It’s been a long time since my last post. So much has happened. I’ve been focusing on living life, and haven’t had much time to write about it. You may have also noticed that I’ve moved over to a new platform. Luckily, we were able to move over all my previous posts (by ‘we’, I mean my wonderful tech-savvy husband), and now that I’ve figured out the new system and gotten it looking the way I want it to, I’m back!
The 2022/2023 school year can truly be divided into two parts. In the first half of the year, Suzhou was still in and out of lockdowns due to COVID. They were stricter than ever about entering buildings and it got to the point where we were cooking at home, just to save ourselves the hassle of trying to get into the mall. Volunteer trips to the shelter became nearly impossible because I needed to collect phone numbers, passport numbers, green codes and proof of tests for every single volunteer (usually around 25 people). If I didn’t have these things, we weren’t allowed into the village where the shelter is located.
Chinese citizens had enough, and protests started to erupt all over the country. I haven’t talked much about the worst parts of the COVID measures in China, but many people did die due to those measures. 10 people died in the western province of Xinjiang, when their building managers locked them in with chains during lock downs. A fire broke started, and people couldn’t get out. 27 people died in Guizhou province while on their way to a quarantine hotel. The bus lost control and went off the side of a cliff. At that point, only 2 people had died of COVID in all of Guizhou province, but it didn’t change the crazy measures they were taking to keep people ‘safe’.
In addition to all the deaths caused by COVID measures, lockdowns were getting worse all over China. Dave and I were watching the news in horror as violence was breaking out in factories all over the country, where hundreds of thousands of people were being locked into their places of employment. There were food shortages, and anyone testing positive was taken into horrible quarantine camps. People had had enough, and they started to fight back. Things became very physical, and we were seeing videos popping up all over Chinese media. Of course, they were taken down within hours (sometimes minutes!) of being posted, but everyone saw them anyway.
It was a very scary time to be living here, and it took a toll on our mental health. My classes were interrupted daily for testing. We were being tested nearly every day in autumn, and as winter approached, things were looking grim. I didn’t want to spend my last year here in and out of lock downs. I didn’t want my memories of this beautiful country to be tarnished by a virus that was going to spread regardless of government actions. I just wanted things to go back to normal.
Then, on December 7th, it all changed. Codes were no longer needed and testing was halted. The city was no longer full of ‘Da Bai’ (the term for people dressed in the white safety suits that China used). The country stopped posting daily number for infected individuals. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. A switch was flipped and suddenly, we could breath again.
It was impossible for them to track how many people got sick in those first weeks, but the numbers were certainly in the hundreds of millions. Hospitals were overrun, mostly because people in China go to the hospital for even the smallest thing. Fever clinics were opened up all over Suzhou to help with all the people coming in, demanding IV drips. There were certainly deaths, but they weren’t announced. I caught COVID on December 18th, and Dave started showing symptoms on the 19th. By Christmas, we were right as rain and able to go enjoy a dinner in nearby Kunshan. Most holiday celebrations were cancelled though, because so many service workers were catching the virus and recovering at home or in fever clinics.
By mid January, it was estimated that 80% of China’s massive 1.4 billion citizens had had caught COVID. Eventually, quarantine measures for flights were reduced and then disappeared, and life got back to almost normal. Masks became optional. People started to live again. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was living in fear. I was scared it could all start up again at any point. When Monkey Pox started hitting the news, we were worried they were renew virus management measures.
A lot of ridiculous things were posted online during that time. Superstitions were rampant. People in China were terrified of doing any physical activity for months after they caught COVID, because they were sure it would cause them to have heart attacks and die. I was told by all my coworkers that I shouldn’t be taking walks, because physical activity could be deadly. Long showers were also risky, I was told. When Monkey Pox started hitting the news here, news articles were being published telling locals not to shake hands or come into contact with any foreign people because we might infect them.
