I’m often asked about the COVID situation in Shanghai. The truth is, things are almost normal now. We do have to wear face masks on the subway and in places like hospitals. But other than that, things are pretty normal.
There is one notable exception, though. English Church services for foreigners have still not been allowed to resume, even though church services in Chinese resumed months ago. (I assume it’s the same for Catholics as for other Christians, but I’ll correct this if I’m wrong.)
I hear a lot of foreigners assuming that this is the government taking the opportunity to “tighten its grip” on religion, and that’s certainly possible, but I’m not so quick to assume malicious intent. I think it’s just way easier for the government to control the situation when there are no foreigners or foreign languages involved, and it just doesn’t want the hassle. (Nor does it place great value or priority on any kind of freedom of religion, however.)
Anyway, I took some photos last Sunday at the Xujiahui cathedral, St. Ignatius. You have to sign in at the gate, fill out a form, and display your health QR code to get in. (The “pass” they give you is good for a month, so you don’t have to fill out the form every week.)
There’s also social distancing going on, marked with smiley face stickers instead of X’s:
Somewhat surprisingly, Communion is distributed at mass.
I was kind of amused by how much this ad comes across as a vocab list:
Here is that vocab list:
坐公交 (zuò gōngjiāo) to take public transportation Note: this usually means a public bus
乘地铁 (chéng dìtiě) to ride the subway Note: the verb 坐 is also fine
骑单车 (qí dānchē) to ride a (single-gear) bicycle Note: nowadays this word often refers to a bike-sharing service
买火车票 (mǎi huǒchēpiào) to buy train tickets
打车 (dǎchē) to call a car (taxi or ride-sharing service) Note: because of the rise of ride-sharing services in general (and Didi in particular), the word 打的 is far less common these days, most people using 打车 or 叫车
The point of this ad is that no matter what form of transportation you choose, all can be accomplished within AliPay (支付宝).
My family and I stayed in one of these places during the October holiday. The Chinese name for these kinds of structures is 泡泡屋, literally “bubble house.”
You’re inside a giant plastic bubble, inflated by a pump. So there’s a sort of “airlock” door. Interestingly, while you can easily see the bubble walls inside the bubble, they often don’t show up in pictures. (In the photo below, you can see the shiny plastic wall in the bottom left of the photo.)
This place is located out in Chongming Island, technically part of the Shanghai Municipality, but a two-hour drive from the city center. There’s not a whole lot to do out there, but “Space Forest” knows how to create a pretty cool atmosphere in the woods, especially at night.
Knowing that there’s not a whole lot to do, Space Forest provides bikes to ride, and there are ATV rentals as well. It’s a kid-friendly place. You’re also allowed to bring dogs, which was a big plus for us.
So you’re basically paying for the novelty, and I’m not sure I’d want to stay for more than one night unless I was really looking for a place with few distractions (there are no TVs in the rooms, and no WiFi).
They bubble houses look cool, though! I think I enjoyed this place more than glamping, for the novelty of it.
I’ve been meaning to go “camping” in Shanghai for a while, knowing that whatever activity I engaged in would probably be pretty different from what I know as “camping” in the USA. Well, on the October holiday, I finally did it… my first glamping experience. (And yes, they even call it “glamping” here in Shanghai, too… 精致露营 in Chinese.)
The campgrounds are located within a large park on Changxing Island 长兴岛 (near Chongming Island 崇明岛) called 长兴岛郊野公园 (Changxing Dao Jiaye Gongyuan). You pay for a park ticket (and dogs can get in too, if you buy their tickets), and then you can pay additional fees to rent out a tent for a night (complete with air mattresses), or for a space to pitch your own tent. (Guess which option most people choose?)
You can basically rent or buy anything camping related you might want: pre-lit hibachis to do your cooking, kebabs of food ready to grill, a cookout set that you set up yourself, picnic tables and chairs, etc.
I’m pretty sure no open fires were allowed, but there was a public bonfire lit by the park employees at night.
As expected, there weren’t many “experienced campers” there. I overheard one lady who was shocked to discover that there were no showers at the park.
During the day, you see a lot of tents in non-camping areas of the park. In China tents are often used as shelter from the sun during a relaxing day in a park, rather than shelter from the elements for sleeping in at night.
All in all, it was enjoyable. It just wasn’t the “camping” that I know.
But what’s perhaps most interesting (infuriating?) about this ad is the way that this text is read…
First down the left column, then down the right (广告, 招商)
Then left to right across the top, then left to right across the bottom (虚位, 以待)
Have you ever noticed how hard it can be to figure out how to interpret 4 characters in a 2×2 grid? If you don’t already know the phrases used, this kind of text layout is super hard to read. That’s because there are three possible ways to read the 4 characters:
Left to right, across the top (modern horizontal)
Top to bottom, left to right (modern vertical)
Top to bottom, right to left (classical vertical)
This example is particularly egregious, though, since it mixes two orientations, and the phrase “广告招商” could also be understood as “招商广告”.
P.S. This ad wouldn’t work in traditional Chinese, because 广 (guǎng) in traditional is 廣 (guǎng). No big loss, though!
I wrote a post the other day stating that I felt like we were at “half mask” levels in Shanghai, as COVID-related anxiety eases. A few days later, I went on a walk by Zhongshan Park in the evening and saw this scene:
Riding the elevator of my office building the other day, I suddenly noticed that only half of the people in the elevator had face masks on. I was the only foreigner in the elevator. There were 4 with none on at all (including me), 4 with masks fully on, and one with a mask on, but pulled down to under his chin. This is quite different from only two weeks ago.
