Our Journey Home
by an anonymous writer
Covid-19 tales from Shanghai, China
My husband and I left our home in Shanghai to visit our daughter in the States in 2019. We had roundtrip tickets and our returning date was set for the spring of 2020. When the pandemic hit, China announced restrictions on foreign travelers’ entering as well as Chinese citizens’ returning.
On March 29, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) implemented the so-called five-one policy to reduce China’s number of international flights. According to the Five-One policy, a Chinese airline is only allowed to maintain one international route, and that route is to have no more than one flight a week.
Before the outbreak, 30 Chinese airlines and 123 foreign airlines operated international flights between China and foreign destinations. After the outbreak, only 19 Chinese airlines and 28 foreign airlines were allowed to fly. As a result, ticket prices hiked. Our return flights had been canceled, and we had to pay a much higher price for new tickets.
Even if we were willing to pay that hefty price, tickets were hard to come by. My daughter purchased tickets for us six times, and every time, our flight was canceled later. In early July, she finally got hold of tickets for a direct American Airlines flight on October 25. To give us a safety net, she booked another flight with a layover in Madrid.
In mid-July, we heard a rumor that the CAAC was about to install another hurdle: all passengers flying into China needed to show COVID-19 negative test results before boarding the plane. To make matters worse, the tests could only be done at designated facilities within five days of the flight. It was hard to even get test results back within five days. I realized it would get harder and harder for us to return as time passed. Plus, I was concerned about my son's family in China. All things considered, I needed to get home as soon as possible. I didn’t know how to tell my daughter. She’d already done so much for us.
However, my daughter sensed my anxiety and took the initiative to buy tickets for us again. She refreshed various ticket websites countless times a day, hoping to get tickets for July and August. At the time, some travel agents claimed they had tickets available through personal connections. These tickets were drastically overpriced. I felt this kind of deal was shady and told my daughter not to pay the unnecessary upcharge.
In the early morning on July 28th, a series of rapid knocks on the door woke me up. I opened the door and found my daughter outside grinning excitedly. She’d found two tickets on an Air China flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai. She gave me 15 minutes to consider three questions. If I answered yes, she’d take care of the rest:
Q: Do you want to change flights at Frankfurt?
Q: Can you wait for 12 hours in Frankfurt?
Q: The tickets are for July 31st. Can you get ready in three days?
A: Yes, I can leave tomorrow!
It wasn’t a big deal to pack in three days. The hard part was getting a “health code.” To get a health code, we have to download an app and fill in our personal information. We then need to report our travel history and to confirm whether or not we’ve recently come in contact with any confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients. We also need to tick boxes for any symptoms we might have. After all our information is verified, each user will be assigned a QR code in red, amber, or green. When our health codes have stayed green for a consecutive 14 days, an image of an airplane will be shown in the app. Only when we have obtained the image of an airplane can we board an international flight. My husband had the foresight to get us registered in the app in late June. By July 28th, we’d been cleared for 25 days.
My daughter was thrilled. She went ahead and booked the trip. Our trip had two legs:
1. A flight by American Airlines to take us from the US to Frankfurt, Germany.
2. A flight by Air China to take us from Frankfurt to Shanghai.
July 31, 2020 was a happy day. After staying in the US for 11 months, we were finally about to go home. We got up early in the morning, checked for the plane icons on our phones, read our itinerary once more, and waited for departure.
My daughter woke up even earlier than we had. She had been trying to check us in for our second flight since 6 in the morning. Checking in for our second flight was crucial for us to check in for the first. That’s because we didn’t have visas to Germany, and we needed to show proof that we would only wait at the airport, not enter the country.
When she purchased our tickets, my daughter was given check-in instructions. She was told that she could do it in the Air China App starting 36 hours before departure. But that morning, the app somehow wouldn’t check us in. My daughter and her husband were very anxious. One of them kept calling Air China’s office in Beijing; the other called its office in North America. Finally, both of them got through to someone, but they were given different information. The Beijing office said that online check-in wasn’t possible for overseas departures. The North American office said it was because we’d already paid to select our seats.
