Pandemic: the second time around

By Courtney Beal

It was Wednesday, September 19, 2018. 

I disembarked, along with Reed, 7, and Ana, 2, from a flight across the ocean to meet my husband in Hong Kong.

He’d been there for a month already – which meant I’d been single parenting in Batesville and had now survived (the most accurate word I can think of) a 16+ hour flight with two young children on my own. We were, for all intents and purposes, moving to Hong Kong where Wesley was awarded a Fulbright grant to teach and research at the University of Hong Kong for the fall 2018 semester. 

I’ll confess that I was less than enthusiastic about this proposition, at first. There might not have been any place you could have chosen that would have felt more foreign to me at that juncture of my life than Hong Kong. I’d only ever left the continent of North America once – to visit London. You can imagine the mental space I was in as I disembarked from what seemed like a never-ending flight.

As I literally drag Reed down the corridor, with Ana and all the carry-on luggage I can manage piled into the stroller, we’re immediately met by a team of masked attendants wearing lab goggles and pointing temperature guns at us. They gestured for me to stop while they scan Ana in the stroller, then Reed, then finally me.

I can’t overstate, as a westerner, how intrusive this felt. I had a brief moment of panic contemplating what would happen if one of our readings came back slightly high. 

We were greeted with this same process two more times before we finally were allowed to exit the secure area of the airport: once before we were allowed into the baggage claim area and again before we entered the immigration and customs area.  It felt like we had emerged from the plane into a completely different realm – one that felt less like reality and more like some dystopian novel.

I remember, on one of our first outings into the city, Reed looking up and asking, “Why are all of these people sick? Are we going to get sick, too?” It took a minute for me to realize he was referring to all the people he saw up and down the sidewalks, on the subway, and in the shops wearing face masks. 

You don’t have to spend long in Hong Kong before you notice the prevalence of face mask wearing. Descending into the subway during rush hour, you’ll encounter throngs of people wearing them. For a westerner, it felt unusual at first, and I’m seeing some of the same reactions here in the United States.

While living in Hong Kong, I became keenly aware of how much I relied on facial expressions for communication – especially since I couldn’t understand the language. I was forced to really look into others’ eyes, even in casual interactions where I might have just relied on the other’s tone of voice or smile.  Maybe this is what feels so uncomfortable – this loss of a casual social “middle ground.” It becomes necessary to either not acknowledge anyone, or truly make eye contact and give your undivided attention.

Pandemics aren’t a new experience for the city of Hong Kong. Asia’s World City – as Hong Kong is often called – was the epicenter for the SARS outbreak of 2003, and you can still feel the aftermath and scars of that outbreak, even today. Temperature scans and mask-wearing are commonplace for residents there. Any time you move across a major boundary line (like taking the ferry to Macau, flying to Japan or “mainland” China, etc…) your temperature is scanned multiple times. 

For many Hong Kongers, face masks have become a part of their fashion, similar to picking out shoes, a hat, or another accessory. We saw regular medical masks, but also all manner of prints and solid colors. Children sport their favorite cartoon or movie characters. Reed was particularly jealous of Marvel character masks. What felt like another world upon our arrival in Hong Kong quickly came to feel routine. The sight of people wearing face masks just became a normal part of the landscape for us.

Beal’s daughter, Ana, in Hong Kong in 2018.

Fast forward to winter/spring 2020…headlines begin showing up in my Facebook feed. 

Headlines like:

 “Coronavirus Cases Rise Above 24,000”

“First Coronavirus Death”

“Coronavirus Strikes a Wounded City”

“Economists Warn Coronavirus Risk Far Worse Than Realized”

“American Airlines Extends Flight Suspensions … Amidst Coronavirus” 

“Containing new coronavirus may not be feasible, experts say, as they warn of possible sustained global spread.”

I’m sure these headlines seem familiar. They started circulating widely in the United States around early March. These specific headlines, however, were showing up in my personal Facebook feed starting at the end of January. The“wounded city” referenced is Hong Kong. 

