Where the Pandas Are: Dealing with the nCoV Outbreak

Note: the first half of this post was written in February 2020 before the global spread of the virus.

I so hate for the second part to this series to be about the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, and yet here we are. This is me, writing about it. Because I currently live and work… in China.

Specifically, I live in this Tier 2 City called Chengdu in the Sichuan Province. Chengdu, fortunately enough, has a 33% recovery rate and even so, there are only 125 confirmed cases within the city limits. When you consider that at least 16.33 million people live here on the regular, then the statistics relating to nCoV don’t seem too daunting.

It’s still a terrifying prospect, but it’s not as bad as social media makes it out to be. Or maybe my Facebook friends are just racist idiots jumping on the xenophobic bandwagon persecuting anyone who looks Chinese. Is it my job to chastise them for their carelessness and ignorance? They’re all young adults – they should know better by now. Also, I’m their Facebook friend, not their mother.

ANYWAY, I wanted to talk about how living in the midst of this pandemic has affected my day-to-day life because, aside from the city limiting interpersonal contact and closing down non-essential businesses that affect my work hours and Starbucks intake, my life hasn’t changed all that much.

Let me explain.

(Not So) Breaking News: LiberaTarts Is A Hermit

When presented with the chance to either travel to literally anywhere in China or even abroad to a neighboring Asian country for the Chinese Spring Festival last January, my introverted self chose to stay in Chengdu.

My coworkers boasted that they’d be flying to This Country and That Country for the nine-or-so consecutive days that we had off from the office, which is all fun and good for them buuuuut… having just moved to China late last year and having finally felt like I’ve settled down in my new apartment, my new hometown, and my new workload after three or four months of sheer craziness, I felt like a staycation was my best bet if I wanted to recharge my social batteries.

Literally everything in China, it felt like, was put on hold because of Spring Festival:

  • everyone at my compnay had mandatory paid leave
  • Chinese language classes were put on hold, and
  • stores were running under limited opening hours

And so I stocked up on cupboard essentials, bought enough bottled water to last one person about two weeks, and holed myself up in my apartment to wait out the Spring Festival stillness that invaded the usually bustling city seemingly overnight.

I spent my time reading and re-reading the books I didn’t have the spare time for in the past.

building a personal library, one pocket-sized novel at a time

I also caught up on those pesky movies I said I was going to watch months and months ago.

And I dug up old playlists from my high school / Sixth Form days and had lots of cringe-filled jam sessions.

The perks of living alone, y’all.

So I really was minding my own business, recharging my social batteries and catching up with popular culture, when suddenly someone from Head Office called using my phone number and not WeChat. The fact that they didn’t use WeChat – the most relied on app in China, where you can talk to friends and also pay your bills – should have been my first clue on how serious things are about to get.

LiberaTarts Goes on a Government Sanctioned Self-Quarantine

Note: this is the second half of the post, written in April 2020.

exact re-enactment of how I answered that phone call

The person on the line, all gung-ho and ready to reassure, called because of a rumour text chain saying people aren’t allowed to leave their apartments for 14 days as a means to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

She explained how she has been trying to contact the local police station in my district to confirm this information, but since most of everyone has gone home for Spring Festival, no one has gotten back to her yet with actionable information.

Bless her soul, I could hear in her voice that she was panicking – she really did want to offer reassurance about the virus, how she can help ensure I have enough food to last two weeks in isolation, and how I shouldn’t panic about this new virus because I’m young, healthy, and precautions are being put into place.

A tad shamefaced, I didn’t tell her how I’ve been in a self-imposed bubble because of Spring Festival and how my only source of news regarding current events was checking the work group chat every few days or so and watching everyone gossip.

I wasn’t panicked about nCov.

I didn’t even know it was that serious until she called me.

And like a lynchpin, that phone call broke through Hermits United Membership Fun Zone and suddenly:

  • my aunt from all the way in the US started messaging me asking how I’m doing
  • my brother, whom I’ve lost contact with amidst the craziness of work and his busy college schedule, called on Skype because he saw China on the news
  • my mother, relatively busy herself as a healthcare professional in the Middle East, began micro-managing my life by telling me
    • not to go out (I despair at having to explain I really, really had no plans to do so regardless of the virus situation)
    • to stock up on food (my pantry was as prepared as any hermit’s), and
    • to wash my hands all the time (I work with young kids so using a hand sanitiser is basically programmed into my soul)

I love my family dearly and it warms my heart that despite being scattered around the globe, they still worry about me just as I worry about them. I’m not the best with maintaining communication and I rely too much on glib responses when people ask how I am – hence the million hermit jokes peppered in this post. Nevertheless, I hate to think it took a deadly viral outbreak for me to come to this conclusion.

As it turns out, the person from Head Office was wrong: I didn’t have to stay in my apartment for 14 days for self-quarantine. People were allowed to leave their front doors, and they were even allowed to walk around the little community park area (the way apartments and condos are organised here in China was a new experience for me). Turns out, however, each community (a set of apartment buildings surrounded by a giant gate) has put some rules into effect:

  1. No visits from non-residents of the community.
  2. Residents needs to register for a green access card, which lets you leave and re-enter through the front gates once per day.
  3. The security guards at the gates will check your temperature and green access card before you’re allowed re-entry.
  4. No deliveries – all purchases have to be dropped off at the front gates.

