Return to Yunnan

Right. I haven’t written here in a while. Let’s get that out of the way.

It happens sometimes, especially since I’ve been branching out and writing in other places (shameless link), but this gap is, I’ll be honest, because it’s been kind of hard to share updates about Shanghai Life in the middle of a pandemic.

So much has happened in 2020. Like, I don’t even need to list it. You already know. But life has more or less moved on in Shanghai. Aside from the glaring absence of friends unable to return to China and the imprint of businesses that folded during the shutdown in February, we’ve basically gone back to worrying about more trivial things, like where the best brunch spot is.

And if I’m being honest, I didn’t have the heart to write about it here. Not here, where many of my readers are from places in very different stages of the pandemic. It would be a false comparison. Your home might eventually look like mine; it might not. No one knows what will happen.

For my part, I ran off to go hiking. It was not a long-burning decision. In fact, the desire came to me in a sudden jolt while editing a Sixth Tone piece about the “green trains” of China. While reading the piece I could, in a very visceral way, recall the long journeys I’d made in the past, the hot desert wind in my face, the sense of boundless opportunity that came both from my privileged position of being able to *choose* a green train while others used it out of pure financial necessity, and my long-burning time spent on the road. So much of that was on the rail. So much of myself was shaped on those journeys.

I wanted it back. Badly. The need flamed within me, sudden, urgent.

And there was only one place in China that I could think of: Yunnan. It was the first place I did solo backpacking in 2013, and it is no exaggeration to say that the trip changed travel for me forever. I’ve since been to every Chinese province and region, and other trips have left me with deeper impressions. But no other place symbolizes opportunity to me than Yunnan.

Left: Me along the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, 2013; right: Me in front of a glacier lake in Yubeng, 2020.

There was less than a month before I’d be setting out. I wanted to go someplace I could never go on my own. I wanted to get as far away from Shanghai has possible, after obediently staying put for so long. I looked into hiking opportunities, going through Amiwa Trek for a week of hiking in Yunnan.

We went to the Haba mountain range, which is also where the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail is located. But I, two other hikers, and our guide, Amiao, went instead up (and up and up and up) a small path to an Yi village, where we admired the gorge from far above where most hikers went. Then, we went to Yubeng, outside of Shangri-La, where we got to see a glacier lake, a forest of rock cairns (wherein we also made one!), and a sacred waterfall where Tibetans made pilgrimages to race through icy waters to stay well all year.

Some of my favorite memories are the moments of stillness, when we, cold and tired from the rain, sat around a fire with some Tibetans and shared bread, jerky, and milk tea, our jackets steaming as the water evaporated off of us. A moment could feel so infinite when it had space to reverberate.

Of course, there is no returning to the past. This was a completely different trip than my first one in 2013, mainly because I am a completely different person. I wrote in my journal in 2013 that I was a cup waiting to be filled, for the universe to tell me the measure of myself and all I could do. Now, in 2020, after spending months being the one to fact-check the body count for articles, after my own body has become a marker for everything that’s transpired in the years since, I was a cup too full, hoping to be emptied, then filled with something better. The universe couldn’t tell me the measure of myself. Only I could do that, step by step.

And oh, what a view:


A Time to Wail, a Time to Exhale

Today, at 10 a.m. the air raid siren wailed all throughout the country for three minutes as everyone collectively grieved all that had been lost in China’s outbreak and what would be lost in the ongoing pandemic. It was arresting, breathtaking. I sat on my bed in my room before the event, wondering if I needed candles or flowers, only to realize that the plaintive cry of the air raid siren said enough.

This weekend marks Qingming Festival, a traditional Chinese festival where families go to graves to leave offerings, mourn, and sweep the tombs of those they’ve lost. It feels different this year, especially for families who recently lost someone. It’s different this year, too, for those who lost someone but never got a proper chance to grieve because of all the other grief in the world. It even feels different for people who’ve lost the things they can’t name.

Spring is blooming here nonetheless. The trees are misting green along Yuyuan Road. In the parks, people hang their masks on tree branches as they find a patch of grass to lie on top of (still at a safe distance from others) and breathe in the spring air. For two months, so much of that air was filtered, or kept inside mid-gasp. Now is an exhale.

Life goes on, even when it seems cruel. Time in Shanghai already feels like it can be divided into “pre-virus” and “now” which, though by all intents and purposes ought to feel like “post” instead feels like a kind of New Normal. We have made it to the other side, yes, but not without some bruises along the way. I am back to commuting to work (and cussing at bikers who cut me off). But — I am now packing lunches, since the office asks us to get takeout from the building’s cafeteria during designated periods, an improvement all the same after two weeks of staggered staffing in our open-office setup. I can meet up with friends, but now that many of us have families and friends abroad, we are far from done being concerned with the virus. (Plus, some of my friends are now trapped outside China because the country slapped a travel ban on all foreigners entering the country — with scant exceptions).

