In mid-April, a week after Wuhan emerged from more than two months in quarantine, a friend of mine in Wuhan sent me a WeChat message: “Don’t waste your quarantine,” she said. “We are all realizing now how unique a time it was in our lives.”
The week before I received this message, my friend Alicia Cheng wrote to ask if I needed some surgical masks in New York. The question gave me pause. Why, exactly? Just three weeks prior, I had shipped masks to her and to other friends throughout China.
How could the world have changed so much, so fast? By then, Alicia and her neighbors were emerging after more than 60 days of hard lockdown, as Americans were just getting settled into theirs.
There is a lot we can learn from people in China—not the government, not the macro-economy, but the people—who had to stave off the novel coronavirus before us.
The appropriate phrase in Chinese is 前车之鉴: lessons to be heeded from the overturned cart up the path. As people in Wuhan began righting their overturned lives, for them, hindsight on what they wish they’d known during their shelter-at-home period is 20/20. Luckily for us, we can still learn from their experience as many of us remain hunkered down for at least the foreseeable coming weeks.
Through months of conversations with friends, work associates, and professionals, as well as months spent consuming Chinese blogs, podcasts, and social media content, my colleague and former New York City resident Cheng and I wanted to help advise Americans and the global community on how to make the best of this period of lockdown.
“Now that this is seemingly over for us,” Cheng explained, “we realize that we may never have that time of simplicity and closeness ever again in our lives.”
Cheng is 27 years old, a Wuhan native, and a recent NYU graduate. Before this year, she hadn’t been home for Chinese New Year for years. The virus hit China during one of the busiest travel weeks on Earth, when some 3 billion tickets are purchased by people flooding back to their family homes. So, Cheng, her whole city, and then much of the country entered quarantine on the Chinese equivalent to Dec. 24 in the West.
In most of China, everyone that could go home was home. And it is in their often cramped family homes that people would be stuck for the next two months.
“The added vulnerability of the crisis made the first phase of quarantine really sweet and often fun for me and my family,” Cheng told me. “I wish I had worked harder to extend that period.”
By the end of the second week, it became clear to Cheng and her parents that the quarantine in Wuhan would not end anytime soon.
Over the phone, many friends and professional contacts in China described an “emotional claustrophobia” that took hold once they realized they’d be stuck in close quarters with family members for an unknown period. It was the unknown that most found so unnerving—a sense of that which they could not control or predict.
The people who broke through this the fastest found comfort in the things they could control—they created routines.
For Cheng, “The predictability of my 8:30 am breakfast with my mom, my hour of reading after lunch, my exercise after dinner created a feeling of safety I couldn’t find anywhere else.” The collective advice from many friends was that routine acted like a security blanket, creating a sense of control when the world feels mired in unpredictability. “Exercise creates sanity,” a friend in Chongqing wrote to me a few days later. I kept up with my friends’ physical activity through the Chinese app Keep, an exercise-from-home platform that boomed during quarantine. The regularity and natural positive biochemical jolt that exercise provides was a tonic for many, plus another way to create connection by sharing activity digitally.
“If I were to do it again, I’d try to focus only on what I can control, and work hard not to get dragged into the news cycle.”
Before the peak of Covid-19 cases in Wuhan, people were hit with a seemingly never-ending stream of bad news. Many people I spoke with used the word 揪心, which means worried, but literally translates to “pulls the heart.”
Cheng felt isolated and overwhelmed by bad news. She obsessed over her social media accounts, official news, foreign media (which she and many of her friends constantly access), and the constant swapping of stories and rumors taking place on her WeChat with friends and family.
Cheng’s mom, a 57-year-old teacher, took what’s called a 佛系, which loosely translates to a “Buddhist approach.” She was the first in the family to seriously limit her news intake. While Cheng was obsessing over accounts from citizen journalists and the blogosphere, her mom made the decision to focus on what she could control: wear her mask, wash her hands, don’t go out—and beyond that, nothing.
“While I was freaking out, she was playing online mahjong with her friends, texting the family recipes, and reading. And you know what? My freaking out and her ‘Buddhist’ approach both led to the same result: We were still stuck at home.”
Cheng decided to to rally together with her friends to fund and find medical masks and deliver food to medical workers.
Constant physical closeness creates friction. Cheng noted that Chinese families do not always express love the way her American peers do, through physical touch or with explicit language like “I love you.”
“But when we fought, we would hug each other afterward during quarantine,” she said. Aside from the mending of the rift, physical reassurance was needed at a time when vulnerability and fear simmered just below the surface of everyone’s consciousness.
For the family she couldn’t hug, she began to reach out and talk to them. She chose to over-communicate her affection for people, and, in retrospect, is thankful she did.
“We also got in touch with people we had fallen out with years earlier. It was a great moment to express caring beyond those who you typically speak with.
Most urban apartments in China—similar to many living spaces in cities like New York—only feel big enough when you’re free to leave them.
Cheng, like many other people stuck at home, still had to work. “Chinese parents are not particularly respectful of personal space,” she said. She had to lay down the law with her mother. “I told her, ‘If you want to come in, knock. If you don’t knock, I’ll lock it.’”
A wordless understanding began to form among the family during daytime hours. Cheng would sit at the dining room table to work, and her mom would pivot to the couch.
“That space was a sign of love and respect. It also made the relationship sustainable during quarantine.”
Then, at the end of the day, they’d all come together. Cheng would go out of her way to watch TV shows with her mom and dad that she normally wouldn’t. She played games and did TikTok challenges with them, like the NASA broom challenge, that she said she’d normally not bother with.
“The extra effort to do things together created conversations that weren’t about the virus or my dating life, which were otherwise the only things we’d naturally gravitate towards.”
This last section is a note to businesses. You can learn a lot about the human spirit by where the heart wanders when the comforts of life are stripped away. In China, like other parts of the world, food and travel dominated the collective psyche of the country.
During the last two weeks of quarantine, people in China described “revenge shopping,” indulging in what they ached for while sheltering at home.
“Yesterday my parents took a trip to the countryside,” Cheng told me in a conversation in those last weeks. “It was their first time leaving a two-block radius in over two months. It was their first time leaving the house together in two months. It was their first time together without me in two months.”
Now, Cheng looks at those two months with something unexpected: nostalgia. “Those two months of quarantine will be unforgettable to me for my entire life,” she wrote to me in a recent email. Many people I spoke to in China as they slowly re-emerged and began re-engaging with their so-called normal lives agreed that the whole experience now feels surreal in retrospect.
Many wish they’d read more, or spent more time with loved ones, as the pace of life ratchets back up. And everyone I spoke to are glad they stayed home and took necessary precautions to help contain the pandemic.
Now that she’s going back to a semi-normal life, she said she’s going to try to express caring more often, and to be more attentive to her friends and relationships. She ended our recent call by saying, “You’re sure you have enough masks? You’re not lying to me?”