It has been fourteen days since the Chinese government suspended re-entry into the country for non-nationals with valid visas and residence permits. I know that it’s been exactly two weeks, because a photo has circulated on one of the expat groups I’m a member of. This photo, a notice in both English and Chinese, reads as follows:
“Dear Chinese friends,
It has been more than 14 days since foreigners are not allowed to enter China. This means all the foreigners you meet have been in China for more than 14 days and have passed a quarantine period. Please tell your friends to stay calm when they encounter foreigners.”
I don’t think of this notice as necessary, and screenshot it only for the purpose of including it in a convoluted blog post sometime soon. Every “Chinese friend” I’ve met recently has been calm and friendly, and will most likely continue to be so. This fourteen-day period doesn’t mean much to me as a resident, because I haven’t left the country in the past eighteen months.
I spend the fifteenth day with my girlfriend, who wants us to do some pottery. Yes, pottery, me, doing pottery – I’ve been all for trying new things since the lockdown period ended last month. Like the majority of people in the country, I spent the majority of my February and March indoors, closely monitored by the authorities in my community. I worked from home, and went outside once every three days to buy groceries or take a very brief walk. During this time, the roads emptied, and the city I live in became quite apocalyptic in feeling. In this way though, with the days blurring, but with the numbers stabilising, China moved beyond the worst of the virus, and now things are returning to normal. I work from the office, but am teaching English online for the time being, unable to see my students in-person. The use of face masks while in public is advised but not enforced, and the city is once again busy and bustling. We show QR codes declaring ourselves healthy in order to access malls and supermarkets, and these codes are checked at the pottery studio when we arrive. An afternoon of crafts would have been impossible four weeks ago, but things have changed for the better. Beforehand, we ride a crowded subway after dinner in a lively restaurant. We walk through a park where families have set up tents for the day, and their is the sound of laughter coming from within. Most children are still unable to go back to school, but, with the weather warming, everybody is on their summer holidays already, just careful about it.
My girlfriend, Chloe, is from Xi’an, a central city in China’s Shaanxi Province, but right now we’re living in Hangzhou, which is in the east of the country, some two-hundred kilometres from Shanghai. The pottery studio is near my office, and Chloe has scouted it out beforehand on DianPing, a Chinese Yelp, translating reviews and forwarding pictures over WeChat. We’re the only customers, it’s a Monday afternoon, and Chloe already knows what she wants to make – a bottle. She wants it to be perfect though, and needs the full hour we purchase. I watch as her hands shape and reshape the wet clay, we knot fingers on occasion when washing the drying material from our palms. She starts again a few times, scrunches her would-be bottle into a doughy ball, and then slaps it down again onto the wheel. I settle on an idea early on, and sculpt something I’m fairly satisfied with long before she’s finished. It’s meant to be vase, with an upper half that looks like a seashell, but it’s a strange-looking thing, yet feels like the best I can do. While I wait for her to reach a point at which she’s happy with hers, I take to occasionally smoothing points on mine, narrowing and then widening the neck. I lazily press my nail into the side and carve helter-skelter lines along the length. In this way, the two of us make for a contrast, her growing slightly frustrated but determined as ever, and myself resigned but fairly content with something mediocre.
There are other contrasts between us, more visible, emphasised as we sit on stools only one foot off the ground. I stand at six foot five, for example, a giant in this country, pale skin, blonde hair, while Chloe blends amidst the crowds here, shorter, with straight black hair she takes to brushing from her eyes as she tilts her head over her work. She is the one the owner greets when we arrive at the studio, and she is the one addressed when an assistant gives us instructions in Chinese. Everything passes through Chloe, who sometimes feels burdened with an English boyfriend. She rapidly translates these instructions, and I nod along, having only caught snippets of the initial sentences. For the most part, I’m ignored, not because I am foreign, but because I am with somebody who is not. When we stand at the counter to pay for the hour spent, the assistant turns to Chloe and asks her where I’m from. He says, “你的男朋友是哪国人吗？” and I answer before she gets chance, which surprises him. I say “我是英国人” and he looks a little embarrassed, nods, and then, why I ask how much the price is, he tells me in Chinese. Just as I have used a QR code to prove that I do not have COVID-19, I use a QR code to pay our bill.