I am so grateful for my job, my friends, my family –– I only grow more grateful every day. I am also blown away by the can-do spirit of so many people back in the U.S. and elsewhere, and how compassion and beauty win out in the end, no matter how dark the dawn. Even now, I’m still amazed by my Shanghai friends and I being able to make plans without first trying to figure out how it’ll work over Zoom, or if we ought to hang out at all. Rooms still smell of disinfectant. Everyone carries hand sanitizer with them. But we’re in the same room. We’re still here. A miracle.

I’ll be honest, my moods still oscillate between a muted panic; a sense of defiance against a crazy world; and a sense of sadness for the intangible things we’ve lost, even if just the everyday normality and small gestures of love we’ll have to regain after it’s over. My top-played songs on Spotify reflect this: at times, “Survival” by Muse; at times “At The Door” by The Strokes or “Goodnight Moon” by Eric Whitacre; at times “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. I even made a very dark humor playlist themed around apocalypse in general at one point to laugh at when I’d feel the insanity of the world creep in (don’t judge me –– I was in a mood). But I think it’s okay to oscillate, and as a friend recently reminded me, it’s important to “feel all the feels.”

How do you write during a pandemic? I don’t really know. Do you rally? Do you admit that things can still be hard, and that I myself will be doing my own form of grieving this Qingming Festival? Do you seek out the beauty no matter what? I’m an optimist, but I admit that as I’ve watched the situation unfold in the U.S. it has been hard for me to write here, though I try to stay in contact with family and friends as much as possible. Is that weakness? Or is it those necessary three minutes of release? I don’t have the answer.

But I think the most important thing for us to do when we’re ready is to let ourselves wail if we need to, like that air raid siren this morning. It’s important to remind ourselves that we don’t need to capitalize on this time or be productive or prove that we made use of ourselves, if all we actually feel capable of in this moment is to stay indoors, stay in good health, and encourage others to do the same.

There is no right or wrong way to live through a pandemic. You just have to stay safe, and that’s enough. Life will go on, though it may at times feel cruel.

It may also, however, be beautiful in ways you don’t expect.

Just this past week after work, I biked over to a shoe store, where back in November I’d decided to get a pair of red heels custom-made as a 30th birthday present to myself. Pre-virus, I stood in the tiny shop, sifting through patterns, getting my foot measured and outlined on a piece of office paper, and chatting with a shop employee who spoke in a soft, whispery voice. Now, I met her again, the two of us chatting from behind face masks after not meeting in almost two months, and she unveiled the bright red pair. I thought they were the most beautiful shoes I’d ever seen, a stark relief against so much chaos.

Beauty finds a way. But first you have to let it.

Stay safe.

A View From the Other Side

During our first Virtual Party back in February, all we could talk about was how much we looked forward to getting together and sharing hot pot — a communal meal definitely unwise to have in the midst of an outbreak. We thought about the picnics, the parties, the meals we would have, all with the underlying desire to just be with each other. After listing all we wanted to do, we realized 24 hours wasn’t enough for the eventual celebration.

The elusive hot pot. (Photo courtesy of Rivkah)

Well, friends, I’m writing to you from a very strange vantage point. Just weeks ago, people were sending me messages of concern and wondering how I could survive in voluntary quarantine (now called “social distancing”). But now that COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, now that it has been devastating Europe, now that the United States has had to face the stark reality that this is a global issue that will affect everyone, it’s my turn to send solidarity from abroad.

I wish I was in a position of power and could just send a bunch of medical supplies and testing kits to the United States and elsewhere. I wish I could putt over on a scooter like so many delivery personnel here and ferry goods and medications for those of you who need it. I wish I could help orchestrate the indoor activities that will help you stay sane, especially for those of you with young children. Hell, I at times wish I could go confront our leaders, slap them in the face, and beg them not to waste the time and energy so many in China and surrounding countries sacrificed by not taking advantage of the quiet before the storm.

All I can offer you is this: A view from the other side.

Imagine if you will the atmosphere on Jan. 20, the day the virus was confirmed to have human-to-human transmission, three days before Wuhan went into lockdown, and four days before the official public holiday for Lunar New Year. It was as though there was a collective gasp in the country. In the Sixth Tone office, all we could do was watch the numbers rise, rise, rise, as China’s peak travel season drew near. I went to the Philippines the same day Wuhan went into lockdown, thinking I could ride out the worst of it. I was wrong, narrowly missing the travel ban to/from China that the Philippines enacted in early February. One of my friends traveling with her parents was not so lucky.

Everyone frantically sought to procure face masks or bring them back from abroad. Articles began circulating for people to avoid public gatherings and disinfect as much as possible. Movies meant to make big bucks in the holidays season canceled their debuts indefinitely.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It’s panic.

But, almost simultaneously, compassion arrived. I saw companies offering free shipping for anyone ordering them for Wuhan. There were also initiatives from musicians and performers to offer online content and entertainment for the millions of people staying indoors to avoid giving the virus any more of a chance to spread. Travel companies started offering full refunds to keep people from traveling during this time. Residents of locked-down Wuhan shouted encouragement to each other from their balconies.

