Before moving to China 10 years ago, a friend said that he wouldn’t be surprised to be visiting me in prison here. I don’t think he was being serious but, as they say, many a true word is spoken in jest. As the door closed to my room in the quarantine hotel and I faced 14 days of what is called isolation, rather than prison, I felt the only difference is mental.
The first 14 days
I had been in lockdown in my Beijing apartment at the start of the pandemic, so I knew the importance of routine and keeping busy. In that first experience, my inactivity had killed my motivation to do anything. It had created a cycle of increasing idleness and the beginnings of depression. It would have been too easy to spend all day watching Netflix over this fortnight, so I created a schedule of things to do. I had 7 hours of work during the week, so I only needed a timetable for both ends of the day. I stuck the plan on the wall with the sticky airline baggage tags and followed it with grim discipline. It’s probably just how a prison is run with set meal and exercise times, work details and a leisure period.
I’m a heavy sleeper, but in those 2 weeks I’d woken to every sound. It was important to know their origin and I would climb out of bed in the dark to look out of the spy hole of the door to investigate the rustling outside. The view of the corridor to the elevator was distorted into an infinitively long passage with curved walls like the inside of a gun barrel. It was brightly lit, but the only colour was white. The walls, ceiling, floor, even the suits of the workers, spraying chlorine in their hazmat suits, were white. The door was alarmed so I couldn’t open it without detection, looking through the hole late at night, like most things, felt forbidden, slightly dangerous, pathetically exciting.
On the first day I had unscrewed the security catch on the single window using the foil cutter from my Sunday Times Wine club corkscrew. I’d prop the window open with a chopstick for extra air and sometimes stick my head outside. It was a busy street and it had been a distraction watching the other people’s lives 6 floors below. The short-skirted girls from the hairdresser opposite, the little drama of the restaurant owner with the police and late one weekend, the unmistakable voices of late-night drunks walking home. They had been my major involvement in the world.
Even when not hanging out of the window there were the sounds of drills and hammers from construction, cars crawling past and bike horns squeaking, voices too would drift up, the Chinese language as unintelligible as the machine noises. As the two weeks passed, I longed to join the life outside, I missed people’s faces. They never looked up; it was like they were ignoring me.
On the last day I woke early, a little excited about my pending release. I lay listening to the familiar street sounds waiting for the alarm scheduled for 7am. I checked my phone messages hoping to find a communication from the beautiful nurse I’d never met, but there was nothing. I messaged her – ‘Will there be breakfast this morning?’ I was sure there would be, I just wanted her to reply. The sexy clip art picture she used as her image and the translated messages had been my only source of news. She was my closest friend and I wanted to say goodbye.
Breakfast arrived with a knock on the door, then shuffling of overshoes as they retreated before I retrieved it from where it was left on the stool outside. Feeding times and temperature checks were the only time I got to see the undistorted corridor and meet other people. Even though their faces were hidden behind masks and face shields they were still moments of contact. I always said hello and thank you, but they never talked, they were always in a hurry. Beside each door to other rooms that lined the passageway, a box of food would be perched on identical stools. They were signs of fellow inmates. If my door was open too long, a staff member would start shouting, presumably telling me to get back in my room. I’d glimpsed someone else collecting their rations at the same time as me once or twice, but I never dared to call out a greeting and we avoided eye contact. It felt too intimate to be legal, surely a serious break of the isolation rules.
That last morning was a workday, but I couldn’t concentrate. I didn’t want to miss the all-clear on the app that should turn green, or the results of my last Nucleic acid test result. I was sure there would be some unexpected paperwork from the wheels of administration and command. There would be something to sign and stamp. My bags were packed by 9am. There had been little to put away, I’d been washing my smalls each morning and had worn the same football shirt and jeans every day. That last day, like graduation, I had showered and shaved, and sat in clean clothes waiting for the transfer to the next hotel.
7 More days
The knock on the door had come at 1pm that afternoon and I’d grabbed my bags and a mask and followed the hazmat clad worker down that familiar corridor. It was gritty with the residue of the spraying. We took the rusty elevator down into the foyer where tables, covered in polythene, had been set up and rows of documents laid out, presumably our discharge papers. More staff sealed inside their shapeless suits made short sentences in Chinese and pointed where to sign. I felt hurried and slightly dazed by the suddenness of leaving my room, the instructions and the presence of other people. I also felt uncomfortable about being dressed in just normal clothes, it seemed unreasonably reckless.
