Guest Column by Ashley Atkins
I’m just a Carrboro girl from the pre-Weaver-Street-Market days of Golden Skillet fried chicken, Sparkle Car Wash, A&P and Marathon Restaurant. Chapel Hill High class of 1987.
But I’d wanted to live overseas for about 20 years. My oldest daughter was applying for jobs last summer, and I told her to apply for everything — anywhere in the world — that seemed like it could be a good opportunity.
Then I decided to take my own advice.
I’d never even been to Asia before, but after five weeks of getting official documents certified and authenticated, on Sept. 30, 2019 I boarded a plane for Hong Kong to begin a two-year contract teaching high school English literature in Shenzhen, China. Now, five and a half months later, I’ve spent almost as much time traveling around Southeast Asia as I have spent in Mainland China.
I am a coronavirus nomad.
As the reality of a pandemic is just starting to hit for my friends and family in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and beyond, I’d like to offer a glimpse of how it has unfolded in this part of the world. It all really started about an hour after I returned home from 11 blissful nights in central Vietnam over my Christmas holiday…
Jan. 1, 2020, Shenzhen, China
The messages come from our Chinese principal via DingTalk:
Dear all, there is a flue heavily passing to ppl recently with virus. Please take care and notice your students!
All, if you have fever and breathing issue, please make sure go to hospital ASAP. If you live alone, please make sure there will be someone checking you constantly. Do NOT come to school if you get a flue.
Influenza… Ugh. But, ‘tis the season, right?
Jan. 2, Shenzhen
A WeChat message from a Hong Kong teacher I’d met on my Christmas holiday in Vietnam simply contains a link to an article in the South China Morning Post: “Hong Kong woman hospitalized and quarantined after returning from site of pneumonia outbreak in China.”
So, we have flu and some weird pneumonia. Winter sucks.
But soon our Chinese principal begins to wear a mask, coughing softly but incessantly behind it as she moves through the hallways, the ladies’ room, the classrooms.
Jan. 7, Shenzhen
A Chinese staff member sends a DingTalk message that begins:
“Dear fellow faculty and staff,
“As a former patient of the swine flu, I would like to remind everyone that this flu is highly contagious. It is transmitted via respiratory droplets and you might catch it more easily than you would expect.
“I have heard that quite a few of our students are already sent home because of it, and considering the number of students these students had made contact with, I think it would be the best if we could wear masks as a precaution.”
He ends with a long list of suggestions and preventive advice. At lunch that day, a friend and I practically run across the street to the pharmacy, where we load up on effervescent vitamin C tablets, surgical masks and a Chinese herbal anti-viral that tastes terrible.
I immediately begin wearing a mask in class, in the halls, on the bus. It’s not weird to wear a mask in China. Even if you’re just feeling a little puny you slap one on. There’s no curiosity, no judgment.
It doesn’t last, though. I get lazy. After I finish my three-day course of Chinese preventive medicine, I stop wearing a mask.
Jan. 10, Shenzhen
There is a kid on the bus, coughing like crazy, and without exchanging a word or even a look my friend and I both reach into our bags and slip on fresh masks.
Jan. 12, Shenzhen
I’m riding the bus to work with an American colleague. He’s young and fearless, the kind of guy who’ll eat anything no matter where it’s been or how long it’s been sitting around. I call him my little goat because if there’s ever any food I can’t finish, I know he will finish it.
Our morning commute is usually pretty full, up close and personal. But this day it is packed. Normally, most people get off before we head into the tunnel, and I can usually take a seat at that point, but on this day they don’t get off.
Our stop happens to be the stop for the hospital. Typically, about three to five people disembark there at that time of morning. But on this day more than a dozen exit with us, and where we go left to walk to school, the rest continue up the hill to the medical center.