But, eventually, things sort of just went back to normal. People started going out again. We weren’t all living in fear that we might be put back into a lock down. Events started happening again. We could go places freely. We didn’t have to worry about getting COVID tests daily, and I didn’t need to show any codes when I came into the school or went to the store. I went from having my temperature checked 5 times a day, to never having it checked at all. We all started LIVING again. It was wonderful.
Our last few months in China were incredible. It made me very sad to leave this place that I’ve called home for the past 8 years. I accepted a job in Hanoi, Vietnam, in spring, and as the date came closer, I felt sadder about leaving. I knew it would be hard to say goodbye to all my friends here. I know it would be especially hard to say goodbye to the music scene. In my last 6 months in China, I performed nearly every weekend, sometimes by myself, but often with various bands.
Sadly, the thing that made me happiest in my last 6 months in China, also cost me a lot. Although Dave and I were supposed to arrive in Vietnam on July 7th, everything changed at my farewell party on July 1st. But I’ll be telling that story in my next blog post. It’s a doozy. Be sure to check back to hear all about how I was arrested in front of all my friends, and spent 6 weeks trapped in the country I once loved so much.
After a wonderful trip to Canada, where we got to see friends, family and so much of what we missed, we headed back to China, where COVID is treated like ebola, and where measures often don’t make sense and seem in excess. The trip back was a nightmare, especially at Pudong airport, where we queued and walked kilometers across the airport, going from one check point to the next. By comparison, quarantine wasn’t actually as bad.
When we booked our trip, back in March, we knew it meant 2 weeks of hotel quarantine, followed by 2 weeks of home quarantine. We booked our tickets knowing this, but were very relieved in June, when we learned that the government was reducing this time to 7 days in a hotel + 3 at home. With Omicron having a shorter incubation period than previous strains of COVID 19, the government finally loosened up a bit.
Now, I should start by saying that I’m not actually opposed to the mandatory quarantine imposed on people coming into China. With such a dense population, it is very easy for case numbers to grow very quickly, overwhelming hospitals, and leading to a lot of deaths. I believe in protecting the vulnerable, and I know I would feel AWFUL if I caused an outbreak by unknowingly spreading COVID.
Still…I can say, some of it was pretty ridiculous, but hey, it makes for good reading, so at least I can blog about the experience!
The current quarantine regulations for people entering China involve 7 days in a hotel + 3 at home. It can vary a little for residents of cities close to Shanghai (like Suzhou), because Shanghai simply can’t handle that many people quarantining all at once, for 7 days. So, our Quarantine was actually broken down into 3 parts instead of 2.
Part 1: A hotel in Shanghai
Part 2: A hotel in Suzhou
Part 3: Home quarantine in Suzhou
Now, I should begin by explaining that you get 0 say in which hotel you’ll be sent to, and wherever you end up, you have to pay for your room, regardless of the price. Couples are not allowed to quarantine together either, doubling the already inflated costs of these rooms. This was a pretty scary reality for us, but we hadn’t been home in 3 years, so we decided to just hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.
We had heard of some people in Xiamen having to spend $300 Canadian per night, per person. There are currently 7 days of mandatory hotel quarantine (+3 at home), which could have ended up costing us $4200 CAD if we’d landed ourselves in one of the expensive boarding facilities. This was on top of inflated flight prices and the $700 we spent on tests before we could even board the plane. Again… we would have had virtually no say in it if we ended up somewhere that was charging $300 per night.
Fortunately, the bus that transported us from Pudong Airport brought us to the Mercure Hotel, which was far more reasonable than the ones we had heard of in Xiamen. Still, we had no idea what we’d be paying until we reached that check in room, and they charged our debit accounts.
Part 1 of our quarantine cost us a total of $720 Canadian. The fees included our daily testing and meals, but was still quite a bit more than we would usually spend on a hotel in Shanghai. In a typical situation, we would spend about $250 to stay there for 3 nights. Still, the hotel was nice, and we had desks to work at, so we were relieved with the situation.
