Updated: May 13, 2020
by Sun Jicheng
COVID-19 tales from Shandong, China
On the afternoon of March 21st, I arrived at Qingdao Liuting International Airport in Shandong, China. Before that, I had been doing research as a visiting scholar at Needham Research Institute, University of Cambridge for two months. On arrival, I underwent the required nucleic acid detection and throat swab at customs, then I was transported with other passengers to a five-star hotel at Huangdao District for 14 days of self-isolation. I got a room of my own just as Virginia Woolf dreamed of, and it was a room with a sea view just as E. M. Forster expected. Woolf and Forster reminded me of my short stay in Cambridge. In a room with a sea view, my quarantine would be as calm as the sea outside.
The hotel had been closed since the pandemic began. The Qingdao Municipal Government had requisitioned it to provide a centralized isolation service. However, we needed to pay for our mandatory stay. The price was 600 RMB yuan per night, meals included. Unfortunately, this five-star hotel provided only non-starred service. For one thing, it was short-staffed. There are usually more than 200 members of staff on hand, but only a third was on duty during the outbreak. Three meals a day were placed on a small table outside the room and a paper box served as a garbage bin.
The floor of my room was a little dusty, and I could see dust dancing in the sunlight. The heat was turned off due to the fear that centralized air-conditioning would spread the virus. The indoor temperature was only 12-14 degrees Celsius. I had to stop reading or writing every couple of hours to do some exercises. It occurred to me that I could do some housework to keep myself warm. I demanded a broom from the information desk and swept the floor once a day. Later, I asked for a mop and mopped the floor once a day too. I suppose the hotel should have given me a discount for my diligent housework.
During self-isolation, we had to stay in our rooms. When meals were put on the table outside the door, the waiter would knock loudly or push the doorbell to let residents know that their food had arrived. On one occasion, while picking up my food, I strived to throw some rubbish into the bin on the other side of the hallway and missed. I subconsciously let go of the door to pick the rubbish up, but the door closed behind me with a bang, locking me out. I had to knock on the room next door to ask them to call the front desk for me.
We were asked to report our body temperatures twice a day: at nine in the morning and four in the afternoon. For the first two days, we wrote down our temperatures and left them on the tables outside our rooms for waiters to collect. Later, I suggested they permit us to use our room phones to report our temperatures.
My family informed me via WeChat that the media had reported two confirmed cases on our flight. The hotel had told us nothing. Even though we had potentially been exposed, they never even informed us of the results of our nucleic acid tests. If our results were negative, informing the passengers in good time would be a tremendous comfort.
We all were stressed about taking long-distance flights during the pandemic. It was particularly hard for younger international students who were psychologically fragile. A few days ago, an international student in another city reportedly put up a massive fight over a bottle of mineral water to drink during quarantine. I suppose he must have felt ignored in some way and had broken in response to a trivial matter.
In addition, our daily cost of 600 RMB was a big economic burden for most passengers. Some students had already spent their money on high-priced airfare to return to China. Generally, a price of 260-360 RMB per night would be acceptable. 600 RMB per day made me feel extravagant. At first, the room felt too luxurious for me to sleep soundly and the unexpected cost made my wallet look thin and ugly.
In order to have some fun in my room with a sea view, I made interesting arrangements out of my daily chopsticks, spoons, lunch boxes, and even empty bottles of mineral water. It helped me stay more creative.
April 2nd was the penultimate day of my 14-day quarantine. As I was doing my online teaching, I got two phone calls from different police stations: one call was from a station who was in charge of my school, and the other from a station in charge of the hotel. They were calling to verify my flight information and to ask my destination after quarantine. They could have coordinated between the different police stations and only called me once.
When I was tired, I looked out to the sea. Trees and flowers on the balcony were sparse and lonely. After a few days, staring at the sea made me realize how near-sighted I was. I failed to recognize anything on the vast sea. There is a saying that a myopic person is good at self-reflection and deep thinking. The barren scene in front of me brought back the memories of the green spring scenery of Cambridge, and the warm words from my landlord, "We stay together by standing apart". Indeed! During my quarantine, my students, classmates, and old friends in and near Qingdao called me for various reasons, or just to say hello.
I was very grateful for the greetings I received and told everybody confidently, "We are sure to meet again soon. Let us stay strong and safe."
For two weeks, I reviewed my life, present and past, and hold the belief that with better communication, humans can defeat any challenge!
SUN Jicheng is an associate professor of English in the department of translation studies at the Shandong University of Technology, China, and manager-in-general of Thanks Translation Workshop. His works include the Verse of Shao Xunmei (with Hal Swindall), 《管子境外研究通论--以欧美东亚为中心》as well as academic articles on D. H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, and W. Allyn Rickett.