Yes, there was panic (and deep down, it is probably still there, as we are in no way in the clear and the country braces itself for potential imported cases). But here’s the thing: Compassion won in the end.

I won’t pretend that panic and self-preservation didn’t cause social division or unfair treatment in China. But I have also seen such a wave of community support, of grassroots volunteer organizations mobilizing to send supplies to hard-hit areas and help get medicine to those trapped in lockdown. I’m not talking about grand narratives of solidarity and unity: I’m talking about the everyday gestures to help out others — the people pet-sitting for those trapped because of travel bans outside their homes. Or even the people recommending good books to read, or telling you to take a break from editing to play with your cat because you still deserve something nice, even in a pandemic.

Compassion matters. How you survive the pandemic comes down to how you help others survive. And how you help others survive comes down to the how you make the little things count.

I’m already seeing it unfold in my home country. Sure, the U.S. freaked out and bought a bunch of toilet paper. That’s the panic. But I’m seeing friends and family already offering their time and energy to deliver groceries to the immunocompromised, to limit social contact and stay indoors until things blow over, to share educational and recreational resources. That’s the compassion.

Disasters like this are when we can become the worst versions of ourselves, when we show through our choices how much we are really willing to sacrifice. But moments like these are also when we can show the best of humanity. I have faith in our capacity for compassion, for making tough choices even if they are inconvenient.

And, by the way, here is the other side of the panic and the compassion:

Hot pot! (And Corona beers, because humor matters!) (Photo courtesy of Rivkah)

Imagine if you will when you get to another side (regardless of if there will be more hardship to come). Oh the blistering joy! The rapture at the scant venues opened up to you! The realization that, no matter the circumstances, you were living in a beautiful world all along, even if you sometimes took it for granted.

As many of you, my friends and family, are facing frightening times, take care of yourselves and those around you. Heed calls to cancel (physical) social gatherings. Remember to laugh.

More than anything else: Have faith that there is another side, and that you will get there in the end.





Dispatches from Shanghai: HER-os

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China, I will be posting updates about my time in Shanghai during this period. Feel free to message me if you want to hear more about things I haven’t included!

As many of you may know, yesterday was International Women’s Day, which was met with much fanfare on my stretch of the road. My roommate, Addie, came back this past week (hence the fewer updates — there has been a lot to catch up on!) and we decided something had to happen on the holiday even though she’s now technically subject to 14-day “self-quarantine” which is more a strong suggestion to minimize interactions with crowds than it is an enforced rule during the virus’ incubation period for those not coming from high-risk communities.

Something had to happen. We are, after all, her-os (a phrase we’ve been making fun of mercilessly since that appeared on “Captain Marvel” posters, even though we both enjoyed the movie in the end).


But how do you celebrate being a woman? Is there a tried and true way to do it, even when half the city is still shut down to keep new cases from emerging?

At first, we thought we ought to celebrate the much-maligned her-os, the female-led superhero movies that for decades led filmmakers to believe female superhero movies were a bust. (We’re looking at you, “Catwoman” and “Supergirl”). Just because they were bad movies didn’t mean it wasn’t worth watching them. Deep down, I think we also just thought it would be funny and not what we as working women were expected to do on a holiday devoted to us. Even the crappy movies had done something.

But, internet being internet, it was harder than we thought to watch the movies. Besides, a brunch invitation happened, which sounded like even more fun.

As the weeks have gone by, Shanghai has been reawakening, slowly and gingerly. Cafés have been opening their doors, restaurants have been operating, and more and more people are lingering on sidewalks to shoot the breeze and enjoy sunny, clear days instead of shuffling past without making prolonged eye contact. My friends and I have even started occasionally meeting face-to-face, though we still show up masked, ready to sanitize whenever needed.

There were some select places offering special Women’s Day deals, believe it or not, though we met up in the “Bermuda Triangle” of restaurants downtown (nicknamed thus — possibly just by me — because of the weird shape of the road and the impossibility of hailing a cab from there if late at night). Outside the swanky restaurant, an employee took our temperatures, recorded our names and phone numbers, and led us in. Now standard in our New Normal.

I’ll admit that it was an odd feeling for me at first, given that it was my first time in over a month going to a public venue. I felt exposed, vulnerable. The restaurant kept its doors open for ventilation, and the staff all wore masks. And yet. When your nose is pressed into all the minutiae of an epidemic, when you don’t apply to the general advice not to read more than 20 minutes of news a day because you are one of the watchers, it’s hard not to feel some ripples of unease in open spaces.

But it was worth it to talk about cheese, drink coffee, and jabber about favorite TV shows and be without requirement to impress the world. And it was worth retreating back to the apartment in the end to later watch episodes of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” and eat cake without the world watching.

Being a her-o is not about buzzwords or doing any certain thing — it’s about just doing something because you feel like you want to, and being able to do something even if it’s not what you expect.