Part 2 of our quarantine was in Suzhou. We stayed at an older hotel there, located on Yangcheng lake, where Suzhou’s famous hairy crabs live. This hotel wasn’t quite as nice as the one in Shanghai, but the rooms were much bigger. Plus, the situation was much better for us in Suzhou because I managed to get a note from my doctor that enabled Dave and I to stay together in the same room. You can get doctor’s notes for a few things; in my case, it was for anxiety (turns out being cooped up alone for days is bad for the mental health.. who knew!?)
This meant that we still had to pay double for food, but we were only charged the cost of 1 room, instead of 2. Our Quarantine hotel in Suzhou came to $464 Canadian, which was a big relief. Our total cost of hotel quarantine came to just under $1200 CAD, which is a LOT better than we had actually expected to pay when we booked our trip to Canada.
Part 3 of quarantine is done at home. Of course, home quarantine is still supposed to be done solo, and without my doctor’s note, 1 of us would have had to stay in the hotel for those last 3 nights. Many people in Shanghai actually can’t do home quarantine at all, because it’s up to the compounds on whether or not they’ll allow it. Lucky for us, our compound was fine with it (thanks to my doctor’s note), and even let us order in groceries. We couldn’t go outside and we were only allowed to open our door for deliveries, but at least we were home!!
Once you are brought to your room, you close the door, and are only allowed to open it again for testing (once per day) & to get your food (3 times per day). If extra necessities need to be delivered (my first thermometer didn’t work, for example), they are left on the table outside of your room, and you can pick it up when you get your next meal.
There are monitors on every door, so if you decide to open it when you shouldn’t, hotel staff know. There are also cameras in all the halls. It’s all very strict and I’m sure it wouldn’t be pleasant if someone were to break the rules. We all had to sign contracts on arrival, stating that we would abide by all government laws and COVID protection measures.
Day 1 wasn’t actually too bad. I was so relieved to be done with the airport fiasco, and sitting in an air conditioned room, with access to plenty of water… it was honestly a relief! Of course, I kept busy by reading, getting a bit of work done, and by messaging my friends to let them know we landed safely.
Day 2 was more of the same. I journaled, blogged, read…. anything to stay busy. By day 3 though, I was like a tiger in a cage… Pacing my room, stretching, exercising and basically just doing anything that requires movement. There was just enough room for me to walk around my bed, so I spent a lot of my day doing exactly that.
When you’re alone that much, you have a lot of time to think. Our dear cat, Ollie, died while we were in Canada. Of course, I thought about this a lot. Also, many of our friends moved away in June, having put up with enough of the restrictions…I thought about that a lot too. It’s difficult to be positive when you’re alone, anxious, and worrying about all the lock downs that will likely be happening during our last year in China.
I called my doctor on day 3, and got the note that allowed me to be with Dave for the rest of our quarantine. 3 days alone was bad enough…10 would have been unbearable for me.
When you’re trapped in your room, unable to go out or even open the door outside of meal time, food become a really important part of your day. Even though I wasn’t really looking forward to EATING the food, it was something to break up the monotony, so I looked forward to each meal regardless of what they served.
Just as our 2nd hotel stay was coming to an end, we got a message from a government official in Suzhou, informing us that Dave had been flagged as a close contact to someone who tested positive on our flight. We were given an extra day of mandatory quarantine, and were required to do blood tests “just to be safe”. The woman who had been sitting next to Dave was also flagged as a close contact, but as a resident of Shanghai, she wasn’t given extra time in quarantine and didn’t need to do blood work. As is often the case, Suzhou was just slapping on extra measures.
Of course, there’s nothing we could do about it, so we did our extra day in quarantine, did the blood tests, and looked forward to being able to go home.
The (Extra) Strange Stuff
On our last morning at the hotel in Suzhou, they came to do throat swabs, as usual, and then handed us half a dozen wet swabs, with a sign explaining that we were supposed to test various areas of the room, and then give them back the swabs for analysis. Keep in mind that this was after we had already had 12 COVID negative tests and had no symptoms.
For some reason, when we left our hotel in Shanghai, we were made to put on latex gloves for the bus ride and trip to the hotel. This is still a mystery to me. We already had 7 negative tests at this point, and it definitely felt like more theatrics.
