2022: twenty twenty, too
Today is the third day of being locked down in my apartment in Shenzhen.
When I arrived in Shenzhen in November, life was relatively normal. Though we had to show our health codes to access public transportation and shopping centers, I could still go to work and enter the many areas called “communities” that the geography of life here is subdivided into without being stopped by anyone or having to present my health code.
My health code is my ticket to civic life in China, a snapshot that tells my entire coronavirus-related history: my 14 days of isolation, my 7 days of self monitoring, and my most recent negative tests. All the cotton swabs that have brushed my tongue, my cheeks, those that have grazed the back of my throat, collated into one bright green QR code.
It only took a few weeks to start noticing the changes. At first we heard the news of a case, then two. A husband and wife. Rest assured, we were told, they are in quarantine, and contact tracing is being done. The entire city underwent two rounds of testing in response to these two cases. I remember my shock. The US seemed like the wild west compared to this response. Thousands of cases per day, uncoordinated responses across localities, mitigation efforts falling to individuals. 随便你, individualism at its most deadly.
I remember my first time mass testing. The orderly lines, my mind flashing back to the US, nurses who quit their jobs over vaccine mandates in the hospital where I worked, protesting with signs and angry voices across the street from the hospital. Behind them, sprawling quietly for blocks in every direction, the cemetery.
We had a bit of a breather after the first round of testing. Then, more cases found, and a second round began. Then a third. I lost count of the rounds. Overnight, community entrances sprouted staff wearing official armbands, holding QR codes. Tables with clipboards, tents to escape the sun.
I had parked my scooter just inside the community down the block, and when I went to retrieve it, I was stuck for half an hour filling out forms in Chinese and struggling to scan the code.
The code. Sigh. This is the universal 麻烦 of our existence as foreigners here in China. It’s a brilliant system, really, just scan the QR code and your health code appears on your screen. Forcing you to scan upon entry, the phone making its characteristic beep, eliminates fraud and counterfeiting.
The only problem? Foreigners can’t scan it. The system requires the input of a Chinese ID number, which we as foreigners will never have. The easy solution would be to allow us to input our passport number instead, but for whatever reason, this change has not been made.
There’s a separate system for us, called the Guandong Health Code, or GHC. We can enter into it on our phones and pull up our health code just fine, but we have to do it ourselves, and it isn’t linked to the QR code everyone else is scanning.
Unfortunately those who staff community and metro entrances are often not educated on the finer points of foreigner social welfare adherence software, and despite many pleas, arguments, and even showing official documentation from the government (I’ve got screenshots, baby), we are often simply refused admittance because we cannot comply with the simple request: scan the code. I get it, no one wants to be blamed for letting one covid-carrying foreigner through the gates. No one wants to get in trouble, lose their job, lose face, bring shame on their family, on the country.
One group chat I’m in is flooded with examples, one after the other, couldn’t get onto the subway, couldn’t get into my own apartment. I’ve been refused entry to a covid testing site. I wonder how the irony of that escaped them. My coworker was refused entry to his own apartment so many times he had to move, but then it started happening again at his new place as well.
Case numbers rose as we headed into 春节, though when schools let out for winter break, none of us had any idea we wouldn’t be coming back. When schools were meant to reopen, only staff returned, making small education videos for the kids and doing cleaning and disinfecting of the school. We waited for the students to return, hearing that it might be next week, in two weeks, at the start of the next month. They never did.
Then, under the increasing burden of new cases, we were sent home. At first under the pretense of working from home, then we were directly told to “take a rest”. Communities in other parts of the city started going into lockdown. At first five days, then seven, then ten. Finally many were released. Then, without warning, they went back into lockdown.
This is when I started to worry about income. Chinese law states that in this situation, the first month will be paid at full salary. Subsequent months will be paid at 80% of Shenzhen minimum wage, which is about 2000rmb, or $315usd. 80% is 1201rmb, $198usd. It’s less than half my rent.
I had been sitting at the edge of this pool of fear and worry for weeks, kicking my legs playfully in the water, face still in the sun, laughing. I told myself there was no use worrying until I had the facts. Wait until payday, then see what happens. Meanwhile the waters swirled, pulling at my feet.
Payday came, and the pull of the water overtook me. I slid into the pool, sinking all the way to the bottom with one email.
The email confirmed my fears. If this continues, we aren’t getting paid. And by the way, the month of salary the government mandates? Yeah, we’re going to want that back, so, prepare to work weekends to make up for it.
My lungs filled with pool water. I called a lawyer.
She charged me 1000rmb to tell me everything about my work situation is illegal, but there’s basically nothing I can do about it. Working with an agency or third party in China is illegal. If I am caught I could be deported and blacklisted. This feels like a pretty empty threat with dozens upon hundreds of teachers that have taken this path before me and the dozens at my heels, but it does mean that I cannot break my two year contract early without paying huge penalties.
Oh and threatening to make us make up for pay by working weekends is illegal, as is threatening to make us pay to break the contract. But, the lawyer wouldn’t quote specific laws and wouldn’t supply me with a written statement to the fact, so I am on my own to prove it.
I sat on the bottom of the pool, watching my hair float in the water, strands of curls splaying out in all directions. I messaged a group chat of foreign women in Shenzhen, trying to get a pulse on my situation. Responses started coming in. Which agency? Oh? That one? Run. Terrible agency. Ruthless. They will take you to court. They will make you pay thousands to break contract. They play favorites, paying some better than others, treating some better than others.