Having lived in Hong Kong for the last half of 2018 and still having friends and connections there, I’d been watching this virus and the damage and chaos left in its wake for more than a month before it seemed relevant here. 

I’ve watched, via a Facebook group called “Hong Kong Moms,” families that live in much smaller quarters than the average American family (the average size home in Hong Kong is 484 sq ft – let that sink in for a minute…) trying to navigate quarantining and working and schooling at home since the start of February. Add to that school closures experienced due to the large-scale protesting Hong Kong experienced in the fall, and you have kids that have been out of school more than in this year. 

Their struggles are the same: finding enough time in the day, keeping children occupied long enough to conduct a remote meeting, finding new ways of entertaining themselves at home, feeling isolated from family and friends. They may be on the other side of the globe, but their everyday struggles look just like ours these days. 

Other headlines have been coming  through my feed this week:

“Hong Kong Reports No New Covid-19 Cases”

“Hong Kong Reports No New Cases for 2nd Time in a Week”

“Hong Kong Medical Experts Say Social Distancing Measures Could Be Relaxed in Early May As Infection Rates Slow.”

It isn’t an absolute drop off, but new cases for the last two weeks have been in the single digits. What hope that brings, to have even a single day with no new cases reported. 

Hong Kongers use a phrase: “Be water.” You may have seen it used in relation to the pro-democracy protest movement that swept Hong Kong in the summer and fall of 2019 (and is still brewing, under the surface, even now, but that’s another story for another day). It’s not so much a specific strategy as a general philosophy. It’s been particularly necessary to “be water” when handling this global pandemic. With the rapid rate of information changes, it’s been necessary to constantly adapt to new information and policies. Water can carry great force and brute strength. It can be hard as stone, but it can also bend and move around barriers with grace. It is flexible. It adapts. It can wipe out an obstacle in mere seconds or it can wear it down gently over time. Its sound can be both deafening and healing. I’ve found that places of water are often where I find my greatest restoration.

That dystopian world we emerged into back in the fall of 2018 seems to have crept into our own reality here. It’s been interesting watching our culture wrestle with these norms of the “other,” feeling the familiar uneasiness with practices we associate with “that other place.”

I’m curious to see if our own culture will hold onto any of these practices in the scars this pandemic might leave. Will we see mask-wearing become more commonplace? Will temperature scans become a regular part of entering areas with large crowds like airports, arenas, amusement parks, etc…? Will we see the disappearance of handshakes as greetings, replaced by an intentional meeting of the eyes and nod to acknowledge another?

Perhaps, and maybe this feels uncomfortable. Maybe it feels like there would be some sort of loss in this scenario, but I offer a different perspective.

I’ve watched my own community come together and find ways of caring for and connecting with each other – despite the physical distance. I’ve watched local individuals, school districts, groups and businesses step in the gap to support and hold each other up. I’ve watched the relationship between my own two children deepen in unexpected ways. I’ve seen people flow, adapt, and overcome.

There will definitely be scars left when we emerge, but I have hope and faith that we will all figure out the next right steps together. I believe that, together, we can adapt to the new world in which we will emerge.

Whatever the case, we still have time to shape how our story ends. Let’s meet this challenge with strength, but also grace. Let’s focus on taking the next right step together. It’s my hope that when we come out on the other side of this, we will rise up with a greater sense of “we,” rather than “us” and “them.” 

Let’s “be water,” my friends. 

Courtney Beal is the Assistant Programmer for the Morrow Academic Center – Lyon College. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood from the University of Central Arkansas, and moved to Batesville when her husband, Wesley, was hired by Lyon College to teach English. Her family spent a few months in Hong Kong in the fall of 2018 when Wesley was awarded a Fulbright Grant to teach and research at the University of Hong Kong. Originally from Conway, Courtney is currently the Vice-President of the Eagle Mountain Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization and is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Batesville. She loves to travel as well as being a mom to her children.