Be a her-o any damn day you want.


Dispatches from Shanghai: Virtual Party

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China, I will be posting updates about my time in Shanghai during this period. Feel free to message me if you want to hear more about things I haven’t included!

With most of Shanghai staying inside, there hasn’t been much in the way of parties or going out (and with good reason, given that cramming into confined spaces and getting stupid aren’t exactly known strategies for keeping viruses at bay). Most of my friends have taken it well, and we’ve instead stayed in touch through messaging app WeChat, video calls, and even the occasional in-person meetup (gasp!)

But Shanghai’s just not the same without a little cavorting. Such was the sentiment when a friend of mine mentioned wanting to go out for some drinking without anyone leaving the safety of their homes. He wasn’t sure how it would work out, or if it could be possible to do a drinking game remotely.

Then again, what is an epidemic for, if not taking risks? (Kidding, family!)

We gathered some people we knew of who both wanted to drink and would be game to try a virtual drinking game. Then we settled on a time (we tried to simulate actual “going out” time at night) and found the best technology for a group video chat.


How to Play the Game:

Before you do anything, procure dice. This can either be accomplished via actual dice and camerawork, or with websites/GIFs as needed. We tried with a website, then gave up and used actual dice in a bowl and some creative camerawork.

Set up a stable internet connection and make sure you can see/hear everyone. Took us about half an hour, but since we played for three hours, it was well worth the wait.

Establish an order (either by order of window screens or alphabetically).

Take turns rolling the dice and do as follows with the corresponding number:

  1. Make up a song or dance about being quarantined for 1 minute. If you refuse or fail to reach the full minute, drink.
  2. Start off a story that the group will tell communally. Adjust the rules as needed. (Initially the penalty was that if you hesitated for more than 15 seconds to tell say something, drink. But we were a group of writers, so it became “if you don’t shut up within 15 seconds, drink”).
  3. Pick a category and go around the group listing things in that category until someone blanks, or repeats something that has been said. They drink.
  4. Never Have I Ever. (It’s confusing to write out the explanation for this one, so if you haven’t played this before, I recommend just looking up a video of people playing it, this one of the cast of “Brooklyn 99” — but instead of fancy signs, just have everyone hold up 3 fingers and lower them as the truth comes out).
  5. Just… drink.
  6. Choose someone to drink.

The game really zipped by, and things I thought people would be too horrified to do (like the song/dance) ended up being the best parts (I even used Xiao Hong as a backup dancer at one point). The storytelling went from random to outlandish and downright silly, and by the end, we all agreed that we needed to play again.

If you ever find yourself in quarantine, (a sensible amount of) alcohol helps to have on-hand! That being said, we decided it would be fine to do this partially sober or with those who don’t drink — so long as they’re willing to play!

Stay classy, and raise your glass to the webcam in a toast.

Dispatches from Shanghai: Scenes from the Streets

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China, I will be posting updates about my time in Shanghai during this period. Feel free to message me if you want to hear more about things I haven’t included!

Despite still working from home, I have nonetheless been wandering outside and occasionally meeting up with friends. To clarify: We are not in the clear. COVID-19 is still very much out there, and people are vigilant as always. But, with nice weather and empty streets, it’s hard not to strap on a mask, equip yourself with some hand sanitizer and go for a stroll, or meet up with someone (so long as it’s in a well-ventilated area!)

Internet has been slow (hence fewer updates), but the time in Shanghai has not. Here are some recent episodes:

Something Shiny in the Scare

As I’ve mentioned before, I live near Yuyuan Road, which is a historical stretch of Old Shanghai, but also has a lot of hipsterish shops as wealthy urbanites decide that, you know what? We do need another brewery within walking distance. I had a gap in my schedule before more assignments would come in last week, so decided to go for a walk. I’ve been down the road before, but usually stream by on my bike as I head to the office.

On this slow sojourn, I found that, in addition to brunch locales, breweries, art installations, and classic dumpling shops, there was also a small shop bedecked with Japanese charms in the form of the waving cat (used to encourage more fortune). I’d already earmarked a “beans to bar” chocolate shop I saw for another walk I’d take over the weekend, when I’d have more time to poke around, but decided to drop into the cat-filled shop.

To no one’s surprise, I was the only customer. Not just because the shop is small, but because most businesses nowadays aren’t exactly teeming with customers, least of all one that seemed devoted to nice, but nonessential trinkets like wallets, scarves, jewelry, and all sorts of waving cats. The owner stood behind the register and, after greeting me, went back to playing on his phone.

I meandered around the shop, fingering silly cat trinkets, thinking how funny it was to be here of all places in the middle of an epidemic. Wasn’t it a bit frivolous?

But then I saw the stand with earrings. They were small, simple, and yet they still caught my eye, perhaps because an epidemic is exactly when shiny things sparkle all the brighter. I picked up a some studs with small green ginko leaves on them, and one with blue crescent moons with a cat’s silhouette (had to honor the cat motif somehow), not quite sure when the occasion would call for them. Maybe even when I was editing, who knows?