I’m not a big hand sanitizer person, but since I moved to China I carry a small bottle in my bag, along with some toilet tissue. I stop right there on the sidewalk and squirt some into my palm. I can picture my little goat using hand sanitizer about as much as I can see him using a lace hanky to blow his nose, but I offer it anyway. We both stand slathering gel onto our hands before making our usual street food breakfast stop for cheung fan and baozi.
The rest of that week is all a blur because we are trying to get graded and reported and analyzed and cleaned before the end of the semester. As of 15:20 on Jan. 17, we will be on Spring Festival holiday. I am headed to Cambodia.
Chinese New Year! The Year of the Rat. Or the year of the plague?
Jan. 24, Lunar New Year’s Eve, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
On my way from Phnom Penh to the island of Koh Ta Kiev, I have a stopover in Sihanoukville. You probably know it as the town that welcomed the passengers of the Westerdam cruise ship on Feb. 13, after they had been refused entry in a number of other countries.
It is here that I find out we won’t be starting back to work on Feb. 2 as originally scheduled. The semester is delayed a week, and we will go back to campus on Feb. 9.
Jan. 26, Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia
I meet a Chinese man on this little island with no electricity and no wifi, and we naturally discuss everything happening with the coronavirus. He is quadrilingual at the very least, with a strong science background.
When we talk about the virus, Ling turns his phone all the way off and places it on the ground before pushing is away with his foot. We discuss the various theories, including the early chatter about bioweapons, and he tells me about a Chinese epidemiologist I should follow on Twitter.
Later, I receive a WeChat message from my apartment management in Shenzhen:
[Translation of all messages by Google Translate] “Dear Residents, everyone: To be informed by the community and the epidemic prevention department, in order to prevent the spread of the epidemic, if you have recently returned home and visited relatives from Hubei or via Hubei, please report the information to the front desk staff in a timely manner. The situation, once it is verified, compulsory quarantine measures will be implemented, please understand the majority of residents! The epidemic is ruthless, and if you really love yourself, please respect others!”
Jan. 27, Koh Ta Kiev
The DingTalk message campaign begins, with school administration informing us we must be back in Shenzhen by Feb. 8 and self-quarantine for eight days before returning to campus on Feb. 16. Many Western teachers on holiday start to panic.
One American woman forms a group on WeChat and names it “Teacher Protest”— and if you know anything about any of this you can imagine what a bad idea that is. She insists we all band together and refuse to go back to China.
I receive a WeChat message from my apartment management:
Hello! As the situation of coronavirus is very severe, the area involved is increasing, and the return to the peak will be ushered in. To ensure the health and safety of all residents in our community, from Jan. 27, closed management will be implemented. The service center will make the following emergency management plans:
- Outsiders are not allowed in or out of the community. Please call your friends and relatives on the phone. Do not come to this community during unusual times.
- Takeaways are not allowed to enter the community to deliver meals during the closed period. Please order the takeaway owner to pick up the meal at the front desk of the park.
- For owners who have express delivery, please also pick up your own at the express counter or front desk. Reduce the flow of migrants inside and outside the building.
- Community owners should bring their access card to enter and leave the community and swipe the card by themselves. The access card serves as the only voucher for entering and leaving the community. If you do not bring the access card, please cooperate with the staff to register and measure the temperature.
The above management plan ends until the government announces the cancellation of epidemic prevention and control. Everyone understands, supports and tells each other! It is everyone’s responsibility to prevent disease!
Take precautions for the whole people and build a community!”
Jan. 28, Koh Ta Kiev
We must now complete a daily health survey and submit to the school administration before 10:00 Beijing time: “Please fill the report and fight with the novel coronavirus together!”
It includes such questions as:
Have symptoms such as fever, coughing, shortness of breathing, and etc.?
Fever over 37.3℃? Shortness of breathing, Diarrhea?
Have you ever gone to a hospital recently?
Went to Hubei during the holiday or had close contact with people who live in or travel to Hubei?
If you are not in Shenzhen, please write down the name of your city.
Jan. 30, Koh Ta Kiev
The protest group teacher launches a sustained tirade against China and the school and everyone’s response to the virus and I leave the group before I can even see all the posts. I notify a few other people and they, too, leave the group. It is much too risky to be even on the periphery of such a thing.
Many of my colleagues decide to return to Shenzhen when finished with their planned holidays and self-quarantine for a week until school starts.
Jan. 31, Koh Ta Kiev
The U.S. State Department issues a Level 4 travel warning for China. Do not travel.
Feb. 2, Sihanoukville
I am supposed to fly to Hong Kong International Airport and hire a shared van for the one-hour drive to the Shatoujiao border crossing near my apartment in Shenzhen. I fly to Da Nang, Vietnam, instead. Every flight to China from Sihanoukville is canceled.
We receive word from school that we will not return to Shenzhen until Feb. 16, followed by a week of self-quarantine. I have booked six nights at a hotel in Da Nang at about US $40 a night. If I am going to stay away from home for longer than that, I need to find cheaper accommodations.
I find a cute little property overlooking rice fields in Hoi An (about 30 km away) and reserve a room from the 8th until the 15th. I put my +86 China mobile number on the form, and the property messages me back immediately and asks me to cancel the reservation. I explain that I left China on Jan. 8, but it does not matter. They are insistent. I cancel.
Feb. 4, Da Nang, Vietnam
Ling messages me on WeChat: Stay away and safe. It is bigger than it appears, way more serious.
Feb. 6, Da Nang
I decide the most cost-efficient thing to do is book a private room in a hostel. These are available for less than US $20 per night. I must have a private room because we are going to move all our classes online and I will be live streaming video lessons, with screen sharing. Kind of like Zoom or Slack but with the Alibaba app DingTalk. Plus, I want my own room and bathroom.
I change my phone number on my Trip.com app to my U.S. number. Easy peasy: +1 is much better than +86. I find a hostel in an amazing location in Hoi An — walking distance to Madam Khanh the Banh Mi Queen, my only criterion — and reserve a room for seven nights. Feb. 7, Da Nang
It is my 50th birthday. The hotel staff bring me a cake at breakfast as they sing “Happy Birthday” and play an exceedingly long medley of every cheesy birthday song ever recorded. I am the only Westerner in the large room, as the hotel is very popular with South Koreans.
Feb. 8, Hoi An, Vietnam
I’m chatting with backpackers from Croatia, Australia and England. I say I live in China and they look horrified. I explain it’s been three weeks since I left home. They tell me there are new reports of a 24-day incubation period.
As it turns out, Chinese people are completely banned from all Hoi An guesthouses at this time. I have never heard of such a thing.
Feb. 9, Hoi An
Ling messages me on WeChat: “The epidemic is increasingly alarming. RO could be over 4. There could be another spike soon. You may need to stay away from crowds. I suggest wearing a mask whenever you are with people.”
Feb. 10, Hoi An
A new channel has been created in DingTalk, called “Not in Shenzhen faculty (non-mainland).” We receive a message that begins:
“Dear all, hope everything goes well no matter where you are. Currently please don’t go back to Shenzhen unless you have no choice…”
I receive a WeChat message from my apartment management that begins:
Dear Customer: Hello. In accordance with the requirements of “Grade 1 Correspondence to Major Public Emergencies in Guangdong Province,” each resident in Shenzhen needs to scan and fill out the “Registration Form for Epidemic Prevention Registration.” After the citizen fills in, the Public Security Bureau will perform big data analysis based on the background data, which can match the corresponding passing places and contact groups according to the individual’s action trajectory, and push the relevant epidemic risk. Those who do not leave home must also fill in the declaration. The elderly, children and other resident members of the family must fill in the form without leaving a single person.”
This is accompanied by an attachment featuring a QR code and an image of handcuffs.
Feb. 11, Hoi An
My friends and colleagues under lockdown in Shenzhen are starting to get a little bored. The WeChat message threads are peppered with indoor game ideas, coronavirus memes and hilarious homemade videos.