Ok, this one sort of made sense to me. Bleach kills viruses, so of course you should find it in a quarantine hotel. The abundance of bleach was extreme though. All our luggage was sprayed down with it upon our arrival to the Suzhou hotel. At other hotels, they were DRENCHING people’s luggage with the stuff.
The bleach is also never actually wiped off, just sprayed on, layer after layer. The buses, hallways and hotels were covered in residue. The halls in our Suzhou hotel had carpet, and therefore covered with tarps and plastic… Which were also coated in bleach. It made everything look kind of gross.
At the Shanghai hotel, we were allowed to order things online, even coffee from Starbucks. We could order food and really whatever we wanted, as long as we only opened our door to receive them at meal time. In Suzhou, however, we could only receive things if family members or friends dropped them off. No food was allowed, and anything that came in had to be left overnight in a special room, and…. You guessed it…sprayed with bleach. Furthermore, our hotel would only deliver these things on Wednesdays and Sundays. We arrived on a Wednesday and left on a Sunday, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t have had anything dropped off.
Every hotel has its own rules. Last year, when a friend of mine was quarantined after being in a high risk area, I was able to bring her cake from Starbucks, yogurt, fruit and bread. As long as it wasn’t home made, it was fine. Every hotel makes up their own rules, and once more, we were left feeling like it was far more about theatrics than safety.
So… That was our quarantine experience. Overall it wasn’t too bad. I do have to mention that the staff at both our hotels were VERY kind and helpful. The rooms were also very clean and comfortable, and all our food was edible. It could have been SO much worse. Especially if we’d tested positive while in quarantine. We know a few people who did, and they were shipped to special COVID hospitals, where they were given a wide range of drugs to ‘combat’ COVID. If you end up in one of those hospitals, you have to stay there until you test negative multiple times. It’s a nightmare, and I’m so glad it isn’t one that we had to experience.
I’m planning on doing quite a bit of blogging about Suzhou over the next year. One thing that the quarantine experience taught us, is that we definitely don’t want to be doing it again. So, at the end of this school year, we’ll be moving onto our next adventure. Until then, we’ll keep living it up (and they’ll keep locking us down… I’m sure).
I’ve taken quite the absence from my blogging this year, mostly because there hasn’t been much to blog about. We were in and out of the various stages of lock down for 3+ months, which led to our finalized decision to leave China in June of 2023. The good news is that there was a silver lining at the end of lock downs… we got to go home!!!
The months leading up to our trip home was filled with uncertainty. When we booked our flights, we were expecting to do 2 weeks of hotel quarantine and 2 weeks of at home quarantine where we would not be allowed to leave the apartment. About a month before we left however, this was changed to 7 days in hotel quarantine with only 3 days at home. Several other changes lead to us having an extra week in Manitoba as well, so it seemed like things were looking up! Still, I didn’t fully relax until we were seated on our flight back to Vancouver. Things change quickly, and right up until that point, we were prepared for things to go wrong.
The whole process of getting out of China and then getting back in was quite an ordeal. I thought you might all be interested in hearing about all the steps we had to take, so here it is: our summer adventure!
Getting out of Suzhou
Getting out of Suzhou was a bit of an ordeal up until the week we left. If we had gone 1 week earlier, we would have had to take a car to the permiter between Suzhou and Shanghai and then transfered to another car because it was impossible for drivers to get into Shanghai and then out again. This rule was lifted just in time and we were able to take 1 car the whole 3 hour drive. It was still pricey (3x the normal fee) but doable.
We arrived at the airport 5 hours before our flight and we were very glad had the extra time. Although Pudong airport was a ghost town (which was very strange because it’s usually an incredibly busy place), it took us 2.5 hours just to check in our luggage. It seemed like everyone packed more luggage than usual (many seemed to be paying to take extra suitcases), and many pets were flying too. Worst of all, due to COVID concerns, the AC was basically non existent so we had to stand there in the heat, wearing N95 masks. Shanghai is a hot city and even in the morning it was between 25 and 30 degrees celsius, with plenty of humidity.