The coach dropped me and 3 others at a hotel within walking distance of where we had just left. As we turned into the street, we passed a Jazz and Blues bar. I hoped they had a live band that night, but either way I knew the nearby river front was famous for its classy bars and roof top cocktail lounges. I imagined sipping a Godfather later that evening, recounting my last 2 weeks to the barman as the sun went down over the famous skyline.
The next hotel looked better than the last place, but it wasn’t the entrance I was hoping for. The staff were just wearing face masks, but it was dim and there was an air of it being run on skeleton staff. There were roped off areas, more forms to fill in. The manager, introducing himself as Kevin, showed me to my room, helped with the suitcases and explained the hotel rules in English. They were practically the same procedures as the hotel I’d just left; I could get takeaways, but I still couldn’t leave my room. I should have been dismayed to find I was still a prisoner, but the change of scenery and perhaps the effortless accomplishment of the two weeks completed made me ridiculously cheerful.
“It is VIP room” Kevin announced as we entered the large bedroom “You are VIP”.
“It’s very good, I replied impressed. Thank you”.
He wanted to exchange Wechat contacts. “I get anything you want,” he told me.
“I really want some beer.” I replied half-jokingly.
“Not possible” he said. Then added conspiratorially, “but I try”. He showed me more things around the VIP room. There was a button to open and close the curtains, a voice activated TV. “TV off” he demonstrated. The TV ignored him. “It doesn’t know English,” he explained.
He left and a few minutes later returned with a case of beer. ‘Free, he said, you are VIP”.
“OK great” I replied.
He opened the box and put 6 cans into the small fridge. The large VIP room, with its private outdoor patio, and a case of beer was making me slightly euphoric, and I gushed over Kevin’s generosity and his English ability. There would be no cocktails overlooking the Bund, but I could still experience the sunset with a cold beer on my own little square of rooftop. As I unpacked my soap bag and played music on my laptop, the prospect of the next 7 days felt more like a holiday than a prison.
Kevin returned later and told me there had been a mistake, I’d been put in the wrong room. It didn’t matter I told him, I liked this room and I was willing to pay the difference.
I started my usual routine of 5000 steps before breakfast the following morning, pacing up and down the length of the room. I could do 10 paces here instead of 7 before. The floor was a better class of veneer too. Breakfast was the same box of boiled egg and steamed bread with a tub of congee. I opened the door to the patio; it was raining steadily and was surprisingly cool. I couldn’t wear the shorts I was planning and went back to wearing the football top and jeans. The difference of the VIP room began to feel superficial. The sameness of my day highlighting my unchanged situation.
Without the daily temperature checks or the regular PCR tests I had no contact with anyone. Even the view was just the patio, and beyond that, the dirty windows of an empty building. I contacted Kevin about the heating, and he replied that it had been turned off because of the virus. He didn’t offer to get me a heater, I wasn’t the VIP anymore.
As the days progressed the weather and the room got colder. It was too chilly to sit comfortably and work for long. In the afternoons I started lying under the bedcovers to keep warm, flicking through the 50 channels on the huge TV screen – all Chinese. I was still managing the exercise, but otherwise the strict routine had collapsed. It wasn’t easy to keep working from the bed and it didn’t seem important as my release date approached.
On the last afternoon the in-room phone rang. I should have welcomed the voice, but the shrill call was an intrusion into my space that made me feel anxious. The speaker sounded official, he wanted to know if I had applied for something. I didn’t know what it was, or what he wanted. I had only filled in the forms they gave me at reception, the Chinese forms that could have been anything. I replied in my limited Chinese “Wo bu jie dao” – I don’t know.
At 11:30 that night the phone went again. This time a mechanical voice asked, “Have you had a Nucleic Acid test today?”. Someone was holding a translator to the mouthpiece.
“No” I replied simply.
There was a pause then the machine asked, “Are you sure you didn’t have a Nucleic Acid test today?”
The phone clicked as the caller hung up. I turned out the lights. I expected someone to knock any minute and I lay listening for the sound of footsteps in the dark. There was a clank of pipes and the soft hum of some hidden electrical device, a blinking red light of the smoke detector. It felt like I was living inside a machine.
My last day came again and I hang around all morning while Kevin tried to find out why my health app wasn’t green. All I can do, while he made calls and entered my details repeatedly into more apps is stand around showing them my passport and logging back into the phone every time the display timed out. I messaged my nurse for help during a quiet moment, but she had stopped replying.
