Hello friends, long time no post. I am writing from a windowless hotel room in Guangzhou, China, where I will be for the next two weeks, losing track of day and night and becoming increasingly greasy and bloated from consuming takeout nearly every meal. Oh, the things I do for freedom…
So, how did I get here? And why?
pt.1: i am suffocating eom.
For those who are not aware, I decided to take a leave of absence from MIT this semester (and possibly for the entire year, depending on whether my dear U.S. gets its shit together) and will be working at a startup in Shenzhen, China. After hinting about this in past blog posts and several months of grueling contemplation while enduring hours of Zoom fatigue, crippling anxiety, and the 100+ degrees, 700+ COVID-cases-per-day shithole that is Riverside County, I came to two conclusions.
1) MIT will not be the same this year, and I would rather pay tuition for the full, lively, pset-with-friends-in-the-lounge-until-5am and bake-300-cookies-with-french-house experience, than a watered-down, remote version spent either in an isolated and expensive apartment in Boston or, god forbid, the shithole that is Riverside County.
2) I needed to get the f out of this country. At least for the time being. For every time I read the news, I come to experience what I can only describe as a mix of frustration, resentment, disillusionment, and pure awe at the sheer stupidity of the leadership of this country. Fall 2020 is going to be a storm.
pt.2: preparing my escape
You know those Facebook moms that love commenting “If you don’t like this country’s policies, why don’t you just move!!! >:(” to anyone who dared to criticize their beloved administration? Well thanks to Karen’s brilliant revelation, that’s what I decided to do.
For the sake of my mental health and better days ahead, I decided to return to, ironically, the place where COVID originated. China had basically controlled the pandemic at this point. There were still some new cases here and there, each met with a cytokine storm of lockdowns and testing, but life was pretty much back to normal. I would be able to work in person, travel, and meet up with friends in semi-crowded restaurants without the fear of accidentally killing someone’s grandmother.
After many rounds of emailing, attending every LinkedIn/portfolio/resume review workshop that the MechE department had to offer (because for a MechE student, I had an embarrassing lack of actual MechE experience), and the help of a very kind MIT alum, I found work at a product development firm at the heart of the Shenzhen CBD. Despite being a little confused at what the company saw in me, I was excited – for the first time, there seemed to be an end to this mindless limbo that began in March. I just needed to get to China now.
Traveling to China in the middle of a pandemic was no easy feat, especially with Americans banned from half the world’s borders and all. Luckily, I still had a Chinese passport. Not so luckily, there were only a handful of flights available due to escalating U.S.-China tensions. I can dedicate an entire blog post to just how I managed to secure a coveted and grossly overpriced plane ticket (fun fact: I now follow every major Chinese airline on Weibo, have a spreadsheet dedicated to tracking current and upcoming routes, and have acquired a Pavlovian reaction to the refresh button), but I will cut the chase to September 11th.
pt. 3: 24 hours in an N95
LAX was quite empty that evening, save for the line at the check-in counter of China Southern that extended to the back of the terminal. Oof. Convinced that I would catch COVID on the flight, my parents had equipped me with an extremely uncomfortable N95, a regular surgical mask to go over it (and a pack of 100 backups…), a face shield to go over that, several bottles of hand sanitizer, and an entire grocery aisle’s worth of alcohol wipes. Looking at the check-in line, I seemed to be only the median in terms of protectedness – several passengers were clad in full bunny suits, reminding me of the training session I attended in the cleanrooms of MIT.nano. Ah how I miss psetting on the glossy benches of Building 12…
Check-in and TSA went pretty smoothly, with constant hand sanitizing and wipe-downs after each human and object interaction. At the boarding gate, I presented my green WeChat health code – an airplane symbol generated after 14 consecutive days of error-free symptom logging – indicating that I was fit to fly, which was one of the several measures that the Chinese government had implemented to reduced the number of imported COVID cases.
The flight itself was a literal pain in the neck. I was fortunate to have purchased a seat that offered plenty of leg space, but the increased comfort was more than mitigated by the N95 that was cutting into my cheeks, neck, and the top of my ears, as well as the face shield that fit a little too snugly and gave me a headache. I was determined to sleep the entire flight, but the protective gear made it difficult and awkward. I lifted up the straps of my N95 every 30 minutes to prevent my ears from becoming raw, and each sip of water was followed by several minutes of mask adjustment. Crew members, also dressed in bunny suits, took our temperature every four hours. Instead of meals, we were given a bag of prepackaged snacks, though I and most others avoided eating during the flight.
14 grueling hours later, after which I could hardly feel my ears, we finally landed in Guangzhou. Normally I would be excited, but the hours ahead were not exactly something to look forward to. We were each given a number that indicated our exit order. Upon exiting the plane, each passenger had to fill out another WeChat health code, consisting of a highly repetitive set of questions that were basically different ways of asking whether or not we had COVID.
And after that, we stood in line to get tested.
Oh boy, if I thought that the past 20 hours in an N95 was uncomfortable, well, that was before I experienced the nasal swab. My best description of the sensation is probably too graphic for you children reading this, so all I can say is, anatomical diagrams of the nasal cavity will now be viewed in a completely new light. Oof #2.
After the horror of the testing station, I passed through the temperature-sensor-laden customs gate, grabbed the bags that carried my entire net worth, and headed to the queue where all passengers were shipped off to various hotels, where we were to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine and obtain two negative tests. The thing about quarantine hotels is that you literally have no choice over where you get to stay. Staff in bunny suits would lead groups of passengers to random buses destined for different subdistricts in the city, and often people would not discover the name of the hotel until they’ve arrived. Real sketchy. I had read stories of people placed in anywhere from 5-star luxury suites to literal nests of cockroaches. Oof #3.
My luck that day was mediocre at best. Though there were no cockroaches (yet), my room had no cell signal whatsoever, terrible WiFi, and a “window” that opened into the hallway (which I’m pretty sure is a fire hazard). My hotel also did not offer any meals, so I would have to order takeout every day. Rip abs.
But, I mean, no pain no gain, right? And already, I feel like I’m gaining back bits and pieces of normal life. It was refreshing to see crowds of people carefreely gathered on the streets during my bus ride to the hotel and to receive takeout without having to aggressively wipe down the container. Taking off the N95 after nearly 24 hours seemed to signify a relieving end to both my long journey back and the past six months of anxiety, dread, and uncertainty.
I’m not sure what the next few months will hold, but I welcome this new kind of uncertainty and the adventures that are to follow. Here’s to one last post from quarantine. :’)
(update: I have since switched into a room with real windows, but there is a pillar outside blocking about 75% of the view. Oof #4.)