Vignettes from the Chinese Lockdown

No. 4

Hi there:

First, I hope you and your loved ones are healthy as you read this.

In this issue, six individuals from across the country—one is actually a Chinese student pursuing PhD studies in Sydney—offer a glimpse into their lives under national lockdown just before the one-month mark since Wuhan was shut down.

Online gaming and family seem to be common themes—not just reconnecting with family, but also the chance to see a different side of them.

The source of this edition’s featured story is a bit different. Founded and hosted by former journalist Kou Aizhe, Story FM (WeChat ID: story_fm) is a popular and prolific podcast. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s simply a vocalized non-fiction platform, just as earnest and grounded a chronicler of everyday life in a vast and complex landscape.

If you’re a Chinese speaker, remember to check out the original podcast, which first aired on Feb. 17.

If you’re new to Gushi, please subscribe below. Catch up on back issues here. Also feel free to direct comments and thoughts to gushi20215@gmail.com.

Lastly, take care and continue to follow local public health guidelines!

ML


How I Beat Boredom in a National Lockdown

Wei, 35, Changsha

Screen capture from one of Wei’s daily online drinks gatherings. Courtesy Story FM.

My wife, my kid and I—the three of us have been repeating the same routine since the Chinese New Year break started. Either we’re sleeping or eating. Our spirits have been a bit down.

Luckily, I’m quite talented at seeking out entertainment, so I’ve been able to find an outlet for myself.

I have quite a few female colleagues at work, but I get along quite well with their husbands too. We even have our own WeChat group. We get together for drinks when we’re free.

Now we are barred from leaving our homes because we are facing extraordinary circumstances. Yet words can’t seem to adequately convey our longing for each other.

So we came up a solution. Every night at around 10 p.m., about five or six members of our WeChat group have been chatting by videoconference—a drinks gathering via computing cloud, if you will.

The conversation revolves around mundane family matters. The whole point is to kill time. Yet the dishes the members prepare for the call have become the highlight of the online drinks get-together.

Initially, folks were better equipped, showing up with Hunan specialties like preserved fish and meat, spicy salted duck and all sorts of pot-stewed fowl. We compare our dishes. The person with the most sumptuous meal is the winner. But gradually we began to run out of inventory as our shopping trips were sharply curtailed and shops went out of stock. We are now left with peanuts and potato chips.

The point of these virtual gatherings isn’t drinking. It doesn’t matter what we drink. We just want to get together to shoot the breeze. We sleep well if there is something to look forward to every day.

Lu Taiyang, Wenzhou

Screen capture of one of Lu Taiyang’s Happy Landlord Hunting games. Courtesy Story FM.

My in-laws are quite advanced in age. Recently, they started feeling nostalgic about their hometown, where they spent their childhood years, and decided to move back about a year ago. I tagged along to help take care of them. I don’t know the town or its people well. As the lockdown got underway, I have also gradually become more reserved.

Luckily, I have a WeChat group comprising four of my college classmates. The group has become especially active since the outbreak began. We share all sorts of information every day. Even though it’s been 10 years since graduation, there is endless chatter in the group. We tend to focus on current affairs. We rarely bother with trivial matters.

Once one of the girls asked, “What are you up to the next few days?” “We can play cards!” I responded casually. So I searched for the app for the popular Chinese card game Happy Landlord Hunter and shared it with the group. That’s how we started playing cards.

I was someone who had only played cards two of three times up to that point. So why did I come up with that suggestion? There’s a story here. I was chatting with a friend a few years ago. He was telling me about the time he broke his leg when he was about 10. His parents didn’t have time to take care of him, so he was sent to live with an aunt in the countryside. His aunt and her husband ended up playing cards with him every day. He said he had a grand time those few months.

I’ve always been someone who has gone about life with a deep sense of purpose, which is why the story left a deep impression. That’s why I figured playing cards might be a good way of interacting with friends. Still, this group of young women who had never played cards online started out like old aunties living in the past.

Everything was a novelty at the outset. Take the rule you have to accumulate 1,000 “Happy Beans” before you can play against others, for example. I was so clueless at the beginning I ran out of currency quickly. Starting on Jan. 23, I began to ration my Happy Beans, but I would still run out every day. Nary a day went by when I woke up to any “money” left in my bank account.