This kind of exchange is acted out quite often, when we are together, questions in Chinese directed towards Chloe, but which I take to answering. I’ve surprised her in similar ways, when waitresses approach our table just after we’ve ordered food, and ask her if I want my beer warm or cold. The first time I answered (“冰的啤酒是可以”), like I had in the studio, and Chloe had raised her eyebrows, impressed, as if I’d just told her I had scaled Everest the day before. I remember wishing that it might always be that easy to impress her. When we walk, I point out characters I recognise on street signs or on advertisements, and she helps with my poor pronunciation. I still translate ninety percent of the messages she sends me, even if I’m fairly confident about their contents, but I don’t tell her this.
While we work on our pottery, she asks about my week, because it has been a week since we’ve last seen each other. She’s recently begun working from her office again as well, and this makes it difficult to schedule time together. With her attention focused on her soon-to-be bottle, she wants stories and anecdotes as background noise, the way I want podcasts when I’m cycling to work. Like my students, she’s always curious about the experience of living in China as a foreigner; in the earliest days of dating we’d turn to the conversation often. She would want to know how many foreign colleagues I had, where they were from, what they thought of life in China. If these colleagues had children here, then she would be doubly curious; if they had Chinese wives or husbands then she’d push for more details. She wanted to know where the CEO of our company was from, and if they spoke fluent Chinese. I try to give her the insightful answers she wanted, but, despite her questions, I always find it difficult to really condense what it is actually like to live here – even if I think I know. Before moving to China, I anticipated difficulties, daily struggles, but on arrival found these worries rarely manifested. For the most part, life in China is, and has always been, quite comfortable. When I answer Chloe’s questions about my life here, my answers always seem to come from a position of privilege, brief descriptions of preferential treatments in bars, photos with strangers on the subway. Some days I am left entirely to my own devices, to hike, or to wander the streets, and these days aren’t so far removed from the days I spent in England, just passing through. She says this city tends to treat me like a celebrity, and sometimes she is right. I think I felt that way myself, when I first moved here. Hangzhou is not Shanghai, and the international community around me here is far smaller. Of the eight-million people in Zhejiang’s capital, only around eighty-thousand are non-nationals. Sometimes you go an entire day without seeing someone who is notably western. That’s more so the case these days, when many local expats have returned home temporarily, left permanently, or are unable to return to the country yet, locked outside indefinitely.
Chloe asks if I think about leaving, perhaps once every few weeks. She is thinking about our future together, but she also wants to know if I’d be better off somewhere else. Alongside stories of chance encounters with friendly locals, she’s asking increasingly about any instances of hostility I’ve encountered in China. She’s been reading the same stories I have, about the unfair treatment of the African community in Guangzhou, residents refused entry to their apartment complexes. She’s heard about shops nearby that have begun to refuse entry to those visibly not from China, about the bars that have closed their doors to international visitors. We’ve heard different accounts of the changing attitudes in Beijing, and I’m more skeptical here than she is. We’ve both seen the video of the American man pinned down by police there, allegedly for refusing to wear a mask, and for then smashing the phone of one of the officers. We’ve both seen the cartoon comic strip that circulated on Weibo, a social media site, a few weeks ago, depicting two foreign men deposited into garbage bins by local sanitation workers. In an age of fear of uncertainty, paranoia and distrust, I try not to put too much weight on these stories; I tell her to focus on here, on now.