As I went to check out, I chatted with the owner. “Business must be tough, huh?” I said.

“Yeah, but it was so boring staying at home. So I figured: Why not?”

He handed me a delicate pink paper envelope with the shop’s address and a paper crane affixed to the outside — something that seemed very fine in the midst of a lot of masks, hand sanitizer, and daily number-monitoring.

IMG_2687As I walked back along the road, I thought ‘Indeed, why not?’

Sometimes finding something nice is enough.

A Swig of Sanitizer

On Sunday, a friend and I decided we would step outside and go to a riverside park in Xuhui District. We had no special plans for the day, but the weather was warmer than it had been the previous day, and it was hard not to feel optimistic. I hopped on my bike and met her there mid-afternoon.

I’d actually been to this park many times last year, while researching the local skateboarding community for a piece I wrote. Now, the skateboarders are still there, albeit wearing surgical masks like the rest of us.

We walked along the riverside, eventually ducking into a more wooded area to avoid the wind and keep pretending it was warm out. She wanted to sketch for a bit, but the cold got the better of us and we decided to get something to drink from a nearby vending machine. But lo and behold, water was out, and all we could drink was coconut milk.

There was a problem, though:

“Oh shit, how do we sanitize this? We can’t just drink straight from the can!” she said.

We got an idea, fishing out our hand sanitizer and squirting a blob onto the lip of the can and wiping it off with a fresh Kleenex.


Thinking ourselves boundlessly clever, we wiped it down, opened it, and drank.

“Blech!” I said. “You can taste the sanitizer!”

“Well, at least we know it’s clean?” my friend said.

The next sip was marginally better, and the next slightly better yet, and as we walked around the park, I decided it was a small price to pay in the end for our time outside.

Ice Cream for Breakfast

Last week, a friend of mine had posted about a local initiative to raise funds for Hubei province, which is at the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic. All you had to do was donate whatever amount you felt comfortable with, and… eat ice cream for breakfast!

The idea was based on the person in charge’s coping mechanisms when housebound during a blizzard, saying that her family would eat ice cream for breakfast to keep up morale and do something silly.

I was game.

So on my next foray to the grocery store, I decided to try and find whatever ice cream I could, even though Chinese stores consider it “off-season” (pshh as if there is ever such a thing). I was also on the hunt for some fun toppings (as the post suggested) to possibly make up for the lack of ice cream, while careening my way through the vegetable aisles with the other masked shoppers.

In the end, I fashioned what I’ll call an artistic interpretation of a poke bowl using popsicles, M&Ms, Pocky sticks (for the chopsticks!), and assorted chocolate bits.

Ice Cream Poke 1

As you can imagine, I had greatly underestimated how sugary this would be. But I sent off the photos to the organizers (apparently we will be entered for a drawing for… real ice cream!), ate it, and then went ahead and cooked vegetables for the rest of the day.

What can I say? Not a bad way to be housebound.

Dispatches from Shanghai: O Brave New Shanghai

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China, I will be posting updates about my time in Shanghai during this period. Feel free to message me if you want to hear more about things I haven’t included!

This past Friday was Valentine’s Day, and the running joke in China was how all relationships had become long-distance as everyone continued their self-quarantines. But it’s not just relationships: For a city as big as Shanghai, everything becomes long-distance, and as the city tries to get back to normal, it’s like our lives have shifted 2 degrees to the left and we’re facing a new normal.

Just about every exchange has altered completely, so let me show a few scenarios and what they’ve become in this strange new version of the city:

Normal Valentine’s Day: Invite friends over for pizza and a movie. Or, book a table at a restaurant before it fills up and have a night out (if it’s the weekend).

COVID-19 Valentine’s Day: I video call a friend, who lives only one district over to chat. I order a pizza anyway, since takeout is still such a novelty. The driver leaves it on the table outside my apartment entrance set aside for packages. I wash my hands, don a surgical mask and gloves, and head outside. The box is in an insulated pack wrapped in cellophane with a sticker telling me the names of the chef, waiter, and delivery driver; when they got their temperatures checked; and what their readings were. I eat with chopsticks and “sanitize” with a glass of wine.


Normal trip to the office: Ride my bike, scan my work ID (or just look pathetic enough to the guards who remember me), cram into a crowded elevator, and sit at my desk.

COVID-19 trip to the office: Ride my bike, get temperature checked by guard in plastic poncho, scan ID (they would turn me away if I didn’t have it), press elevator key with tissue paper. I forget the passkey to enter the office and text coworkers to remind me. It is completely empty. Locate my passport (the only reason I had come in), which HR assures me was sanitized and then placed in a plastic baggie.

(In theory, we can go back to the office this week, but when we were told how that would manifest: temperature checks, only six people per elevator ride, registration upon entry, among other safety precautions, most of us agreed it would be best to keep working from home for the time being, and luckily the editor-in-chief is understanding.)

