Photography: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Life in Beijing these days is spent in lockdown or in preparation for lockdown. Stocking up on food at home, just in case, has become the new norm. Meeting friends is difficult because every few weeks one of us is stuck in the house for days. Carrying out the daily grind of just working, eating and sleeping has become endlessly boring and there are the complicated new technologies and rules we have to navigate.
The health code dominates every aspect of our lives here. Since the results of my mandatory Covid test, taken every 48 hours, are linked to my public transport pass, I do not have to use my health code to enter the subway station. But when I get to the gate outside my work building, I have to show my scan result to the guard. The young man in uniform gives me a slight nod, his facial expression hidden under the mask. A smattering of cars travel the bright gingko-lined streets.
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As cases spike, the government essentially shuts down the city, including shopping and entertainment malls, and suggests people work from home or commute directly from home to work, in one line. With restaurants closed for dining, bellboys work tirelessly from dawn to midnight throughout the city. At home or in the office, I can still easily enjoy a bowl of hot kimchi beef udon for lunch in just 40 minutes by ordering on Meituan, a shopping app that provides consumer products and retail services, and especially now, it is often used for food deliveries.
One November morning, I walked to the dry cleaners a half mile away from my apartment, only to find it closed along with most of the shops in my neighborhood. Spaced out from each other, men, women and the elderly lined up in the few grocery stores that remained open to buy vegetables, fruit and meat. It was all preparation for a lockdown that officials announced after five days of thousands of cases. We had received 12 hours notice.
Social scenes are reborn or die with political changes, but I was lucky enough to have attended an event just before a wave of tougher measures. Although taking a Didi, the Chinese Uber, still required me to scan my health code, the bar staff seemed to be busy with other jobs and no one was checking it at the door.
The event was a great success with the hall filled with laughter and applause from Chinese and foreign audiences. It was a chance to forget for a moment. No one seemed to be bothered by the frustrations with the ever changing Covid policy and the disruption of life. The literary scene in Beijing continued to be vibrant and thriving.
Elsewhere, some customers have developed strategies to avoid being traced by authorities, should they be quarantined as a close contact. These people take a screenshot of a negative test result and its green health code and quickly display it at the security headquarters doors. Since most guards just glance at the codes, they almost never notice the difference. The strategy was useful until we had nowhere to go.
Sometimes I call my father, who lives in another province. It’s a way for me to cope with the lack of human connection during zero-Covid. I would like to visit more often, but traveling comes with the risk of being stranded. So I call. Let’s talk about his childhood, when China was not devastated by a pandemic but by poverty and hunger. He asks me if I’ve ever felt like I didn’t have enough in my life. I laugh and say no, never. Our conversation arouses a warm feeling in me. During these abnormal times, I’ve learned to notice even the slightest joy. Just being able to talk about the old days is a blessing.
I use my evenings for mandatory tests. When night comes, I make my way to the nucleic acid testing booth near my apartment to line up for the test and get my health code green. The 48-hour, sometimes 24-hour green code is required to enter public places, although it seems unnecessary when so few places are open. But it has become a habit for many of us to still get tested every day. Standing in line, I know restrictions won’t be eased overnight. But I hope we will survive this just like we survived poverty and hunger, and tomorrow we will all have a better life.