A Chinese professor’s story during the pandemic
By Liu Junyang
People's Daily app

Students of the University of International Relations (UIR) returned to campus for fall semester under strict pandemic control rules on September 11, 2020. (File photo: UIR)

Next time you’re stressed out about the Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s travel, think about the Chinese Spring Festival Travel Rush, known as Chunyun in Chinese. Last year Chinese travelers made around 3 billion trips during this time. Could you imagine how crowded the railway stations and the airports were.

The Chinese Spring Festival is the happiest time in China, but not this year.

Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei Province, a major transport hub, was the city where the novel coronavirus was first detected. In early to mid-January, accelerated by the Spring Festival Travel Rush the virus spread to other provinces. On January 23, one day before the Chinese New Year’s Eve, the city of 11 million people was locked down.

On the same day, my school, the University of International Relations, held an emergency meeting of all department leaders. As the chair of the Department of Cultural and Communication, my coronavirus related work started. I had to make a situation report on a daily basis. All 240 students and 20 teachers must be contacted. I kept communicating online with the student consular and the secretary of my department. Finally, we collected all the required information: address, phone number, location, body temperature, how many lived in Wuhan and Hubei Province, how many had symptoms, how many confirmed and suspected, date and flight or train number if you had been to Wuhan within 14 days. Things got easier when an app was developed after a week, everyone just filled out a questionnaire online and uploaded it. 

Since then, my wife and daughter hadn’t left home for nearly two months. Our dog got used to pee and poo in the bathroom. His name is Simba, a 4-year-old black poodle. He always barked at all dogs when leashed, if unleashed, he would run away at the sight of any dog. Maybe in the future he would be as brave as the Lion King. 

I was the only one who had to go out once or twice a day to take out trash, pick up food and daily necessities bought online and had been delivered to the apartment door, sometimes I had to go to the office.

A student named Xinwan was applying to a Canadian university; she needed her passport which was inside the drawer of her dorm room. I had to get the permission to enter her room. It needs at least two people to enter an empty room, and everything must be recorded. With the help of the supervisor of the dorm, I found and shipped it to her home in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.

How to kill the time if you had to stay home for months? There were many choices: American movies, endless Korean TV dramas, online games, scanning the moments of friends on WeChat. My course the History of Western Civilization was planned to get on an online learning platform XuetangX developed by Tsinghua University, and before March 1, I had to edit and upload slides, texts and videos. I worked very hard and the course started on time. It was a free course, and I thought it was a contribution to the fighting against the pandemic.

On March 1, my school started spring semester with online teaching. I taught American Culture in English. In 2006, I was sent by my school to the Marietta College in Ohio as a visiting scholar. Coming back the following year, I began to teach this course.

We used three apps: WeChat, Tencent Meeting (a Zoom like app), and Rain Classroom, an online learning app developed by Tsinghua University. There are 30 million college students in China, and you could imagine how busy the internet traffic could be. I normally asked students to turn off their video, and a few times I couldn’t log in. But generally speaking, the online teaching was fine. By the way, one thing I could never do in the real classroom: showing my dog Simba, and students loved to see him licking my face.

This was a hard time but life had to go on. We had a nice outdoor track and field complex on campus. Now my daughter didn’t go to school, sometimes I went with her jogging. I didn’t expect that workout could become my daily routine. I am 57 years old, did 12 pushups in January, now 30. I run four kilometers a day, and played soccer three times a week. Members of our soccer group varied every day, normally about 10, half teenagers including girls, and half adults. Everybody really enjoyed the game.

I even learned how to ride a wave board. It had two wheels, and you need twist your hips and legs to make it run. The one I rode actually was my daughter’s. My wife was mad, “Don’t you know how old you are?” Yes, it could be dangerous, I tumbled about 20 times and luckily without bones breaking, though I did get a few bruises. Every time riding my board, I felt like a bird flying.

Normally, in my department, two people had to come every weekday besides me. The student counselor Huayan was expecting a baby, the secretary Xixi was a young mother with a 6-year old daughter. With the preschool closed, Xixi had to take care the girl at home. In March and April, I came to the office every day, and asked the other two not to come unless absolutely necessary. They worked online, both did a good job, more efficient than working at school. 

On April 8, Wuhan was reopened, everyone was happy but not families living in my unit. We were frightened. One family’s door in our unit was locked, from outside. I knew it was a family of a mother and her son. The son travelled to Wuhan and came back that day. Staff from the neighborhood committees (the lowest unit of the city government and the communist party) kept the key, they came every day to spray disinfectant, check body temperature, and deliver food and daily necessities. After 14 days and three times testing negative, they were freed.