Once we got through check-in, we had to get through immigration and security. They were extra fussy with security this year, and we had to leave behind all our hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Our luggage was thoroughly checked. Customs was easy for us, but the line was slow because any Chinese people leaving had to explain why they were leaving in detail. I overheard one woman explaining that she needed to go to America because she hadn’t seen her son and grandchildren in three years. China is still trying to prevent any unnecessary travel in and out of the country, so people actually had to have a valid reason to leave.
Once we were boarded, things went smoothly, but the flight itself was 2 hours longer than normal because there was a crew switch in Seoul. With the added COVID rules, the crews couldn’t legally do the entire trip. They have hours of safety measures to do once the plane lands, so all flights to and from Canada now have a stop in Korea, to allow a new crew to take over We weren’t allowed off the plane, of course, and it added an additional 2 hours to our already long trip home.
Arriving in Canada
Arriving in Canada was easy peasy. Although there were massive delays in Toronto, Vancouver was not very affected, so aside from a slightly longer wait to check in, arriving in Canada was a piece of cake. It was so good to be home, hearing French on the intercoms, and seeing familiar shops and restaurants. Our first meal back was at A&W, where we overloaded on sodium and sugar and immediately regretted our decision.
Getting Ready to Head Back
Our trip home was fantastic and I’ll write more about that in my next couple of posts. The last week, though, was a bit stressful. In addition to worrying about our flights being cancelled, we had to be tested and apply for a codes that would allow us to get back into the country. We heard horror stories of people who had tested positive and the difficulty they were having with getting negative tests, even weeks later. Many flights were being cancelled on the Canadian side (because of staff shortages) and also on the China side (due to circuit breaker measures that China has in place if too many people on a particular fight test positive on arrival).
Our biggest challenge was finding the right information about the testing requirements to get our green codes for re-entry. Info on the consulate websites were out of date and we had a lot of difficulty getting in touch with anyone at the consulates as well. It turned out that we had to get 2 tests done from DIFFERENT labs. The first had to be done 2 days before departure, the second 1 day before departure. The problem was that there was only 1 lab in Winnipeg that was in China’s approval list. After some digging, we found out that they were ok with us using labs that weren’t on the list, as long as they were legit and the tests were done in the nose. We found this to be particularly interesting because all the testing we do weekly in China is done in the throat, but rules were rules and we followed them.
In total, the testing cost us over $700 Canadian, which was a little crazy given that we get tested multiple times per week in China for free. And if we happen to miss the free testing, it costs less than a dollar to pay to have one done. Of course, China has the infrastructure in place to mass test, whereas Canada relies mostly on at-home antigen tests. Those aren’t accepted in China, so it’s PCR or nothing here.
I think the biggest stress in that last week, aside from conflicting and missing information, was our fear of catching COVID. If we had, it could have taken months for us to get back to China, and it also would have cost us thousands of dollars. We hand sanitized, masked up and acted like paranoid nuts that last week, but luckily, our families were very understanding and accommodating and we had most of our get togethers and goodbyes outside, where risks were much lower. We never caught COVID, which was a stroke of good luck, supported by careful measures. Our time in China had already normalized a lot of these behaviors, so it was just a matter of switching back into those habits after a very stress-free summer.
We managed to get through it all and got our green codes to China, and before we knew it, we were off!
Arriving in China
This is where the real “fun” began. I’ll try not to bore you with too much detail, but the moment we arrived back in China, things got a lot more serious. The difference in the way we were treated was obvious. In Canada, COVID is basically treated as ‘no big deal’. In China, we were treated like we had bubonic plague and had the intention of spreading it to the masses.
The airport was all extremely sterile, with every worker in a full PPE suit, despite the heat. There was a lot of shouting as we were hearded from one line up to the next, walking several kms around the airport for the different parts of re-entry. This is a rough breakdown of the steps.
