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Essay

Isolated, Yet Connected

The tai chi group is back, clacking their fans and gliding in loose linen while blaring “Once Upon a Time in China.” Kids scoot by, grannies perambulate infants – all in masks, now so strangely normal. But so far none of the aunties have appeared for their evening dance party. Good.

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

Probably like you, I’ve been a somewhat-willing prisoner these last months, as much from fear and a sense of powerlessness as from those faceless guards armed with fever-check guns.  

But spring has poked its hopeful rays into our South China hearts, and our (briefly) low-risk city of Shenzhen showed me moments of real connection amid the pandemic panic.  

Sunday mornings see a new ritual unfold, as book club members Zoom in to discuss the week’s plague-related title. (Camus took pride of place, of course.) They’re all back in the US, sharing the shock of finding empty market shelves, but I’m fixated on their cocktails and wine. But, no, coffee must suffice. It’s only 9am and day-drinking is a perilous, stumbling road.  

So we finish and I decamp to the wide world (masked and gloved, of course - one neighbor calling the cops to report me is one too many). The tai chi group is back, clacking their fans and gliding in loose linen while blaring “Once Upon a Time in China.” Kids scoot by, grannies perambulate infants - all in masks, now so strangely normal. But so far none of the aunties have appeared for their evening dance party. Good. Count me among those giving the side eye to that noise pollution.  

Beyond the central gate, the river invites me and hundreds of neighbors out for a stroll. Kids with plastic fishing nets duck beneath plastic tape marking the riverwalk off limits. At this point, any fish they catch, chock full of factory runoff, would be more dangerous than congregating along the waterline. It’s almost comforting to face an old, familiar threat to our health… 

In the long strip of park above the river shore, another neighbor practices extreme social distancing, cracking the long chain of his whip in volleys of thunder. The noise, the flying metal, and the stern concentration of his middle age brow all brook no approach.  

As I walked along there, in the beginning of the crisis, the metal barrier announcing the riverwalk’s closure had sent a ripple of loss from my heart to my toes. In this small Shenzhen suburb, there’s so little for me to enjoy. Not yet confident enough to hop the barrier and risk a tongue-lashing (or worse), I sat there, a little crestfallen.  

“I like your hat!” It was a stranger from the neighborhood, taking his own stroll in that strip of parkland. It was just a tiny gesture - in English, no less - but it bolstered my heart enormously. He was right, mine is a great little maroon newsboy cap, and I thanked him, mentioning where I’d purchased it. Then we each went on our way, my mood leavened like the sourdough starter on our kitchen counter.  

From that kitchen, I’ve concocted cookies and cupcakes, the miniest of cheesecakes, brownies, lemon bars, and more. With far more butter and sugar on our hands than one couple could handle, I’ve begun venturing out with foil-wrapped reserves for our semi-quarantined friends. One batch I mailed never made it (I suspect the guards intervened in an abundance of caution… or gluttony), so we walk the care packages over now.  

Usually it’s not a problem, except our chronically tardy friend wasn’t there to receive the bundle. Maybe we could leave it at the security station? Faster than you can say “Napoleon complex,” one of the guards was chasing off my inquiring husband, ignoring his excellent Chinese and practically barking for us to be gone. He only stood down when a passing resident overheard and explained that we just wanted to drop it off. Permission, finally, was granted… though a final intervention was needed to prevent a distasteful dosing of alcohol spray.  

Our friend did get the cookies. She reported them delicious.  

Home again, an email arrived from our friend back in America. She’d spent two years in Beijing while we were there and now she’s wrapped up a stint in rehab. I’d learned she was in the program back in February and I’d gone online to arrange for photo postcards to arrive, one a day for a couple weeks. And they were signed by our cat, since all her best friends are cats. 
 
They were photos of strange, melting statues, murals of monkeys and wide-eyed self-caricatures, ending with a shot from our trip to Hong Kong’s Golden Buddha, where she had pet the docile cows that own the place. “It made me incredibly happy,” she reported. “I think I showed everyone at the program.” I slept well that night.  

From in and around our apartment-prison, little tokens of comfort can pierce the gloom. It’s no cure-all for all that ails the world, but it’s enough to calm a fevered brow and let us get on with the work of living.

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