After midday I go down to reception, 4 other guests are waiting. I needed a green health code to go to Beijing and a Shanghai green code to stay in another hotel that night. Kevin said he would arrange it. I lounged about all day while he rushed about struggling to get rid of us.
At the next hotel I was finally free to go out and I privately planned a meal and a sunset drink overlooking the Bund. I was not checked into the new, small, colder room until after 7, so just dumped my cases and left the hotel feeling like a dangerous prisoner on special release. The Shanghai space needle peered above the roofs of the nearby buildings, and I headed towards it, then walked along the Bund. It was great to take more than 10 steps without having to turn around and to see things far away knowing they are really distant and not tricks of a lens. Everywhere was quiet, few people were walking along the famous river that sparkled in the clear night. All the restaurants and bars I found were shut. It was, I learned later, because Shanghai was locking down as Covid cases climbed and not because they were avoiding me. It was ironic that the three weeks of my lost liberty were not mitigating a threat from me, but instead, keeping me safe from everybody else.
Another 14 days
The following morning my Shanghai health code had turned green, and the Beijing Health kit was also good. I sped off to the train station anxious to escape this city while I can. There was intense scrutiny of my papers, my health codes and PCR test certificates before I finally boarded the train to Beijing.
I relaxed with a coffee, did some reading and looked out of the window at the passing countryside. It was a well-earned break before I had to tackle the hurdle of arriving at my new apartment, registering and, I was informed, isolating another 14 days because I was arriving from a Covid high risk area.
It took all day to reach my apartment. A whole day where I walked among other people who were oblivious to my recent arrival in China and 3 weeks in Shanghai. If they had known some, I’m sure, would have been terrified to be near me. I could imagine how reasonable it could be argued that I should have a more visible sign for people than a phone app. A yellow star sewn to my clothing perhaps.
The guard from the community came with forms and the rules for me to sign. There is another Covid test to do. I explained I had already done 21 days isolation, that I hadn’t met anyone for 3 weeks. I show them the previous days test results and all the stamped evidence I’d collected. They looked at them politely, but continued unmoved with my incarceration, powerless to apply reason with the rules. They attached an alarm to the outside of my apartment door and taped it up with a notice that read; ‘Home observation. Do not disturb.’
It was a Saturday; I spent the day unpacking my things and finding homes for everything. I filled time cutting up boxes to put socks and underwear into and cleaning things. I was bored, unable to concentrate or focus on anything. I Spent a lot of time pacing about the room raging to myself about the stupidity of the rules, the lack of judgement or appeal.
The days go slower. The routine keeps me busy and helps the time to pass, but also makes life dull. The schedule once filled the day, making it feel purposeful, now it’s a list of hateful chores. I’m constantly counting things; the number of steps and press ups, the hours until the next thing to do, the number of days left to go. The routine is as boring as doing nothing. I can’t imagine keeping this up for years.
Nothing unusual happens, no new observations to note. There was still work in the week, but I struggled to do it. I was being forgotten to be invited to on-line meetings, those I did attend I found myself gabbling, I over criticised things, found fault and problems and was generally awkward and negative.
I was allowed to order deliveries on-line once a day, so I started making my own meals. The gas stove warmed the apartment up and gave me a break from takeaways. It also passed time. I ordered some bottles of wine for the weekend’s evenings. New hours to count down until the bottle could be uncorked.
It was the longest two weeks. Never had I been so conscious of time and its rate of passing. Normally it can drag or race past, time is variable. Routines like locking the front door or driving to work are done automatically and forgotten, causing barely a ripple to the flow of time. Days and weeks merge into generic blocks, months then years pass in an endless timeline marked only by a few notable moments. But when life is so unvaried, when nothing happens, the repetition of the day’s activities keeps the pace of each hour like a metronome. As time crawled past in those 2 weeks, I could feel its dull mass dragging my energy away with it and I grew increasingly resentful at its wasting of my life.
There was a difference between the first 2 weeks where I had accepted them as the cost of travel home and the final two weeks that were only necessary to observe inflexible rules. Now that normal life has resumed, those 5 weeks which had felt so long, have already become a trivial piece of the past and practically forgotten. But the rancour it grew for the system that robbed me of those days remains. As Beijing Covid cases rise again and restrictions tighten, I’m torn between wanting a success in reducing the number of cases to zero and the desire for the zero policy to collapse through a mass of infections. Both will allow life to return to normal, but only the latter will prevent my return to prison.