I decide, as soon as I press the pedal down with my foot to set the pottery wheel spinning, that I am going to make a vase. Chloe has said in the past that I am indecisive, but I don’t always agree. Three years ago, I made the decision to move to China, and never once doubted it. Even now, after eighteen months of living in the country, I have no regrets about moving here. I have no stories of hostility to relay to her either, curious though she is. I tell her that sometimes people move to the other side of the footpath when they see me approaching, or pull their masks up from their necks to cover their faces, or usher their kids from their left side to their right side. These seem like small things, just people being careful. I can understand. Instead, I relay my week in a few small moments, day by day, while she shapes her hands to apply pressure to the clay, nodding occasionally to show she’s listening.
Monday: I start my week with a run along the canal near my apartment before work. For the most part I zone out during these runs, listening to music, paying attention only enough to dodge people on the path. Sometimes I suspect that they call out to me once I’ve passed them, but I don’t hear over my music. Today though, I’m running towards a man, still some one-hundred yards away, and he raises his hand on seeing me. At first, I think he’s trying to wave me down, wants me to stop, but then I realise he just wants a high five. I keep my pace up and give him what he wants. We make contact, and I hear the sound despite my music. When I glance back, he’s beaming, and gives me an encouraging thumbs up. I continue elated.
Tuesday: I finish my day in a western-style bar downtown with two colleagues, quietly drinking and listening to the band. We’ve been there for about ten minutes when I feel a tap on my shoulder, and I turn to find a middle-aged man in a suit standing over me. He points down at my Nikes, and says, “I have a bet with my friends that your shoes are a size fourty-six, are they?” It’s a good guess, because they are, and I tell him so. He slaps me on the back, and turns to his friends, who are at the table behind us. “I knew it!” he declares in Chinese, and thanks me before going back to his group. Half an hour later, he returns, and buys myself and my colleagues a pitcher of beer and a bowl of fruit for the table, despite our saying it isn’t necessary. We chat for a little while, the usual questions about work and where we’re from, and then part ways again. Chloe particularly enjoys this story, and takes a break from her bottle to laugh. I manoeuvre my large feet on the small pedal, and accidentally cause the wheel to accelerate, sending flecks of pale clay scattering.
Wednesday: The schools have been re-opening in increments, first-grade students went back yesterday, and they waste no time in taking field trips to notable sites in the city. Before work, I take a bus to the cultural square, less for the culture and more for the quietest Starbucks in the city, which is a good place to write. Crossing the road, I find myself moving against a group of perhaps thirty children, all in grey uniforms with red neckerchiefs over their shoulders. They’ve seen me from afar, waiting at the traffic lights, and have already begun to point and get agitated. Like me, they’ve spent a lot of time inside in 2020, studying remotely, or not studying at all. I hear cries of “外国人!” over the noise of traffic. They likely haven’t seen their foreign English teachers since January – by this point I am almost new to them again. As we get closer, myself towering some three feet above them, they start to shout greetings, and fire out questions. There are too many of each, and I’m a little overwhelmed, so just smile and wave and bump fists when fists are offered. The children slow a little, and I try not to, and we move beyond each other after thirty seconds of frantic back-and-forths. Their teachers smile politely at me while ushering their cohort along, apologetic, and I smile back, not minding.
Thursday: It’s my day off, so I take a walk to the lake, out along the canal which leads down to the upper right corner. It’s normally a quiet walk, and I catch up on podcasts and new music playlists, but today I’m joined at the midpoint by a seventy-year-old, former taxi driver. I know he’s seventy because he shows me his ID card immediately, gesturing wildly at his date of birth. He reads out the numbers on it slowly, one by one. He wants to practice his English, just talking. His name is Li, 李, a Hangzhou native, and he has picked up the language during his work, and now carries around a beaten notebook that he flicks through as we walk. He checks the pronunciation of some new words, all topical – ‘epidemic,’ ‘virus,’ ‘quarantine’ – as we draw curious looks from those sat on benches along the canal. He’s loud, dynamic, very talkative, and also very complimentary about my Chinese. He doesn’t like Boris Johnson, because he thinks he’s a clown (cue further wild gesturing), and he prefers Theresa May because she speaks in a more measured and understandable way. He tells me about his daughter, a piano teacher at Hangzhou No.4 Middle School, and that he’s very proud of her. He tells me that he’s only left the country once, when he went to Russia as a twenty-one-year-old. He tells me he’s very happy to have met me, also. We walk and talk for an hour, until he turns back at one of the bridges. We shake hands and double-check the name of the other again. He shows me his ID card once more.
