6 Resiliency Lessons from the Wuhan Virus

Life can often seem routine: wake up at a usual time, shower, dress, eat breakfast, and go to work. For us, the routine suddenly shifted as we fought to maintain control of our freedoms when Chinese authorities, fearful of a new virus, started implementing unprecedented travel restrictions and quarantines, essentially isolating more than 40 million people.  

Ironically, we just completed our book about resilience when we decided to celebrate and blow off steam by traveling from our home in Beijing to scenic and historic sites within China and around southeast Asia in January, 2020. But where should we go? We thought of visiting our friends, the Westergards, who had recently moved to Wuhan. Wuhan is also a great location from which to explore the Yangtze River. We considered it carefully.

Ultimately, however, we chose to see the areas of Kunming, Guilin, Hong Kong, Macau, and Malaysia instead (a great decision, as we later learned). This decision was largely the result of a desire to travel with Matt and Judy Batschi, who planned to meet us in Kunming and leave us a week later in Macau. So off we went on an amazing adventure. All went well until we crossed into Macau, a former Portuguese colony. Walking the streets of old, European-style buildings, we started to notice long lines of intense, grim-faced people at various pharmacies. Wondering what was going on, we looked at news reports and discovered an announcement of a serious viral outbreak. Chinese New Year celebrations had been cancelled and travel restrictions were being activated.

Very quickly, we found ourselves unable to purchase face-masks. It was an odd feeling as we boarded buses and subways full of masked people, only to realize we were the only mask-less people aboard. As we traveled, we also recognized an escalation of travel restrictions and quarantine policies that seemed to follow us. We saw announcements about school delays throughout China. We saw proclamations of extensive quarantine efforts, including inhabitants of various cities totaling more than 40 million people! This has never happened anywhere in the world.

The airport in Macau required all passengers to be screened for fevers. We flew to Malaysia, but it seemed we were just ahead of efforts to close traffic from the China area into other Asian countries. How quickly would the question, “Have you been in China?” turn into a refusal allow entry? We were glad we made it to Penang, Malaysia. However, just as soon as we arrived, we noticed announcements of virus cases in Malaysia. One hotel in Malaysia was also screening everyone with thermometers.

Soon we were contacted via Wechat by our school in Beijing. We were told that upon our return to Beijing, because we had left China, we would be placed in separate quarantine facilities for two weeks, which meant we would not be together. Meanwhile, even in Malaysia we were to report our daily activities, temperature and health status to Foreign Ministry authorities. 

Part of massive Buddhist Temple in Penang, Malaysia. Jana and Randy Ewing on the right.

The Malaysian people were very friendly, but concerned with anyone coming from China. Laraine wore a T-shirt with Chinese characters on it. We were told by one woman that we should probably not wear those kinds of things. Laraine had a blouse made by a tailor in her shop in our hotel. As we entered the second time, the woman (knowing we had come from China), pulled her mask tightly across her face before we could get close to her.

Meanwhile, border security was intensifying and quarantine policies were tightening. Weighing our options, we decided to go back to the U.S. even though we no longer maintain a home there, nor could we access our computers, clothes, Chinese bank accounts, and other valuables.

But would the U.S. let us in? We seemed to be always a step ahead of quarantine, and our luck held out as we crossed into the U.S. on Sunday, February 2nd, exactly 14 days from the day of our departure from Chinese soil. This was important because the incubation period of the virus was determined to be 14 days. Any sooner and new U.S. restrictions would have placed us in quarantine on U.S. soil. Even so, as we entered the U.S., our blessed 14 day buffer was in doubt because of a time zone difference. But we did make it through ok.

As mentioned above, we had just authored a book entitled, “Threads of Resilience: How to Have Joy in a Turbulent World” (not yet in print, but coming in late February or March 2020). Many times during our “vacation,” we said to each other, “What do we do now?” The situation was changing so quickly, it was hard to formulate a plan. Our experience in Asia gave us a chance to test the advice in our book. Here are the main points:

Develop Gratitude. When life throws you “curve balls,” re-consider what is going well for you. We had each other. We had good health, with good immune systems. We had friends and family pulling for us.

Pass the Gratitude Forward. While it was important for us to feel gratitude, it was just as important to spread that gratitude around. Fellow teachers, friends, and school administrators were doing their best to cope with the changing policies and conditions. We expressed our gratitude for the efforts of others.

Commit to Serve Others. Some of our dearest friends were people who did NOT have a spouse or family to turn to. Our Chinese friends were fearful and discouraged, with no escape options. We communicated our love and encouragement to those who were not doing well. This uplifted them and made us feel needed.

Value Relationships. While the sands were shifting under our feet, we spent time with another couple that was going through the same thing. Our week in Malaysia with Randy and Jana Ewing was something we’ll never forget. Had it not been for them, I think we would have dwelled too much on problems that couldn’t be solved. Instead, we simply enjoyed their friendship and camaraderie. It made us feel stronger to make critical decisions about what to do.

Find the Humor. Laughter is truly a gift, especially during difficult times. We spent a lot of time laughing at our situation and life itself as we carefully picked through our options. We will never forget the humorous singing Malaysian taxi driver, who insisted on leading us in songs from the 70’s. We spent a week in laughter when it could have been tears as we tried to pick up the pieces of our plans from the impact of the spreading pandemic.