Slowly, I realized the game is a great way of understanding yourself and others.

I feel so relaxed when I’m playing against friends. When no one “calls out the landlord,” I tend to, even when I have a crappy hand. I just genuinely want to have fun with my friends, so I mess around sometimes.

None of the members of our chat group were good at idle chatter. We would start a conversation only when there was a clear topic. But this time, the card game has offered us an opportunity to learn about each other’s daily lives.

One of my classmates is an editor. She has to work every day. One day she blurted, “I worked for 12 hours today. Now I need a game of cards.” She never talked like that.

For folks who weren’t directly or deeply affected by the current disaster, the vacation the outbreak brought about has meant more time with family and friends. And at times like this, the human connection and comfort that games provide is invaluable.

Look at my friend who broke his leg. Twenty years later, he still vividly remembers the glorious time he had playing cards with his aunt and uncle when he was 10. This may sound flimsy or flippant, but I think I’m also going to remember the time my friends and I went “landlord hunting” during the coronavirus outbreak.

Jadey, Sydney

I returned to Australia from China on Jan. 30. On Feb. 12, my self-isolation in my apartment in Sydney has hit the 14-day mark.

My boyfriend and I rent a flat in Sydney comprising a room and a living room. My boyfriend didn’t return to China for Chinese New Year, so we have been sleeping separately since I got back. My boyfriend has been camping out in the living room and I’ve taken up our bedroom. We’ve been communicating via voice messages on WeChat. The only time we see each other is when I’m on my way to the kitchen or the bathroom. We typically exchange a few pleasantries with our masks on then.

Today is the last day of my self-quarantine. I’m bored out of my mind. There was heavy downpour in Sydney a few days ago. I was so bored I stood by my bed and watched the rain, occasionally sticking my hand out the window to feel the raindrops. Nothing has been able to make me happy. The only thing that can ease my hyper-sensitive nerves is playing video games on my phone. Whenever I don’t have anything to do, I inevitably end up browsing the news on my phone, monitoring updates to figures related to the outbreak.

I’m only able to distract myself slightly when I’m playing video games. Since we can’t meet in person, my friends and I have turned to team-based games on WeChat. It’s as if our regular get-togethers have been moved online.

We’ve even rediscovered some ancient games part of the instant messaging program like Connect the Dots, Spot the Mistake and so on. The last time I played them was in senior high. I’m a PhD student now. The difference between now and then is now I can actually watch my friends play the games live and keep track of their scores.

This makes me feel I am playing with a group face-to-face, even though I’m isolated in a small room. Watching my friends shuttle in and out of our “game room” and even arguing over the games paints such a vivid picture that makes me very nostalgic.

Even though I’m in Sydney, I feel very close to my friends in China, not distant.

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Big White Swan, Nanjing

Actually, if you start the clock from mid-January, when I came down with a cold, I’ve been stuck at home for a month now.

I’m a freelancer, so for me life hasn’t changed much apart from the fact I venture out even less these days.

Meanwhile, my parents have had to alter their routines. I’ve noticed that my mother has started knitting again. She began knitting a sweater for me a while back, but she soon got sidetracked. Recently, she has relaunched the project.

As for my father, he’s a very disciplined person. He works at a school. Even though he hasn’t had to work recently, he still follows a strict schedule.

But my dad’s rigid homebound routine is frequently interrupted by an expected visitor—our cat. Work is typically very busy for my dad, so he usually doesn’t have much time for our cat. Lately, they’ve been spending more time together and our cat has become increasingly attached to my dad.

Every time my dad settles down to begin a task, our cat will try to lure him to our balcony and have him perform his signature “deep-tissue massage.”

What this so-called “deep-tissue massage” entails is our cat sprawling all four limbs on a triangular scratching board on the balcony and letting my dad scratch its body. Our cat will tumble constantly throughout the whole process. It looks a bit dirty, as if our cat is getting an old-fashioned rubdown at a Chinese bathhouse.

Ever since my dad has been stuck at home, the “deep-tissue massage” has become our cat’s favorite activity, requiring my dad to “service” it several times a day.