Recheck the codes that we had needed to board the airplane & sign consent forms for testing to be done (these tests were not optional, so I’m not sure why we needed to sign consent)
COVID testing- the most painful and uncomfortable test of my life. It took the guy 3 tries before he was happy with the results, and the swabs went so deep into my throat that I gagged and heaved the entire time. My throat was sore for hours.
Temperature checks and facial recognition.
Sorting into provinces for the quarantine hotels
Preparation for the hotel quarantine location we’d be staying in and the surrender of our passports
Getting onto the bus that would take us into quarantine
Check in and payment at the quarantine hotel
Preliminary testing at the COVID hotel, including temperature checks (with thermometers that didn’t work), another PCR (nose AND throat… different swabs, don’t worry) and logging in info so that we could be sorted into our next quarantine hotel.
We landed at 6am and it was probably about 1pm by the time we could finally sit back and relax in our quarantine room. None of it was particularly difficult, but the amount of walking we had to do, carrying all our luggage, was exhausting… especially in the heat & N95 masks. I was very glad to have a bottle of water for Dave and I to share, because there was no where to get water on the way. This was probably a good thing because I don’t think we were allowed to use the washrooms either.
By the end of it, I was jetlagged, sore and emotionally drained. I got yelled at so many times, and there wasn’t a smile to be seen anywhere… Just PPE suits, masks, visors and exhausted and overheating staff at the airport. It wasn’t exactly the nicest welcome back.
I have 1 week left of quarantine and plenty that I’m still planning to write about, including an entire post describing our life behind monitored doors, and several posts about Canada…
Stay tuned and feel free to leave your comments below!!
Well, it’s been an interesting start to the year of the Tiger! Dave and I decided to stay in Suzhou over Chinese New Year, once more. Traveling in China at the moment is a headache, as Omicron spreads across the country. We didn’t want to deal with potential quarantines or all the testing required to travel, so we stayed in the city of gardens and canals and enjoyed good times with good friends.
The last night of the holiday, things got interesting. Suzhou announced that 4 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Suzhou. It was announced that schools were going to be closed while the city figured out if the virus had spread. 4 cases may not seem like much, but Suzhou hasn’t had any local transmission since May 2020, so this was a pretty big deal.
Monday morning, things got even more interesting! I woke up at 7am to find out that the city was ordering mass testing, and that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave our apartment compound until we had COVID tests done. So, we lined up outside, along with 1000 of our neighbors, and waited for the swab.
It took about 2 hours to get through the line, and then I was able to get to the school for an emergency meeting on how online classes would be handled. I was a little annoyed that my boss decided that an in-person meeting was required (we’ve been through all this before, after all…), but we were called in, so we went.
My compound was all clear, but some of my coworkers ended up with yellow codes, indicating that they had been in the same vicinity as someone who was confirmed as being a positive case. One of my coworkers had a confirmed case in her apartment complex, which was a little alarming. She had to go home and basically stay there until further notice.
We’re up to 24 positive cases in Suzhou now. No one is really panicking. We all know that omicron isn’t super deadly and that we’ll mostly be fine if we catch it, but with China’s MASSIVE population, and close living conditions, an out-of-control breakout could lead to a LOT of hospitalizations, so it’s still taken very seriously.
Dave and I lined up again this morning for test #2. We’ll likely need to be tested every second day for the next couple of weeks. I’m teaching from home and we stocked up on groceries (and toilet paper!), So we aren’t leaving the apartment all that much. We are free to move around if we want to, and as long as we comply with testing and masks, we can go out, but we’d rather not risk ending up with yellow codes if we come into contact with someone who later tests positive. It’s too much of a headache, so we’re playing it safe.
I find it interesting how different countries are reacting to things now (and through these past two years too). In Canada, there are massive protests going, and with vaccination rates being so high, and population density so low, I understand why people are tired of the restrictions. I am too. In China though, the risks are different, and as frustrated as I can get about things here, on some levels I get it.
I think I can speak for everyone on the planet when I say that I just really want this all to end.
Stay safe everyone! Looking forward to the day that all this is a distant memory!!