I was watching two dragons dance.
They writhed about one another, broke apart and came together against the backdrop of a thumping drumbeat and the squeals of children.
Only a week ago, I was standing at the back of the auditorium of an international school in a city in China. Arms folded, I divided my attention between watching the annual Dragon Dance and making sure that my Year Sixes were striking the right balance between energetic enjoyment of spectacle and just plain naughtiness. Whenever one of the dragons wormed its way up the aisle where my class were sat, the children nearest stood up and leaned forward to touch the dragon. This seemed to be an accepted thing, but one kid reached over to pinch the backside of one of the dragon operators. This was just plain naughtiness, but the levity of the occasion and my uncertainty over cultural appropriacies, not to mention the presence of parents, drew no more admonishment from me than a fixity of facial expression apparent to nobody but myself. One of my Year 10 students back in Prague noted the recurrence of this facial expression whenever she felt my disapproval.
“You look like a blobfish, sir,” she said.
The Dragon Dance was last Wednesday – the last school day before the Chinese New Year holidays. A few of my colleagues were wearing surgical masks. I’d forgotten to bring mine to school. Since the beginning of January, stories had been bubbling around the staff room, our various Wechat groups and the news websites about a virus in Wuhan – a city about 600 miles west of us. Something about people selling wild animals in a seafood market; something about bats (or was it wolves?); something about the proximity of dead meat to living wild animals; something about lots of little details that all added up to me forgetting to wear a surgical mask to the Dragon Dance.
Thursday was the first day of the holidays. Many families had already begun their participation in the greatest annual human migration on Earth: going to some rural family home for Chinese New Year.
On the Wednesday evening we would have normally decided to celebrate the beginning of a school holiday with a family trip to a restaurant, but this time, for some reason we decided to stay at home. We watched Mel Brooks’ The Producers – I thought it would give my eldest daughter (who is preparing for her History IGCSE) some relief from memorizing aspects of the Second World War and simply let her laugh at Hitler. I watched along with her and drank a few beers, ate a handful or two of cucumber flavoured crisps.
So Thursday began with a slight hangover and a vague memory of Hitler as a beatnik. It also began with a small knot of tension in my chest. We’d already been told by school to wear masks in public places. I already knew about Coronavirus and already felt the encroachment of something invisible and powerful, but this knot was new that morning. Perhaps it had been there the day before and I’d mistaken it for the usual excited anticipation of holiday. Whatever its origin, this knot of tension could no longer be attributed to excitement. I was worried.
On Thursday, all travel was strongly discouraged by the authorities. To limit the spread of the virus, it was recommended that people not join the annual migration. This edict seemed to come a little late. Most of my students had travelled with their families the day before. As far as I could see, the migration was already well underway, if not already complete. Many of my teaching colleagues had already gone abroad: Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, Vietnam. The lateness of this recommendation, coupled with the fact that the migration was pretty much underway added to a general impression of “oh well” – a kind of unspoken “well, it can’t be all that serious”-ness that placated me, set my mind at rest. It was a holiday after all. But, still, this knot.
Between Thursday and Sunday a number of things happened in an order that is hard for me to remember. The general chronology as I remember it seems to go like this:
1) We are told that it is best to stay indoors and avoid outdoor spaces with large gatherings of people in close proximity
2) We find out that several cities in Hubei (the province in which Wuhan is located) are locked down with citizens unable to leave or enter by public transport
3) We watch reported infection levels rise (and read a UK estimate of a much larger likely level of unreported infections)
4) We watch the volume of deaths rise in sporadic increments: one, two, five. And on. (A low mortality rate relative to SARS, but for whom can that really be a consolation?)
5) Schools are not to reopen for an additional two weeks, during which time we should aim to provide learning materials online in as close to a real-time manner as possible. We are instructed by our principal to produce short video lessons and maintain our dress code.
There’s a comforting abstraction about this early part of the chronology – numbers, reports, local authority actions, business as usual. But then the chronology, like the writhing dragon, seems to take on a new shape. If the course of events were the dance of the dragons in the auditorium, let’s imagine that now is the point at which one of the dragon stops its dance and unaccountably the dragon turns and looks directly at me – its eyes wet and real.
Events now acquire a domestic subtlety that turns the knot of tension into a melting coldness that spreads to my shoulder blades:
6) The items that we habitually buy online to have delivered in the next hour by e-bike are no longer as freely available.
7) The delivery bikers are no longer riding into the compound. They now leave our groceries in boxes at the entrance for us to pick up.
8) Two of the three entrances to our compound are shut down. There is now only one way in and out.
All the while we and our fellow teaching colleagues have been trapped in our separate apartments on the compound, greedily consuming news and rumour on our phones. There’s a staff social group on Wechat via which we share the tidbits and tips that comfort and placate us: where to get the “approved” updates, FCO travel advice, where to buy more surgical masks. A parent from the school starts to sell us masks via wechat at an obviously inflated price. Business, she types, smiley emoticon. My wife notices that she’s selling these masks in batches of five but her photos show packs of fifteen. Are you opening the packs to separate them? my wife types. The parent doesn’t reply. My wife doesn’t buy the masks.
Concurrent with the soothing, rallying, blitz-spirit tone of our staff social group, we start to receive messages from individual colleagues: “How are you doing?” , “It’s so boring.” , “When do you think this will blow over?” The tone of these private messages is beginning to lose the scaffolding of a shared commitment to calm.
“I’m looking at flights.”
“The numbers are only going to go up.”
“Are you looking at flights?”
Those that have already left the country (on holiday) are curiously quiet on the group chat. “Are you coming back?” I ask one colleague, who is tapping on his phone’s screen from a sunbed in Vietnam.
“Of course not.” The speech bubble pops green onto my screen and I can see the three popping dots that signify more typing…
“You should get out too. Before you can’t.”
It is at this point that I begin to see the catalyst. It is Sunday evening and my wife and I find spaces in the apartment to have quiet conversations. So far the school’s position has been to send out advice and ultimately echo the position of the authorities whilst also directing us to watch the FCO position. There’s a steadfastness about this communication: a resolute business as usual that doesn’t seem to square with the surrounding buzz of “You should get out too. Before you can’t.”
At two o’clock on Monday morning, I find I have already been awake and thinking quite clearly for some minutes. I get up and go to sit on the sofa in the living room. My wife comes to sit with me. We don’t need to ask one another why we are sitting together on the sofa at two o’clock on Monday morning.
The talk is low and methodical. If we leave, where do we go? What about our jobs? What about our belongings? Who will look after the cats? What about our eldest daughter’s exams? “It’s so hard,” I say. We are weighing being trapped in the midst of an epidemic against throwing all into the unknown. I go to bed undecided and my wife waits for the next four hours, awake, sitting on the sofa.
At six o’clock, “Are you awake?” Yes, I say. ” I think we should go. ” Yes, I say.
Later that day, having booked four flights to Europe, we sit down again on the sofa. She’s crosslegged on the divan end. “I thought to myself,” she says, “‘What would my children want their mother to do?'”
This is the centre of things, the catalyst and the light: a father watching a mother imagine the thoughts of their two children into action.
My blobfish face is reflected in the eye of a dragon.
Thank you so much for reading these words. It has helped me so much, so much, to write them.