The Hazmat Suit

Chengdu, December 2022

8 am knocking on the door.

It’s aggressive.

Flashbacks to when I stayed in the Chinese hospital in Shanghai for my foot surgery.

zuo he suan!” (do the pcr!) a woman’s voice calls.

I stumble out of bed, turning on the light, first thought, barely awake – mask. Must find mask.

Once I’ve located the mask, placed strategically next to the front door where I can grab it as I am half-asleep still, I open the door at the same time as the guy diagonally opposite me, whose phone number I had asked for in order to get into the airport WiFi. I could see his eyes over his masks, and he smiled, and I smiled back. We would continue this little dance for the next five days.

The Woman in the Hazmat Suit jabs her finger at my name on the paper.

“Name?”

“Yes.”

“Age?”

“27.”

She began to open the plastic around the swab, and I took off my mask and bent down a little, opening my mouth. She swabbed quickly, and they moved on. We closed our doors, the curtains were drawn, and the show was over.

My room was spacious, and it was soon to be realised that the hardest thing about this quarantine would be the food. Similar to plane food, it was all I had to eat for five days. That boy on the plane helped me order a snack pack, I ordered the one with the two tea’s. The plane didn’t have any warm food or blankets, with only some snacks in a plastic bag hanging off the backs of the chairs.

I had taken a picture of a group of people in Hazmat suits at Cairo airport, thinking they were a group of paranoid tourists. I was soon to realise they were the crew members of our flight. All the workers in the Chengdu airport were also Hazmatted up, a sight that is uncomfortable for one, although naturally or unnaturally so it is hard to say.

I was originally meant to continue on a flight to Shanghai, thinking I’d quarantine in Shanghai, but instead was ushered, along with everyone else on the flight like a herd of cows, to the waiting area, which was when I first found out that I would not be quarantining in Shanghai, close to my home and within reach of my mother if I needed anything, but in the outskirts of faraway city that I had never been to before. The boy whose number I had asked for asked me what I was doing in Chengdu, to which I happily responded, “I’m transiting here – I have a flight to Shanghai in four hours.” He hardly knew how to tell me that I would have to quarantine right there in Chengdu.

After getting slips with numbers on them, we were barked at to sit and wait for our numbers to be called. Little by little, we shuffled meekly to the scanning area where we had to scan our Very Important Code Without Which We Could Do Nothing. It was as though our entire essence, our very inherent meaning and value lay in this code – without which society would spit you out. Then we were propelled to testing stations, barked at through the steps – take off your mask, open your mouth, you’re done – go! – and then ushered to our suitcases. Having obtained our belongings, each person unknowingly weighed down by materialism, we were then herded off to the waiting area for the big buses. We got on the second bus, and it wasn’t until after a while that we realised we were heading away from the city and into the countryside of Chengdu.

The entire way the bus had a loud siren, as though announcing to anyone in a nearby radius – we are transporting contaminated individuals! beware! – as I felt my migraine settling in. I realised I was on a vehicle going to an unknown destination in an unknown city. It was terrifying, but excitement gripped me. Terror and excitement are just two sides of the same coin, are they not?

I’ve categorised those 5 days of quarantining into my productive and non-productive days, which is quite reflective of me as a person, I’d say. The first day and second I mostly slept, as there was not much else to do. The third day I was extremely productive, had a lovely qigong session, meditated, read, journaled, and did some work, and the fourth day I potatoed again (as a verb it is very useful term I’ve found), and on the fifth day, I left.

I woke up on the fifth day, of my own accord, without a woman yelling “zuo he suan!” (do the pcr!) outside, excited to be able to leave. Not having to do the he suan in the morning now seemed strange and alien, something I had gotten used to in just a few days. I quickly went to take in my breakfast from the little table outside – each person’s door was accompanied by a little table upon which the food would be placed for breakfast lunch and dinner, and a small rubbish bin which the person would be expected to throw the meal after eating in the bin. It was already cold, as the outside temperature was rather frigid. I stared down at a small box of milk, a mantou, and a small piece of bread. I ate what I could and left.

I wonder what my father would have thought. This is not a China he would have recognised. In fact, he would have struggled with the quarantine – as it wasn’t foreigner-friendly at all. After all, hardly any non-Chinese citizens may enter the country now and have not been able to for the past few years. He would have been able to enter with his work visa as a Professor at the university, but the quarantine, with all its technology-dependent aspects – such as the check in, downloading and obtaining the health code, the wechat group in which you scan a code to enter and in which you ask all your questions, he would have struggled with. But then again, has China changed in its very essence? The trajectory of becoming increasingly militarized and the governing party characterised as a dictatorship is not new, it is not as though China was becoming democratic and progressive then suddenly veered off course into the sea of dictatorship. But I still think this is not a China he would have recognised.

Shanghai, December 2022

The streets are empty. Shanghai looks like it did at four am when I would come home, the streets swimming in front of me through my drunken lenses. I complain about people, and I claim I am yearning for nature, for solitude and peace and quiet, but the empty streets strike a funny feeling inside of me. On the onset, it is eerie, and it feels alarming – to see streets that one is so familiar to seeing packed and bustling with people, to see it naked and derived of its hustle and bustle, is eerie, but upon a moment of reflection, one breath later, one realises that actually it is incredibly freeing, one can act and do as one pleases.

It rained a few days ago as I was running around doing errands for Mummy. I met up with her by the bus stop to give her my passport and bank card as she had some business to do at her bank with it. It was beginning to rain, and I had an umbrella, but she didn’t. Consequently, I gave her my umbrella, although I was going to the other side of the river to pay a deposit for our New Years’ Eve Dinner. It began to rain as I reached PuDong and I was on a bridge overlooking a highway, with the tallest buildings in Shanghai and some of the tallest buildings in the world surrounding me, as the rain began to fall more.

Trudging along, feeling rather sorry for myself, I slowly realised that I missed the rain. In Egypt it rained less than five days a year. It wasn’t raining that heavily, so I wasn’t getting soaked, but it was a pattering of rain. I looked up at the heavens and let myself feel the rain, and I felt an incredible wave of excitement overcome me. I took off my mask, realizing that I was smiling, enjoying the rain, being one with the rain, and there was no one around me, not for miles and miles. It was just me alone in dystopian Shanghai with the rain.


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