Editor’s note: HuffPost has chosen to publish anonymously the following first-person account by an American couple living in China. Editors do this only rarely and have done so on this occasion because of the potential risks to the authors if their real names were used. This is the second piece the couple has written for HuffPost about their time living in the country during the COVID-19 outbreak. (You can read the first piece here.)
We are living in China with our children, and for the past seven and a half weeks we have been largely confined to our home, working and going to school remotely, due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
We are watching the news and talking with family and friends back in the United States and in Europe. They have had questions about what quarantine has been like for us and what to expect as the coronavirus continues to spread and things grow more restrictive country by country. We obviously can’t predict how it will play out in each different setting, and we don’t presume to have answers for what everyone should do. But we do have some experience in how to stay reasonably sane and productive through the challenges of being confined indoors for weeks on end.
We are both teachers at a school where our children are also students. Our city is hundreds of miles from Wuhan, the epicenter of the initial outbreak. Millions and millions of people live in the city, and the number of cases here is reported to be in the low hundreds. Still, the restrictions have been significant.
Early in the crisis, walls were put up around our neighborhood, and roadblocks were set up to limit who can come in or out. Curfews were established and no visitors could enter from outside the neighborhood. We were given special IDs that show we have not left the country or traveled around China. Until recently the only stores that were open were groceries and gas stations. Every time we go to buy food, we have to scan an app on our phone that tells the government where we are.
“We obviously can’t predict how it will play out in a different setting away from China and we don’t presume to have answers for what everyone should be doing. But we do have some experience in how to stay reasonably sane and productive through the challenging experience of being confined indoors for weeks on end.”
Schools have been closed all over China since the Chinese New Year in January. We started working from home at the start of February, and our children have attended school remotely sitting together at our dining room table. The initial closure was for two weeks, and then was extended into March. As of today, the return date is still uncertain. So while we have not been under formal quarantine, we have been very limited in where we can go and what we can do. In this time we have had to adjust to a life very different from what we were used to.
This is some of what has worked for us:
Set Up A Routine
We understand many people already work from home as a normal part of their jobs, but it was new for us and it took some adjustments. Teaching is typically a very face-to-face kind of work. Homeschooling is also something people do, but it was also new to us, and a challenge to keep up with while we are also working.
Early on there was a sense of “Groundhog Day,” as one day blended into another. Creating structure and routines has helped. We set an alarm and get up just a bit later than we would on a normal workday. At the start, we joked about wearing pajamas all day every day, but that soon got tiresome. So we get dressed.
We do the same with our children. It was important that they understand this is not an open-ended vacation from school. They do sleep in a little later than they would on a normal school day, but then they come downstairs, eat breakfast, and get set up in the dining room for a distinctive type of school day while we go into a spare bedroom set up as an office.
We have been taking a lunch break every day around noon. We all stop what we are doing and eat together. We have been watching “The Price is Right” or “The People’s Court” while we eat. It feels a little like the best part of staying home from school when you were sick as a kid. It’s a small pleasure, but something we couldn’t do under normal circumstances. And then we get back to work.
For the kids, it has been important to set limits on how long they work. Even though they are getting their assignments digitally from their teachers, it has been important to check in with them throughout the day. Tasks can sprawl, and more than once we have come across one of them close to tears because they worked on an assignment far longer than required. Their teachers are doing great work, but it can be difficult to estimate what an assignment looks like to a middle schooler who wants to do their best but who has no immediate feedback or classmates around to whom they can compare themselves.
We also try to stop work at a reasonable time. The kids wrap up early in the afternoon. As teachers, it has been trickier for us. Many of our students are not keeping regular hours, or they dispersed to their home countries, so they are turning in work throughout the day and into the night. Work often spreads into the evening, and we work longer hours now than we would on a normal workday. We have not found a solution to this. But getting to watch “The Price is Right” has been some consolation.
See The Value In Screen Time
Like a lot of parents, we are aware of our children’s screen time and worry about it, despite having watched vast amounts of TV when we were their age. If we left it up to them, we might not have an upper limit on how much time they played video games. And they would happily spend unbroken hours messaging friends and watching YouTube videos.
“We have been taking a lunch break every day around noon. We all stop what we are doing and eat together. We have been watching 'The Price Is Right' or 'The People’s Court' while we eat. It feels a little like the best part of staying home from school when you were sick as a kid.”
Under normal circumstances, we set limits and try to move them toward more productive pursuits. We have not given up on this, but we have become more forgiving and see the value in some of the games they play. Just Dance on the Playstation has them exercising. Minecraft can be a remarkably clever game. Even Fortnite has its value as we listen to them talking and strategizing with friends across town and around the world.