Once my dad was exhausted from scratching the cat and started complaining. “When on Earth will school start again? I want classes to resume so badly.” Of course, if you ask me, the bitching and moaning is one thing, but deep down he’s enjoying his time at home.

Xiao Wo, Anshan, works in Dalian

I returned home to Anshan in northeastern Liaoning Province on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

I was especially anxious during that period. I couldn’t do anything except browse the news on my phone. What stressed me out even more was the fact that my dad insisted on visiting the mahjong parlor in our village during the Chinese New Year break despite the severity of the outbreak. He headed out in the afternoon on Chinese New Year’s Day after lunch. I warned him, saying: “These are extraordinary times. You better not head out. Don’t play mahjong!”

I couldn’t persuade my dad. He went ahead. And not just on Chinese New Year’s Day—but the next day as well.

This can’t continue, I thought to myself. I had to come up with a response. I read on Weibo about a girl in Sichuan who reported her dad to the authorities after he insisted on going to the local mahjong parlor. I figured I should try the same.

I observed my father for another day. He went ahead again. I decided to make the call.

It was my first time calling 110, the police hotline. I had a bad case of the jitters, but once the call went through and I noticed the middle-aged man who answered spoke in our local dialect, I relaxed instantly and delivered a tirade.

The man asked me: “Which mahjong parlor do you want to report?”

I said: “I want to report them all! All the mahjong parlors in our village are still open!”

Because I didn’t remember the names of the mahjong parlors, the man transferred me to the local village police branch. When they figured out which village I was referring to, they said decisively: “OK, just wait. We’re going to raid them all.”

I called around noon. After I made the call, I started keeping watch for my dad. He returned in the afternoon. But I noticed he was acting a bit odd, sitting alone in his car for 20-odd minutes before entering the house.

I figured the police raided the mahjong parlors it the afternoon and dispersed all the customers.

But I didn’t have the guts to ask my dad directly. I cozied up to my mom that night instead and asked: “Dad sat in his car alone for 20 minutes before entering the house today. Do you know what he was up to?”

Lo and behold, my mother was in a generous mood. She didn’t care at all. “Don’t mind him. Just let him be.”

Moon God, 26, Huanggang

Screen capture of Moon God’s family WeChat group. Courtesy Story FM.

Huanggang has been one of the hardest-hit cities in Hubei Province during the current outbreak apart from Wuhan, so it has drawn national attention.

Jan. 24 was Chinese New Year’s Eve. That was such a memorable day for me. Even my parents said it was their most memorable Chinese New Year in the 50-plus years of their existence.

After we finished dinner, just after 8 p.m., the hosts of state broadcaster CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala began a segment in which they offered words of encouragement to Wuhan. We were extremely moved. We could feel the love for Hubei and Huanggang. But shortly into the segment, there was an electricity outage. Our whole apartment went dark.

Looking out of the window, our entire building and the entire complex went dark. I felt we were on a desolate island, abandoned by the world. All the hustle and bustle and light seemed so distant.

I suddenly felt at a loss.

My mom dug out a candle and lit it. It was a cloudy afternoon to begin with and it started raining in the evening. The rain of Hubei’s winters is especially depressing and cold.

As I sat on the couch with my family, it dawned on me it’s been ages since I had had a proper chat with anyone. Since we grew up, my younger brother and I have been engrossed in our studies and work. There’s a family reunion at most once or twice a year.

Because the lockdown in Hubei came quite abruptly, some members of our family hadn’t made it home yet. I suggested we play cards online and the winners had to send cash gifts to folks who were still away from home. That way we could play as a family regardless of the distance between us.

I helped everyone download the apps for Happy Landlord Hunting and mahjong on their phones. We ended up exchanging plenty of digital cash gifts in our WeChat group that night. I also accumulated the longest chat history with my parents ever. Usually, we only touch base once every week or two weeks or so. That night we exchanged some 200 WeChat messages.

The electricity was restored after midnight. Around the same time, someone started setting off fireworks at a distance. My family and I stood by the window to take in the spectacle. I felt so comforted.

On this unusual Chinese New Year Eve, through playing cards online, I still managed a meaningful mini-reunion for our family.

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