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.
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.