Then a response that chilled me to the core. “There are people from your agency in the group chat, just so you know.” Pool water blurred my vision, my head swimming from lack of oxygen. I carefully crafted a message to the group, thanking everyone for their information, reassuring whoever might be reading that I am not looking to break my contract early, despite any predatory practices. Even in retreat, it seems my tail won’t fully tuck.
That day went by in a blur of stress hormones. I heard the following day we would go into lockdown. I biked up the big hill in Fuyong to retrieve my scooter from across town where I had left it to charge after it ran out of battery, only to find I didn’t bring my keys with me when I arrived. I laughed maniacally at the charging machine. I put more money on it to charge more and left, getting some grocery shopping done by sharebike. Grocery stores were picked clean from panic buying. I took the last few potatoes, and all the green vegetables I could get, as well as apples and bananas.
Temperatures were in the high 20s (I’m on Celsius now, sorry), and had not eaten all day from stress and heat. The front door of my apartment was sealed now with tape. The apartment staff sat at a table by the gate, a thermometer, health code scan QR code, and two small bottles of hand sanitizer sitting on the table, all blessedly unused, as well as a quarter of a watermelon for the staff to snack on.
I locked onto the watermelon. Suddenly this was all I wanted. I ran upstairs (they turned off the elevator — no one can come if there’s a problem while we’re in lockdown) and dropped off my groceries, then went back out to search for watermelon.
A couple blocks down I found a fruit shop, two half watermelons sitting on the table. I know the word for watermelon, 西瓜, literally western melon, but in that moment, with stress gripping my mind like a vice, I could only do so much as point. Xigua, he said, supplying the word.
He spoke a few more sentences. I deduced the meaning from context, he was offering to cut it up for me. In my mind, in English, I wanted to say “please, that would be great, thank you”, but I know those are not the pragmatics by which Chinese operates. It wouldn’t make any sense to say 请，那会好，谢谢. As an interpreter and already trilingual, I know better than to transliterate. 好, I said. Good. He weighed the watermelon and gave me the price. 43块. Half the price of my grocery haul. Still, I wanted it.
He cut it into plastic takeout boxes and threw in a handful of skewers. 谢谢, he said as he gave it to me. This is only something I hear when I buy something expensive. It was reassuring to know that his and my perception of the expense was the same. I took the watermelon home in to plastic bags and stood in my kitchen, wondering where else to go, how else to spend the day outside before the lockdown began.
I went back out to retrieve my scooter again, this time with keys in hand. Finally it was fully charged. I had packed my flashcards and headphones. I wanted to sit at a park and study, breathe fresh air, enjoy my last hours of freedom. I found all the parks closed, barricades and guards at the entrances. I navigate my bike to Lixin Lake, the small lake at the heart of Fuyong, and found a seat on some steps next to the lake. I wasn’t the only one with this thought. Soon the steps were crowded. One man squatted on a fence post expertly, reading his phone. One man went as far as to jump the fence and disappear, returning half an hour later. I had to laugh. Clearly this was something a bit more urgent than a pee break.
Another foreigner flagged me down leaving the lake. “Hello,” he said, “English, Russian?”. 都可以, I responded, laughing at my instinct to speak Chinese first. I switched to Russian. “Yes, I can speak Russian, where are you from? I’m from Minsk.” I came to find out he’s also from Belarus, and came to China three years ago. Neither one of us had plans (how could we?) so we hung out for the evening, chatting and getting to know each other. He had ridden a sharebike from Shajing, four metro stops up, about fourty minutes ride. No wonder, I thought, I think there’s only three foreigners in all of Fuyong: my coworker, myself, and a man I see sometimes but haven’t spoken to yet.
He invited me to a handful of Russian groups, which I nodded to politely without expressing interest. How can I ever explain the complicated psychological tangle of attraction and repulsion to the Slavic world for me? I just met him, it’s a bit too early to talk about trigger points and abuse. Why my name was once almost Anna Karenina, what my first tattoo means. We switched between Russian and English, though Chinese words kept interrupting my Russian. I apologized, saying in my head there’s kasha, and he laughed, understanding me the way another person who shares a language only can.
Today I have to order groceries. I tried last night to order delivery but was automatically redirected to a pickup point. With no ability to leave my building, my groceries never got picked up and I was automatically refunded. I have enough food for a few more days, but soon I will need to restock, so this is not a problem I can afford to ignore.
Last night I called the apartment manager for help and he knocked on my door, both of us looking at my phone. I’ve thought of the Chinese people as gods in a sense, awed at their language and capacity to understand everything perfectly in this unfamiliar place. But last night, watching him fumble with Meituan, I had to take the phone back and show him how to get to the main screen. He asked why I had chosen pickup. I said the app did that by itself. I showed him where my address was and that I had put it in correctly.
I realized, in that moment, that they are not gods, they are just people. That I am learning how to navigate this place myself, and learning the language, and that soon we will be on more or less the same playing field.
A few weeks ago, my friend, who is Chinese, asked me where he could get a covid test, and I sent him a miniapp to check locations near him. This same friend also told me my food doesn’t look good, and sends me photos of foods he’s eating. A steamed carrot. Bread. Sweet potatoes. He says he wants to cook for me, that he’s concerned I am losing weight from hunger.
I laugh in appreciation and frustration as I watch our understandings of the world slip past each other, just barely missing. I’ve been in this position so often as an interpreter, watching people give each other the same gift wrapped in different paper, both refusing to open it, unable to, never knowing what’s inside.
With each flash card I can start tugging at the corners, ever so slowly. I can’t wait to see what’s inside.