We were fortunate to be able to return from Spring Festival holiday to our home in China at the beginning of February, before travel became impossible. The day after our arrival, the local neighborhood committee called to ask about our travel itinerary and our health symptoms, and to inform us that we were to stay home for the next 14 days. In actual fact, our city was already under strict lockdown and all movement was greatly restricted.
It is difficult to listen to North Americans complain about “quarantine” measures, when they actually face only limited restrictions. Our Chinese city with a population of millions has experienced less than one hundred infections and only a handful of deaths, and yet for the better part of two months we were forcibly reduced to a ghost town. Individual apartment buildings and housing developments locked their gates and distributed entry-exit passes allowing one family member to leave once every two or three days for grocery shopping. Non-residents were forbidden entry. All stores, offices, schools, churches, businesses—everything except food and vegetable markets—closed completely, and even in those locations masks, temperature checks, and contact tracing were mandatory for entry. Express deliveries stopped (no Taobao!), public transportation stopped, and the train stations and airports shutdown.
Before our return to China, we were looking forward to quarantine measures, hoping for a forced vacation and a chance to slow down and enjoy a period of rest and reflection. In reality, those first two months were busy and stressful. Working with other colleagues to help them return to China was a complicated and anxiety-producing task. Homeschool continued unabated, as did many of the day-to-day tasks that are part of our work. Financial operations and planning meetings for our company took on a new urgency and difficulty (“what will we do if . . . ?”), while overseas boards and partners pressed for more information and “decisions.”
The question of when to open offices, housing developments, schools, churches—the locations where we live so much of our lives—was vital to all our planning efforts, and required almost daily reassessment and communication. And throughout all of this was the stifling surveillance that for many of us defines the COVID era in China.
Each week one or two different government bureaus requested reports from us, all urgent, slightly different in content, and with no advance warning. I have provided the personal information of myself and my coworkers to seemingly every official in every bureau in our city. The number of cameras expanded rapidly throughout this time, along with requirements to scan our phones when entering or exiting buildings. Before we were allowed to return to one of our office properties, we were required to provide passport copies, negative COVID tests, and certificates of health from neighborhood committees for each of our foreign coworkers to the police precinct, neighborhood committee, and gate guards at our office.
These restrictions and the stress that they brought were accompanied by blessings as well. Spending more time together as a family was a welcome treat, as we found more time to puzzle and play games together, to listen to and make music, and to experiment with new recipes in the kitchen.
We also deepened our sense of affinity and belonging with our neighbors. With non-residents barred from entering housing developments, we saw more of one another in our building courtyard whenever we stepped out to enjoy a breath of fresh air and to exchange news about how the virus efforts were advancing and what was or wasn’t opening in our neighborhood. One expatriate family saw miraculous advances in their relationships with neighbors, as school closures enabled ongoing interactions between their children and older Chinese children in their building for the first time ever.
Since our small courtyard has its own gate, we were relatively free to come and go, and early on a group of five or six neighbors started meeting for evening walks (with masks and maintaining social distancing) to a nearby park that was not gated. They emboldened us, and by early March we were meeting with our expatriate colleagues in that same park to stroll two-by-two in the spring sun and enjoy the freedom of prayer with a physically present—though masked—brother or sister. These were precious times of fellowship and deepening relationships.
As conditions slowly eased in our city through the summer months and we began reconnecting with local friends in homes and restaurants, we slowly became aware of the toll the COVID lockdown has taken on many Chinese families. The economic price was high for many, with loss of work, income, or a business making it very difficult for families to meet outstanding educational or medical expenses. Forced togetherness also brought many marital problems to light, causing conflict, abuse, and, in one case in our extended community, suicide. Children are experiencing noticeably higher rates of mental health problems, ranging from anxiety and school refusal to device addiction and suicidal ideation. Though the strict measures of the first few months means that we can now circulate in our community with little fear of infection, these and other aspects of the fallout from COVID will be part of our interactions with local friends and colleagues for years to come.
Recently a group of believers gathered to share their experiences of 2020. They told of great sufferings and difficulties that in most cases went far beyond the struggles brought by the virus itself. Tears flowed. And yet in each of these stories brothers and sisters testified to the hand of God on their circumstances. Time and again they recounted their trials as gifts from God. None of the expats who have remained in our city regret their decision to return/stay.
Though the previous months have not been easy, the shared difficulties have deepened our sense of belonging in our local community and fostered new levels of trust in relationships. Choosing to face hardship—for remaining in China seemed foolish to almost everyone back in February—has brought us tremendous blessing, as each of us has experienced in the most concrete ways imaginable the solid trustworthiness of God’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.