Foreign exchange

Siblings on opposite sides of the globe—and the coronavirus pandemic—compare notes.

JESSICA HARTJES
JESSICA HARTJES
Kyle, at this point, has lived in China most of his adult life. He works a communications office job and lives in a high-rise apartment in central Beijing. I have lived in Halifax most of the time Kyle's been away. I work at The Coast and live in the top floor of an old house in the south end. With the time difference between my brother and myself (13 hours, for those asking), late night for him/early morning for me instant messaging has been the way we've shared our lives most often. Here, as COVID-19 case numbers begin to climb in Nova Scotia—and decline in Hebei province—I ask him about his experience via WhatsApp.
On March 29, Morgan writes:
Hiii good morning (slash evening for you haha)

Isn’t it so weird to think about how when it’s nighttime for you it’s always morning for me and how *all of this* is winding down where you are as it ramps up here?

On March 29, Kyle writes:
Yes that's a good point!

At least I hope things will continue to wind down here in China. There are worries about a second wave. For instance: infected travellers from other regions, who haven't been as strict with social distancing and quarantining, have arrived in China and driven the total number of cases back up a bit. Not nearly as high as before, but the authorities are concerned about it.

Morgan:
Fuck.

So wait does that mean tourists? Or people coming back home to China?

Kyle:
So there has been even stricter quarantining travellers' for travellers arriving in Beijing and Shanghai. Recently new arrivals have had to be quarantined for 14 days in state-sanctioned hotels, at the traveller's expense.

Both: Both tourists and people coming back home to China again.

Morgan:
Wow. Trudeau just keeps pulling a ~disappointed dad~ energy, asking people to stay home haha. Some of my friends and I have been talking about if the government here should be doing more to follow suit of China to help contain/control the virus more.


But also, that almost always spins out into a conversation about how much authority government should have.

Kyle:
Yes, social liberties versus safety has been majorly debated.

Morgan:
One thing I keep thinking about is how people seem to really need to leave the house on a cellular level. Part of this is clearly them not taking it seriously.

But another part is just how entitled people feel? Like, it seems as if they realize that *other people* should be staying home but that since they want to go to the store, they should go to the store.

Was that a thing in Beijing?

Kyle:
For the most part, people stayed home in Beijing.

Morgan:
What about panic buying? Was that a thing?

People here are hoarding bread and eggs, and toilet paper

And then second hoarding waves seems to be yeast and flour
Kyle:
They went to the supermarket and went to work if they had to (some employers let people work from home, some didn't). Many businesses closed, or were already closed because people were away for Chinese New Year.

The streets all but emptied in a city notorious for gridlock traffic. It took a third of the usual amount of time for me to commute to work, for example

Morgan:
Wow.

Kyle:
In the past few weeks traffic has increased but it's nowhere near the usual gridlock

Several restaurants, especially western ones, have stayed open for deliveries and for in-store dining. Anytime you enter somewhere your temperature is taken and you have to write down your name and phone number

Then there's a limit of the number of people per table at bars and restaurants, and every second table is removed so that there is space between people, etc

You have to be wearing a mask to enter most buildings, etc


People on average have been very compliant and careful

Morgan:
The air I get all around this is how much more serious China has taken this or like, how much more people on an individual level have to do.

Kyle:
I think the memory of SARS, an overall greater acceptance of authority here, and the horrific news out of Wuhan all compelled people to take great care.

[Editor's note: Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 had the biggest impact, is an 11 hour car drive from Beijing.]

Morgan:
That makes total sense

It probably feels more real to a lot of people there because of Wuhan and SARS whereas here it could be easy for people to not understand or be dismissive (although as things continue that attitude has to change)

Kyle:
Yes I'd agree with you on that point

Morgan:
Grocery stores here are on reduced hours and there’s a limit to how many people can get on a city bus. Most small businesses are closed. The province declared a state of emergency a few days ago. But there still seems to be lots of foot traffic outside my apartment building?

Kyle:
Many businesses here are on reduced hours as well

Almost everyone here wears a mask, and there is more and more foot traffic now that the number of cases have been on a long decline, and because the weather is getting better

Morgan:
Right.

And the government really stepped in to help citizens? I read that there was lots of food sent out to citizens (but also forget where I read that so perhaps not true haha)

Kyle:
I'm not sure to be honest.

The government probably did send a lot of food to Wuhan. There wasn't need for that in other cities, like Beijing. Shelves remained stocked where I am for the most part.

Morgan:
It’s such a big country too that maybe that was happening somewhere else; I sometimes think the size of China is unfathomable to some Canadians

Right! That makes sense

Kyle:
Yeah the population of Beijing alone is roughly the same as Canada's entire population.

