storm, such as myself, it reminds me that all life is fleeting and makes me savor the brief moment I’m here, enjoying my life while I have it all the more.
I lost an old friend today on the other side of the world. Goodbye Enver, known to many as the King of Vanier, known to a few, as a friend. Almost 30 years passed in a flash, half a lifetime, and we’d lost touch for a while, but I feel the vibrancy of his passion for life rippling through our circles as we all take a moment to reflect. Enver, you were not timid, quiet, or well-behaved. You were brave, ferocious, and outspoken, roasting me more than most people I know. I think I annoyed you like crazy. My foppish, dandy, farcical, and absurd attitudes came off as showy, jazz hands, and you liked to call me out for being full of hot air and nonsense. You said pretty wild things, deep things in late-night conversations, and some ridiculous things too. You liked to make people laugh, and you were a great listener. We often seemed so different – you came across as a real tough guy, but those close to you can attest to your heart of gold. I respected you, and I will miss knowing you’re out there. But I’m glad we were friends. Goodbye for now, but I have a feeling I’ll see you again somewhere, maybe that place all our friends go when they tire, the dreamlands.
The news is we’re building a pile of makeshift hospitals, some down the street from me, that will hold 26,000 beds for those that test positive for COVID-19. I don’t want to go there.
In the west, where for most it seems a minor ordeal, although, for some, debilitating or even fatal, they scratch their head, what are we doing? Sometimes, I, too, am not sure. I know only a little more than half of our seniors have been vaccinated— resistance? Concerns? And we, surprisingly, haven’t pushed them too hard to go and get jabbed. I can’t imagine the press we’d get if we decided for the good of the country, the economy, and young people’s livelihoods to hold down old people and inject them… so ironically, it’s the very freedom we’ve given seniors to choose and the fallout from the choices they’ve made that lead us to this series of never-ending lockdowns. At least they’re ‘smart lockdowns,’ district by district. It’s weird to think that parts of my city are still going to work, getting mail, and shopping. At least until the first case shows up— sometimes I feel like I’m having a prank played on me, and the rest of the world has kept on going. They’re just lying to me, so I’ll stay home and write.
Today we reported 231 local symptomatic cases and 5,898 asymptomatic cases. Yesterday, about 2000 of those were in the vicinity of my school, meaning somehow, against the odds, my neighborhood is like covid ground zero for all of China, and Chongqing is second only to Guangzhou in daily cases the number of serious infected. Volunteers from around China stream to help manage our testing, barriers, and food logistics and delivery, and I just hope we do a better job keeping us fed than Shanghai last year. Mistakes were made there, and I hope we’ve learned from them. So far, so good.
We go online, looking for advice. Steven wants to order me some potatoes but finds out that all meat and veggies are sold out for another day.
Glad I’ve got those 5-pound bags of chickpeas and lentils hanging around. I know they’ll come in handy. Today I made Spaghetti Bolognese and tonight it’s WoSuan, which is an interesting Chinese vegetable with a head like lettuce and a root portion like a green potato. I like it best because it sounds like I’m saying ‘Awesome’ in a really bad Boston accent. “Heyyy, this Hot Pot is WoSuan!”
Meito got some milk teas last night, and so we tried to order our own, an unexpected treat from a civilization outside our doors. After an hour without delivery, we cancel the order. No one wants to bike two milk teas into a locked-down quarantine zone for tips. I guess I can’t blame them.
Xiaolin’s signed us up for government-issued veggie rations that arrive in 7.5 KG bags and are intended to be a weekly supply of food for one household. We don’t know when they will come, but maybe next week. It’s all so very fluid.
Today we get lucky! Drivers are willing to risk lockdown for us. The milk tea is delicious, and Xiaolin got me a pack of sliced spicy potatoes. I’m saving them for breakfast tomorrow, where I’ll enjoy the last of my English muffins and an egg sandwich. A proper western breakfast, one more time, with some strong coffee and a good day of writing. Then I’ll play some guitar, and we’ll try to get some exercise in, maybe even chance a walk under cover of night.
And just like that, before bed, Xiaolin tells me the whole city will close down tomorrow. The delivery men will stop delivering after 25 of them in the downtown core tested positive today, which could be a whole new vector of transmission, and I hope the alcohol spray we wiped down those milk teas with did the trick.
Xiaolin comes into my office and says someone from our school’s group COVID test is now positive, despite being 15 days into our lockdown. We are completely shut down now, and she’s scared. Perhaps the food she’s just managed to order will not be allowed in (it turns out someone will bring it to our door), or maybe we will need to be tested several times a day. She says no more walks outside the apartment. She asked me what I would do if she were taken away to quarantine, or if I was, how would I manage. I hold her hand and tell her that it would be alright and that my Chinese is good enough to say to them when I’m hungry. I do hope we can stay home, though, because it’s much more comfortable, warm, and productive in my house than I would be in a 1000-person quarantine makeshift hospital in a little ‘cubicle.’ I wonder, in that close-packed facility, how long it would take to end up covid-negative? Either way, life is full of surprises, and if that’s what it’s store for me, you can be sure that I’ll write all about it, given the chance. It is a time full of fear and confusion, and that’s all the more reason to be calm and serene.
I am a drop in the Ocean, I tell myself, and I am the Ocean in a drop.
Venturing into the unknown, all we can do is sit it out in our pajamas, drinking a warm cup of Joe, and when that’s gone, we’ve got deep stocks of teas and make it through what feels like a never-ending Sunday at home, Groundhog Day, on loop, ad nauseam. I hope to come out the other end with a new book, some new guitar songs, and my marriage intact. It’s like 100 days of Christmas without the food, gifts, or cheer; we’re left with warm socks and an appreciation for what remains of the day. And it has to be enough because it’s all we have.
[mixcloud https://www.mixcloud.com/doctore-danish/xmas-in-china-party-mix/ width=100% height=120 hide_cover=1 light=1 hide_artwork=1]
(Speaking of Christmas, here is the funkiest Christmas mix on the internet that I made a few years back. Enjoy!)