Life at a Distance: Two women far from home in Beijing and New York

Two women living far from their families, one in Beijing and one in New York, navigate challenging quarantines.

In our series, “Life at a Distance,” we feature the experiences of Juggle readers adjusting to new socially distant lifestyles.

This week we hear from Luciana, who returned to China just as lockdown started, and Stephanie, who is balancing a stressful job, a side project and health issues while still maintaining a positive attitude about quarantine.

Luciana*, Beijing, China

Tell us about your quarantine.

Woman on her knees on a countertop cleaning out her cupboards.
Luciana, finally making time to organize her cupboards during quarantine in Beijing

I’m originally from Mexico and I live and work in Beijing, China, where I moved in 2018. On January 24, the city declared a public health emergency, just one day before the Chinese New Year holiday (officially, this holiday lasts about seven days, but this year, due to the epidemic control, it was extended by 14 days across the country). My colleagues and I were terribly worried about one of our coworkers who had traveled to Wuhan to visit her in-laws. She and her family never got sick, but she wasn’t able to return to Beijing for almost three months due to the lockdown in Wuhan.

I had already booked a vacation to Italy and I left Beijing the same day as the public health emergency declaration (January 24), a day after the lockdown in Wuhan. From Italy, I followed the increasingly worrying news from China. It was there that I read the first report that transmission could happen before the appearance of symptoms. While I was touring around Rome, I got alerts about airlines cancelling flights to China, and some countries like the UK cancelling all flights to and from China. I rushed to change my flight and come back to Beijing earlier than planned because I worried that at any time, China or Italy could suspend international flights. I came back on January 30 — one day before Italy stopped all flights to China. 

I still remember the words of the Italian woman who gave me my boarding pass at the airport in Rome: “You are really brave — you might never get out of China!” Most expats I knew living in China had decided to extend their holidays in their home countries during the outbreak or were stranded somewhere around the world due to flight cancellations to China. I did the opposite because I felt an urgency to head back to work since I am responsible for social media and press relations. 

Arriving in Beijing, it felt like I had landed in a hospital instead of an airport. One by one, they checked our temperatures and gave us health questionnaires before asking for passports or checking our visas. I was practically the only foreigner on that flight. The Chinese authorities were taking the situation seriously and doing all that was possible to stop the spread of the virus. 

When I came back to Beijing, my residential compound informed me that anyone arriving from outside the city should self-quarantine at home for 14 days. The city started doing temperature checks everywhere: supermarkets, entrances of residential compounds, subway stations, etc. 

Nonessential businesses in Beijing were ordered to close until February 13; however, most restaurants provided takeaway orders. And grocery shops stayed open and fully supplied with only occasional shortages of hand sanitizer and face masks. Museums, gyms and schools were closed until April 30. Concert venues, karaoke bars, swimming pools and cinemas are still closed today. 

Different degrees of lockdown happened in different cities and areas in China. In Wuhan, the authorities suspended all transportation coming into or within the city — they even fined individual drivers they caught driving. Other cities in China issued “exit passes” to one resident per household for going for groceries at most twice a week. In Beijing, every residential compound or alleyway installed control stations to check residents’ temperature daily and turned away visitors, domestic employees, delivery people and other service workers. 

On June 6, after more than 50 days without local transmission cases, all restrictions were lifted in Beijing. This felt like freedom and a great hope. Temperature controls disappeared and even gyms reopened. Five days later, news broke about a man infected who had never traveled nor had contact with people who traveled overseas. Local authorities traced this case to the wholesale market that supplies 70% of the veggies and meats in Beijing. 

I panicked and ran immediately to the largest supermarket to buy plenty of food supplies. Since then, life has gone back to many of the restrictions of previous months. I still go to the office but some restaurants and venues have closed again. I already knew that I couldn’t make plans for international travel in 2020, but now I realize it will be hard to travel even within China if I want to — local authorities recommend against unnecessary travel, and travelers are required to show a recent negative result of a COVID-19 test. 

Since June 11, Beijing has tested more than eight million people and during the last two weeks of June, there were long lines at testing locations. My summer break plans are on hold. 

Are you currently working? What is work like in quarantine?

During the two weeks of full lockdown in February, my employer implemented a remote working system for everyone. After that, I went back to the office with a reduced and flexible schedule. During the quarantine period, I enjoyed waking up a little bit later than usual and working in comfortable clothes —  I adapted quite well to a more flexible work schedule. I worked as a freelance journalist for many years and was happy to work from home again. I had constant chats and communication with my boss and peers on the evolution of the situation, and decided how to act based on the information available.

I was quite busy with work during the quarantine period, so that helped distract me from some of the stress and worry about everything that was going on with the virus. I stayed focused on work and took short breaks for coffee, phone calls or walks around the compound grounds. 

Has anything positive come out of quarantine for you?

Before COVID-19, I was really stressed and overwhelmed with work. The outbreak slowed down my projects and I was able to take stock of where I wanted to channel my attention and energy. I realized there were things I was doing that I didn’t need to, and that I could be more focused on the things that were most important to me. 

