Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Day Two: The Quietude of Chaos

The Quietude of Chaos is how I have taken to describe the almost month-long lull in activity across China. It is strange not to hear cars on the road at 4 AM. It is odd to look down streets of closed restaurants and see everyone out and about (few, indeed!) in a mask. It is peaceful, but under the veneer of peace, this is wreaking havoc on the Chinese economy and, much more importantly, the lives of its cooped up denizens. This is trauma with no blunt force mechanism-of-injury.

When I was in China, I received abusive messages from trusted, old friends in the United States urging me to come home immediately. For example, a fellow that I have known from college wrote: "What's the longest you can stockpile food? 30 days? 45? 60? Do you 'feel safe' in China? That level of sanctimonious wankery is the face of what's happening." When I explained that I did not want to leave 丫丫 and the kids, my friend said, on February 8, referencing his message from February 2, "Your job as The Bossman is to work out shit to protect your family dude. Up your game. There's little more for me to say to you. I flagged this a fortnight ago." [a fortnight is two weeks]

Now that I have come home, a regular poster on my FB profile (the partner of a friend of mine) asked me, publicly, "Why did you leave your family?" He went on to tell me that they are telling people to quarantine in place and that I did not do the right thing. I asked him to stop posting what were accusatory and personal questions; he continued, so sure is he that he is right about his point-of-view, and I have taken the highly unusual step of blocking someone that I know. It is not that he is saying something that I am unwilling to hear, but it is being said in a way that is unhelpful, that does not give the benefit of the doubt.

We must listen to a different "they" because--as unhelpful as I think the recommendation is--the US Embassy has just reissued it's Level 4 advisory, which is very clear: "Those currently in China should [my emphasis] attempt to depart by commercial means." This may contradict World Health Organization suggestions. Australia's travel ban, followed quickly by New Zealand where there are no confirmed cases, has been economically devastating and is unwarranted in the view of many. (Stay tuned for a subsequent post exploring whether the responses of some nations amount to concerted or independent acts of economic warfare.) What will China or any nation do when a new virus appears with a higher mortality rate and much clearer evidence of human-to-human transmission? (The evidence of human-to-human transmission is still being reviewed.) It seems to me we are "crying wolf" and when people start eating penguins instead of pangolins, contracting some virus that can survive in the icy Antarctic, it is going to be very hard to get the village to come save the sheep before the wolf has consumed them.

When I called someone else yesterday morning, I received a lecture on how I was wasting money (money that I earned, by the way, and would never have opted to spend this way). She told me it is not easy to get health care in North America so this is a bad idea. In her view, I have not thought this through and she told me "you cannot just keep bouncing around the globe." I only have one life. This is a crisis. I think that I have made the right decision, but who can ever be sure? Still, I would say to that person and others who are so quick to attack, "Give me the benefit of the doubt. I have spent a month inside reading everything I could--ranging from Alex Jones' Infowars to the Lancet. I did not do this lightly or capriciously."

It was very difficult to leave 丫丫 and the kids--heartbreaking even, but I am not worried about them at all with regard to the disease. (Much more worried about mental health and stress from the online teaching regime that has swept across a colossally under-prepared nation/industry/profession.) If I was worried, I would not have left. As previous posts have indicated, we just had a day where no new COVID-19 cases were reported in our city (Guangzhou) of 14 million people; there is still only 0.002% chance of being one of the people in my city with it. We live in a very safe island sub-district, which is completely without reported cases, and our community is gated with only residents (and endless streams of deliverymen) allowed to enter and exit. Still, Guangzhou is the second most infected city in Guangdong Province (after Shenzhen). And Guangdong Province has had the second largest number of reported cases outside of Hubei Province, as far as I can know. Data nerds will love this tool below.

Source: Johns Hopkins CSSE

One of my first models for right action during this crisis was a man, married to a Chinese, in Wuhan who told the British government, "I won't leave unless she can come." There are numerous stories like this. I thought to myself, I want to be like that man, but there are some significant differences between his situation and mine. First, I am not married so the states (China and the US) do not have an interest or care about our relationship. Second, I was living outside of the "lost province" of Hubei, where the mismanagement by local officials, especially in Wuhan (historically, Hangkou) has led to this crisis. The vast majority of reported cases and deaths are in Hubei Province, as you can see above.

I am better able to help my family and my school by operating on this side of the Great Firewall of China. Nationwide VPN blocks rose to an almost unbearable level in the three or four days before I departed. Here in Upstate New York, I can communicate freely with friends about options and gather the best available data from the media, scientists, and public health officials. If I stayed and the disease spread rapidly--we are still not out of the woods--I was worried about not being able to leave, as well as, eventually infrastructure failure as, for example, ill power plant operators were unable to show up for work. We are still a long way from that eventuality, but things can shift quickly with exponential growth. Better safe than sorry.

Before I finish my reflections this morning, I want to thank a lifelong friend who lives abroad, who has two vacant homes that she has offered to us, if 丫丫 and Naomi are able to join me here. I want to thank another friend from high school who has offered her family's recently refurbished basement apartment. The outpouring of kindness is always a reminder of how blessed or lucky I am despite the fact that some people--friends and family--seem to know what is best for me and know that I made a poor decision.

