Chinese lives in Covid times
"Our fragility and tenacity are beyond imagination."
The following story was posted in Chinese on the first day of 2022 on 兽楼处 Shou Lou Chu, a popular blog on WeChat, where it was an instant hit. The author(s) calls themselves 兽爷 Shou Ye.
The original title is
You are the one who has seen the Mona Lisa with your own eyes
You are the one who has seen the Mona Lisa with your own eyes
Last year (2021), in early February, I went to the coastal city, Haikou, for a retreat for a couple of days. On the day I left, I lunched with old Wu, a friend from college, and Mr. Lu, a real estate developer. After that, I took a taxi to Meilan Airport.
The taxi driver was in his early forties, wearing a neat and tidy shirt. He looked at me in the rearview mirror and asked about my flight. Then we started talking.
He was talkative, asking me if I had just attended a conference on real estate. He said that the property prices in Haikou rose after the introduction of the Free Trade Port policy. I asked him about his taxi business in the winter. He said that he had just started this job, but he could still feel there were considerably fewer tourists in Haikou this year (2021) than in the past few years and that they purchased much less than before.
We had a sporadic chat and arrived at the airport before we knew it. When I got off, the driver helped me with my luggage and wished me safe travels. I grabbed my belongings, showed the airport staff my health code, and walked inside the terminal. I glanced at my phone, only to find out that Mr. Lu, who had walked me to the taxi, had sent me several messages.
Mr. Lu discovered that the driver turned out to be one of his classmates from college.
The driver was born into a well-off family in Haikou. After graduation, he had a well-paid position at a government department. Mr. Lu had no clue what drove his classmate to make a living as a taxi driver since they lost contact for a few years. Mr. Lu, the real estate developer, explained that he didn’t say hello to the driver for fear that his classmate would be embarrassed. Mr. Lu pretended to not have recognized his old acquaintance.
Mr. Lu’s text messages seemed like thinking out loud: “Actually, nothing is embarrassing about being a taxi driver. Life is all about ups and downs. All walks of life deserve respect.
I was astounded. After the security check, I told him about 70,000 people with a Master’s degree work as food delivery staff, quoting a report by Meituan [a food delivery platform].
Everyone put on a calm, smiling face, yet beneath the tranquil surface are undercurrents unknown to others. All those seemingly carefree lives are sustained by endeavors and endurance.
The years not only age the face, but also burden our souls.
Many people also talked about the grievances and setbacks they encountered this year. I was completely overwhelmed after reading several comments.
Time flies by. I did not return to my hometown for the Spring Festival of 2020. Instead, I stayed in Beijing. At that time, it was believed that if the entire country stayed at home for two months, the pandemic would be over within a few months at most because there is no one on the street to contract the virus.
Like a blink of an eye, 2020 was soon gone, and so was 2021. It was as if the past two years had been stolen from us.
This morning, as I put on the mask before heading out, it dawned on me that this is the third year that we have worn masks. Showing our travel logs, health codes, and getting Covid tests have become the new normal of our daily life. No one knows how long it will last. Suddenly, it felt like going out on the sea at dusk. The sense of being alone on a massive ocean took over me.
When reading history books, two or three years seemed too short to write about, often with less than one line of words. But for common people like you and me, three years is a significant period in the prime of our lives.
Now, this virus is poised to live with us. Covid-19 has claimed 5.45 million lives, together with nearly 300 million confirmed cases. Its death toll is worse than that of all the wars combined in the past five decades.
It infiltrated our lives in every aspect. We have seen much progress has been made since the pandemic broke out two years ago, but we’ve also seen the dark side of human nature amplified in extreme scenarios. Unimaginable things happen every day. When I read Weibo posts, I’m not sure if it’s me or them that need psychotherapy.
Humans feed on prejudice. The joys and sufferings are different, but our fate remains connected.
My 2021 was tough as well. I underwent two endoscopies and three times magnetic resonance imaging. The day before my second endoscopy, I posted on 售楼处 Shou Lou Chu [the WeChat blog], saying I wanted to be a “tree hole” to listen to people’s stories in the year 2021.
A person wrote about applying to be employed temporarily for a package station by SF Express [a logistics company]. Sorting out the package for six hours gets him 97 yuan (15.3 US dollars) per day; five yuan had to be deducted on the first day to pay for his uniform.
He was particularly meticulous when it came to sorting airmails. After all, it had something to do with his profession.
He was a former passenger plane pilot who hadn’t flown in a long time.