It occurred to my daughter that she’d read about a similar experience in a WeChat group. She flipped through the group chat record, located the user who’d posted the story, and added her as a contact. Then she sent a private message asking for more details. The user confirmed that she’d encountered the same problem traveling from the US to China via Madrid. She couldn’t check in for her second flight because she’d chosen a seat in an emergency aisle. Her solution was to ask Air China's Madrid office to issue a letter confirming she had tickets from Madrid to Shanghai.
My daughter started calling Air China’s Frankfurt office, but her calls wouldn’t go through. Frantically, she called Air China’s headquarters in Beijing again. The customer service team transferred her between different departments until she finally found an employee who was willing to issue a letter. My daughter immediately drafted a letter and sent it to him, but he was stopped by his supervisor at the last minute. My daughter didn't give up and called the North American office again. This time, our lucky star shone in the sky. She found an employee who was willing to issue the letter.
Our time to leave finally came. My grandchildren abandoned their online classes and came to see us off. They hugged us and took pictures to commemorate our visit. They didn’t want us to leave. This visit was different from our previous visits. During quarantine, we’d spent more time with our grandchildren than we ever had before. I told them stories. We played games and did arts and crafts together.
They continued waving even after we pulled out of the driveway.
“Goodbye, my prince and princess, I’ll video chat with you when I get back home!” I yelled.
A middle-aged lady received us at the American Airlines check-in counter. My daughter handed over all our documents, explaining that we would transfer to Air China in Frankfurt and we’d like to have our luggage checked through to our last stop. The lady nodded while typing on her computer. I felt an odd premonition. At last, the lady left the counter and went into a back office. After a few excruciating minutes, she came back out and replied that we couldn’t fly to Frankfurt. We had to fly to Madrid instead.
“But they don't have tickets from Madrid to Beijing. How can they change routes at the last minute?” my daughter asked.
"I can't answer the questions. It's government regulation." She returned all our documents without another word. I felt like we were dealing with a robot.
My daughter took back our documents helplessly. “Mom and Dad, I'm sorry. I will find a way, but you must be aware that you might not be able to go home today,” she said.
Seeing how anxious she was, I felt sorry too. We were her parents, but we couldn’t do anything to help. We had ears but couldn’t understand English. We had mouths, but couldn’t speak English, either. It was our journey, but she carried 99% of the responsibility. “It’s okay,” I said light-heartedly. “It’s not a big deal. Let’s find a place to rest for a bit.”
We found some empty seats and sat down. My daughter immediately called her husband. Then she hung up and dialed another number. This time she spoke in English. Then she made another call and spoke in English again. All the while, our son-in-law sent her a flurry of WeChat messages. We couldn’t understand any of it, but we saw that she was calming down. At last, she suggested that we get in line again.
This time, we spoke to a different agent. My daughter negotiated, promising him we wouldn’t enter Germany. We would merely stay in the airport for a couple of hours. She explained that we had a continuing itinerary. She showed him the ticket number and the letter explaining why we weren’t checked in for our second flight. He listened but looked hesitant. When my daughter finished, he left the counter and went to the back office. A moment later, a supervisor came out. My daughter explained the situation again. He nodded and asked, “Do you have green codes?”
“Of course! Here!” I showed him the plane icon on my phone.
“Okay. You can fly, but we can’t check your luggage all the way through.”
“Wow! Thank you!” I shouted. “No problem!”
My son-in-law had already warned us of this possibility, so we’d brought empty carry-ons with us. I removed just the essentials from my luggage and moved them into our carry-ons. My daughter would bring the rest back home. My heart was full of gratitude for my son-in-law’s wisdom. Later, I heard that a young girl couldn’t board the plane because of her luggage. She didn’t have anyone to see her off and she refused to discard all her belongings. She cried and cried at the check-in counter.
The moment we got our boarding passes, my daughter let out a sigh of relief.
It was time for us to go through security. After this gate, we were on our own. My daughter wrote three letters and stored them on my phone: one to give to the passport inspector, one for the security inspector, and one for the boarding agent. She told me to show the letters when needed. “I’ll pray for you,” she said. “Keep me in the loop. I’ll be waiting right here.”
We hugged each other tightly. We had a lot to say but said nothing.
At security, I looked back and saw my daughter burst into tears.
We got through all three hurdles without our daughter's letters. When I stepped into the jetway, I sent her a WeChat message: "Everything’s fine. You did a great job!"
