An American in China Tells What Life Has Been Like Since COVID-19 Struck

It is challenging to know the reality of how the coronavirus has and will affect China. COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has claimed a reported 3,298 lives in China as of Friday afternoon and infected over 81,000. Although America and the rest of the world now face rampant outbreaks, China already has weathered months of the pandemic that began there. 

Joseph Strickland is an American teacher living and working in Nanjing, China, just over 300 miles from Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus originated. Strickland tells us what life has been like over the past few months and what lessons America can take from their experience. Read the lightly edited transcript below or listen to the podcast.

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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Joseph Strickland, an American living and working in China. Joseph, thank you so much for joining me.

Joseph Strickland: Hey, thank you, Virginia, for having me.

Allen: Now you live in Nanjing, China. How far is that from Wuhan?

Strickland: Nanjing is about 300 miles or so from Wuhan. If you were to travel by car, it’d be like eight hours, maybe, approximately from Atlanta to Orlando.

Allen: Ok, Ok. That’s helpful. And how long have you lived there?

Strickland: We’ve lived here for a total of a year and a half. We were here, arrived in the fall of 2017, and then we were back, I was teaching at a school in South Carolina for a year last year, and then was asked to come back here. And my wife and I [have] lived here for the last seven months.

Allen: OK, great. What do you teach in China?

Strickland: We are theater teachers. We teach acting and performance. We both graduated from Southeastern University with theater majors, an Assemblies of God school, and we’re out here teaching drama to high schoolers, middle schoolers, and even primary students.

Allen: Obviously, the main news that everyone is talking about right now is coronavirus. So many people want to know what it’s like in China and how it’s progressed there.

So let’s go all the way to the beginning and talk about when did you first hear about coronavirus and when did it become real to you and you [began] to understand what was actually happening in China?

Strickland: We became aware of it probably in the middle to early part of January is where a lot of the information was starting to pop out and around.

At first it was just a few people on WeChat, which is the Chinese version of social media that they use inside the country. We, of course, have WeChat accounts. It’s how we communicate pretty much for everything here.

And so there [were] a few conversations and things you would see on, basically, a form of like a Facebook feed or wall. It was called the WeChat Moments where the people you follow, you can see things pop up here and there.

So we saw a little bit of people linking an article here or there or discussing it, but it wasn’t really present as far as in the national discussion yet, I would say, to the point where it was coming to us consistently.

My wife and I had a trip planned already to Hong Kong due to the Chinese school year ends in the middle of January as it gets closer toward the Chinese New Year celebration. And things started getting a lot more serious once we hit the middle of January and heading toward the later part of January.

We decided to go ahead and take our trip at that time because we had a feeling that it was going to be a problem as we started hearing more and more about infections spreading and people potentially shutting things down.

So we headed to Hong Kong, then decided not return to China. Flew back to America. Spent about a week and a half at home with my mother, just to see her anyway, and then returned to China at about the middle of February, beginning of February. So we’ve been here since then.

Allen: And when you returned, what was the atmosphere in China? What were you seeing? What were people saying?

Strickland: We have an interesting thing here. When you live in China, there’s a strong foreigner or expat community that keeps in touch with each other, especially our company employs a lot of people from overseas. All four drama teachers actually that work for our company are from America.

So we have our own little WeChat channel group that we chat in and to update each other on what is going on with each other as well as in different parts of what people see. Also, our company runs speech and debate and many other things. And so all these teachers were communicating back and forth.

So when we returned, we kind of had an idea of what things were going to be like. Most people were saying that at that point they had enacted mask laws where you couldn’t go outside without a mask on.

And then the government policy locally was you were not allowed to go into a store if you didn’t have PPE [Personal protective equipment], which meant that the store owner could reject you at the door if you didn’t have the ability to protect others from any infection you might have.

Fortunately for China, delivery systems are instant and everywhere. And then at that time masks were starting to run scare.

So we returned. The situation was a little testy at first because we were more nervous about whether we could get masks. One of the reasons we went home before we came back, instead of coming directly back from Hong Kong, one of reasons we returned to America first was to buy masks.