Normal trip to the grocery store: Somewhat chaotic depending on time of week. (Hint: avoid weekends and evenings or do what I do which is AVOID THE BIG SUPERMARKET ALTOGETHER.) Most buy groceries for the next couple days.

COVID-19 trip to the grocery store: Bobbing and weaving through shoppers demonstrating peak Shanghai walking style — which I would describe as “aggressive waywardness” in that people will elbow past you, cut you off, or generally walk like they have road rage, but damned if they’re actually going someplace urgent. Carts erratically change directions. Produce section crowded. I give up on backtracking and leave with what I need only, leaving some items on my list behind. (Impatience is great for a budget, it turns out!)

Normal coffee date: Pick a coffee shop and meet up.

COVID-19 coffee date: Friend’s mom is worried about the virus and what meeting in close quarters in a crowded space would do, so we meet in a park outside a hotel at 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday when the streets are even emptier. Friend needed some extra face masks. In exchange, she brings some spare packs of sanitary wipes, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant spray. We joke about standing 2 meters apart, placing “the goods” on the ground and saying “KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM AND STEP AWAY FROM THE PACKAGE!” but instead we hand them to each other with gloved hands. She takes out some coffee she made and we sit on a bench with the wind whistling around us, removing our masks to sip them and walking until we find a decent patch of sun. It had snowed the night before, so we try to keep moving in our thick jackets. She tells me I can just come to her house next time, close quarters be damned. After all: We have the means to sanitize!

Normal trip to the vet: Grab Xiao Hong before he’s aware of what’s happening and stuff him into a carrier. Call a cab. Get backed up in bumper to bumper traffic. Muse about getting an e-bike. Pick up more cat food on the way out and possibly a treat if XH has been good. (He’s always good — and now he’s a little fat).

COVID-19 trip to the vet: Grab XH and call a cab, eyes darting all around me at passersby, remembering fears a couple weeks ago about pets spreading the virus and how overreactions led to panic, quickly quelled by the CDC and the WHO. See an older woman walk toward me. “Oh, a cat?” she says. I panic and blurt out “YES AND DON’T WORRY IT’S SAFE” and she just shrugs and says “Okay.” I stuff XH’s carrier into the cab with me, telling the driver he’s good and that, you know, I did bring disinfectant spray in case he’s worried. (I have heard of cab drivers denying rides to people carrying pets, even before the virus). The roads are empty. I arrive 20 minutes early and am asked to step in some sanitized wipes so as not to track anything on the floor. Pet store next door closed. XH still gets a treat when we get back.

Shanghai is definitely grinding back to life, but it’s not normal life — not yet, anyway. I don’t know how long it will take, but for now, we are in a brave new city; we are such people in it.

Dispatches from Shanghai: The Awakening Begins

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China, I will be posting updates about my time in Shanghai during this period. Feel free to message me if you want to hear more about things I haven’t included!

While sipping my morning coffee before opening my laptop for the day’s tasks to begin, I saw something that sent shivers down my spine. Was it the latest updates about the novel coronavirus, now named COVID-19, and the reported numbers of those infected?

Not really. Even though psychologists suggest you limit daily news intake to about 20 minutes to avoid getting panicked or overwhelmed in situations like these, for people like me working for news outlets, that’s a downright laughable request. I don’t mind: If anything, I like feeling important as I fact-check details one last time and discuss word choice as we enter uncharted stylistic territory in an ever-changing landscape. Whatever anxieties you’ve got get set aside, and the surreal, warped version of this hollowed out Shanghai becomes the norm.

See, it was a notification on my phone. From Taobao, an online shopping website. A package I’d ordered more than a week ago was on its way.

Under normal circumstances, this would mean basically nothing other than Taobao not screwing me over or losing my order. But now, it meant something different entirely: Things were being delivered. Shanghai was sputtering to life once again, even if tentatively.

As a great Op-Ed in The New York Times by a Shanghai-based writer Frankie Huang highlights, “the days seem to melt into each other.” We are in a weird limbo, waiting inside with bated breath to see what will happen next.

Just a couple days previously, I was in the small corner shop by the apartment to pick up some of the necessities that tend to run out faster than others: drinking water, soap, disinfectant spray. Before the virus (which seems like a long time ago), I’d get soap every so often, and for water, I’d order from a Nestle shop that switches out empty water jugs for full ones. Nowadays, I stop by the corner shop whenever I venture outside and grab a smaller jug or two if I can. Worst case? I could make a much longer journey to the giant supermarket on the other side of Zhongshan Park and lug a jug (bitterly) all the way back home — via the longer route, since the park has been closed down to prevent further spread, and so I can’t cut through it.

I am in good shape. I have consistently had enough food and water, and currently have enough soap to last until next year. I’ve been cooking dishes that can last for several meals, and I shop before I’ve run out completely just in case. (Is this what adulting is?) I stay in contact with friends. We crack jokes about the situation. I watch movies I haven’t seen yet and play with Xiao Hong.

