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 4 of the five-part sequel.
Food and grocery acquisition was surprisingly consistent. At first, each household was allowed two people to go to the market, per day. Then, the band was tightened to lesser people, and fewer days, with a couple days of shifting schedules and alterations in delivery. After a few weeks of fluid activity, it came down to nobody is getting out without authorization through multiple levels of bureaucracy. It took about one week to get everything locked down.
Which, while all this was occurring, the swarms of delivery workers on electric scooters became the standard view of any thoroughfare, along with vehicles sporting large tinny sounding loudspeakers barking commands: “Stay Inside! Wash Your Hands! Obey the authorities!” … and similarly clipped commands right out of a 1960’s Red Scare movie.
Leaning against those window frames at 2 in the morning, imagining I was Bogie, and listening to tinny loudspeakers barking commands sticks in my mind.
Absent the delivery guys, it couldn’t have worked. Literally impossible. In the subsequent weeks, there were moments of media glory for delivery guys in Wuhan and other locales, their 15 minutes of fame accompanied by statements steeped in humility gone viral, buttressed by their eagerness and pride in being front line operatives.
No complaints, only pride and satisfaction at serving The People. Wei Renmin Fuwu! (Serve the People!)
At the 30-day mark, it was really beginning to wear, and we were way less than halfway into it. Each day’s awakening was Groundhog Day, and each day’s events were preordained boredom. The remaining 60 days ground on in a haze of sameness, with occasional breaks in the routine.
There was the first of what became two haircut days, when a young local cosmetologist set up a tent and did a production line of different cuts on both men and women over the course of 16 hours, with mountains of hair being swept away every hour.
I did a boot camp buzz cut about mid-afternoon, and with great interest by the entire complex, as laowai/foreigners are still rare out in the boonies. He wore a jacket embroidered in an MC Escher-esque pattern of repeating symbols of the Statue of Liberty, invisible in the optically induced confusion of fabric until you were close enough to be getting a haircut, which I was. His jacket was the brilliant sort of statement that exists in China in all sorts of different ways, testament to the idea that independent thinking isn’t necessarily eclipsed under authoritarian rule, it just gets shunted into creative expressions that need a second or third look.
Locals who made their incomes as street food vendors found ways to squeak in here and there to sell a bun or bag of dumplings. I did a few dumpling acquisitions that resembled a curbside drug deal, with me furtively handing over money for dumplings while attempting to avoid the guards. As time wore on, though, even the street vendors disappeared. A Chinese street without food vendors is a sad sight indeed.
With dumpling acquisition curtailed, I became obsessed with making Baozi buns, and descended into the intricacies of Chinese “baking”, which, in this part of China, is actually steaming. Baozi accomplishments led to forays into dumpling manufacture, which eventually played out into boredom with eating dumplings and Baozi all the time.
There was the time the assembled neighborhood security staff were openly worried about the laowai (me) panicking at all the restrictions. Several thought it would be good to have an intervention and explain that everything was OK, they had the situation under control and that was on their radar and therefore safe.
I wasn’t freaking by this time, so they didn’t, but I had to acknowledge that the folks running things were not distant automatons, but active neighborhood organization workers attempting to make everything all right for everyone.
I was kind of touched, and communicated my feelings to the cadres, who all assured me that when this was all over, we would get together, eat lots of food, and get ridiculously drunk. I only saw one guy totally lose it somewhere around Day 50, but he was talked down from the ledge by cadres, and the situation resolved calmly.
There were a few moments of fame, when Channel 2, and then Channel 5 and 9, did some interview with the “Evanston Man Stuck in China” which offered a couple respites from the boredom. I got my 15 minutes, I guess.
In the early stages, where exit was still possible, I had it all worked with the local Hubei officials that had repeatedly told me they could get me out, but they only needed a specific authorization document from the US consulate, a “Get Out of China Free” card, a document they indicated was standard and common. As they are a bureaucracy, there was no other course other than to receive the proper paperwork from the U.S. consulate. Entreaties to the U.S. consulates, otoh, met with insistent statements that getting said document was a highly involved and circuitous process and it was the stated intent of the all U.S. consulate officers to “hold the safety of US citizens and their rights paramount” in all dealings, and that I should sit tight as they were handling everything.
On the day that the Chinese government completely …