When May started, Huayan was on a six-month maternity leave. The graduation season was coming, more things needed to be handled. Xixi had to come nearly every weekday, and sometimes she would bring her little girl. The girl always refused to tell me her name, and I just called her “Little Princess”.

The university had become a school without students, the teaching buildings were very quiet, and sometimes I rode my wave board along the corridor. When “Little Princess” came, she would run behind me. The running and laughter of this cute little girl could always remind me that even in this hard time, the true beautiful life was still there with us.

Our department office was on the first floor of the big teaching building. Normally, walking along the corridor you could always hear the classes going on. The two short pieces of piano music used as the class bell were beautiful: the melodies of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart and Spring Sonata by Beethoven. Of course during the breaks it could be very noisy. But this semester it was so deadly quiet, and one day Xixi came without her daughter. Suddenly she said, “it is like a scary deserted ghost building, sometimes it made me go nuts!”

This year so many big events happened in the US, and that made my class more meaningful: the pandemic, the endless shooting, the presidential impeachment and the upcoming presidential election, George Floyd and the BLM protests, and the increasing tensions between China and America. We discussed all of them in the online classroom.

Talking about how some Americans refused to wear a mask, Tom said, “in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the freedom was defined as ‘liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others’. You don’t do it at home, that is your freedom, but in the public spaces, if you don’t, you will possibly harm others.”

Owen added: “I don’t understand why Trump still uses terms like Wuhan or China virus. America is the richest country in the world with best scientists, doctors and hospitals, who couldn’t be shocked by the American death toll? Trump should blame himself, not China.”

While Chinese netizens’ attitude towards the US were mixed. Some were angry at certain US politicians’ slandering of China, and some were pitying at the US’s incompetent central government over pandemic containment. China-US relations is always a big topic on social media, some voices were even a little aggressive.

We once discussed the “Thucydides Trap”, coined by Harvard professor Allison, who proposed that when a rising power causes fear in an established power, confrontation or war would eventually happen. “War is horrible for all, there will be no winner and loser. War is absolutely unaffordable both for China and the US. Can you imagine how many people could die? I hate all warmongers,” Lucy said.

Before discussion, I asked students to read the epigraph of Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, a poem by John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…... never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Mark said, “China successfully controlled the virus. It’s inhuman to use ‘purgatory’ or ‘doomsday’ to describe other countries, and to mock their death toll. Confucius says ‘within the four seas all men are brothers’, Michael Jackson had a song ‘ We Are the World; We Are the Children’. We should mourn for every life lost, and I believe finally the death knells across the world will be replaced by Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’.” He won warm applause from everyone.

On July 21, I uploaded my grades, average point was 93. My school required students to anonymously fill out a questionnaire to evaluate each course, my course American Culture got 96.79, the highest in my department. And right now 7,000 students from home and abroad are learning my online course the History of Western Civilization.

Spring semester had passed. No one from my school was infected. I have been following the data form Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. There have been more than 35 million confirmed cases and more than 1 million deaths worldwide. If you are not one of them, you are lucky. Even being unfortunately infected, you still have to fight for yourself and all the people who love you. We can’t let this virus run and ruin our beautiful lives. After all tomorrow is another day. Fear, despair and complaint won’t help, God helps those who help themselves. John Donne once said, “Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail”.

On August 21, the Chinese government announced the full reopening of all schools for fall semester. Our school’s fall semester has started from September 14, and the campus has come back to a colorful life. In the classroom we still have to wear mask, entering and leaving campus still need permission.

I have a new neighbor Wendy form Maryland, a new professor teaching English. She was so nice to promise me to be the first reader of this story and give me some advice.

By the way, good news for Simba, Wendy has brought a nice dog named Drum, a wire-haired dachshund. A possible girlfriend? “You can’t imagine how difficult it is to bring a dog from America to China. If I can do that, I can do anything”, she said.

I agreed with her. No pain, no gain. If you keep going and never give up, all challenges can be overcome. To me, teaching, writing and daily workout, to my dog, getting along with other dogs, to my student Xinwan learning online as a graduate student at the McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She was told that maybe she could go there in December. I hope things will get better, not only in Canada, but also the whole world.

The writer is an associate professor and chairman of the Culture and Communications Department, University of International Relations, Beijing, China.