Friday: I have been invited to a dinner party tomorrow to celebrate my friends moving into a new apartment together, so I ride the subway down to an artistic neighbourhood near the lake, to visit a shop I tend to go to when in need of a housewarming gift. I find a small figurine from the movie “My Neighbour Totoro,” but the store only has one left, and it’s the one on display. The sales assistant apologises profusely for this, despite this being no inconvenience, and then talks to her manager to arrange a small discount for me. I haven’t asked for this, but she insists, and insists also on wrapping the figurine for me, free of charge. This takes her some time, because she is careful like Chloe, and, while I’m waiting, her colleague brings me a glass of warm water. We talk for a little while in stilted Chinese, she introduces me to the resident cat, and I melt for a few minutes.
My week has not been an exceptional week. These small moments of warmth (热情) are not uncommon, and nor have they decreased in frequency since the outbreak earlier this year. When I think of China, I don’t think of a country that is anti-foreigner, or one that some might claim is becoming more so in light of recent events. If I see examples of racist comments on Weibo, because I do, I look past them as belonging to a very small minority. I think instead of a country trying to do its best in an unprecedented and very testing situation. I know that the president of America is not a good person, and that he makes things harder for people here. I dislike him too, perhaps more than I have ever disliked anyone – no 热情 here. These are things I understand, and I understand also that I am very lucky to be living in this country, and that there is very little that I dislike about living here. I know also that I am luckier than those who have reversed my trajectory, Asian communities living abroad, currently subjected to racism, and violence, and endless abuse. I teach a student on Sunday morning, after the dinner party, who is from Chongqing but studying in Southampton, and she tells me that she is afraid to take her daily walk around her neighbourhood, because the local youths shout unpleasantries at her when they see her. I know this is something that is very unlikely to happen to me here.
China is by no means a perfect country, but no country is. I don’t want to be elsewhere, and couldn’t imagine being so. When I go to my American friend Jessica’s apartment to water her flowers, because she is locked out and home in Seattle, it bothers me that she isn’t here, but I understand this too. It is not forever. I fill the vases with water I’ve brought in a bottle, not wanting to use the tap water, and think that her vases are far superior to the one I made with Chloe. After an hour of pottery, taking her foot from the pedal, she finishes, finally pleased, and of course hers is much better than mine. She’ll be able to drink báijiǔ from the bottle; I’m not quite sure that my vase is worthy of any flowers. The studio asks us to write our names on a slip of paper, hers in Chinese, mine in English, and they nestle there side by side. Her name, next to mine, looks like a translation – they begin to overlap. The man at the counter, the same who asks where I am from, tells us to come back in a fortnight to collect them. Chloe is disappointed that we have to wait so long, but I remind her that a fortnight is not actually so long.
Two weeks pass quickly these days, and each subsequent fortnight seems to do so a little faster. We’ve spent the past few months living day by day, waiting for things to change, and I’d be inclined to suggest that, normally, a lot can change in fourteen days. These past fourteen days though, nothing has drastically changed. During my period of quarantine throughout February, I reflected often on the possibility of there being light at the of the tunnel. I felt caged and restless. I took up yoga. Meditatively, I think now that perhaps 2020 has been a series of tunnels, like the ones I passed through travelling between ZhangJiaJie and Enshi in July last year. It got dark for a while, and then emerging from the dark made everything seem brighter. Things do not feel dark anymore, especially not after an afternoon of pottery. As always, I am happy to be here, and continue to feel that China has opened arms to me. I read once that the country is gendered as a “she,” so I should say that she has opened her arms to me. It has not been an easy year, and she is taking precautions, but she is not different from who she was in 2019. If my vase was better, I would gift it to her with sunflowers.