I was pretty excited to find out I would be celebrating my zodiac animal year while living in Asia. I’m an ‘84 baby, which means I’m the year of the rat. It’s not the sexiest animal year, but when I asked my Chinese friend about being a rat, she said they are known for being survivors – no matter what the situation is, they will find a way to make it. Like, if you need someone to live in a sewer and eat trash and also tell jokes, a Rat is your person.
I like that as an idea about myself, because these years in Hong Kong have been quite challenging, and are going to get even more so in the coming months. Professionally and personally there have been some huge difficulties in my life here, with more on the way. It makes me anxious, makes me check out, makes me feel everything. And I mostly want to feel nothing.
But whether I decide to feel it or not, to engage in life around me or not, it’s all going to happen.
What’s happening right now is the Coronavirus.
I teach fourth grade at an international school, which has been canceled for two weeks and is canceled for four more weeks. There are rumors flying about how the Chinese government has been lying about the extent of the illness and fear about how this could spread. It began in a wild animal wet market around November, but started escalating before Chinese New Year, which is the biggest mass migration in the world – 1 billion people try to get home and back this time every year. This leads to price jumps in any kind of transportation, weeks off work and school, and lots of cool traditions to be observed. And lots and lots of human to human contact.
For CNY this year, I headed to the Philippines to swim around and eat and drink and imagine I don’t work for a living. We had heard some vague rumours about this new virus, but mostly ignored it in favor of vacation. There was a bad flu my first year here, and they’d closed schools for a few days, so we kind of thought that might happen. And we’d had eight days of online home learning during the protests earlier this year, so we were preparing for something similar. But I didn’t want to think about it at all. I just wanted vacation.
I indulged in happy hours, caught up on my reading, and watched sunsets with my bestie to my heart’s content. But it got harder and harder to unplug from all the news coming in and questions from home and abroad about the state of Hong Kong and China.
With masks and soap and antibacterial things sold out in Hong Kong, and rumors of food selling out, we searched around the Philippines to try and find some. Amie even called all neighborhood pharmacies, but because of the virus and because of the volcano eruption there five weeks ago, we were told there were none to be found.
In an act of divine intervention, we managed to spot some at a random side store we wandered into at the airport (truly led by the hand of God, as we had gotten kinda lost) and the lovely ladies opened up all the boxes for us so we could get some masks. We spent every last peso we had on hand wipes and gel.
So, what’s life like, living in quarantine in a busy city?
We’re told to avoid anything in groups and stay indoors. Everyone who can work from home is. Currently, we are heading into our third week of online teaching. I’m trying to make the best of it – upskilling myself in techie things and making random science videos where I sample cabbage and hate it. But it doesn’t fill me up. It’s much easier and more enjoyable and more rewarding to be in the classroom with my 27 messy, stinky, troublesome chicken nuggets than it is trying to coordinate meaningful online learning.
Six families in my class alone have moved to their home countries until further notice. I would if I could, too. Will I see them again this year to hug them goodbye and tell one more terrible joke? I don’t know. They keep extending the dates of the school closure and the thing is, kids are gross. Mine openly cough and sneeze and never wash their hands. Someone who was here during SARS said that the kids had decorated their facemasks, and when they thought someone else’s was really cool, they would trade with them. TRADING. FACEMASKS. This is why we have to shut down schools during epidemics like this.
Online teaching is also hard because my normal “down time” would be coming home from work and scrolling my phone or jumping on my laptop to internet and blog and Netflix to chill out. But now I’m staring at screens all day for work, so it’s harder to use them to relax. But because I’ve moved so much, I don’t have things like paperbacks, and you can only play so many rounds of solitaire before it gets sad. So I scroll the news endlessly, get jealous of people on instagram, stress nap, and eat.
Lots of things have changed. For example, until everyone started wearing facemasks, I didn’t realize how much I was lip reading or relying on facial expressions to understand everyone around me. And it’s really uncomfortable to wear one, but I mostly do. I get really angry looks from everyone around me if I don’t.
The grocery stores are empty. Instant noodles, eggs, rice, meats, lots of the produce that came from China. There’s also this rumour going around that we’re about to be out of toilet paper, so people have queued up to buy that as well as face masks, sleeping overnight outside of stores to walk away empty handed.
There was even a huge armed robbery for toilet paper. I haven’t seen any in the shops for two weeks. I’ve become a person that leaves her house, knowing she has to pee, but waits until she gets to the gym or work to do so. Because you just don’t know.
I’m quite confident that I won’t contract this virus. But the fear here is . . . controlling. We’re stuck inside, reading the news constantly, and it makes it feel like disaster is on my doorstep. I won’t see my students until March 16th at the earliest, and staying inside all day and teaching online school that stretches me to my limits.
We don’t high five, we don’t cheek kiss, we don’t hug, we don’t cheers, we don’t shake hands anymore. I rub antibacterial into my hands and arms obsessively and it cracks my skin. I teeter on the escalators as they screech up in altitude but I can’t touch the handrail because who else has touched the handrail. Taxi drivers look terrified to pick you up if you’re not wearing a mask.