Rely on Your Higher Power. Whatever you believe, it is important to be in touch with your higher power during difficult times. We are Christians, and found strength through prayer.     

We are now safely back in the United States until the corona virus in China is under control. We have now been told to prepare online courses for our students, as it may be some time before we can return to Beijing.

Visiting Friends in Xi’an

Our dear friends, Ruth-Ann and Mike Martin from South Africa, taught at CFAU with us until this year. Since we were tired of American English and craved linguistic chaos, especially when talking about food, we decided to visit them at XISU (Xi’an International Studies University) in Xi’an (pronounced She-an). What an incredible trip! We went with other dear friends, Kent and Ruth Demke (I know, we are aware that 33.3% of our group shares the name “Ruth”). The Demkes have been serving as humanitarian missionaries with LDS Charities in China and are nearly ready to return home.

We highly recommend the hotel where we stayed: Eastern House Boutique Hotel in Xian. It was probably one of the only 10.0 (Hotels.com)-rated hotels we’ve ever been to. It was also very inexpensive.

Our 5+ hour high-speed train ride from Beijing was pleasant, especially since we got to share the time with the Demkes. They are such an inspiring, faithful couple who have chosen to serve despite physical difficulties. Ruth is fond of saying, “If I can serve a mission, ANYONE can serve a mission.” The Demkes have traveled extensively throughout China, working with professionals, NGOs, and people in remote areas of China who need wheelchairs. As they tell of their experiences with grateful, Chinese people who have had such difficult lives, it is often hard for them to talk through the tears.

We had been to Xi’an twice before, and thought we knew the town pretty well. We were amazed at the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that we had never experienced.

We hope you enjoy the pictures below.

A very apropos sign welcoming guests to the housing area at XISU. Ruth-Ann is to the left, Mike is taking the picture.
Our visit to Xi’an was topped off by a Sunday morning church meeting at the “Villa,” a 3-4 story used by the branch for meetings. It was in a very beautiful, expensive part of town, and the home would have been lovely as a house even though no one actually lives in it. As a chapel, it was rather surreal. Here is the room where priesthood meeting is held. I think there should be a mandatory bed for all church meetings throughout the world, just in case anyone gets sleepy. Of course, high priests would control the room.

Some final thoughts: The Martins were great hosts, as we vacated our hotel room and spent one night with them on an air mattress. They even sent us away with a bag of snacks and goodies for the train. What a great experience! When we returned to Beijing it was in the middle of a giant snowstorm, with several inches accumulating on the roads. This is highly unusual for Beijing.

Thanksgiving and Gratitude

For the third year now, Laraine has taken the opportunity to have her students enjoy the experience of gratitude. She teaches them about the importance of gratitude in our life and how powerful it is to bless others lives. Everyone at the school agrees the cleaning ladies have the hardest job. They spend every day of their lives cleaning the bathrooms which are not the nicest smelling. The students are given little hearts and they then write a thank you note to the women. They enjoy taping the hearts to the work room next to the bathroom. The cool thing is these hearts stay up the whole year. One student said she had come to class feeling really down but after the activity she was feeling much better and realized how good it feels to express gratitude.

We also had the chance to enjoy Thanksgiving with a big feast of traditional food and even had the chance to invite Monica (a young girl Laraine tutors) and her mom Liu Ying to join us. On top of all that, we got a visit from Jeremy. He came from the U.S. to record our audiobook, and of course to spend time with us on Thanksgiving.

The Day We Sneaked Out of the Summer Palace

Foreign guests are invited each year to join a fall walk at the beautiful summer palace in Beijing. Everyone was given identifying stickers, a bright yellow backpack, and a jacket to wear, and encouraged to mingle with hundreds of foreigners and Chinese hosts as they make their way around the palace grounds via a marked path.

Our university invited us again this year (our third year) to join the group. We had another commitment in the afternoon, but thought we would attend just the opening ceremony of the walk before quietly and unobtrusively leaving.

To our surprise, however, before the walk started we were honored on stage with big colorful “longevity” banners as the announcer said, “Charles and Laraine Chamberlain, American experts, are recognized for being the most outstanding walkers.” Apparently, we were the only ones who’d attended the event for three years straight.

After this honor, we felt so guilty about walking away, we stayed for at least some of the walk, then skulked away from the marked path and plethora of organizers by ripping off our stickers and hiding our bright banners as much as we could. Our hearts were beating fast as we sneaked away. “Outstanding walkers” indeed!

China does an outstanding job of opening up opportunities for dialogue with foreigners. It is obvious that a great deal of focus, energy, and money is spent on presenting a friendly face to the world. For instance, when an important global trade or government meeting is to be held in China, it is very common for the meeting to be held in one of China’s “tier two” cities. This gives the country an “excuse” and a deadline to renovate and upgrade that city. Travel anywhere in China and you’ll see massive road and landscaping projects in addition to the building boom. It reminds us of families who hold a daughter’s wedding reception in their backyard. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see the family remodel the living room, family room, and back patio in preparation. Now if we could just get more attention to those bathrooms!

Dear Friends from Hong Kong

For a very short time, our friends Diana and Albert from Tai O Village in Hong Kong came to visit us in Beijing. When you bond with people born on the other side of the world, whose culture of origin is quite different from your own, you recognize the fact that we are all truly brothers and sisters.

Diana and Albert join us at Beijing’s ancient “summer palace”