I’ve given a few interviews about the pandemic as an expat abroad, mostly from podcasters and political activists who hope that getting some word across from China would change local policy.
I really wasn’t sure what they wanted from me, the Chinese response to the pandemic was scattershot at best and there is no one better than me that remembers losing the mayor of Shanghai to Wuhan due to the disastrous response, or the literal highwaymen that would “disappear” shipments of medical supplies to inland provinces.
However, I think they hoped as an American on the outside looking in I would be able to provide some guidance. Many people thought that, and they still do.
In the early days I remember being on the phone with my mom explaining why she should wear a mask when she went out despite the calls from the CDC that masks were ineffective.
“I don’t understand,” I said to her at the time “Why people think that masks don’t work when it has worked for the past few epidemics here in Asia? Why would doctors wear masks if they don’t work?”
My sister, like most Americans, thought otherwise, but I pressed on “Please, wear a mask, masks in China are worth more than Hermes, there is a reason for this.”
My mom went to explain that she would get made fun of for wearing masks, and when she wore her Shanghai sweater people accused her of bringing the virus back in November when she had visited.
Being an American abroad means you’re betwixt two worlds, and when China’s borders had finally closed I sat quietly on a conference call with my American coworkers while one of them cried on camera because she had went to America on a routine business trip in early February and wasn’t sure when or how she could return to her family in China.
“Is it really so bad?” A Chinese coworker wrote in a private message.
“I am not sure,” I replied, knowing full well it was that bad, as we are in July and she still has not seen her children.
The friend that encouraged me to fly to Japan was now trapped in NYC and told me he could not go out for fear of the virus. “I am just trying to stay inside, it’s really bad here, but there’s nothing I can do beside stay safe.”
When China was suffering, the world delighted in watching the communist country scramble to save it’s citizens, the American media had painted this country into a red hellscape of martial law. Now, forgotten by the side show of America’s pandemic response, the world turned away from China to watch a re-run of a country in crisis, a re-run Chinese citizens gleefully watched and spoke eagerly about.
I was mentoring at “Hack for Wuhan” a non-profit hackathon to assist in pandemic response and the team came to me for advice on their project, but it turned into a Q&A session for the only American judge.
“Our goal is to educate the rest of the world on the Coronavirus.” The team leader, who had recently been accepted into Stanford said proudly. “We want others to know about what China discovered since we went through it first.”
Not that the rest of the world would read absolutely anything China would put out.
“Is it true,” She had said in the middle of her pitch “That Americans think they don’t have to wear masks?”
“It is true.”
That was a complicated question, a question many think pieces tried to answer in the coming months as America descended into chaos.
“I cannot be sure, maybe this can be something your platform explores.”
The pitch ended with more questions, but one question that Chinese would have endlessly would be the same
“Is it really so bad in America?”
It was a question I would ask myself as I began to make kits to send to relatives home. Every week I would be peppered by images of empty supermarket shelves, something I never experienced in China even when I was also doing some “prepper” buying in February.
Guilt ate at me because of this. I had weathered the epidemic mostly alone during the first few months but weathering was mostly isolation and anxiety, there were no food shortages, and I remember complaining the most about my favorite bubble tea place being shuttered until late April.
Guilt turned to action and I asked if anyone needed PPE after watching the news of the shortage, and very shortly after that post I was contacted by hospitals in a desperate attempt to get anything for the frontline workers.
The line of people attempting to ship bulk medical supplies to America, like me at the post office, garbage bags full of PPE, a pre-filled customs form for masks, rubber gloves, and protective suits, answered the question many Chinese answered.
It was that bad in America.
As a side note, I don’t really think many people conceive of the idea that Chinese people are compassionate and caring towards the outside world. Instead, many Chinese are seen as these soulless communist devils who eat capitalist children or whatnot, but immediately after an epidemic became a pandemic, there is a lot of compassion from a country of people the world would rather blindly hate.
I spoke with some people in line at the post office, I had been there an hour with about 250 masks and cutesy cards to send to my parents and chatted with some other Chinese, their daughter was abroad at school, or their son was a doctor at a hospital and was facing supplies shortages, or they knew someone who ran a clinic and wanted to help.
“I can’t believe what is happening there.” A woman and her daughter told me as we waited patiently to be called up to send our supplies abroad. “I never thought it would be so bad in America.” (America is held to a strange, high standard, here in China. Freedom, open road, labor unions, the usual “American dream.”)
The gleeful re-run of America imploding turned to the dull throb of horror, as quarantine continued to drag on, well past anything we had seen in China, and people were dying in alarming rates across the US. The same tactics that China was given hell for implementing were happening with little fanfare across America.
“I got tested,” A friend told me “They didn’t report it to the CDC.”
“How will the government know accurate numbers?”
The Chinese had lost interest in the decay of America as the numbers continued to climb, it is exhausting, to watch the news and wonder what will become of your home country, that latent low level anxiety when you call or speak to people back home who are still trapped, still waiting for something to change as no efforts are being made.
I sat on the podcast and was quizzed in late May, we had just returned to work a few weeks prior to this interview.
“It’s bad,” The host told me before the interview began “We’re running out of ideas and I am hoping that we can use what happened in China as a blueprint.”
A blueprint. I remembered getting identification cards that meant nothing but were absolutely crucial, Americans being welded into their apartments by xenophobic neighbors, a lack of transparency that led to dogs and cats being killed by guards because they feared their were carriers, fist fights over masks at pharmacies.
“You have a unique perspective,” The host continued “As an American abroad, you know both sides and how to help.”
Helpless to send anything other than unapproved PPE (China stopped allowing people to send PPE a month prior thanks to a series of gaffes) back to America through Hong Kong, donating money for food supplies that couldn’t get to the countryside where my family lived, listening to old classmates beg for masks because their father was immunocompromised.
“Of course,” I replied. “I will tell you what I know as an American expat who lived through the Coronavirus here in China”
“Great, and we’ll write your answers and send a letter to the Governor.”
It was in May that the Chinese had finally accepted it was really that bad in America and the question changed:
“How could it be so bad in America?”