I didn’t start really crying and panicking until the American airlines started canceling their flights to and from Hong Kong. They cited a drop in demands . . . but what happens if I demand to go home? They’ve also stopped all shipping from the United States and lots of other countries, too. My friend’s mom tried to ship her some face masks from New Zealand, but was told at the post office that they wouldn’t make it through customs.
A lot of our social life has been canceled or limited – Hong Kong 7s, concerts, art shows, happy hours, meetings, church services. Restaurants and businesses are closing. People are scared to ride the ferries, the MTR, go to the gym. Museums and amusements parks are closed. You aren’t allowed into the movie theaters unless you are temperature checked and wearing a mask. They’re only selling tickets for every other row in some places. The rugby championship games just happened last weekend, my roommate was playing in them, but they weren’t allowing anyone into the stadium. We watched it via Facebook stream at a bar. I know it’s not as bad here as it is in Mainland China, but we do feel trapped and beyond the low-lying fear of getting sick, there is a true pandemic of anxiety.
I feel quite alone and claustrophobic and it makes you wonder about bigger picture things like WHAT am I doing here? Especially because I have so much time to sit around with my thoughts. That’s a bit dangerous. Nothing about my time in Hong Kong has been easy or particularly fulfilling. And right now it does not feel meaningful. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but I have to admit I’m getting tired of getting stronger but I don’t know what the answer is.
Living in Rio was scary and wild in a different way (although I did get to live through Zika! Has disaster followed me?! Am I THE VIRUS?!). And I left it in a painful way because I could not live there anymore. Hong Kong has been professionally challenging, personally challenging, and we’ve lived through the highs and lows of the protest movement of the last year, destructive typhoons, and now this virus.
The hardest part about living abroad is the tension you feel between where you’ve made “home” and your home country. I’ve seen so many people I love leave this place already. I don’t want this to be how my story ends in Hong Kong, but it’s hard to find my purpose at the moment.
We’re living in between happy feels. The little happy feels come in messages from my kids or their parents saying they miss me and wish they were at school. Every morning I do an online meeting with my students and give a devotion, which means 27 families hear me share the Bible and tell a bit of testimony and a lot of jokes and know that Jesus loves them. The other day I talked about Jesus and his miracles, and asked my students if they had ever seen one. One girl said she had – she had prayed she could find a red cabbage so she could do the at home science experiment I’ve been demonstrating, and after two days, they found one, so she knows God is good.
The morning meetings with the kids are funny, too. I can see their parents, just out of the window screen, peeking in on what our little village is like. Some of them have clearly just rolled out of bed, even though it’s 9am, because their hair is sticking straight up, they’re open-mouth eating noodles for breakfast, and they’re in Pikachu pajamas. They ask me for a tour of my house (no) and my bedroom (absolutely not) and if we’ll ever get to go to school again. They’re also very invested in my new hobby of bread-making.
I’ve been staying busy with teaching but also trying to work out everyday and get some sunshine. And happy hours with work mates (to disinfect my insides! Science!) and had a roomie-antic Valentine’s with my roomie, watching rom-coms on Netflix and eating six pieces of toast for my dinner. It was the first Valentine’s Day in my life I didn’t receive a single card! Tragic! But also the first in a long time I didn’t feel compelled to write a somewhat depressing somewhat funny post about being single on Valentine’s Day. I was too busy getting toasted (see what I did there?).
The big feels come when I get messages from people who are checking in on me and want to know if I’m okay – those who I would expect to and those that I’m so touched and surprised to hear from. A crisis always helps you see the value in your relationships – it shakes down who takes time for you and who you take time for, makes me realize who understands me because they ask the questions I need to answer. I want to hear from certain people, I want to be with certain people who bring me joy or who can talk me off a ledge because I am so starved for positive interactions.
I’ve gotten to spend some amazing time with my roommate, which we never get to, because we are normally so busy but this has forced time and socialness to really slow down. I’ve learned that physical touch is my language, because I am really missing high fives and hugs and the way small kids throw themselves at you with all their stains and smiles and sweat. I’ve relearned that I still call my mom when I’m upset or am the slightest bit warm and assume she can diagnose a fever from six thousand miles away.
So we’ll wait and see and hope and pray things can return to “normal” in HK on the appointed day – March 16th. Get better, Asia. And world.
Thank you to everyone who has said a little prayer or sent a wee text my way. It makes my days.
Take care of yourselves and each other.
February 17, 2020 at 10:16 am
I loved catching up with you here, Rachel. Know you have prayer from Spokane coming at random moments from nudges by a God who sees it all.
Aunt -of-sorts Shelly
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February 20, 2020 at 12:24 pm
Rachel, what huge challenges (on top of the usual ones) of living and working overseas. Please know you are in my prayers (!!) Be well (and be careful!) Blogging (germ free) hugs! :)
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March 2, 2020 at 2:40 pm
Your mom was our oncologist nurse today for my wife’s infusion. Started talking about kids and I couldn’t resist reading about your HK experience. Thanks for the insight into a difficult time. March /2/20. Brian
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