Actually, I sent my mother a message from Hong Kong realizing it was getting serious and told her to go buy us two packs of masks, basically, from an American drugstore before it became a big problem in America. And she did, she bought us two boxes. We did not hoard. I want to be clear on that.

That allowed us to be able to safely return in a sense. Of course, it’s not 100% safety, but they gave us at least enough comfort to feel like we could get back and get on a plane at that time when it was a very serious problem in Asia.

Allen: Do you personally know people in China who have had the coronavirus?

Strickland: Yes. There’s a few people that I know that have had it near me. I won’t say their names just because, for their sake, I want to keep their business here.

But in our neighborhood, the Chinese government has released an app that shows you local hot spots where infections have occurred, so you can kind of protect yourself better.

We also have a friend who’s engaged to a lady who’s got family from Wuhan. And so we have conversations about what’s going on there as well.

Allen: How rapidly did things really progress and change in China? I know you were gone for a little while, but from the time that you came back in February, how have you seen the situation evolve?

Strickland: Oh, goodness. The situation for a while got serious. I don’t mean in a sense of a negative way, just more of the virus really we weren’t sure of what was going on. No one, I think, was prepared for this. I don’t think it’s possible to be prepared to change your whole lifestyle completely, nor should we live that way, honestly, waiting for it.

So, the impact was pretty severe. It had a time frame at one point where you struggled to feel safely that you were going to get supplies like masks to continue to purchase things from stores. That was a real concern. What they did is they started rationing them, basically, offering like two masks to be purchased at a time, which helped a lot.

But the other thing is our company and our Chinese friends, our Chinese community here … I had several co-workers reach out to me, offering me a mask for free, to have them sent by an express delivery person over to our house.

We did the same thing with what we had. We were offering it back to them, and so there was a lot of sharing going on.

The other thing is … we have not seen anyone face-to-face that we work with or know really since the beginning of February. So we’ve been in our house and we have online video chat. I’ve been teaching students remotely. But other than walking over to a store with gear on to go and purchase some food and things like that, we’ve not left the house.

Allen: Now, you’ve kind of touched on it, but tell me a little bit more about just the community grassroots effort to actually be watching out for one another in your community and to fight the coronavirus.

Strickland: Well, it’s definitely come from two prongs. I’ll talk about the community first, but it’s almost impossible to talk about the community effort without the government’s hand in it because it’s really been part of the same plan brought from both sides, I’d say.

The Chinese have a very, very strong mindset of community. … Here comes the Western civilization civics teacher in me coming out. They have a very different mindset from our view of a Western civilization and it comes with its pluses and minuses.

Being an American, I obviously would prefer where we come from in the sense of how we do things, but I do think it’s fascinating. They have the idea of the community comes first.

So for them to jump on this and to do their part, to sacrifice what they need to do in order to get through this together was really quite impressive. It actually blew me away, honestly.

I did not think that it could happen without civil unrest. … Because I just couldn’t see it. I didn’t have a lot of frame of reference for that.

But briefly, I’ll mention just some of the things that we saw. Our security guards have done an incredible job. What they do is they come in and they block off all subdivisions.

For instance, you can’t go in someone’s subdivision complex. The Chinese government ordered that … no one that doesn’t live there allowed in.

So what they do is they have these normal security guys at every subdivision area in any major city. They are only letting residents in, but all the delivery for supplies and food are managed by these guys.

They have a whole table spread out. They’re checking everything for you. When you come in and out, they scan your temperature. They have an app now that scans you. In other words, it’s part of their “Where have you been in the last 14 days?” kind of thing. And so a lot of businesses use that right now.

So everything from the private businesses, including the people on the street sharing resources, as well as our local security groups taking care of us has been very, very, very supportive.

I want to be clear that it’s not what a lot of us would think. We think of this idea of a Gestapo, of making certain, and this Orwellian kind of mindset that we’re falling in line. It’s not been delivered that way, the way I perceive it.

… The people, the citizens have been so driven toward citizenship, at the same time, while the government has done really a phenomenal job of making sure the resources get down to where they need to get to.

