More than a year ago, when the virus that was paralyzing China was only part of the daily news, the RoundTable learned that Evanston resident Kurt Mitenbuler was quarantined in Wuhan province. Last month the RoundTable reposted “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” his contemporaneous narratives of the quarantine. In this and the four ensuing segments, Mr. Mitenbuler recounts the 2019 visit to his in-laws in China, which was lengthened by the novel coronavirus. Here is part 2 of the five-part sequel.
By Kurt Mitenbuler
As far as the physical surroundings of our incarceration …
There were five of us in a 100-square- meter condominium, three bedrooms and two bathrooms (thank God), contained within a seven- tower complex of approximately 200 households.
In our unit I was the only one to wake up in the middle of the night, wander over to a window, and stare out at the parking lot of the roughly one-acre plot of high rises I was confined to for some untold number of days.
I had some leftover cigarettes, Huangelou Blues to be exact, from a previous Spring Festival drunken rout. I would smoke a cigarette, lean against the window frame, and imagine I was Bogart in a film noir, “Behind the Red Curtain,” and my way out unknown. There were several of those nights. Everyone else slept soundly and wondered why I couldn’t.
Chinese apartment complexes all have high masonry walls and usually a single main gate, guard on duty 24/7. Sometimes, in the newest apartment complexes, there are two or three service gates, albeit also tightly guarded. In China, the thing about walls and gates runs deep in all sorts of directions. Gated communities aren’t something that only rich people do; every city is divided up into complexes with walls and gates.
Even the older neighborhoods have distinct entry and egress points, and entire cities can be barricaded and delineated easily and efficiently.
The point being, confinement within walls and gates does not compel Chinese to think one way or another about any of it. It’s walls and gates; what else is there?
Me? On the other hand, I am not inured to confinement by walls and gates. Confinement, wearing on me as it did, led me to imagine escape.
In Chinese cities it’s not at all uncommon to see the top of any masonry dividing wall be embedded and studded with broken glass, rusting nails, or other contrivances intended to dissuade anyone going over the top. The walls themselves are often 10 feet to 12 feet high, thwarting undisciplined impulses.
Having clearly been overexposed to escape genre in film, I determined that we could drag a mattress down to the parking lot, hoist it up onto a dumpster arrangement at the back of the parking complex, flip the mattress onto the glass and nail studded wall, and all of us gymnastically roll over the wall and under the electrical power lines a few feet above us.
From there, we could jump to an adjacent roof with a series of walls and outcroppings that would allow us to get our feet back on solid ground. From there, we could hike across country, sleeping by day, hiking by night to avoid government agents, and go to my bro-in-law’s, hiding out in the hills of the countryside until The Contagion had passed. Just like they do in the movies and on TV.
Of course, I never brought any of this up to my wife or in laws; they would have thought it ridiculous, and I would betray myself as a fool. In China, people follow rules. That in itself provided days of fascinated contemplation.
For the most part … well, actually for the “all” part … I was the only one complaining. After a month, most folks acknowledged that the situation was unpleasant and unfortunate (not their words, but not too far off, precise translation is beyond my ability), but other than that, it was “Deal with the new reality.”
If it goes on “too long”, then we’ll figure the next move. “Too Long” was never delineated, which of course, it never can be.
It’s hard to pin any Chinese down unless they want to be pinned down. It’s a fluid environment, one Mainland PRC citizens adapt to and function, and which often enflame anyone with American foreshortened problem solving proclivities.
Which got to the heart of the situation in ways I’m still working to understand.
When the quarantine clamped down, the entirety of the society mobilized. I’ve often read Western accounts of how upper echelon CPC “co-opt” local neighborhood organizations, when in fact it is the opposite. It is much more like local 40-60 year olds enthusiastically don their Red armbands and elevate to management positions in the functioning of the neighborhood. The range of power players became obvious. Upper-hierarchy cadres judiciously exercised their authority, ceding authority to lower level parking lot jockeys who tended to want to hold onto their authority once restrictions eased, and all the functionary aspects of the rotating workers spreading between the extremes.
This is not unlike … actually, it is entirely like …