But as I clicked on the order and saw that, indeed, the inconsequential thing I’d bought (cat toys, fine, it was cat toys) had left the warehouse and was headed my way, I felt a surge of joy. It struck me, because I hadn’t felt worried, or at least I didn’t think I did. But it’s there, the undertow to the melted hours, even if you don’t feel the tug.

After a moment of shock, I searched for disinfectant spray (something consistently sold out in my corner store) and a friend sent me a Taobao link for more hand sanitizer (something that’s short of stock, but me being an over-planner, happened to already have some on-hand for the time being). I called the water delivery service. I found articles listing venues opening up for limited hours.

Does this mean that we’re in the clear? Of course not. There are still new cases cropping up, and start dates for public schools have been pushed back to March. We are required to wear face masks if we take public transportation in the city (something our photographers captured on Shanghai’s first day officially back to work). Writing workshop meetings are still online for now. The anxieties set aside to keep working, keep living, are still there, just one layer down.

Yet a sign of movement is a sign of movement all the same — and not the movement we joke about when we talk about the groundhog seeing his shadow. The city is taking baby steps back toward whatever brand of normal we can call the jumble that is Shanghai. It’s like that first bud of spring pushing itself out into the air: slow, shy, persistent. I can’t smother it with every hope I’ve got for it to grow, but I can give it some sun and give it some time, and in the end, spring will come.

Who knew it would sound like a courier?


Dispatches from Shanghai: Wonder Woman Never Asked For This

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China, I will be posting updates about my time in Shanghai during this period. Feel free to message me if you want to hear more about things I haven’t included!

UPDATE: By popular request, I have added a photo of myself with a Band-Aid from the Wonder Woman collection. Unfortunately, I already ran out of the ones with her name, so opted for one from the box with the giant word “Brave” on it. Seems on-brand for the hero.

Some time back on a trip in the U.S., I stopped in a Target to get some supplies before heading back to China. Looking through the Band-Aids, I saw a box designed after Wonder Woman and thought ‘Why the hell not?’

Flash forward to now, when I’ve had to use this poor hero for the most mundane things: over-excited Xiao Hong scratches, blisters. But probably the most curious of all: the place on the bridge of my nose where the N95 mask I wore in airports dug into my skin. (The type I’d bought is 3M’s design allegedly “for Asian faces” that just means the straps fit weird on me and I have to use a safety pin to keep them properly in place behind my head). This hero, this Amazon woman, has had to have her name emblazoned on the bridge of my nose as I’ve gone about my new daily routine of working, realizing I’m still in my pajamas, and cooking.


When you think about something like an epidemic, probably the images that come to mind are panicked people running around the streets, ambulances overturned, or some other disaster movie scenes. And don’t get me wrong: The epicenter of Hubei province and the medical personnel on the frontlines are definitely facing much more pressure than those in other cities, and overcrowded hospitals are nothing to downplay. But big events like what’s happening in China affect everyday people in unexpected ways.

Nowadays, I’m moisturizing dry hands (in a region of China known for being humid) and attending to cat scratches. Though I barely see people on the streets when I go for little walks or to pick up more supplies, items like big water jugs, disinfectant, and lunch meats are disappearing from the shelves. (Curiously, alcohol is doing fine).

When I did a group video chat with writing group members the other night and we all tried to connect through overworked wires and flickering cameras, the underlying sentiment to the moment was isolation, even boredom. (And of course, an undertow of unease).

Some people had stayed at home during the Lunar New Year entirely, making this Week 2 of self-quarantine. Some were stuck in limbo as cancelled flights and travel bans meant they were trapped away from home, trying to reroute. Some were still with their extended family, like a Thanksgiving dinner that would never end.

I got pretty lucky. I left and came back to Shanghai mere days before the president of the Philippines declared a travel ban to and from China (which would have possibly affected my ability to renew my Chinese visa in time, stranding me for an even longer term). I also work a job that is easily done from home. On top of that, I have an inner homebody that actually doesn’t mind being alone and am delighted to have an excuse to catch up on TV shows and read more.

But the speed of the virus’ spread is also an indicator of how much we are connected, for better or worse, and how far we will go for the connection. This was underscored for me in that video chat, where despite the distance, the connection was there all the same. No matter how many times our calls cut off, we hopped back on. Even when our video froze, we waited it out and tried again. And even though the internet sagged under the use, there was a definite hunger to chat, to get some feeling of forward momentum.

A huge portion of China is working from home right now. I’ve had a swift return to my habits as a grad student/freelancer, working odd hours at times, staying in pajamas or sweatpants until my inner shame tells me to change or go for a walk. But it’s also a time for renewed connections and rethinking how we interact with others.

And above all, it’s a time for Wonder Woman to save the day in little ways, even if just on the bridge of my nose.