The plane taxied slowly toward the runway. The moment it raised its head and charged into the blue sky, I yelled in my heart: Goodbye, America!
After so many twists and turns, we were finally on our way to Frankfurt. The plane was in good condition and the service was excellent. There were only about 30 passengers on the flight, and everyone wore a mask. After dinner, we pulled up our armrests and made three seats into a bed. The airline’s neatly packed pillows and blankets were incredibly comforting. We were enjoying business class comfort at an economy price.
At 8:45 AM on August 1st, our plane landed in Frankfurt after a nine-hour flight. I hadn’t seen a single other Chinese, so when we walked out of the plane, we knew we’d have to deal with every obstacle on our own. My son-in-law had given me detailed instructions: search for a wireless network, scan our health codes, never leave customs, and go straight to Air China’s check-in counter. Under every step, he left more instructions, covering every possible problem. For example, we would need internet access to scan our green codes, so he taught us how to find wifi. He also carefully prepared a comparison table of the time differences between China, Germany, and the US.
Moving with the flow of people, we entered the B section of Terminal 1. Soon, I noticed a Chinese student who had been on the same flight with us. He told us that the check-in counter was at the boarding gate, so we had to go through security first. We went through and entered the departure hall. After a short break, we began searching for a wireless network. We found a good signal and scanned our codes. Although we still had 10 hours to kill, we already felt like fish swimming back to sea.
We weren’t strangers to this part of the world. A few years ago, I’d visited this airport while traveling in Europe. I still remembered the hustle and bustle. Now it was deserted. It hurt to think of the damage the virus was doing to the world economy.
At 4:30 in the afternoon, the Air China check-in staff arrived at the gate. They checked our health codes and forehead temperatures. Only after those two steps, were we given our boarding passes. We could see CA936 resting at gate B28 through the window as we waited in line.
I was about to take a picture of our boarding passes to send to my daughter when I received a message from her: “Congratulations on successfully checking in!”
OMG, this digital world leaves us no privacy! It turned out my daughter had been following our whole journey through the Air China app. She saw us get our boarding passes in real-time.
At this point, there was only one step left. Boarding began at 7:00 pm. Eight young airline personnel in white full protective gear lined the sides of the boarding gate. They checked our boarding passes, handed out disinfectant wipes, and measured the skin temperature of our hands. Priority was given to senior citizens during boarding and my husband and I were among the first to enter the cabin. Everyone I saw was smiling. After we were seated, a stewardess greeted us, helped us put our bags in the overhead bin, and poured cups of warm water for us.
The aircraft was a Boeing 777, with 3+4+3 seats in each of its 67 rows. The cabin was crowded and didn’t leave enough space for social distancing. Everyone wore face masks. Some people wore full protective gear, and others wore goggles on top of masks.
The last three rows were closed off. I guess they were reserved for passengers with symptoms. To reduce in-person interaction, lunchboxes and bottles of water were distributed before takeoff, but a stewardess assured us we could call her whenever we needed.
Most passengers were Chinese, and everyone looked tired. Like us, their return journeys must have had their twists and turns. Coming from different cities in different countries, we all gathered in Frankfurt, boarded the same flight, and advanced toward the same destination: Our home! We were fortunate enough to return, but there were still thousands of Chinese people stranded overseas. May our mother accept and embrace them with a broad mind and open arms!
When I woke up, it was noon on August 2nd. Our ten-hour voyage was nearing its end. Our plane hovered in the sky above the magnificent metropolis of Shanghai. The sun was shining through the white clouds and pouring its glorious glow over the skyscrapers underneath.
Like boarding, priority was given to senior citizens for disembarking. After getting off the plane, we joined a meandering line to go through the extra customs procedures: inquiries, temperature measurement, nasal swab sampling, nucleic acid testing, filling in forms, scanning codes, waiting in different lines... It took us three or four hours to finish the whole process. Finally, we got on a shuttle. After about an hour, we stopped at our designated quarantine hotel.
I dropped myself onto the bed in our room. My body was exhausted, but somehow my mind couldn’t stop. Everything we’d experienced in the past two days replayed right in front of me.
The darkest hours had passed, and I was now lying in a hotel enjoying the comfort and pleasure of being close to home. There would still be many steps ahead, but this was my moment to pause and savor this happiness. I slowly fell asleep.