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Returning to China from our winter holidays, it felt like coming back to a completely different world. It was early February 2020, and I was coming back to the city of Chengdu after spending Christmas and the New Year with family and friends in the UK and USA. By then, COVID-19 had hit China hard, and it was a threat that few in the West were taking too seriously.

I re-entered China to find almost everything in Chengdu locked down, and myself under advisory self-quarantine within my apartment. Sure, there were no armed guards at my door, but the security station at the compound entrance weren’t going to let me go anywhere for the next 14 days. All tourist spots, bars, restaurants and cinemas in the city were closed until further notice. Not long after my own return, I heard news that other friends and colleagues were being sent directly to quarantine in local hotels upon landing in Chengdu. Soon after that, it was announced that foreigners would no longer be allowed to enter China, visa or no visa.

Confined to my apartment with nothing to do but watch TV, teach online classes and get fat(ter), I began to wonder and worry whether this might be the new normal; whether things could ever be as they once were.

Baby Steps

Fast forward to May 2020. I have just attended the first pub quiz of the year, surrounded by friends, colleagues and locals. For all my worries, things did return to a state of normality, and far sooner than I had ever anticipated. All of my favourite bars, restaurants and shopping spots have now re-opened to the public. From the local hotpot joint to the Irish bar, Chengdu is once again humming with things to do and sights to see.

Thanks to temperature checks at the door and a newly-implemented health code system (via phone app), most local businesses are now free to run as normally. After proving my health at the door, I’m even free to go and get a haircut (while wearing a face mask, of course).

In recent weeks, the local football and badminton teams have also returned to the city; small groups of foreigners meeting once a week for practice and fun. Likewise, the neighbourhood gyms have all re-opened their doors, allowing the health conscious to get their fix (the home workout just isn’t the same!)

While my friends and family in the UK make do with homemade trivia sessions via Zoom (no thanks – reminds me too much of teaching online), we were able to join our local pub quiz at the American Barbecque joint down the street. After a lot of bumpy starts, tentative re-openings (and then re-closing again), all of our favourite bars and restaurants have reopened and are serving as usual. Social distancing has been dialled back for most, leaving patrons free to sit together and mingle in close proximity. Just make sure you have the QR code readily available on your phone to prove that you’re fit and healthy.

What we Left Behind

Still, we await the return of face-to-face classes in schools (while some Primary Schools have re-opened, most language centres such as mine remain shut), and there are rumours that kindergarten students may stay absent until September. Still, we head into school for admin hours and online classes, keeping up a facade of normality in this unprecedented time.

The cinema in China too, is yet to re-open. Even if it were to do so, it would have to without Black Widow or Mulan delayed not only in China but also in the West.

Many tourist destinations too, remain closed, and a lot of hotspots (Chengdu’s QinQeng mountain, for example) is no longer allowing entry to foreigners. International flights in and out of Chengdu have been cancelled and, even if they were still running, I would no longer be able to re-enter if I did leave.

As tension grows back home and in the USA, I find myself worrying more for the well-being of friends and family over my own. The roles have reversed, and now China is heading out of danger as life in the West grows more and more chaotic.

In this respect, it feels something like living in a bubble, as I attend pub quizzes and eat hotpot while my family and friends stay home in fear, uncertainty and isolation. Although things aren’t yet as they were here, there’s a feeling that someday soon they will be. For now, Chengdu – and areas of China at large – has found its normality, albeit a new one. I hope that my friends and family can find their new normal too, whether that involves pub quizzes or not.

About the Author:

Joel Harley
Joel Harley is an ESL teacher and professional writer currently living and working in Chengdu, China. He enjoys good food, good drink and bad movies. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter, and find his movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
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