March 15, 2020 (China Standard Time)
Chaoyang District, Beijing
On Tuesday night, I booked a one-way flight from Toronto to Beijing for Friday. Hainan Airlines 7976, in economy class, for $566.10.
It’s only been a month since I shipped face masks that I had ordered from Amazon—which were, in fact, made in Hubei province—to Beijing, where my family had been since December.
That morning, Harvard was the first college to decide to move all classes online and evict students from dormitories with a five-day notice. As I was staying in Cambridge, I took a walk to Central and then Harvard Yard at noon, only to find students moving their belongings and bidding farewell to their friends. Massachusetts had yet reached 100 cases, but Governor Charlie Baker was already declaring state of emergency. (For those unfamiliar with U.S. politics, the state of emergency is a paper tiger—it’s mostly a measure to access federal funding and other forms of support.)
Flying back to Beijing was, at first, only a backup plan, in case my classes also get canceled because of COVID-19. Tickets were, in fact, already running out—as only a handful of airlines (mostly Chinese) were still running North America–China routes, and stopovers in Japan and South Korea would only bring me more hassles.
I had been on spring break. I wrote to an administrator at my school on Tuesday to see if there was any policy. The response wasn’t particularly helpful:
Thanks for being in touch.
We are continuing to monitor the situation and will communicate any changes in policy and plan ASAP. I do think we will provide more info prior to Friday.
But it soon became clear to me that—given the exponential growth of cases, the foolishness and incapability of the Trump administration, poor testing capacities, along with the underpreparedness of the U.S. public—there was almost no chance that classes would ever resume for the rest of the semester.
On Wednesday morning, before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I wrote to my school:
In fact, I have decided to return to Beijing on Friday regardless. This will mean I will not be able to return to the U.S. in at least a month, due to quarantine policies in both countries. The uncertainty of this epidemic—and the certainty that it will become significantly worse—has put me in a position where my family and I feel unsafe . . .
The decision was hard. That I wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. anytime soon was one problem. If school does resume, and I don’t show up to classes because of travel restrictions, I probably won’t be able to graduate. This was my thought process:
- There will be a major outbreak in Massachusetts as well as the entire country;
- I don’t have a place in Massachusetts where I can self-quarantine for ~5 months;
- One has to meet several criteria to even get tested in the U.S.;
- It’s much safer in China, because people take COVID-19 seriously and know it isn’t “just like the flu” and won’t go away anytime soon;
- If I’m going to traveling internationally, I should do it ASAP, before more travel restrictions are imposed worldwide;
- My family members in China are extremely worried. It’s probably better to return to them.
I booked a Thursday flight from Boston to Toronto on Air Canada, using miles because the tickets had surged to ~$500 one-way. More schools delayed classes on Wednesday, if not canceling in-person classes for the rest of the semester. That night, Donald Trump gave another ultranationalist TV address to announce new policies confronting COVID-19. It was not unlike every Trump speech ever: He butchered numerous details, and other people in his administration had to wipe his ass afterwards.
Like many high schools, mine still hadn’t released any policy. I suggested in a Twitter thread that administrators were still trapped in their tunnel vision, and like the rest of the U.S. public, many hadn’t realized the significance of this situation.
The sentiment we’re getting at in the U.S. (and the West in general, perhaps) toward COVID-19 was that—like James Palmer of Foreign Policy has said—China isn’t real. It’s a faraway country that exists only in theory and on maps; that the experiences of Chinese people in Wuhan over the past months are so distant from us, that there isn’t a remote possibility that what’s happened out there could happen to people across the Pacific.
I was leaving anyways. On Thursday morning I packed up my clothes in my new Samsonite carry-on suitcase that I’d bought for my now-canceled Europe trip, dropped off a few keys at a friend’s place, and took off for Toronto. I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S. for a few months; there wouldn’t be graduation, so I would—if I’m able to graduate—probably get my diploma via FedEx.
At passport control, the Canadian border agent—who had an attitude—asked me about my trip:
— I’m staying here in Toronto for a day and I’m flying to Beijing tomorrow.
— Why are you going to China?
— Because I have family there.
— Are you sure?
Having noticed that I had post-it’s on my passport asking officers not to stamp on new pages, the agent was unhappy, telling me it was “the weirdest request” he’d encountered:
— It’s for saving pages so that I’ll be able to use it for longer.
— If all the pages will be used up eventually, why does it matter?
I smiled, picked up my documents, and simply walked away. (By the way, this is actually a rather common practice among frequent travelers. You should try it, too.)
On Friday the Thirteenth, my school finally came up with a plan. Spring break extended, and classes will move online until April, when the crisis management team will re-assess the situation.
I rode the UP Express from Union Station to Toronto Pearson. As I was entering the airport, I put on a face mask while in the elevator.
When I mailed masks to my family in Beijing, I’d saved a few for myself, keeping them in a ziplock bag. Until then, I hadn’t worn one. Social stigma in the U.S. and anti-Asian racism had made me a reluctant mask wearer, despite their effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 during its asymptomatic stage.
I mean, how do you even wear a mask? Is there a specific etiquette? Do you take off your mask when you go through security? If a passer-by asks about it, how do you respond? But at YYZ, everyone at Hainan Airlines’ check-in counter was wearing a face mask—some were in other protective gear.
We were the only passengers wearing masks in the airport. All of us. It was about safety, but more importantly, it was a sign of solidarity.
I tweeted about the entire process, from boarding to arrival to quarantine, in a thread (also available on Thread Reader:
Twelve hours later, I was back in Beijing, after filling out several forms and waiting on the aircraft for about 50 minutes. The entire arrival process took around 3–4 hours, and eventually we were sent to 新国展, an expo center in Shunyi, where I was sent home after registering with officers from my district.
I am under self-quarantine for the next 14 days, along with everyone in my apartment, until March 28. Until then, I’ll write once in a while, read a few books, and continue to monitor the situation.
Stay safe, wash your hands, and wear masks.