Another person said he had started a business in Gansu teaching painting and calligraphy. The business went quite well at first. However, in 2021, the pandemic broke out where he lived, and the “double reduction” policy was implemented in the education sector. By November, he could not pay the rent, and the company he had run for six years went bankrupt. He offered the teachers more than 400,000 yuan in severance pay, donated the desks and chairs to charity schools and NGOs, and sold the books as waste paper.
He sat in silence in the empty classroom for an afternoon on the last day.
He was feeling hopeless when he remembered that his old business partner still owed him money. He called. Her [the partner’s] father picked up the phone, and was crying on that end, “She attempted suicide by overdosing on medication, and is being rescued in the hospital....”
He kept quiet about the debt, telling her father that he just wanted to ask her out for lunch.
Ip Man, the martial artist in the movie Grandmaster, said that if life can be divided into four seasons, then his spring did not end until he was forty. After that, he met the first mountain in his life.
The hardest one to climb over, it turns out, is life itself.
Another person who works at a district-level disease prevention and control center said he was swamped in work. It is noteworthy that he is responsible for terminal disinfection of Covid-19, such as the homes of people confirmed with Covid-19 and the places they visited, or hotel rooms for quarantined people who return from overseas. He was soaked in sweat in the summer and covered in frost in the winter.
A total of 70 people who returned to his community from abroad tested positive, two cases in the first half of the year, and 68 in the second. In an airtight, small room, you have no idea where Covid-19 resides or whether the aerosol is floating in the air. He receives no extra subsidies, nor can he be counted as a front-line medical worker. What keeps him going are conscience and responsibility.
Another person working in a grassroots government wrote that 2021 was the year he stayed up late and ate instant noodles most.
Most of the messages are stories like this, posted by taxi drivers, pilots, tour guides, and grassroots government workers. They lead ordinary lives, but those stories are more realistically somber than most of the stories we read. Countless undercurrents are hidden under every calm face. Their undercurrents combined could form mountains and rivers, and little by little, into our homeland eventually.
Everyone shouldered it silently. Our fragility and tenacity are beyond imagination.
As writer Qian Zhongshu put it, if you look afar, you should have compassion and mercy for everything; if you look closer, you should be optimistic and bestir yourself.
Zhang Wenhong, another doctor I admire, wrote on Weibo a few days ago, saying this is the most difficult time for global solidarity and for humans to combat the pandemic. However, 2021 will be the last biting winter for COVID-19 in China, and 2022 will see the end of the COVID-19 pandemic:
I am full of hope for 2022.
I have always believed what Dr. Zhang says.
Last night, I went by the hustling and bustling Sanlitun. I haven’t been there for a long time. I saw swarms of people in Sanlitun, rubbing shoulders. The year 2021 is over, and people’s weary looks are finally lightening up.
I did not go home for Chinese New Year for the past two years. This is also the case for many of my friends. I used to feel that reunion, safety, peace, and happiness are the easiest, most common wishes and blessings you can give to others. As I grow older, especially after experiencing the pandemic, I feel that these common wishes are the true pursuit of our life.
Another story I received was posted by a former overseas tour guide. He bought a house, a car and got married at the age of 30. He had set his foot in dozens of countries around the world. At that time, he felt he was on top of the world.
Then the pandemic struck. Canceling orders came in waves. On the eve of Chinese New Year in 2020, he worked until two o’clock in the morning to process the cancellation. Now, 700 days after, he still hasn’t been able to get back to his position.
Since losing his job, he has worked as a telemarketer and restaurant manager. When working at the restaurant, he met a German coach who worked for a local soccer club. The manager showed the coach photos from his visit to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany in 2019. The coach’s eyes brightened when he saw it, saying that it was his hometown he could barely go back to.
When the man was working as a telemarketer, almost all his co-workers only have the diploma of junior high school or elementary school. Whenever he thought of the mortgage and car loan repayments totaling nearly 8,000 yuan a month, he had to grin and bear it. Once, he got beaten up by a problem. His supervisor came over to uplift him and said:
“You are the one who has seen the Mona Lisa with your own eyes. I’m sure you can make it.” (Enditem)
[Among China's 1.4 billion people, it was estimated in January 2019 by 李迅雷 Li Xunlei, an economist, that one billion have never taken an airplane. 季琦 Ji Qi, founder and executive chairman of hotel chain Huazhu Group, reportedly said in December 2019 that 1.26 billion Chinese citizens haven’t obtained a passport - thus never leaving the country.]