Our Immediate Future Rested on a Five-Dollar E-Thermometer
Eyes staring up at the battery-operated thermometer, hovering a mere centimeter from a furrowed brow, I held my breath. Sweaty palms pressed against the airplane’s cool, metal armrests, my grip tightening. With trepidation I recalled the Cohen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and the protagonist’s gruesome modus operandi for silencing his prey. Placing a pneumatic cattle gun against the unwitting victim’s forehead, its button was pressed, sending a 1-inch stainless steel bolt into their cranium. At times a question based on the flip of a coin would decide their future. Replacing ‘heads or tails’ with a digital reading, the e-thermometer would ask the fate-determining question. While it was incapable of shattering my skull, the answer would dictate if quarantine of myself and those around me would be immediate upon landing, collective blame and hate its collateral damage.
It has been one year since our initial self-isolation began in Shanghai, China, January 31st, 2020, when judgement was passed 10,000 feet up.
It has been one year since our initial self-isolation began in Shanghai, China, January 31st, 2020, when judgement was passed 10,000 feet up. At the moment, with little understanding of the virus, or its potential, we were returning to a country that would be the first on the planet to lockdown.
Prior to our departure to Myanmar to celebrate the incoming Year of the Rat, we were following the news with increased anxiety: a nova coronavirus was hospitalizing thousands in Wuhan, its epicenter, an outdoor wet market. The entire city went into lockdown on January 23rd, the day we arrived in Mandalay. Over the following week, international flights began to cancel services in and out of China. Fear traveled fast. Cruising down the muddy Irrawaddy River, I was scolded by my wife more than once, “Do not speak Chinese. People will think we are carriers!” Preparing to check-in for our return flight to Shanghai, believing she overheard the Wuhanese dialect, she froze in panic, whispering, “We can’t go in that direction, they’re from Wuhan!” My wife probably didn’t need reminding — she was originally from Hubei, its capital being Wuhan, but I did all the same.
We had contemplated delaying our return to China. At the time, there were no cases in Myanmar. It was tropical. There were beaches. Cost of living was cheap. Locals were friendly. There wasn’t a military coup, which is tragically taking place at this time. China was a question mark. A damp, bone-chilling winter would be waiting, where February is gloomy at best. Would there be empty supermarket shelves alongside abandoned concrete streets? Then again, if we did not return, when could we? Was this a window of opportunity that should not be forsaken? We had jobs to worry about. Shanghai was our home. Unsure, we let the airlines decide. Our flight was not cancelled. We returned.
And down the line they went, row after row, the levels of anxiety visible in wide, darting eyes above the sky-blue 3-ply masks.
The e-thermometer asked. Its gauge answered. “36.5 degrees Celsius” (97.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Faces masked, leaving them as expressionless as the Cohen Brother’s cold-blooded killer, a China Southern Airlines flight attendant read the verdict. Her partner scribbled it down. Another passenger had earned their reprieve. And down the line they went, row after row, the levels of anxiety visible in wide, darting eyes above the sky-blue 3-ply masks. Our flight had passed a group sentencing.
Within twelve hours of returning, the unofficial community liaison who lived on the first floor of our tiny apartment complex, a proper ‘busybody’, paid us a visit. Through a closed door she requested that we contact the local residential community center to update where we’ve been and that we understand what is required of us. We did as we were asked: limit your exposure to the outside world. If you go out, mask-up and avoid people. Ideally, do not leave your home. They were friendly, yet serious. Professional and frank.
Depending on where you lived in the city of twenty-six million, freedom of travel varied. Public transportation such as buses and subways were reduced to a trickle. Parks were sealed off. Movie theaters and public venues shuttered. Restaurants were making the necessary transition, from dine-in to take-away. Some apartment complexes allowed only a single individual from a family unit to leave every three days for food. Others did not even allow that. Structural design and shared main gates made monitoring of comings and goings easy. If you failed to to follow the rules, you didn’t enter. Simple as that. Living in a five-story walk-up — a five-story building without an elevator, we were without security guards. I was free to come and go as I please. For my mental well-being, I took a morning walk, one which allowed human encounters equalling less than the sum of fingers on my right hand. In the afternoon, I would visit various markets, temperature checks taken, gloves on, masks strapped tight. Upon return, my wife would make me strip and shower. I could not help but imagine what life would be like if we had visited my in-laws.
Chinese have a word for perseverance, 忍, pronounced as ‘ren’. It is tattooed on the forearms of day laborer and taxi drivers, a reminder to accept what cannot be changed.
If we had elected to return to my wife’s hometown to celebrate the Spring Festival, a three day visit would have stretched to a forced three month ‘house arrest’. Located in a rural village, hours outside of Wuhan, roads were blocked with rubble, preventing villagers from exiting or entering. While draconian in nature, we felt it was unfair to judge as with most, we had no idea at the time what the virus could do or how people would react. For several months, her sister was forbidden to leave or return to Shanghai. When she eventually did, she was shunned, unwanted by the community. Without internet access — my parent-in-laws lifestyle not requiring it, or the freedom to leave the home for a stroll across the farmland, I questioned how I would have survived. The surface of their beds were plywood, blankets stacked on top for a touch of comfort. Heating units were in a single room, none of which included the one I would have. According to local custom, my wife having been ‘married off’, returning home, we were considered ‘outsiders’, thus not allowed to share a bedroom. I would have had to sacrifice not only modern warmth-giving devices, but one as traditional as time itself, your partner. Three pairs of pants and an even larger number of shirts, sweaters and coats were the norm. Heating and wi-fi were unnecessary luxuries. I was considered city-soft.
Would I have hopped onto my father-in-law’s motorcycle, gunning it as I hit the sloping flood wall that hugged the mighty Yangtze River’s northern flank, shouting, “Freeeedom!”, only to fall short of escape, a laughable headline and nothing more? Mentally, without a doubt.
Chinese have a word for perseverance, 忍, pronounced as ‘ren’. It is tattooed on the arms of day laborers, a reminder to accept what cannot be changed. They hunker down. They survive. Local teams delivered food when required. My father-in-law received special permission allowing him to tend his crawfish and crab ponds. My mother-in-law sang to uplift her spirit. Possessing a hibernation gene that I do not, many slumbered for longer than most, twelve hours a breeze. They persevered as with most of the nation. They ren’ed.
The true impact on the economy and any longterm effect’s of people’s physical and mental well-being is hard to calculate in the Middle Kingdom as the local media trends towards a sunnier perspective, “to ensure that cyberspace is full of positive energy.”
I haven’t seen my own family in over a year and a half. Though vaccines offer light at the end of the tunnel. We cannot complain as we have our health and our livelihood, more than many. We will continue to ren.