The Quietest Chinese New Year
As a foreign son-in-law to a Chinese family, Zach and his wife returned to Daxie Island – an island of the port city Ningbo in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang to have a family reunion with his Chinese family during the Spring Festival holiday in 2020. Since they got married, this was the 10th Chinese New Year that they have spent together, and perhaps it was the most unforgettable one.
In China, the New Year’s Eve is a special time for family members to gather together, immersing themselves in the lively festive atmosphere. Firecrackers can be seen lighting up the night sky everywhere along the street. When the clock strikes eight o’clock, the whole family gathers in front of the TV set to watch the yearly Spring Festival Gala. A family reunion dinner in Daxie usually contains the following delicacies: rice cakes, glutinous rice balls in fermented rice wine, and a variety of seafood including shrimp, crab, fish, and shellfish. On the first day of the first lunar month, Zach’s family members back from Hangzhou and Beijing usually visit their relatives and friends living on the island. It is always the rarest and most cherished time of gathering throughout the year.
However, the Chinese New Year of 2020 was quite different for Zach and his wife. From the day they arrived at Daxie Island on the afternoon of the New Year’s Eve until February 4 when they returned to Beijing, the couple only went out four times, twice to the local market to purchase food and twice to get some fresh air.
“Before we returned to my in-laws, we had seen various news on platforms that there was an epidemic that had emerged in Wuhan, and we had started to take precautions like wearing masks. But we did not take the situation too seriously, being that Wuhan is quite some distance away from where we lived,” Zach said. He recalls that the number of confirmed cases had already quadrupled from 291 cases in China on January 20 to 1,287 cases on January 24, the eve of Chinese New Year, thus making people aware of the seriousness of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and that it could be of great peril.
Throughout the less than two weeks the couple were there, they did not visit any of their local relatives. Fortunately, as the island is somewhat small and distant from the center of urban life, there were no COVID-19 cases on it. “It was certainly a quiet Chinese New Year without social interaction among family members and friends, family reunion dinner, and even lighting firecrackers, lacking the usual festive spirit,” Zach said, then added, “This year’s Spring Festival will go down as one of the quietest festivals in history.”
The daily schedule thus became rather simple: get up, check news – especially regarding Wuhan, do exercise at home, eat, and talk with the family members. They were even cautious about going out to take walks. Sitting next to the window, Zach often heard a vehicle driving around the neighborhood a couple of times a day playing a recording over a loud speaker instructing and imploring local residents to stay in-doors, wear face masks, wash hands frequently, and so on.
Protected from Head to Toe
After two weeks, the couple decided to brave the trip back to Beijing. Having gone through many checkpoints for checking temperature and registering personal identity all along the way to the train station, the couple eventually boarded a train bound for Beijing on February 4. That experience was quite interesting as the couple saw first-hand the measures China took to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“When we finally boarded the train,” Zach recalls, “even though we were dressed with goggles, masks, and gloves to protect ourselves from the crowds we were sure to meet on the train, we found that there was only one other person in the same carriage with us, and that remained like that the entire trip.” Finally arriving in Beijing, they breathed a sigh of relief.
After arriving in Beijing, the couple were asked by the neighborhood committee to self-quarantine for 14 days as they had returned from another city. At the beginning, there was only one security guard standing at the entrance gate of the community to take temperatures. Later on, they had to get little passes to show at the gate to be allowed to enter. During the days of self-quarantining, they bought a lot of food through online platforms, but soon the 14 days were over, and the couple began to purchase food at a store near their apartment complex again.
On the day Zach started to work, he chose to ride a shared bicycle all the way – about 14 or more kilometers from his home in Fengtai District to the office in Xicheng District – which took him about one and a half hours. “I felt fine during the ride, but my knees were in pain for the next few days from that much motion after being quite sedentary during the self-quarantine,” Zach said. Not being able to ride a bicycle the whole way, he then took the subway, of course wearing a mask, gloves, and goggles. Now with the situation getting better, he no longer wears the protective goggles or gloves. But he still makes sure to wash hands with soap or water-free hand sanitizer after arriving at the office. While working in the office, everyone wears masks and maintains social distance.
During the pandemic period, the cafeteria at Zach’s work in the beginning only provided a take-away lunch. Then as the situation got better, a buffet-style lunch was provided again. But this time, Zach found that it was quite different for him to eat by himself with a plastic division barrier dividing the table in two to ensure people abide by the social-distancing rules. “Eating originally was supposed to be a social event with coworkers. But now it is a silent world in the cafeteria during lunch time with most of the people eating in their own world,” Zach sighed, then added, “Well, for the sake of controlling the coronavirus, we certainly are willing to make some sacrifices.”
