‘The art of living is a continuous task in the shaping of Life and the Self’. Continuity is essential, and under the looming haze of COVID-19, the art of learning how to continue living is particularly important. That is what I saw and found amazing when the circumstances became rough: people searched for a way to create a life of beauty for themselves.
Just before Chinese New Year, we knew that we would have fieldwork in Wuhan after the holidays. The simultaneous translator who had worked with us for ages warned me that “The SARS is coming back, this time in Wuhan”, and I was like, “Nah… rumour!”
It was during my middle school years, when China was devastatingly hit by the SARS epidemic, and the boarding school I studied in was totally locked down. There was speculation and conspiracy theories everywhere, and the Internet was not even thriving back then!
When it came to SARS, there was simply no ‘competition’, or at least that is what every Chinese thought then. Well, it turned out there is a competitor, in the heavyweight class. On 20th Jan 2020, senior Chinese government medical advisor Zhong Nanshan confirmed that this new virus can be transmitted interpersonally, thus kicking off the national battle against coronavirus. Things escalated quickly, I remember waking up in shock on the morning of 23rd, the day before Chinese New Year. Wuhan was put under lockdown, the motorways were sealed off and the public transportation system was shut down. This was unprecedented. The slogan that was shared during this time “lock a city, save a country” touched the hearts of many.
Overnight, I saw everyone pacing through the streets wearing face masks. The news, entirely dedicated to informing the public on the Covid-19 updates. Soon, like dominos, all the shops, gyms, restaurants, tourist spots got shut down with a pink seal saying “due to the coronavirus, we are closed, we will update you when the situation changes”. Only a couple of shops and supermarkets were left open to sell the essentials. Shanghai applied the most rigid precautions and measures in the county just next to Wuhan, and I experienced something that I had only read in books: a ration system… on face masks.
It came almost too quick for people to even turn their heads around. How a holiday that was supposed to be a reunion became drowned in loudspeakers saying “Everyone stay at home, minimize going out to visit your relatives”. How a buzzing city turned into a ghost town, how people that should have been on their way to their annual overseas holidays had to be locked in, and how others should have been out on the busy streets, bargaining on the last purchases for the new year dinner. The virus stole the thunder.
So, I was ‘stuck’ at my parent’s house for two weeks, and in the end, I can say that in a weird way, the virus was a blessing. “This is the first time in 5 years that you spent 2 weeks at home”, said my mom. And it was true. I started to develop a routine of taking regular walks in the park with my parents chatting about my childhood and their younger days. This was, until the day that the whole compound we lived in was put on restrictive quarantine, as a confirmed case lived there too. Not even taking walks were allowed. So, my mom suggested we climb over the fence and go for a walk! I was astonished partly because it would be a bit of an unusual thing to do in this ‘civilized world’, and partly because I didn’t realize that I have such a rebellious mom! It’s usually children who encourage parents to do ‘unlawful’ things, but I really enjoyed this, you know, discovering life could be a journey filled with excitement. From that moment, we became the fence climbing experts in two weeks. It’s funny to think we’ve been climbing over the fences just to do something that would have been super usual on ‘normal days’ – take a walk.
August, a colleague of ours was also locked in for a whole month! After two weeks, it was hard not to fall into depression, but then, he started to adopt new life rituals. During the Chinese New Year Holidays while being locked in, he read the famous Japanese book Danshari (about refusal, disposal and separation) and watched a Japanese TV drama called There is nothing in my home. And all of sudden, he had an epiphany of minimalism. He took the time to throw away boxes after boxes of stuff. It turned out to be the perfect opportunity to reflect on the relationship between himself and his belongings. And this went beyond physical things, to his mobile apps, to digital assets, to the one thousand facebook friends, and eventually, to all relationships. Through decluttering and organizing, he experienced ecstasy from order and method, which he admits to being addicted to now!
At the end of the day, it comes down to… when the situation doesn’t work, you make it work. Having a positive and hardworking attitude towards difficulties helps people make life manageable under quarantine. I hear some people referring to this moment as a brilliant opportunity to start cooking, baking cakes, making milk teas, and creating fusion dishes. They can also finally appreciate a moment to fully relax. Lying in bed all day is in a way contributing to fighting the battle. E-commerce is trying out new approaches like delivery drones to make contactless delivery possible, to ultimately minimize the risk of cross-infection, school morning exercises, work recruitment and museum visits, even doctor appointments have gone online.
As the crisis accelerates the ‘internet cloud’ of people’s life, the thoughts around what opportunities lie beneath are also circulating fast. Some say Chinese is only language in the world that translates crisis as “Danger+Opportunity” (危机), maybe it does so with a reason.