In mentioning private and public, but unattributed, conversations with people I know, I do not wish to chill conversation, but only request that if you have advice or questions, you phrase them in a way that is respectful and supportive. There are no right answers in this situation, only the path that we choose to take. My friend and fellow board member for Democrats Abroad China, who was Press Secretary for the late Hon. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, has traveled the opposite direction than me. Her blog posts are excellent and insightful, while naturally I do not agree with everything she has said or concluded. I will not say that she is wrong and I am right; our situations are hardly comparable. We each have our own path. We all must review the best available information and strategize to choose the best way for us and the ones we love.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Day One: Getting Settled at Juneberry Farm

I am getting settled at Juneberry Farm in Ovid, NY, which is next to Romulus and not far from the more famous ancient destinations of Ithaca, Syracuse, and Rome, itself. I am by the shores of Lake Seneca. While I am a fair piece from Gitche Gumee (aka Lake Superior), this is my first time spending any length of time in The Finger Lakes. It is about thirty miles to Ithaca, where I will visit the GreenStar Natural Foods Market today and do two weeks of grocery shopping.

I have brought some things from home to make it very nice, particularly a picture of Naomi as a three-year old preparing tea and a black-and-white photo of YaYa and I engaged in an Eskimo Kiss.

The place is heated by wood and Harry and YaYa were both so excited to see the toilet, which is a Sun-Mar composting toilet.

I am quite loaded down with tea and tea ware. Today's tea is one that was provided by my host, Guy the Berry Farmer. It is called Slenderizer from Tiesta Tea!

The weather is atrocious. Freezing rain will follow the snow that is coming not down, but across vertically.

I will teach the first classes of the English Language Arts classes that I am doing with the sophomore's higher-level students and the juniors. The juniors have to read Henry Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who was the father of my childhood pediatrician, Dr. Mark Vonnegut. The sophomores will have four "workshops" on the genres of literature, the learning of academic vocabulary, the writing process, and strategies for deeper reading. Their first assignment will be to choose a big topic from E.D. Hirsch and create a presentation on "cultural literacy" (e.g. if you choose Geology, maybe you introduce us to the San Andreas Fault, the Ring of Fire, etc.). Looking forward to getting started with them.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Alexander Lee Returning to USA

In an effort to be as responsible as possible, I have come from Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport (CAN) to Beijing’s (PEK) this morning and should arrive at 1:30 PM on Monday at New York’s JFK Airport (JFK), where I shall rent a car and drive northwest for several hours. I will be staying for two weeks in Upstate New York within a four-and-a-half hourdrive of Toronto, where I expect six year-old Naomi to arrive on or after March 2—the end of my two-week quarantine and what will be the beginning of hersMy journey is contingent on a promise from Yaya that she will fly Naomi, a Canadian citizen, to Toronto as soon as practicable, and today, Monday, February 17, visit the Canadian Consulate in Guangzhou to obtain a visa to accompany or come join her daughter, of whom I am not (yet) the legal guardian. Please keep her and Harry, who we do not believe will be able to leave Guangzhou, in your prayers.

I believe that the Chinese government is doing its darnedest to contain this, as the economic effect and political fallout from failure to contain the coronavirus known as COVID-19 could well be catastrophic for vast swaths of the population and the regimeThe Guardian continues to be the best source of information for me and many othersAgain, I encourage a contribution to this British newspaper. The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet (also British) have published peer-reviewed articles that I commend. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is a reliable governmental source for a lot of important information about the disease, its prevention, and treatment, as well as important updates.

Most restaurants in Guangzhou are on a take-out and delivery basis only; the streets are quiet and everybody is wearing a mask in public (notably not the recommendation of CDC even in Trump’s America, which I am sure is chummy with 3M, the major manufacturer of the coveted N95 type facemask). School will not resume without a week’s notice and no earlier than Monday, March 2, the end of my self-imposed quarantine period. Our island, where Yaya, Naomi, and Harry will remainuntil they are able to depart, is in great shape with no reported illnesses. We have been watching movies almost daily since returning from a five-day vacation to Sabah, Malaysia, during the Chinese New Year holiday, baking and cooking a healthy diet of mostly vegetables, and taking long walks or bike rides along the surrounding abandoned riverside pathsThe Year of the (Metal) Rat has come in like a tiger, let’s hope it goes out like a ram.

I will be doing a Forks Over Knives diet for my two weeks of self-imposed captivity, as well as teaching on-line for two sections of AP US History, one section of AP Environmental Science, and two sections of English Language Arts for my very understanding employerZhixin High School. This will keep me busy on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings for the next two weeks or beyond. As the Chair of Social Studies Department, I will carry out my other duties from afar as best I can until such time as I deem it safe to return. In the meantime, I am doing a fund and materials drive to get 110 washable, re-useable N95 masks for when everybody reconvenes on campus. Please let me know as soon as possible if you want to contribute or help with the procurement or mailing part of this effort, especially since the postal services and airline cargo services are slowing down.