What it’s Like to be an Expat in China During the Coronavirus Outbreak

I was supposed to fly back to the States a week ago today, on a Delta flight from Shenzhen, China to Seoul, Korea, landing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My sister had booked me the flight at a midnight hour while I was texting with her about my uncertainties and fears surrounding the novel coronavirus. My family was looking forward to welcoming me back to my North American home. After another night of sleep, and many conversations with friends here, in addition to a chat with my therapist, I canceled the ticket. 

Right now, China is home, the one I have created from the ground up, working at an international school, living in a small, 17th floor apartment with two quirky cats. It would be wonderful and warm to be with my family right now, but after sitting with my anxieties, what surfaced most clearly is that I wanted to let the community here take care of me, and to offer care back to my community. 

As I made this choice, I took my health into consideration, too, of course. When the outbreak hit headlines hard this past week, I struggled to discern what the truth of my risk was. With media emphasizing the spread of this “deadly virus,” I had some moments of anxiety-brain-freeze, the phenomenon that I, and I am sure many others, experience that makes me feel like I just cannot make a decision for the life of me, no pun intended here.

It was useful to look at the actual numbers, and to be friends with those mathematically gifted. One of my colleague’s wives used the numbers from Baidu, a Chinese-based site, to run a risk assessment on staying in Shenzhen. What she found, as of January 30th, is that we essentially have a .00078 percent chance of contracting the coronavirus. Further, an NPR article entitled FAQs About The Wuhan Coronavirus Answered, emphasized that those with strong immune systems will not likely experience complications or serious health issues if they contract the virus. 

Today, I finished my second day of online coursework with my students. As of tonight, we are scheduled to return to school on February 17th, though this is subject to change, pending updates from the government. 

Being on the ground here in Shenzhen has offered me a deeper understanding of how the authorities deal with a possible epidemic. In the past week, new norms have been established to stop the spread of the virus. Each time I enter the gates to my apartment, I am greeted by a guard who takes my temperature. It is also mandatory to wear masks when outside in any public spaces. Many restaurants and shops decided not to re-open after the Chinese New Year in order to prevent further spread of the virus, and those that did are not serving uncooked food like salad, while also disinfecting tables after each guest has finished dining. 

Running a 10K with our mandatory masks.

Since I have been spending more time inside of my apartment, I have been trying out new recipes and enjoying preparing meals. I shop at a local storefront that is run by perhaps one of the sweetest humans. Lora stocks her shelves with organic produce; she has this tangible passion for offering the healthiest and freshest foods to the community. 

Lora, unloading her wares

Yesterday, as I was talking with a friend who lived in China for over a decade, and recently returned to live in her passport country, England, she told me that there are people refusing to eat Chinese food or sit by anyone appearing to be Chinese on public transportation. This turned my stomach and twisted my heart. It is in times of uncertainty, fear, and crisis that as humans, we can shine our brightest or sink to our darkest. 

I feel so fortunate to be spending time with friends and colleagues and business owners in Shenzhen who are reaching out to one another, checking in on each other, and offering diners the freshest baked breads. 

While many of those that I know in Shenzhen decided to go to Cambodia or Thailand or Singapore until the outbreak is more controlled, I feel safe in Shenzhen. Paradoxically, the fear of getting sick has made me even healthier. I am mindfully eating clean — no alcohol, sugar, dairy, or gluten — and I meet up with friends for an immune boosting workout each day. We have come up with a new hashtag, #shekoustrong, as we encourage each other, support each other, and lift each other up.

working out through the coronavirus

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About Jamie Bacigalupo

Having first traveled from her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to live in Quito, Ecuador, she decided to give the East a run and is now a resident of Shenzhen, China. She earned her degree in Communication Arts/Literature and Communication and Secondary Education from Gustavus Adolphus College and is enthusiastically exploring Asia by teaching abroad. She digs hanging out with her students by weekday, and relishes finding new restaurants to eat authentic Chinese food and finding new hiking paths on the weekends. In addition to sticking her nose in a book to recover from an intense workday, Jamie also loves exploring all manner of flavors in the kitchen, especially when she is whipping up some recipes for her friends and family.

2 thoughts on “What it’s Like to be an Expat in China During the Coronavirus Outbreak

  1. Thank you for sharing this perspective to help balance the info being shared in the news. You captured the ups and downs and all-arounds of the last week beautifully.

  2. Here commenting on my own post with two more links. If you’d like to follow a vlog by a teacher at my school, he’s doing some awesome, honest reporting (and you get a real peek into what Shenzhen looks like): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ztni6nNxSs

    I continue to write updates on my blog each day as well: lettersfromasojournista.com

    Thank you, everyone, for spreading the good vibes all over the Midwest, and the world.

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