The shelves have never been unstocked here. They’ve never had a hoarding problem.

At the very outset, I would say there was a little bit of rush on some of the things that the people liked the most. Those were restocked very quickly and the delivery chains especially were never halted.

Now, this is because they’re a command economy and … the government owns a large amount of the means of production so they can ensure that that occurs. But it was quite efficient in achieving its result in a time of crisis.

Allen: Interesting. What’s the atmosphere now in China? Are people pretty hopeful or are they looking at things as kind of glass half full or is there still a lot of discouragement and feeling like this is still a long road that we have left to walk?

Strickland: They feel like the sun is coming out now. Now, I think everyone’s a little nervous. I’ve seen a lot of people, they’re super excited that it’s coming to an end, but they’re still scared to go outside because no one wants to be the first one. But people have been back to work now for about 10 days. Our co-workers have been at the office every day.

They have a lot of systems in place right now that were not there at the beginning. I believe that there’s been a lot of discussions at local levels as well as up the chain, and so companies are now, when they’re bringing workers back, are doing their own testing of their own employees. So it’s really hard to not feel a little secure when you’re getting tested consistently.

Plus, the amount of cleaning that’s going on. Our elevator right now, they have a checklist just on our elevator in our one building, in our apartment complex. And it’s cleaned 25 times a day, the buttons and the walls are. And it’s on a checklist initialed by the cleaning person. So, they have it down to a science right now.

Allen: What advice would you give to Americans? We’re pretty far behind where China is now. What are things that we should be doing? How should we be approaching the situation?

Strickland: Staying inside is the biggest thing. If you’re not infected with a coronavirus, then odds are your house is a safe haven. It’s your castle, it’s your refuge, stay there. If you’re in there and you’re not going out, then you’re pretty safe from what’s out there.

When you do go out, it gives you the opportunity to be prepared and to be really focused on making sure you do the small things right. Don’t touch your face. Making sure you wear gloves.

For me, I’m a nervous kind of individual. I have Tourette’s syndrome, so I have ticks and things. So … often I touch my eyes, naturally, as a thing I would do. So I would wear glasses all the time to make certain I’m not touching my eyes when I’m out.

Of course, masks are very important. They’re not as important for you unless you have a very high-quality mask, but they’re more important for others around you because it’s to prevent spread in case you happen to be infected. And, of course, infecting other people is really the danger here.

A lot of people I know think in their mind that, “Well, I’m OK,” but it’s not about you. It really isn’t. … Even if you don’t have bad results from this virus, the more people you infect, the longer you prolong your own problem because society is going to still continue to be shut down as long as the virus continues to spread.

There is, of course, a lot of debate right now on whether, which is more important, mitigation of the results or going for herd immunity.

I’ve been reading up, but I would say that right now the bank key for Americans, I would suggest, is to stay inside and take it seriously. But don’t panic.

My goodness. My feet are up on the couch. I posted a video on Facebook not too long ago and one of the things I was joking about was my biggest decision every day is McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, to my wife’s chagrin, unfortunately, because she’s worried I’m going to balloon.

But yeah, I think that’s the big thing. Take it in stride, find out what you can do. My wife and I have been working on our Chinese in this time. I’m taking advantage of practicing that. Look at it as an opportunity, just like anything that comes in life.

Allen: Yeah. No, I think that’s wisdom. You’re right. It is an opportunity. There’s a lot we can do with the extra time. Are people in China talking about where the virus may have come from, where it may have originated?

Strickland: I think that there’s a big discussion right now on where it came from. I know that a lot of people, originally, there was a lot of frustration with Wuhan and the government officials there from the Chinese government here. I heard a lot of that. And I know that people have talked about a wet market there.

I know a lot of my fellow Chinese friends and things during that time were posting a lot of memes and pictures on WeChat that a lot of people were doing, which was saying that, please stop doing this or stop doing that because this is what happens.

I don’t think anybody that I know knows. We’re not privileged to that information in a sense of exactly what is what.

I do know that I would find it very surprising if it wasn’t anything more than just a freak accident, just because of the amount of shutdown that has occurred here.

