We are a family of five, with three kids under age 10, and have lived in China for seven years. We happened to be in Thailand on vacation when the first reports about COVID-19 hit the news. We anxiously checked our phones wondering what would happen. Thankfully we returned to China just in time on January 30, right before many countries started to close their borders. The only message I received from Chinese friends as we were returning was “do you have masks to wear? If not, we will come by and give you some!”
When we finally got back to our 小区（housing development）everything was eerily quiet. Only grocery stores were open—everything else was closed in one of the largest cities in the world! The fear was palpable. No one left their home except to buy food. All was very quiet and everyone was glued to their phones. At that time, people were discouraged from going to visit friends or family, even when wearing a mask. In ways only those familiar with China can understand, the public notices brought home the point loud and clear. 今年上门，明年上坟（“This year visit someone’s house, next year visit the grave!”）or 今天走亲或访友，明年家中剩条狗（”Today go to visit family or friends, and next year all that’ll be left of your house is your dog!”）
At that time (and perhaps because of the public notices) our kids were not sure about asking neighborhood friends to play (all wearing masks). Only a few families let their kids outside to play while wearing masks. It was only later that I began to realize how anxious and fearful our Chinese friends were. For instance, our downstairs neighbors who have three-year-old twins never left their apartment for two-and-a-half months—not even to go for a walk outside! The clear message from the news and other sources was that everyone was to stay inside, wear masks when they had to be out, and to open the windows to let the air circulate.
We remember telling Chinese friends that American scientists at the CDC said that we don’t need to wear masks, so why should we? (Never mind the fact that now the CDC is saying the opposite.) Our cultural value of individual choice was suddenly challenged when we were told we couldn’t go in the grocery store without a mask on, ride public transportation, or even go outside for walk. Our American priority on individual choice continue to be challenged throughout the next few months as we were repeatedly told what we could and could not do.
As parents of three lively children we knew that getting outside and exercising were absolutely necessary. So, we got jump ropes and every day we sent our kids downstairs to jump rope. I still remember the community volunteers walking around with microphones telling everyone to “stay inside, please, stay inside.” One day, our kids came running up the stairs panting, “they yelled at us to go back inside. What should we do?” At the time I just couldn’t believe it! Children need to exercise, I thought. There was literally no one else around, why would they care if our children were outside jumping rope.
The next day when it happened again, I was outside walking around as our kids biked in the development. Out of nowhere, a granny started chewing me out from her second story window questioning how I, as a father, could let my kids ride bikes during the lockdown. At first, I defended myself, appealing to the masks and social distancing, before realizing that it was no use—she didn’t care what logic I was using to justify being outside! So I thanked her for the “reminder” and told my kids to avoid that area of the development.
When we came home that evening, we explained to the children both our frustration with this woman’s behavior, but also the importance of respecting our neighbors in a way that honors the Lord. Time and again in China, especially older Chinese strangers will stop on the street and literally yell at our children for doing things we allow them to do (like climbing trees). Helping our kids walk the fine line between showing respect, yet not necessarily complying is a huge challenge.
After a couple of months, when things started to ease up just a little bit, more and more children, wearing their masks, started going outside to play. Our family had no idea how many children lived in our apartment complex prior to that time. Getting to know the children became the biggest blessing to our family during this time.
Every afternoon for the following three months, after online school was completed, a herd of children would gather outside to laugh and play. You still couldn’t go and visit friends in other apartment complexes, and even packages were delivered to the gate of complexes and had to be collected by people themselves. Thankfully, even as things are returning to normal, those friendships have remained. This unexpected blessing points to one of the benefits of apartment living in a country where community interests and group safety take precedence over individual choice and freedom.
As COVID-19 lingers on, it does not seem that this threat to public health has caused our Chinese friends to question eternal things more than before. We do, however, have open doors with neighbors that we never had before. And we pray that whatever happens in the future, politically, societally, or otherwise, that we can increasingly rest in his providence and look for what he is doing in and through us in the midst of it.
Editor’s note: This post was co-authored by MDB and his wife.
Image credit: Alexander Mueller via Flickr.
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