Morgan:
*Head explode emoji*

Kyle:
Because of that high population, there is a big enough market for highly convenient and widespread food and goods deliveries. It's a system that makes Amazon in North America look slow, inconvenient and quaint.

Morgan:
*Double Head explode emoji*

Kyle:
That means people can easily order much of what they need and want and have it arrive the same day, making home quarantining easier.

Although the deliverypeople have been put under major strain because of that

The increased demand, I mean

Morgan:

That makes sense.

Like most illnesses too, there seems to be a clear class divide between those who can afford to stay home and those who have to work in this time (grocery store clerks here, delivery people there).

It’s sad and hard to think of the extra risk these folks have to go through for our wants/needs

Kyle:

Yes that's true

Doctors as well, I can't imagine how hard it is for them. They're very heroic.

Morgan:

I know right! I know a lot of people in health care have to socially distance from their families (eg, the healthcare worker uses another bathroom in their house: no hugging/touching family in isolation, etc)

Kyle:

That's so sad to hear.

Morgan:

I’m wondering what foods you ate the most of in isolation. I feel like I’m having a real Nigella Lawson wannabe phase (ahem, more than usual) as I make all these bean stews and homemade bread and stuff.

It’s like: if I have to be in my house it’s gonna be A HOME damn it

Kyle:

Food at home, for me? My wife and inlaws make fresh jiaozi boiled dumplings, and many typical north eastern Chinese dishes like stews

I can order Mexican or French food or pizza from a number of restarurants

A lot of restaurants have big discounts on to try to maintain reveneue (when I talked about deliveries earlier, food, in particular, is sophisticated in China, with apps and delivery infrastructure being very cutting edge, so you can get just about any meal you want within an hour)

Also alcohol. A lot of bars bottled their cocktails or canned their beer and made the drinks available for delivery on a discount

Morgan:
Well now I’m hungry haha

So you still ate a fair bit of takeout while in social isolation?

And the in-laws were in isolation with you for a bit right

Kyle:
Yes I still get a fair bit of takeout. And many restaurants are open, albeit at reduced hours, you need to wear a mask to be able to enter, there's a limit of 3-4 patrons per table and all tables are placed a meter apart, etc

My inlaws stayed with us for Chinese New Year in late January, then couldn't leave (at least not easily) when the epidemic hit

Morgan:
I see a lot of talk on social media here of people baking bread and stuff as a sort of stress relief

And also there seems to be something culturally about feeling nourished and sustained by slow food as our world seems to slow down

Kyle:
Yes that's a good point. I see a lot of people making food and posting it on social media here too

Also, many music venues live stream band performances

Morgan:
Yes! It’s weird because all that stuff was also part of our lives pre-COVID but feels so vital now, a small way to connect with people

Kyle:
Very true! Those small connections seem more precious now.

Morgan:
Defo

I’m texting my friends more than ever haha

Especially the ones who live alone.

It’s weird though because in some ways it feels like the world is slowing because we’re all home all day and so many of us are laid off (record numbers in Canada are applying for EI) but for those of us still working it feels busier than ever

You worked all through the worst of COVID in China, right

Kyle:
Yes that's a good point. I have worked the entire time. Some days it has been busier than usual, quite hectic in fact. Other days are a bit mroe quiet.

Morgan:
Did you ever feel like you were working less efficiently because of stress surrounding COVID? I feel like I’m about 70% as useful as I normally am haha

Kyle:
hahaha... Some of the work was very stressful because the situation is so unprecedented. There have been times where I've felt burned out from the stress.

I'm not sure how much it affects my productivity overall though.

It's getting a little late here. I'll probably turn in soon, unless you have more questions?

Morgan:
That makes total sense!!

And yes just one: what’s the biggest/top thing people here should know about living through COVID

Kyle:
hmmm

I'd say follow the health authorities' directives: try to stay home, practice social distancing, wash your hands when you come in from outside

And be mindful of your mental health. Try to have routines, get enough exercise, stay in touch with loved ones and talk things through, read books and avoid checking the news or virus statistics too often, make things and enjoy your hobbies

Morgan:
Thank you! Have a good sleep! Let’s chat soon please xox

Kyle:
Oh one other thing:

People in Halifax: please reach out to your Asian neighbours, classmates and friends and offer them support. They've been stigmatized and scapegoated during this time, and knowing that you're thinking of them will mean a lot.

Many small businesses will struggle and die, so try to order takeout from your favorite mom and pop spot, or handmade wares from an artisan, etc. You might be able to help them keep their businesses afloat

Love you Morgan, have a very happy Sunday

Morgan:
Love you too!! Sleep well and thanks so much

About The Author

Morgan Mullin

Morgan is the Arts & Entertainment Editor at The Coast, where she writes about everything from what to see and do around Halifax to profiles of the city’s creative class to larger cultural pieces. She’s been with The Coast since 2016.

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