Dispatches from Shanghai: A Brief Outing

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread in China, I will be posting updates about my time in Shanghai during this period. Feel free to message me if you want to hear more about things I haven’t included!

In my previous post, I said I’d be at home for the next two weeks as a safety precaution at work. I also said that this is something I don’t mind at all, especially with Xiao Hong, my cat, demanding his snuggles and playtime. Aside from random trips to the corner convenience store to replenish random necessities, I intend to keep my vow to be antisocial (at least in person) and a productive employee. (And if I may put in a shameless plug, you ought to follow Sixth Tone, since our reporters have been doing a fantastic job providing accurate, timely updates, as well as windows into the lives of ordinary Chinese during this time).

But you know, life goes on, and I still had to go to the visa office to renew my residence permit, which was to expire on Feb. 10.

I won’t get into the minutiae of visa applications, because either you know how complicated and stressful they are, or you don’t. Luckily, this time around was just renewing a work permit, so was relatively painless. I just had to (gasp!) step outside and do it.

After having lunch and cleaning up around the apartment, I equipped myself for the world outside: hand sanitizer in my pocket, mask on my face, necessary documents in a handy dandy folder for optimum efficiency (this ain’t my first rodeo). I would be taking the subway to get there — precisely the ‘crowded spaces’ we’re told to avoid, as if you don’t live in one of the biggest, most populous cities in the world.

Turns out, the subway was almost deserted. Lunar New Year holiday had been extended a couple days, making Feb. 3 the first official working day, but for certain sectors (like education) the start dates have been pushed back even further. The result? A subway car midday that had plentiful seating, and people sitting at least 1 meter from each other — perfect.

The streets were equally empty, with just scant passersby shuffling their ways to whatever destination they had in mind. I’ve experienced an empty city before when the G20 came to Hangzhou, but this is of course different. When I arrived at the visa office, I was greeted by a security check where they took my temperature (healthy!) and I waited for my HR person and another coworker who had to renew his permit. HR was stopped at the door because her temperature was high (gasp!) because she’d been wearing a hat. “You guys go ahead,” she said, waiting for her forehead to cool down. We went up the escalator to get photos taken and scan our passports. About 10 minutes later, she joined us. (Note to self (in voice of Edna Mode): No hats!)

The last time I had to come to the visa office, we had to wait in the lobby for about an hour until there was an agent available. Now, we were led in almost immediately.

“Take off your mask,” the agent said to take another photo of us. I did, feeling very naked without it, even though logically I know that it’s the hand-washing and avoiding sick people that ultimately keeps you well. Mask-wearing in China has a lot to do with solidarity and showing that you are in it together, and when you see a crowd of masked people and the one unmasked person, it is more unnerving than you can imagine. (Are they okay? Are they concerned? I actually gave two spare masks to some travelers in the Shanghai airport on my way to the Philippines when I realized they were unmasked because supplies had run out and they were really anxious about it).

The procedures in the visa office went pretty smoothly. We sighed in relief, simultaneously realizing that it’s very hard to convey emotion when half of your face is obscured. You end up over-exaggerating eye movement, which makes you look like you’re on the brink of making some evil scheme come to fruition.

Schemes or no, I stopped by the ST office before heading home to pick up my bicycle, helmet, and gloves. The guard at the entrance to the building was in a makeshift hazmat suit (something of a rain poncho combined with plastic leg coverings) and two face masks. Before I entered, he also checked my temperature. (Still healthy!) Inside the elevator, a tissue box was affixed to the wall next to the elevator buttons, asking employees to use them to press the buttons and wash their hands afterward.

On my commute home along the tree-covered, historic road Yuyuan Lu (more on that when things chill a bit), it became something of a game to see which places were somehow open at the time (a game I also played last year during regular Lunar New Year when most shops close for the holidays). The stationary store? Closed. The random clothing stall next door? Open. Starbucks? Closed. McDonalds? Open.

Of all places, Peet’s Coffee was open, too, and I decided to take advantage of that to buy some coffee beans for the coming days. What did I get in addition to the beans? “Temperature check,” the barista said, holding out the white wand that would detect my thermal reading. (Still healthy!)

I biked the rest of the way home as the afternoon sun turned everything golden. People were still out (masked) to walk their dogs, and I even saw an expat going for a run in a full gas mask ventilator. (I’ll take my half-hearted indoor yoga attempts, thank youuuu)

I was grateful to make it back inside. But of course, before I went full snuggle mode with Xiao Hong, I took care to remove my gloves, go and wash my hands, remove (and properly dispose of) my mask, and wash my hands again. Overkill? Maybe, but now’s not really the time to cut corners.

Later in the evening, HR confirmed my flight path from the Philippines and told me to stay indoors as much as possible.


Though now I know that if things go south, I could always go to Peet’s Coffee. New ad campaign: Come for temperature readings, stay for the coffee. Peet’s~

Cheers! Message me if you want to hear more about other aspects of current Shanghai life, have questions, or just want to say hi.