'From China?' they asked, 'Oh corona ...'
Wrapped in a niqab, her eyes startled, her voice sounded confused as she kept repeating: “All? Why?”
It was last week at a pharmacy in Taif, a city in the mountains of Saudi Arabia, that I finally found some surgical masks (intriguingly made in Shanghai) and wanted to buy all its stock – four boxes.
When I explained I was buying for friends and relatives back in China due to the coronavirus, it finally dawned on her and she connected the dots. “Oooooooooooh yes, I saw it on the news.”
Yes, it was top news every day in print and on TV in Saudi Arabia during our two-week trip around the country. My local Saudi mobile even received a text message from the country’s ministry of health – assuring Saudis there had been no confirmed case in the country and those concerned can find more information on the ministry’s website.
Having traveled and lived in many countries in the past 17 years, never have I felt my home country in the spotlight as much as this time – perhaps not for the best reason.
Even when planning the trip, we knew it would be magical – after all, it is Saudi Arabia, a country seeming to only exist in international news and urban myths. But we never expected it to be so magical, not only because of the fascinating experience in the country, but also the mental journey we have gone through as news and rumors from home and caring messages from foreign friends bombarded us and the virus news looked increasingly closer to us personally even as we were abroad.
When we left from Pudong International Airport on January 31, news had been breaking out for a week, flights were canceled one after another while many countries started temporary measures for those entering from China.
But Shanghai seemed fine then, a bit quieter than the usually quiet Spring Festivals maybe. The airport, still packed, also seemed normal, except for the temperature-taking stations at the entrance.
I was touched by a lot of friends and alums who built all kinds of WeChat groups to help purchase medical masks and other equipment abroad to donate to the epicenter Wuhan and did my little part to help, but everything still seemed to be centered around Wuhan and far from me.
When we came back early this week to Pudong, we were met with an airport never so empty before – we were the only cross-continent flight showing on the big screens and the plane was only half full.
I had my temperature taken six times after I boarded the plane in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, and two more times when I waited for a taxi at a temporary outdoor space, and when I entered my neighborhood.
We all carried surgical masks back for families and friends — as in the last week we all heard how it had become extremely difficult to get masks in Shanghai. Even in Saudi Arabia, where no confirmed case had been found and we only saw a handful of Chinese tourists, masks were sold out in all cities but one.
It never crossed my mind to buy surgical masks when I first passed by a pharmacy, but our last three days had practically become a mask-searching trip – with little return.
My WeChat groups continued to grow in numbers and activities and donations expanded from Wuhan to other cities in Hubei Province, and later to other heavily-hit provinces and Shanghai’s medical teams helping in Wuhan.
Every day I would wake up at 4am and spend a chunk of time going through these messages to see what little I could do — connecting those with equipment abroad and those needing it in China. Many in my WeChat groups are Chinese living abroad and eager to help. Some seem to be awake around the clock due to the time differences, while others drive 10 hours to get the last few hundred N95 masks in another city and then desperately look for ways to mail them back and donate to hospitals.
There are also those in virus-hit areas who risk their lives to drive the donations to hospitals. There are many difficulties – but nobody complains, and it is impossible not to be moved or encouraged to want to contribute a little.
Even as things seemed okay in Shanghai – confirmed cases down, suspected cases down and recoveries up – the news never seemed so close to us in Saudi Arabia, especially when I realized my colleagues at Shanghai Daily reporting the virus every day and my dear friend who just had a baby and would soon return to work in an office are also running out of masks.
When we were about to leave on January 31 as planned, anxieties were already high, as we started hearing news about some countries shutting borders and canceling flights, and in some cases passengers blocked outside the immigration office as rules suddenly changed.
We were worried about getting shut outside immigration, unable to fly back, getting discriminated against abroad, getting thrown out of hotels, in addition to the normal concerns one might have in traveling to Saudi Arabia – a country that was closed to tourists just five months ago.
None of this happened.
In conclusion, the country and its people are completely different, in some respects even contrary to what I had seen in news and documentaries – confirmed also by a handful of Western travelers we met there. It reminded me of my home country and what my foreign friends often say after they came for the first time – it’s quite different from what I thought.
Locals, both Arabians and foreigners who work there, told us there had been huge transformations in the past two to five years, depending on which city you live in. We saw many women working in various fields – from airport security staff to hotel receptionists and shop assistants.
One of the local headlines was about the removal of the separate singles and family sections in restaurants around the country. It used to be very difficult to dine out for a woman as you would have to go into the family section.
The coronavirus factor made it even more intriguing. Unlike Dubai, which has a large Chinese community and increasing numbers of Chinese tourists, there hadn’t been many Chinese tourists here, except for the minorities who went for Hajj and usually wouldn’t travel as extensively as we did. As it is not the season for Hajj, we only saw about 10 other Chinese tourists in the entire two weeks – all Chinese Muslims from northwest China.
Every day, we ran into Uber drivers, waiters and waitresses and others who asked: “From China?” and then said “Oh corona.” Some then burst into laughter as they had finally seen someone in person that had been showing up on the news every day.
Many were very kind, expressed sympathy and wished China good luck, some even wanted to shake hands after saying “Oh corona,” puzzling us.
We didn’t wear masks as we had all stayed at home in Shanghai during the Chinese New Year, hence had no chance of infection – and to be practical, we didn’t want to scare locals unnecessarily.
Only a handful looked worried, and went straight to washing hands or taking out a mask. It’s understandable. I would have probably done the same.
Anxieties kept rising as we saw the number of infections grow day after day, and new regulations and policies announced daily across China. Foreign friends sent messages every day as they saw the news in their own countries and were worried about my health and safe return.
When I had my feet back on the ground in Shanghai, I finally calmed down. It was not the crowded home city I was familiar with, but it was the city I grew up in – orderly, considerate and kind.
At the new outdoor taxi station at the airport (it used to be indoors underground), each queue is separated by colorful flowers, and the temperature station and hand sanitizer at the entrance was comforting.
The board showed 60 seconds to the next taxi, but it took even less time. My driver told me he had waited for 18 hours at the airport today, and it was a relatively good day for him. I thanked him – he had been making very little money since there was almost no business on the street. But I would not be able to get home so quickly and safely without drivers like him. I might have to starve at home if those in the delivery business are not working. Shanghai might not have been so calm if not for those risking their lives in hospitals.
And to answer my worrying foreign friends...
No, I was not forcefully quarantined by my neighborhood or at Shanghai Daily. But I would voluntarily work from home for at least a week, suggested by my neighborhood and company, for my own and others’ safety.
My neighborhood in downtown Shanghai looked scary at first glance – the entrances are blocked by two layers of barriers to prevent cars from entering. The public parking lot outside the neighborhood gate was also blocked. It’s understandable though, considering we have a large hospital just across the street.
The neighborhood guard was on full alert and stood by the gate as I stepped out of the cab and removed my luggage, wearing a mask of course. He seemed a bit relieved when I asked first, how should I follow the procedures?
No, Shanghai was not blocked like the epicenter of the virus in Hubei Province. If you read the statistics, things have been getting better in the last week or so. More cars and passengers on the streets, everyone wearing a mask.
The city’s policies are milder compared with many other areas, but the city’s residents are much stricter on themselves. My atypical Shanghai father, who refuses to use a mobile or WeChat, sent me daily messages such as “We only move if Zhong Nanshan tells us so,” or “Staying home is my way to contribute to the city,” or “You are no longer my daughter if you go out without a mask.”
As I safely sat at my desk at home typing this article, I was no longer as anxious as in the past two weeks.