Traveling Amid the First Year of Covid in China

Ruihan Zhang

The Flight and the Quarantine

In the summer of 2020, my trip to my home in Beijing didn’t start on the day of the flight, but with a WeChat program that would issue me a green health code with the icon of a small airplane in the middle. 15 days before my flight I needed to report my health situation on a WeChat program every day until the day of my flight. If I hadn’t had any covid-related symptoms, then there would be an icon of an airplane in the middle of the health code—the permission of boarding. Compared with my Chinese passport in dark red, the green health code is virtually a golden passport for traveling to China. 

During those 15 days, I was working to finish my semester and forgot to report to the program twice. So, I didn’t manage to get the airplane icon on the day before my flight. I was worried as hell and started calling many agencies. I called the Chinese airline company, the Chinese embassy in the Netherlands, and Schiphol airport to ask them about whether I could still board without an airplane icon ready. The first two said no and the third call gave me hope. The Schiphol staff said they didn’t know about it, but they could direct me to the airline company’s crew working at the airport. In the final call, the crew said that it was fine if you forgot to report one or two days only. They would be lenient about it. Without the airplane icon I could still take the airplane. I was so happy. 

On the day of my flight, I arrived at the airport, went through the security check, and walked to the gate. From far away, I sensed that the gate for my flight had a quite different vibe from the other gates I passed. It looked much whiter than usual. Waiting at the gate, many passengers had equipped themselves by wearing a full-scaled protective suit, a pair of covid safety goggles, a pair of medical gloves, and of course, a mask. White, white, and white. I felt like I was at a hospital rather than an airport. I didn’t even know there was such a method to protect oneself on an occasion like this. It was an eye-opener for me. 

The same scene repeated itself. This time it was the flight crew. After I boarded, I realized all the crew members wore the same—full-scale protective suits, safety goggles, medical gloves, and masks. White, white, and white. The crew members wrote their names on the back of the protective suit to distinguish themselves from each other. Some of them put cute drawings alongside their names, a cat, a heart, a dog. I could smell a strong sense of sanitizers even behind my mask. The eleven hours’ flight wasn’t as comfortable as how it was before the pandemic. I felt a stiff spine and a sour back. Yet I doubt my uncomfortable feeling was nothing compared with the passenger sitting next to me who had equipped himself or herself fully and didn’t drink or eat anything during the flight. Not a single drop of water. Many people adopted this strategy to protect themselves in a sealed environment during the flight to minimize the risk. I wonder if the aircraft crew adopted the same strategy. 

Eleven hours later, the airplane landed in Guangzhou, and I already felt the humid and hot weather at the airport. The passengers got off the plane one after another, so the airport hall suddenly looked white. The hall was so empty that I suspected passengers from our flight occupied this huge airport. Some passengers started to take off their protective suits, but there were more people in white waiting for us. All the airport staff were wearing protective suits in the empty hall. Even whiter. The whole scene looked like a futuristic disaster movie where almost all human beings died out and only a few left to fight for the survival of the human race. A few of the staffs’ tasks were to instruct us where to go. “This way, this way,” they waved their arms. We followed their directions and then it was the time for queuing. We lined up for the passport check and for two covid checks, one nasal test and one blood test. After all the queues and lines, I arrived at the airport exit. A red banner hanging on the wall reminded me that the difficult journey to home was almost over. It wrote: 

Welcome home! 欢迎回家!

A bittersweet feeling arose inside of me. I almost felt like this banner was  an ironic compliment of how tough it was for all the passengers who made through the journey so far and would make it through the following 14-day quarantine. The complicated process was only half completed. All the passengers lined up again under the instruction to get onto the bus that would drive us to different quarantine hotels. Before getting to the queue to wait for the bus, everyone needed to line up for the personal information registration. When it was my turn, the staff in white asked me a question that I didn’t catch. When I asked him to repeat the sentence, I subconsciously pulled down my mask to make myself sound louder. Apparently, he got frightened of my behavior and leaned backward, “you don’t need to take off your mask to talk.” I wore my mask again, then his body went back to a normal position. “Go to bus 3.” 

Nobody knew where the bus would drive us to, which district, and which hotel. We were like products on an assembly line about to be dispatched—after the safety standards control measure, not knowing which warehouse we would be sent to. Thirty minutes later we arrived at a deluxe-looking hotel. We lined up again in the reception hall for checking-in and to pay the self-afforded quarantine fees. My room wasn’t bad, a spacious double-bed room with an elephant-shaped plastic slide for kids. From the window, I could see a small plaza where people in the neighborhood could  take a short walk in. I already started to miss my freedom as I couldn’t leave the room in the next two weeks in any single step. 

My quasi-prison life started with a long, sweet sleep to get over the jet lag. Everyday the staff wearing protective suits knocked on my door five times. Three times for food and two times for covid tests. At the time of every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they knocked on the door and put the food on a stool in front of the door. Twice a day, they knocked on the door and walked in to take the PCR test in the morning and afternoon. At the beginning, I felt extremely lonely and felt my quarantine life was endless and pointless. But the adaptive nature of humans was so versatile that I slowly got used to this kind of life—not talking to any human in person except for saying “thank you” to the staff five times per day, not seeing any sign of human life except for watching someone occasionally walking on the plaza from my window. I started to do sports every day to help me fall asleep quicker at night. The weather in Guangzhou can easily make one drip with sweat. I discovered that the delivery services were working at the hotel, so I bought three books online, one ethnography written by a Chinese anthropologist, Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Brave New World. I spent most time reading, watching TV dramas, and chatting with my friends and family. Slowly, I became less aware of time. Is today Monday or Sunday? Is today the sixth day or seventh day of quarantine? It seemed that time stopped and only repeated itself by five door-knocking sounds per day. It seems that I can live okay with so  little real-life connection to the outside world. Sometimes, I missed that kind of connection, so I secretly opened my door when there was no staff and let the heat wave in Guangzhou storm into my room. Breathing in the humid air from the hallway, and hearing that the elevator nearby was beeping, I confirmed that the outside world was still running. 

The final day of quarantine came quicker than I expected, and none of the thirty covid test results I took was positive. I was granted a Guangdong province health code, a green one. A free certificate. I didn’t go to my family in Beijing immediately and decided to stay in Guangzhou to explore the city. When I was finally able to walk in downtown Guangzhou, noises, traffic, and crowds of people unstoppably stimulated my sense of hearing and sight. I had a feeling that I had entered a covid-free bubble zone. Life there was so absurdly and unrealistically real. Welcome home.

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