The first three rules were fairly easy for me to follow – I’m a hermit, remember? I hardly have any close friends here in Chengdu that I absolutely have to meet with them every week or whatever. Work, once Spring Festival ended, moved to an online platform and I basically became a Zoom expert overnight.

The fourth rule, however, was a tough cookie to crack! The number of times a delivery person called me, lost as to which gate they should drop off my weekly groceries, was an adventure in and of itself. The conversation usually goes like this:

Delivery person, on the phone: 喂你好! (Continues to speak in Chinese, presumably to explain how they are on their way and ask where is the main gate.)

Me, with minimal Chinese comprehension and also very weak speaking skills: 你好, hello。我不知道中文。Do you speak English? Is this *insert delivery service here*?

Delivery person, clearly taken a back: 对, *delivery service* 是 (Continues in Chinese.)

The conversation eventually dies off in awkward laughter and they usually hang up and somehow show up at the right gate.

In Regards to the Rest of the World…

Now that the situation in China is petering out – more and more people are driving around and roaming the streets, non-essential stores are open again, but schools and some offices are still closed – I find out that the novel coronavirus, now named by the World Health Organisation as COVID-19, has begun to spread internationally.

The first thing I did upon hearing this news and digesting its gravity is to message the elderly members of my family in the Philippines. They are fine, although they’re more Facebook-savvy than I am at this point – what a surprise!

The second thing is to regularly message my younger brother in the UK – oh how the tables have turned, I have become my mother. I tell him to regularly wash his hands, to wear a mask whenever he goes out on food shops, and to call me if he ever needs anything and our mother couldn’t help out. (Time zones do not work in our favour, sometimes.)

As I check on the COVID-19 stats every few days – there’s only so much I could take before real, debilitating panic sets in and I feel powerless as a foreigner in China – I worry about my family in the Philippines, where politics and blame are being tossed around like a hot potato rather than people taking viral precautions seriously.

I worry about my brother and friends in the UK, where the NHS is severely understaffed and no one seems to be self-isolating because of the nice Spring weather. And for the love of all things good, can the local government please forgive any parking fees incurred by these hardworking healthcare professionals??

Don’t get me started on the situation in the US. I have little cousins who live there and the few American friends I have are also in the healthcare industry. The fact that “the most powerful country in the world” has managed to surpass China, a country with 1.39 billion people, on infection and death rates… I dread to think what will happen – what is happening – to those most vulnerable in society.


Over to you, my dear readers: How are you coping with COVID-19? I hope you and your family and friends are doing as well as they can! Got any fun stories to share, to lighten up the mood a little?

Flowers 花

I visited a local park during the Chinese Spring Festival holidays.

It wasn’t until the end of my ambling exploration that I stumbled upon a bed of poppies.

DSLR in hand, I took the opportunity to practice with the manual focus settings.


Notes: Today’s #PhotographFriday was taken using a Canon EOS Kiss X7 camera on the 23rd of January, 2020 at Wangjianglou Park (望江楼公园) in Chengdu, Sichuan.

Where the Pandas Are: Travelling to China for Work

This might come as a surprise to some people, but I’m an ESL teacher. It says so right there in my ‘Meet the Author’ widget on the sidebar, but I wouldn’t want to presume anything – not when it comes to the transient nature of The Internet (yes, capital letters and all).

I first caught the teaching bug when I did some Actual Classroom Work at a high school in rural Spain. Turns out I’m a natural and I’m really good at the teaching that I do, so once school ended and summer started up again, I thought to myself ‘why not’ and applied to teach in China.

The entire process leading up to my boarding a flight at Heathrow was an adventure and a half (and I’ll definitely type up a post about it soon enough), but today I’ll focus on my journey from Kent to Chengdu. It was certainly different from my previous intercontinental experiences travelling back and forth between the UK and the Philippines. But where to begin?

Let’s start with the disaster of leaving my hometown in Kent and see where that leads us.

LiberaTarts Goes to China

Leaving Kent

To quote John Denver whose song ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ somehow became the background music of my childhood years, all my bags were packed and I was ready to go. And it would have felt like Mother Nature was sending me off in good spirit, what with a rainbow showing up and all that, if not for the fact that the reason I was able to see the rainbow in the first place was because I forgot my wallet back home and didn’t realise until I was already at the train station.

a rainbow in a small town in Kent

So anyway, my plans to leave for China didn’t go off to an auspicious start. I ran back and forth between the train station and home, sweating up a storm despite my intentions of being chill and relaxed AF as I buckle myself in for a 10 hour flight east. I was wearing joggers and an oversized hoodie and everything! If I learned anything from the multiple long-haul flights in the past, it’s to forgo skinny jeans and embrace the athleisure style.