Greetings across the Pacific Ocean
During the pandemic, Zach has done much to keep in contact with his family back in the U.S.A. “I contact my family every week through video calling. In the beginning, my parents were worried about us; but then we began to be concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic would develop in the U.S., especially after seeing news filled with reports about New York and so on. But actually, not every place in the U.S. has been hit as hard as New York,” Zach said. Being that his parents live in central California where there have been relatively few cases, their lives have not been interrupted very much during this period.
Zach’s parents, along with most Americans, are quite resistant to wearing masks when going out. “They think it is not necessary,” he says, “and as a result, we encourage them often to try and stay safe.” But at the same time, since they live a rather healthy lifestyle and get daily exercise, their immune systems should be quite robust to fighting virus. Actually, they often remind Zach and their daughter-in-law to wash hands, get needed sleep, exercise, eat fresh foods, so as to keep a strong immune system to fight against the coronavirus.
In addition to the general precautions for health, the principle of “eating a good breakfast” is something the couple have tried to achieve throughout these years, without an exception during the special period of the pandemic. “It is a cross-cultural principle,” said Zach, citing the idea in the Chinese proverb, “Have a substantial breakfast, a filling lunch, and a light supper,” as well as the English proverb, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and supper like a popper.” It seems that no matter which country you are in, a good living habit can start from a sumptuous breakfast.
Zach has also found maintaining a regular daily schedule quite beneficial. Even when he works at home, he still gets up at around 5 a.m., goes out to exercise, does morning reading, eats a regular breakfast, and then begins his work. In his view, this has helped him personally to maintain a regular life which in turn helps him psychologically. “When you cannot control the things happening outdoors, at least try to maintain a certain amount of order inside,” he said.
Online Socializing Booms
Talking about the major changes during this pandemic, Zach said that one major challenge for him has been having less personal interaction with people. “Not having the general convenience to visit friends as usual and having less face-to-face interaction is a big challenge for me.” Then he said with a smile, “I am quite fortunate that I am married, so I am not all alone like some people who are unmarried or even have no flat mates.”
Actually, the couple’s weekends are quite busy. Before the pandemic broke out, they hosted an English activity every Friday night, during which they learned and sang English songs, shared personal experiences, and discussed different topics of life, from dealing with stress, how to relate to the people who are hard to get along with, showing gratitude, and so on. “Attendees at our group were people from all walks of life and cultures. After we could not meet together, we began to meet online using the Tencent online meeting room,” he said. Zach further introduced that even though the form of their activities had changed a little, the online activity still gave the participants an outlet to talk with other people.
A few months ago, Zach and his wife had joined an eight-week-long online program for married couples about how to improve and enrich the relationship between husbands and wives – all in English. After completing the course, they chose to host it for other couples – but this time in Chinese. “We have been able to find encouragement by connecting with other people online and being a positive influence on others. Of course, online socializing can never replace face-to-face interaction, but for the time being, it is worth giving it a try,” said the young couple.
In addition to this, Zach also participated in the production of a cloud singing group that recorded a song to encourage the rest of the world to unite and fight the coronavirus. In the team, Zach played the piano accompaniment and sang as well. He was delighted to join in and said, “When the pandemic was spreading in China, many countries made encouraging performances in recorded videos for China and people in Wuhan in particular. As a result, people here in China wanted to send a message of encouragement to the rest of the world showing our spirit of solidarity. I am glad to be part of them!”
Lessons Learned from the COVID-19
The essential lesson that everyone should learn from this pandemic is that life is precious. As Zach pointed out, “We often take everything we have for granted, eating what we want, going where we please, and seeing who we wish, but even more than that, the simple pleasure of smelling a fresh rose without a mask on, or coming in and going out of stores without having to worry about ‘might I possibly get infected inside the store?’”
Zach has also reflected on the high technologies that we human beings boast of, indicating that in this modern era with blockchain technology, AI, driverless vehicles, and 5G, sometimes people can think that we as humans are almost invincible and have the whole world in our hands to do with it what we please. But then something like a novel coronavirus emerges, and the human begin to realize there are many things we still have to learn.
“During this global crisis, each country must work together in a spirit of solidarity to help each other. It has been made more evident that every human and country are all members of the international community, or as China’s President Xi Jinping calls it, ‘we are a community with a shared future,’ albeit some countries are bigger and some others are smaller,” said Zach. He then pointed out that China has demonstrated this during the pandemic and taken its responsibility as a major country, helping other countries in need by sending medical materials and supporting teams, and promoting international cooperation in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking beyond the pandemic, Zach said, “When the pandemic is over, the first thing I would like to do is to find a place to travel with my family, a place that we haven’t been to before. Just relax and enjoy real, simple, and good moments of life.” He and his family members all expect that day will come soon.