I do know there’s been some discussion about, and I’ve heard it through the channels about America being the source as well. I don’t know about that, but I’ve not seen anything in my time here that’s made me concerned about any kind of craziness. I do know that Wuhan was the main source from what people have said.

Allen: Are people in China concerned about a second wave of the virus? If people are now being allowed to go back to school slowly and go back to work slowly, are there concerns that this might actually not be over and we would see a second relapse?

Strickland: Oh, I think it’s absolutely a concern in everyone’s mind. They’ve done a great effective job of staying on this.

I think reintegration is going to be one of the biggest keys, making sure people don’t feel like, “Oh, well, shift’s over. Time to resume normalcy.” There’s got to be a transition period where people are very careful but out and about.

I feel like President [Donald] Trump, some of his comments recently, I really resonated with some of the things he was saying about making sure that the cure is not worse than the problem.

There comes a point where you can do your best and mitigate the results, but at some point you can’t pull down the very structures of everything you have that you depend on to make certain that life can go forward.

I think that’s one of the challenges of managing a crisis like this, is trying to find that right way forward and what that’s going to mean. A lot of people, I would say, would be concerned. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard a lot of that conversation yet because we’re still inside.

I know some of our Chinese staff … were rotating how much they’re working right now. Some of them will take a large amount of the shift and some will kind of peel off. So it’s kind of a touch-and-go right now.

But even those who are back to work, they are heavily screened currently and people are very, very meticulous. There’s also been a change in policy with foreigners too though.

So China has focused a large amount on making sure they’re preventing imported infections, which you’ve probably heard a little bit about in the news in America.

But, for instance, if you are a foreigner or someone who’s traveled outside of China basically in any of this list of countries, which includes the U.S., then you, when you return, you are basically escorted from the airport to a hotel, a foreigner hotel. There’s a handful of them, a list that’s designated for them.

And it’s at your own expense, of course, but you are required to stay there for 14 days and you’re monitored, temperature is inspected, things like that, just to make sure that they’re not going to import anymore cases. There’s a high attention to making sure that that doesn’t happen right now.

Allen: Interesting. You do have such a unique perspective just being in China, living in China, but also being American and being in touch with so many people here in the states. I want to give you just a final opportunity. Is there anything that you want Americans to know, that you feel like we should take into consideration moving forward?

Strickland: First of all, I’m just a guy. Nothing I say is filled with any secret knowledge or anything like that. I’m Georgia born and raised and I’m a teacher.

I love God and I love people. But the thing I have learned is that people are people everywhere. And that’s part of the core beliefs that I have, not just as a person of faith, but as an American. And I believe that the Chinese are fighting this thing as hard as you all will be.

I think that it’s going to take a lot of resolve, but it’s not a big deal if you focus on what you can do in the meantime.

To put things in perspective, in our American history, we’ve had people in times of crisis have to go to war into foreign soil and defend our rights and our freedom. This crisis means we kick our feet up on the sofa and watch a little more Netflix. It’s hard to feel sorry for ourselves, I think, in that regard.

But I do think what we can do is make sure that we’re thinking about our community more than just ourselves. That’s the one thing I would suggest we learn from what China and South Korea and many of these Asian countries have been able to accomplish.

The one thing I would say is that I was so moved by what I saw recently. My wife was showing me, actually today, it was a little list posted on Facebook. I can’t verify the truthfulness of it, but I will say that if it’s true, it was very, very encouraging.

[The post was] about the things that the civil corporations have done in America recently, from redirecting their company’s focuses to handling and helping contribute to those who are trying to get through this crisis.

And that, to me, speaks volumes for the value and success of capitalism. So I’m proud of that and I’m also proud of everyone who’s going to be able to walk through this. Yeah, that’s the main thing.

And please stay home. Please don’t go party on the beach. Please don’t. It is a deal. And we all love our grandmamas and our mamas and dads. So please, please, please stay home.

Allen: Joseph, thank you so much. We just really appreciate your insight and your wisdom and just taking the time to share a little bit of your own personal experience there in China.

Strickland: Hey, Virginia, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it so much.

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