We’ve been watching more TV and Netflix than we ordinarily would. We also understand that “watch TV” is not necessarily original or helpful advice, but we have expanded into a pretty broad range of viewing habits. We have watched some really high-quality movies (“The Lighthouse” felt particularly relevant and we’ve taken to quoting from it), but also a lot of terrible reality shows and repeats of favorites. Old episodes of “The Office” and “Rick and Morty” hold up remarkably well. And as a family, we started watching “Survivor” again. (We have mixed feelings about Boston Rob.)
In an attempt to get away from our screens, we have also broken out some of our board games. It’s been really nice to transform the dining room table from a middle school classroom back to a place to be together. And in our defense, the whole family is reading a lot, from Harry Potter to “Infinite Jest.”
Follow More Cake Decorating On Instagram
The temptation to hit refresh on news sites over and over is very real. It feels constructive and there is value in being informed; but at a certain point overconsumption of the news becomes a vice, like poking at a wound. Along with all the news, we have often kept a browser tab open for too long on the Johns Hopkins map of coronavirus. Originally, we were trying to make sense of the growing numbers of cases in China, and then as they’ve slowed in recent weeks, we began to look at the global numbers. It can be a dangerous rabbit hole to go down, as we moved on to academic articles on epidemiology and, worse, into online conspiracy theories. We’ve also found the temptation to enter into online debates with strangers to be particularly poisonous.
There is value in sometimes putting your head in the sand. It’s OK to take a break. Instagram has been an excellent destination for mindlessly scrolling through pretty pictures for a reprieve. We’ve been looking at a lot of cakes. (Open Instagram and search #cakedecorating.) It is incredibly soothing to watch someone put a cake on a plate, spread icing all over it, smooth it out with an icing spatula, then swirl on brightly colored, sugary flowers, maybe add some sprinkles. They are beautiful and there is absolutely nothing to argue about.
Get Exercise Where You Can
Before all this started we had been very good about going to the gym and lifting weights. It made us stronger and was great for maintaining sanity. But the gym has been closed along with everything else, so that stopped being an option.
Initially, we were encouraged not to go outside at all. The virus was so new and people were scared. It was also cold and grey for a lot of January and February, so it was not such a big deal to be inside most of the time.
We tried some online workouts, doing old-fashioned calisthenics and bodyweight exercises. We found old running shoes, put on our face masks (even though they serve very little purpose when you are outdoors away from crowds) and started running.
Now that the weather is warming up and the gym is still closed, running has become a not-terrible, even pleasant, part of the routine. We have started seeing more and more of our neighbors outside with us (all of us wearing masks and keeping our distance).
“There is value in sometimes putting your head in the sand. It’s OK to take a break. Instagram has been an excellent destination for mindlessly scrolling through pretty pictures for a reprieve. We’ve been looking at a lot of cakes.”
Take Turns Fearing The Worst
We have each gone for stretches — sometimes a few days — feeling like things are OK and that this experience is just something we can patiently wait out. Then a sense of worry, shading into anxiety and even fear, creeps in and it all comes crashing down a little.
These fears and anxieties have ranged from simple ones related to getting work done, or concerns about doing our jobs well enough, to bigger anxieties about the effect all of this is having on our children, and onward up to crushing existential fears about worst-case scenarios. Everything feels worse when it is compounded by a sense of being trapped and isolated in your house.
So far we have done a fairly remarkable job of having these crises one at a time. One of us has a bad afternoon or whole day, while the other can be a calm voice of reason. And then a day or two later, we have to reverse roles and offer the other the same simple advice we just received.
If it happens that everyone is panicking on the same day, or if you live alone, meditation has helped us. It has also been helpful to send out texts to a wide group of friends. Surely one of them is having a moment of calm and can help you catch your breath. We have not been in this alone.
What felt intolerable at times has largely become a part of normal life. Everything we see and read says there is tremendous value in social distancing wherever possible. We recognize that while this has been exhausting and challenging, we are also fortunate that we have been able to work from home and still have jobs at all. We know this is not the case for many, many people.
What’s To Come
Over the past week, there have been some indications of changes here in China. There have not been any new active cases being reported in our city. Some deliveries have started coming into our neighborhood and, for what it’s worth, we learned this week that Apple stores in China are opening right as they are beginning to close everywhere else.
At the same time, rumors about the date for reopening schools keep pushing it out later, and now it may not happen until the end of April. The walls and roadblocks are still up, and restrictions on people returning to China from outside the country have grown more strict recently. Fears that the virus will start up again here are significant. And we remain almost entirely in the dark about what comes next.
For now we continue to be as calm and patient as we can, as we work to keep our sanity. We wish the best to people around the world who find themselves in a similar situation.
Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch!