The Wuhan coronavirus was already in the news when I left for Beijing from Toronto. But there was another knowledge within me, rumbling no less uneasily: My grandfather in China is dying. I could not delay the trip.
The risk wasn’t that bad at the time. The World Health Organization had not yet declared a global emergency. No travel bans were in place, no flights cancelled. There wasn’t even an official name for the novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19. From the outside, the situation looked mild.
But the gravity of what was happening on the ground in China became clear after I cleared immigration. Beijing’s airport has an unusually long barricade after the baggage-claim exit. To get land-side, you thus have to walk past a long line of people, all crowding around the barrier, waiting to receive the travellers. They scan your faces, you scan theirs, searching for recognition. This time that was extra hard. I saw a surreal wall of facemasks, on and on, as far as the barricade stretched, with not one nose or mouth on display.
My Beijing-based uncle went a step further to get a superior version than the common, disposable surgical ones, a Honeywell N910V Plus, increasingly hard to find. It was angular and had a mechanical-like vent.
It was Jan. 23, two days before Chinese New Year. I checked the news. Everything had escalated while I was in the air. The Chinese government had quarantined the entire epicentre of the virus, the southern city of Wuhan; 11 million were unprecedentedly locked in, the healthy along with the sick. I had no idea at the time how the land of my birth that has seen so much development over the past decades could so quickly turn unearthly and thick with fear, and that I had picked the worst possible time to go to China. In fact, I knew nothing. Scanning the mask-hidden faces, I almost didn’t recognize my own parents.
In my uncle’s car, the first thing I noticed was that he had given his navigation system an accent approximating that of the family hometown, Shijiazhuang, 300 kilometres southwest of Beijing. The English equivalent might be a thick Boston accent, but that’s not entirely an apt comparison. In an almost-Canada-sized country with just one Beijing time zone, where internal-migration restrictions mean social mobility is more tied to birth, less-prestigious regional tongues mark a person more than in English. Most people code-switch. But not my grandfather. The navigation system evoked him, with his thick regional twang, vividly.
Born in 1938, when the last Qing Dynasty emperor still reigned as a puppet in the north, my yeye was the first in my family to go to university, smart and unusually open-minded for his generation. But that mind is long gone, deteriorating with the body, his health worsening so much the past year, my father once told me to “prepare a dark suit.” The trip might be the last time I see my grandfather.
I almost didn’t get to. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, staff at the seniors’ home in Shijiazhuang took our temperature and noted our personal details before letting us in, and as we left, they said, “It’s best you don’t come anymore.” The visit was no more than half an hour. Face masks were mandatory, although that wasn’t much of a hassle. Everyone was already wearing masks anytime they were in public.
Despite the warning, we returned the next day. During the visit, my aunt forwarded a WeChat message from the residence, saying it was banning all visitors. As we chatted with my still-spry grandmother, who relentlessly offered fruit, chocolate and chrysanthemum tea, and as I held the hand of my grandfather, who lay in bed, we wondered, what does that WeChat message mean for us? The answer came within minutes: we were kicked out, told not to return.
That was disheartening, but also understandable. The elderly have weaker immune systems, and just a single coronavirus case would be disaster for the residence. Both the facility’s director and deputy came to bear the message. It was muted and unaggressive.
I initially thought they felt bad ejecting me, who had travelled the farthest, but that wasn’t quite it. It was fear, cold and weighty, more contagious than any virus.
My grandfather hasn’t been able to recognize me for years, and I don’t know how much he understood what was going on, but that day, he gripped my hand with all the strength he could muster.
By the following day, what began as a sort of precautionary worry across the country had morphed into full-blown alarm. The previous night, after ejection from the seniors’ home, we heard intercity passenger buses were being banned. My uncle worried private cars would soon be banned as well, pinning us in Shijiazhuang. My parents’ and uncle’s plan had been to spend the whole week in the city. I had planned to spend two. Now, it was to be none. It was off to Beijing. There, even amid a lockdown, we could still get to the airport. That was the idea, at least. Nobody really knew what was going on.
The Lunar New Year, also called the Spring Festival, is a bit like Asian Christmas, but like everything in China, it tends toward the extremes. The rapid development of urban centres’ sparked an inland outflow—rich and poor, skilled and unskilled—of people seeking better lives. China’s post-Mao 440-million city-population spike has been called “possibly the largest in human history” by one researcher. The road home for the new year thus represents a massive migration—such a big deal, the Chinese have a word for it, the Chunyun. This year before the Chinese New Year, the same as every other year, hundreds of millions of people left their cities of work for their hometowns. Now many were stuck.
My family and I got into Beijing—the government never did ban private-car travel between cities, as feared. But in other parts of the country, there was confinement and clampdown like never seen before. Twelve more cities in Wuhan’s Hubei province had some sort of travel restrictions imposed, bringing the total affected to more than 50 million. It was like the zombie-infested Raccoon City in Resident Evil—in real life, possible only in China, which has both the necessary resources and tight central-government control to make it happen.
In Beijing, restaurants were enforcing identification checks. A server told me the eatery I was at needed to know where we were coming from. Most Chinese identification cards—of which everyone has one—list hometown addresses, labelling people more explicitly than any accent. Chinese telecommunication companies later launched a feature that generates a list of provinces visited, based on your phone numbers, which they track. Officials at a train station, for example, now demand passengers’ location-lists. If you’re connected to the affected province, you’re a leper.