Arriving in London

Despite the rushing back and forth, I was able to make it to London with plenty of time to spare. I checked two of my large suitcases into a Left Luggage facility and spent one last dinner (in a long, long while) with my brother, who was kind and gracious and filial enough to accompany me to the airport.

We went to Nando’s, as it’s our usual haunt, and afterwards we reluctantly dragged our feet towards the underground. We picked up my two suitcases from the lockers, and somehow managed to navigate through London-in-rush-hour with two frankly overweight suitcases and a small carry-on. The lifts were also out of service at the St Pancras / King’s Cross station, usually known for having step-free access, so we had to ask a very helpful station attendant to help transfer my suitcases from the train station level down to the underground level. (It was a nightmare, but lowkey fun.)

taken from the ‘Travel for London’ website

This can all have been avoided, of course, if I checked the TfL website beforehand for any issues. Silly me!

At Heathrow Airport

Once we were through the underground barriers and free to roam Heathrow, my brother and I didn’t have to walk far before we found the Air China check-in counter. I used the self-service machines to print out my boarding pass (because I’m anti-social like that), but had to talk to an Actual Human as I dropped off my luggage. They were overweight, which wasn’t a surprise. For the life of me, I can never pack light and I’m slightly proud to say that one large suitcase was filled with British snacks.

I’ve lived the expat life before, people! I know myself enough that a few months into a new country, I’d be missing my favourite snacks like a, well, a missing limb. When I was in Japan for my year abroad, I somehow convinced my family to send me three giant 200g blocks of Galaxy chocolate and a handful of Walkers Thai Sweet Chilli crisps.

I live to this day with no regrets. Regarding snacks, at least. I paid a hefty amount for my overweight luggage, but that’s a problem for past and future me to consider. Present-me is having a blast in a hotel room that her new work has paid for.

Boarding My Flight

The plane I was due to take arrived late at the airport, which meant it was late in boarding my fellow flight passengers on; it wasn’t late for long, but it was enough for me to grumble about things needing to be on time. A funny thing that happened, though: an airline employee announced that my flight was delayed, and just as as she uttered “The flight XXXXX is…” a bunch of overeager passengers jumped to their feet and began queueing. It was like watching meerkats pop out from the ground.

has anyone seen this movie? the songs are Actual Bops

The other airline staff checking passports at the waiting area exchanged looks and were like “that was funny”, but only in a more professional manner than my retelling makes them out to be.

Flying from England to China

Now this. This was s o m e t h i n g.

10 hours of recycled air, no WiFi, and oversalted food to compensate with the high altitude.

I won’t say it was fun because I actually have a semblance of sanity left, but the seat next to me wasn’t taken and I was free to stretch out my legs as I catnapped in the air.

I made the executive decision not to sleep during the flight, because I wanted to conquer jet lag as quickly as possible given how I’ll be set to work within a week and my relationship with a regular sleeping pattern is something teenagers laugh at. Anyway, I was grateful to have thought ahead and have downloaded Series 9 of ‘Doctor Who’ on my phone using BBC iPlayer – I’ve never seen it before even though it’s 2019 it was released in 2015.

I’ve also downloaded some library ebooks on my phone (can’t figure out to sending loaned books to my Kindle), and I had plenty of non-fiction reads to tide me over on said Kindle, so it wasn’t like I was bored to tears as I flew from Europe to Asia. Still, I would loved some access to the Internet. Maybe if I flew business or first class in the future…

…one can only hope.

Landing in China

My heart was racing and, for once, it wasn’t due to the pre- or post-flight jitters. There’s something about a plane revving up or preparing to land that scares me. Anyway, I was super nervous to land in China. It’s not because I’ve never been before – I’m a traveller at heart and I like experiencing new cultures – but because I know I’ll be spending at least a year in this place and I do not speak a word of Mandarin. At least with Japan, during my year abroad, I spent the previous two years studying Japanese as part of my university degree.

Working in China was a relatively spur of of the moment decision. Aside from 你好 (ni hao, hello) and 谢谢 (xie xie, thank you), I know next to nothing. Everyone, even those who have no intention of living semi-permanently in any Chinese speaking countries, know how to say hello and thank you. It’s just basic courtesy. My fears that I will somehow insult somebody or break the rules somehow is entirely founded in something real.

I gotta learn how to speak Mandarin. I will learn even if it kills me.

Anyway, I land in China and was greeted by a large placard bearing my full name, which was held by representatives from my new company. It was both mortifying (because it was bright pink) and endearing (no one has even made an airport placard for me before!). I see myself keeping that placard for the time being. I’m a huge packrat, afterall…

Settling In

Less than 24 hours later, I wake up in my hotel room and visited the Head Office to sign my contract. I leave with a welcome bag filled with well-meaning gifts and two work uniforms. But I suppose that’s a story for another time. Keep an eye out for the second part of the ‘Where the Pandas Are’ series! The plan is to document my time here in China, from the ups and downs, the enjoyable and the downright absurd.

Feel free to join me in this adventure. Let’s have some fun!