Feb. 14, Hoi An
DingTalk message from school admin:
[Emergent Notice] Dear all, according to emergency notice from education bureau, we need to check whether you have below situations: 1. Currently in Wenzhou, Zhejiang 2. Came back from Wenzhou, Zhejiang to Shenzhen after 31 January, 2020 or had close contact with people who live in or travel to Wenzhou, Zhejiang after 31 January, 2020. Please do contact before 21:00 pm today if you have any one of above situations. Thank you!
Feb. 15, Hoi An
Ling messages me on WeChat:
“The virus is smart, you know. It works in stealth mode. Do you have enough masks? I would also advise buying goggles. As far as I know, the passing of the virus could be happening through the eyes. According to a scientist, this epidemic could infect over 50% of the world’s population, so you are exposed to potential danger and hence take necessary precaution.”
Feb. 18, Hoi An
We receive notice that no one will be back on campus before the end of the month. I love Hoi An, but I figure I might as well see someplace else.
Feb. 24, Pai, Thailand
A second message comes to the “Not in Shenzhen” DingTalk channel that also begins:
“Dear all, happy Monday, hope everything goes well no matter where you are. Currently please don’t go back to Shenzhen…”
Feb. 25, Pai
Ling messages me on WeChat: “I do not think the school will start soon. As far as I know, the epidemic has just begun. Could I add you on FaceB?”
Feb. 26, Pai
In addition to grade 10 English literature and composition, I teach English speaking in the Cambridge program. My lessons always start with an image and some general discussion to warm up. Today I show a picture of two children playing soccer on a patch of concrete inside a chain link fence. I expect the students to mention that the children do not have a proper field or playground, or that they are poor, or perhaps that this is dangerous.
But the first student to comment says, “They don’t have virus in the air, so they can play outside.”
Feb. 27, Pai
People back in China are really feeling the pressure of the lockdown. They’re heartbreakingly upbeat. They’re wildly creative. They’re hilarious. They’re bored. They’re horny.
March 4, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Ling messages me on FaceBook: “It seems that tropical weather can keep the virus at bay but it is not confirmed. I believe you might need to find a shelter and settle in stockpiling food and essential goods. China might have [another] outbreak [with] people happily going back to their post. Imagine the migration.
March 9, Taman Negara, Malaysia
Facebook pulls my account due to “suspicious activity.” This is where I have been posting all my photos and sharing little anecdotes — mostly accompanied by the hashtag #coronavirusnomad. I cannot recover it. I message Ling on WeChat that we can no longer communicate via Facebook Messenger.
March 11, Taman Negara
Ling messages me on WeChat: C***a is not safe yet.
March 12, Taman Negara
Moving to China is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. I love my job, my school, my colleagues, my students, my apartment, the food, the people, really everything. I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever dreamed. I have also learned practical things like how to navigate public transportation, how to be more patient and forgiving and resourceful, and how much I used to waste when I lived in the U.S.! I’m talking water, food, single-use plastics, time and more.
I cannot overstate how grateful I am to have had this unexpected opportunity to travel around Southeast Asia as a sort of digital nomad. I’ve met people from all over the world — and they all pretty much speak English.
These are scary times, yet I have witnessed the generosity of folks sharing masks, food, drink, a tuk tuk ride, and even a few baht for the surprise Thai pay toilet. I have witnessed the sincere concern as near-strangers reach out and check on each other to make sure everyone is OK.
I’m not sure when I will go back to China, but tomorrow I’ll catch an early bus and head east to the Perhentian Islands for a week. After that, I’m trying to meet up with a fellow CHHS alum in Lombok, Indonesia. He’s already worried his trip will be canceled though. But that’s OK. I’ve learned to take things one day at a time.
Carrboro native Ashley Atkins is a novelist, editor, teacher and accidental expert on budget travel in Southeast Asia.