A Hubei woman said in a widely circulated social-media post she had been rejected by more than 10 hotels. All of that felt dystopian in a way—everything is recorded and linked to everything else, and there is only a faint shadow of the concept of personal privacy. The Hubei woman eventually found accommodation only because the so-called Internet police quickly saw her post, then intervened.
My parents left China three days later, as scheduled. I thought of changing my flight to leave earlier, but decided against it. I was departing in a week anyway, and it wasn’t worth the trouble.
I spent the days doing rewrites on a book I’m working on. My uncle, a lawyer who also teaches at a local university, worked, too. The reopening of school had been pushed back, so he had more time to prepare for classes. But his workload also increased: A client of his that sold body-temperature-monitoring devices had fresh orders. My uncle and his team drafted a contract.
We left his condominium, where I was staying, only to work out at the satellite campus of my uncle’s university, near where he lives, as far from Beijing downtown as you can get. The main campus had been closed. My uncle ran on the track, and I did chin ups on a yellow bar caked in dust. Nobody else did anything, for aside from the security person, I saw—fleetingly and separately—only one other person and three dogs. Condo security checked our temperatures when we got back. Everyone was screened for temperatures everywhere, even at subway stations.
Then one day, as my uncle and I arrived at campus, we saw the university had closed the satellite compound as well and tripled security at the gate. My uncle turned the car around.
On my last night in Beijing, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to be out. I had originally wanted to see friends in the city, but with the virus, I was uncertain about etiquette: If everyone was worried about contagion, would a message from a faraway friend be some sort of perceived obligation, making people say yes, but reluctantly? I thus never told anyone I was in town. But looking at walls and computer screens every day was chipping away brutally at something inside me, I felt. I had to see the sky and breathe the snow.
When I told my uncle that, he went rummaging through a drawer. He revealed he had been holding out— his last unused Honeywell N910V Plus. He gave it to me.
If you’ve ever seen the chaotic human-traffic masses of the Beijing subway—which handles 10 million people a day, having built 22 additional lines in the last 18 years—you’d never forget the sight during the height of the virus crisis. It was a little after rush hour, but there were no more than a dozen people on the entirety of any subway train, even though, as the large transparent stickers on the windows say, the cars are disinfected every day. There was a stillness in the air that said volumes.
Those disinfection stickers also felt oddly dark, partly because the Chinese term sounds harsh when translated literally—which is not uncommon for the Asian language—xiaodu, to “eliminate the poison.” It was partly also because of the blank spaces in which workers would write by hand the date of disinfection. It was as if there was an expectation for the crisis to last a whole decade, the year filled in by red printed text only to three digits, “202__.”
Looking at the sticker, I could see my masked reflection in the dark subway window, and I found myself vaguely creature-like, like a Harry Potter house elf, for the Honeywell mask had tight elastics, pulling the ears forward and outward. I felt as strange as I looked.
A respiratory mask like that forms a perfect seal around your nose and mouth, protecting against fine, airborne particles, as opposed to the common surgical mask, which is only a simple physical barrier, protecting against droplets. Breathing with the former was thus harder than normal. And my ears felt sore. I was fortunate that I didn’t have to endure that for long, but for many in China, for my uncle, that was every day, wearing that mask until they no longer remember what it is like to go outside without it.
My girlfriend in Toronto had sent me a picture of an Asian-looking person in Canada’s largest city wearing one of those heavy-duty chemical-warfare masks that covers the whole face. We had a good giggle at that paranoid guy and his paranoia. Then as I rode the Beijing subway, in an hour, I saw two people with the same mask. In the city, I even saw a child, no more than five years old, with an entire plastic sheet dangerously over his face. Later, when I was sent a picture of people with water-cooler bottles over their heads, and that of a little dog all bundled up in plastic, walked by an owner equally sealed off, I stopped seeing the humour.
When you’re far away, you don’t really realize it, that everything is painfully real. When my uncle gave me his last Honeywell mask, I suspect it wasn’t just out of concern for his favourite and only nephew. It was for his own interests, too. He didn’t want to catch anything from me if I caught anything.
I probably shouldn’t have gone out. All risk and no gain. Almost everything was closed. Some shops had cut their hours, but most shut down completely. A bookstore that was open earlier had unblemished snow in front. It was a husk of a city. The entire touristy area in front of Tiananmen Square was a sea of white, like an unfinished painting.
The only places open were the western chain restaurants, which came into the country just 30 years ago, the source of much polarization.
My grandfather, older than both the People’s Republic of China and the current romanization used to spell his name in English, never did have a taste for it. A fan of fatty pig intestines, he had once told me of what he viewed as the gastronomical pointlessness of hamburgers and pizzas. But those eateries have been wildly popular in China, pulling in $200 billion in 2017, growing 10 per cent every year. They are a symbol of China’s economic growth; their mushrooming—a new Starbucks every 15 hours—is a microcosm of the rapid development that, for those like my grandfather, has so dramatically transformed the world around them.
Outside Tiananmen Square, I saw people huddled in a KFC, plugging in their phones and laptops. It was China’s first restaurant by the American chain, it proudly said on its décor—and it was the first fast food eatery by any western company, opened in 1987, about 10 years after the founding father Mao Zedong’s death.
Now the KFC was the only place left for people who perhaps had nowhere else to go that night, I found out when I got to a nearby McDonald’s. I had bought a cup of hot bubble tea, and I had sat down to remove my mask to drink it, when the manager approached. She was slight, with a dyed pixie cut and a look about her that was an odd mixture of weariness and uncertainty. Because of the virus, the restaurant was doing only takeout, and nobody was allowed to dine in, she said. “Young man, you’d better leave.”