By Danielle Webster
It has almost been two years since the COVID -19 pandemic emerged and changed the way we live, work and play.
For the entire time, I have been living on the campus of the Beijing Film Academy. I have lived in Beijing for almost five years studying Mandarin and animation.
I remember when the first whispers of a strange flu outbreak began.
There was a wave of panic with many expatriates, including students returning home, in the hope of avoiding COVID-19 and staying safe. Others were already on their winter vacation when the outbreak and first lockdowns began and were inadvertently stuck on the wrong side of the border.
I remember the concern of my family at home in Jamaica. They wanted me to “come home, forget my choice of studies and do something else”.
I remember giving them all the reasons I would not leave China or give up my studies. I consoled my family by telling them that I was prepared and had already done my initial ‘stockpile’ grocery shopping and that I would be safe on my university campus. I created a group chat to inform my family members of all that was happening here and helping to debunk a lot of the bad news and rumours that were spreading.
My university and the new friends I made were such a major support. I was confident and sure that I would be safe. Very soon my mother and the rest of my close knit family realised that I was comfortable and safe. Mom was soon telling her friends “Oh, she is safer than all of us, I don’t need to worry about her.”
My campus and many others all around Beijing went into mandatory lockdown. However, being locked within my university did not faze me. In fact, as an introvert capable of extroversion (as I like to describe my personality), this was a well-needed break in my busy university life and schedule. It forced me to appreciate the little things I did not notice before, such as the flowers during the spring and how much I missed hearing the lilting sounds of musical notes travelling on the air as someone practised their instrument in the park.
It made me consume more Chinese media, which helped me improve my listening and speaking. Lastly, it helped me form a new family. Yes, I had always had close friends here, but the friends I made in quarantine became something more. It was pure coincidence that the majority of our rag-tag group happened to be Caribbean nationals. Interestingly, the similar struggles brought on by the quarantine forced us to form a bond stronger than just friendship.
For its part, the university administration gave us large bottles of sanitizer and every two weeks we were given a supply of masks. We were told to go downstairs twice a day to take our temperature and the young ladies in the lobby would use that time to chat with us a little.
The school did not allow the pandemic to take away our traditions either. The international department of my university would invite us to make dumplings together. They sometimes would also give us traditional candies and snacks celebrating other holidays.
Instead of everyone piling in the kitchen to cook together, they made yummy dumplings and we had socially distanced lunches. They made sure that all our requests were met. If we had a roommate, we were allowed to use a single room to get some needed personal time and space. We were also given permission to leave the campus for important tasks such as going to the bank, supermarket, embassy, or hospital, not that we needed to leave the campus much, with the wonderfully efficient delivery and other systems China has in place.
These systems I speak of are the use of online banking (available to some), online wallets such as WeChat pay and AliPay, online delivery apps such as MeiTuan and ELeMe, that deliver anything from any business with online delivery access and online shopping giants like TaoBao and JingDong with teams of swift delivery drivers from delivery companies like SFExpress and China Post. I view these delivery drivers as some of the unsung heroes of China during the toughest periods of the pandemic.
The other heroes, of course, were the medical personnel on the frontlines of this medical battlefield. My university, The Beijing Film Academy, had teams of medical personnel visit the campus to give everyone free COVID-19 tests and took us to get our jabs once the vaccines became available. The results of both the COVID-19 tests and vaccines were accessed on our Health Kit App (健康宝) which we now use to get into any businesses and on to public transport such as taxis.
Even though China is mostly out of the woods with this pandemic and life has returned somewhat to normal, my university still has not let down its guard. We still have digital thermometers set up at all major doorways, we still get reminders to wear masks and to be careful when leaving the school campus. As the seasons change, we have new prompts to wear more and warmer clothing and drink lots of hot water to prevent colds and, most importantly, COVID-19.
My experience living in China during the pandemic has been unforgettable. Friends and teachers have now become extended family members, I have a better appreciation of the culture and language and my love for this country has grown significantly.