Since some of my projects slowed down, I now have more time for myself. I’ve started cooking again and spending more time at home. Before, I was too busy, and spent very little time at home since I had so many meetings and work-related events, even on weekends. 

Until April 30, we were not allowed to leave Beijing city limits. That forced me to explore the outdoor areas of the city more in my free time (even with restrictions to certain areas and places). Since the outbreak, my Saturday Chinese classes have also been cancelled and I switched to online classes, so I have more free time on my weekends. 

For a long period, I was also not allowed to bring visitors to my apartment, and most restaurants were closed, so I got to meet some of my neighbors and spend more time with them. 

What has been your biggest challenge? 

The biggest challenge for me has been keeping a positive attitude regardless of the news. In early March, I talked with a friend in New York and realized how unprepared the U.S. was compared to China. Then I realized the situation would probably be even worse in my home country, Mexico. The day that reality sunk in, I could not get out of bed and didn’t even eat. It is not normal for me to stay an entire day in bed and to feel so bleak about the future. 

After that low, I’m trying to focus my attention on the good things in my life, and the things that I can do for others, even if it’s just a phone call to a loved one. Every day, I remind myself how lucky I am that my family can stay safe at home and that they are taking care of themselves. But I know they are struggling and it weighs on me. My sister is locked down with three children while also working remotely. And my dad is healthy and strong but tends to be pessimistic and is extremely worried about his health and the perspectives of the future. 

How are you taking care of yourself in quarantine? 

Before the outbreak, I prioritized my work commitments and Chinese language lessons. Now I prioritize myself and my well-being above everything else. I enjoy the small things like the springtime weather, cycling around the city and savoring food. 

Stephanie Felix, New York City

Tell us about your quarantine

Portrait of a woman with a curly hair, white flowered tank top and red lipstick
“If you can’t go outside, look within.” -Stephanie

I’ve been in New York City since the quarantine started. I thought about going back home to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but ultimately I was scared because I wasn’t sure if I had been exposed to the virus. My parents are older and I didn’t want to put them at risk. So I decided to stay here.

I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and I have a roommate. For me the start of quarantine was terrifying — we experienced a lot of death and heartache in New York, so I spent most of my time indoors. At the beginning, I didn’t really go out at all — at most once a week if I needed to get groceries. 

After a while, I started going out for walks about once a week. It was really difficult — most things were closed, all around us people were dying at an exorbitant rate and it was stressful to hear the ambulance sirens in the city.

I still don’t go out very often, now it’s about twice a week. I always wear a mask when I’m outside and for a while I even wore a mask in my apartment because my roommate was going out to see her boyfriend from time to time. I was very detail-oriented in my behavior, like making sure I sprayed everything down in my apartment at least a few times a week. Now I’m not as strict about cleaning as I was, though I still do a deep clean once a week.

I was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder in March, right before the pandemic started. It was really difficult because I didn’t know much about my condition, I wasn’t able to get the meds that I needed and I had a lot of unanswered questions. I was originally supposed to get a spinal tap, but I couldn’t because everything was shut down. I’m still trying to figure all that out.

Are you currently working? What is work like in quarantine?

I work for Indeed and work has been challenging. People are overwhelmed and suffering. I was used to working from home, because I worked from home about three days a week before all this started, and now I’m working from home all the time. There have been a lot of adjustments and changes with that. Before all this we talked about “work-life balance,” but now my work and my life feel one and the same — everything has been blended and that’s interesting to feel.

For the first time this week, I missed being in the office. I miss the energy of being around people and the comradery. 

I also created and run a platform for a diverse group of women to have conversations that matter, called Storied. The quarantine has given me the space to reshift my focus to working on that.

Has anything positive come out of quarantine for you?

Yes. This has been a time for self-reflection and discovering what I really want out of life. One of my favorite quotes is, “Storms don’t come to disrupt your path, they come to clear it,” and I’m grateful for having this space. Another quote I like is, “If you can’t go outside, look within,” so that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m looking at what is needed in my life, what is missing and what the things are that I need to work through that I’ve been avoiding. For me that’s powerful.

What has been your biggest challenge? 

Feeling trapped. It’s been really difficult in New York not being able to go outside and not having outdoor space. Not knowing when it will end is maybe the biggest challenge of all. 

Even now, I think a lot about the future of New York, public transportation, the restaurants, all the things that made New York special. New York has had such a heartbreaking time with all the death, and there was a point where we didn’t even have enough hospital capacity to take care of everyone. Dealing with all of that and dealing with it alone has been really hard.

How are you taking care of yourself in quarantine? 

I’m trying to do more reading and taking baths. I’m trying to rest as much as possible, especially because my condition causes a lot of fatigue. I’m in therapy too and I’ve been spending a lot of time focusing on that.

I’m trying to focus on opportunities — what opportunities exist in this space and how can I delve into them?

*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)