Every morning I wake up at home in Chicago about 5am so that I can get my dogs out for a walk before the virus is stirring. The next thing I do is check for the latest tip from China on how best to live the quarantined life. I usually wake to an avalanche of dings from the Chinese messaging app, WeChat, bearing essential advice from friends on the mainland on how to survive this nightmare with mind, body and family relationships intact.
One day it’s a flow chart to teach me how to doff gloves, mask and clothes in the right order after my daily outing. The next it’s an increasingly frantic admonition to “cover my sewer” (although I still haven’t found a sewer to cover or understood why I should do so).
Is it safe to take the lift to our 9th-floor apartment? Should I take the stairs? A friend replies that some poor soul in Beijing caught coronavirus from stairwell air. Rappel down the side of the building then? Perhaps not, with two aged Chinese mutts in tow.
How did you avoid killing your loved ones on lockdown, I ask? It is true that divorce filings surged after quarantine ended — but they always rise sharply after the Chinese new year family fest. Local experts say a large part of the rise could simply be the backlog caused by the closure of government offices for so long.
Overall, Chinese families seem to have weathered lockdown fairly well. What tips do they have for the rest of us? “We fought a lot at first and then we found a way to live with each other in a different way than we did previously,” says Sammy, 37, who spent two months living and working in a one-bedroom Shanghai apartment with her husband of seven years.
“We discovered that we are different people at home and at the office,” she muses. “I saw him fighting on conference calls, playing tricks on colleagues, it was actually fun. He also found me a little dominant at work: I’m quite gentle as a wife. It took about a week to get used to that.”
They bought a pink karaoke microphone to distract them from the boredom. “Now our relationship is better, we feel like quarantine was like a rehearsal for retirement. We decided to buy a bigger place, and we started to plan for retirement.” This included saving more. “It feels good”.
Wendy, a 43-year-old mother, was quarantined in Xian with her husband and daughter: “During the first 14 days, we sorted out our closets . . . We found that we’d forgotten a lot of things from the past, and it brought back so many beautiful memories. I was so busy before, I never had time to do that, it brought us so much awareness of the beauty of life.”
Coco, a 36-year-old Shanghainese who lives with her mother, says they initially struggled to find a television show they could both enjoy over meals, before settling on Chinese soap operas she normally hates: “I found they’re not as bad as I thought.”
Edwin, 30, says he and his wife fought over housework: “We used to have help to do the housework once every two days, but she was not allowed to come.”
I asked them all: who would fare better under quarantine conditions, Chinese or westerners? “Our lives even before coronavirus were not as colourful as yours in the west,” says Coco. “We are used to staying home.” And there’s one more difference, says Sammy: “Chinese people are used to being told what to do.”
They all agree that in general, Chinese are used to living in small spaces, often with grandma (though less now than decades ago). That could give them an advantage over Americans who don’t normally like cramped intergenerational living.
Still, says Xuan Li, a parenting expert and psychology professor at New York University’s Shanghai campus: “Hardware matters: when everyone can have their own corner, and all the devices and bandwidth they need for work/study/leisure, it’s much easier. Space per capita probably makes it easier to be quarantined in a less crowded place like the US.”
America’s square footage may save more relationships than anything else: but don’t discount that pink karaoke mike, the joy of cleaning closets, or the therapeutic effect of Qing-era soap opera. Whatever it takes to keep peace at home for the next one, two or three months: it’s time we finally started listening to China on how to deal with this crisis.
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