Looking around on the street, I see a similar trend… Since face masks are required for riding the subway, you see a lot of mask-wearers on the street coming to and from Shanghai Metro stations. But when you get away from those spots, it’s much closer to half-half. In addition, people are much more likely to be wearing their masks in the morning than in the afternoon, and least likely after dark.
I’ve been observing who, exactly, is not wearing the masks, and I can’t really see any obvious trend… male/female, young/old, married/single, Chinese/foreigner… The 50/50 trend I seem to be seeing cuts across all the demographics. (I even see old people pushing babies in strollers not wearing masks.)
Obviously, these are just my own observations. I’m fairly observant, but I’m also not keeping records or running stats. But it is nice to see that things slowly returning to closer to “normal,” and it’s very interesting how long many segments of the population are clinging to the masks, long after it seems really necessary (especially compared with what’s going on in the US).
A photo I took the other day in front of a (closed) school here in Shanghai:
When I saw these statues, it was at a time when it was unclear when elementary schoolers would be returning to school here in Shanghai. To me, the masked statues sort of represented a sort of permanence of the COVID threat. And yet, those masks can be so easily removed from those statues… and they will be.
Last Friday, we parents in Shanghai received news that primary schoolers will be returning to school on Monday, June 2. Furthermore, they’ll be letting out for summer vacation only a month later. I don’t think we really expected that.
A funny aside: on WeChat, when I see other parents of young children talk about putting their kids back in school, they frequently use the phrase 神兽归笼, literally, “the magical beasts return to the cage.” (If you do a search, you’ll find a bunch of posts about Chinese parents dealing with kids online learning from home.)
I wrote that post a while back giving a fairly comprehensive account of “Coronavirus Lockdown in Shanghai.” It’s now almost a month later. So what’s different? Only little things.
Here’s a brief rundown:
Almost everyone is still wearing masks when they go outside, but no one freaks out if I don’t. I wear my mask when required, or when in an elevator or other enclosed space. I do it more out of courtesy than anything else.
The mall near my home stopped doing temperature checks about two weeks ago (but most still do).
Where it’s still in place, “hygiene security” is getting laxer. It’s the little things… For example, we’re supposed to sign in every morning on the first floor of my office building, and yet no one says anything if you blow it off. We’re only supposed to go in through one entrance in my compound (where they’re still doing temperature checks), but the “nice guard” will let me in the side gate when he’s on duty. Visitors are allowed, and when my wife had two friends over last night, they said their temperates were not even checked at the gate.
We’ve been hearing this since at least early March, but it looks like school will almost certainly resume in early May. (It’s still uncertain how the missed school is going to be made up… If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on no summer vacation this year.)
My wife is back to full-time in her office.
The big barber shops chains opened in early April, but a lot of restaurants are still closed. I’m sure many of them are “still closed” because they’re never going to reopen, but it can be hard to tell which those are. You do see a lot of shops getting renovated now, as the new tenant prepares to open a new store as the pandemic fades into the background.
Over the weekend, I took my son to the Shanghai Natural History museum. (It’s pretty great; I recommend it!) It wasn’t super crowded, but there were quite a few people there (all wearing masks).
This past Monday was a holiday, and my family and I went to Chenshan Botanical Garden to see the last of the cherry blossoms, and again: it wasn’t super crowded, but there were quite a few people there (all wearing masks).
Our new webcomic Boring 办公室 (Bàngōngshì) continues (there are 11 episodes as of today), and the characters will keep wearing the face masks for now, to reflect the current situation in Shanghai.
Church services are still canceled, so no church-going for Easter.
Finally, on a lighter note, a few observations from someone who has almost made it through the COVID-19 pandemic in Shanghai…
The three most annoying things about wearing face masks all the time:
I keep forgetting my face mask when I go out! Seriously, multiple times a day.
Chewing gum with a face mask does not work. The mask slowly migrates downward. The effect is more pronounced if you haven’t shaved for a few days.
The iPhone’s facial recognition doesn’t work when you have a mask on. Very annoying when you are 100% used to using it all day long, both to unlock your phone and make mobile payments.
Stay safe, everyone. There is a light at the end of this tunnel!
I came back from Chinese New Year holiday in Nagoya, Japan on February 10 to a Shanghai already in lockdown over the novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19. I’ve been getting lots of questions from friends all over the world about how things are going in Shanghai (especially as the virus continues to spread globally), so I decided to share a bit more about our situation in Shanghai, one month in.
The official CNY holiday was extended, and we started working from home after that, until February 14th. The following week, starting February 17th, we returned to the office to lots of required face masks, registration, and disinfectant. Very few people were at the office, and one of my co-workers was still in 14-day self-quarantine after returning from Shandong. It was easy to avoid human contact! Only one of my co-workers elected to keep the face mask on in the office.
It’s March already. All the same protective measures are in place, but with a bit less “vigor,” you could say. More and more people are coming back to the office, but the morning line for the elevator is nowhere near what it was yet. (I suppose a lot of companies are discovering that working from home isn’t that bad?)
AllSet Learning‘s face to face consultancy for learning Chinese has definitely taken a hit, as many of our clients are either (1) not back in Shanghai yet, choosing to wait out the virus abroad (not sure that’s going too well!), or (2) dealing with a lot of uncertainty and craziness for work due to the virus, and thus not able to do lessons. One client even left China with his family around CNY and decided not to come back.
Fortunately, AllSet is doing more and more online lessons as well as other products, so we’re able to weather this storm. One thing that would make this ordeal much easier is a reduction in our office rent, but our landlord insists that he hasn’t gotten a break in rent from the office building owner, and thus can’t give us one. Other tenants pushing for it hasn’t helped, either. Situations like this make the economic cost of the virus quite lopsided.
My wife has been doing a rotating thing where in the first week, each person went into the office one day a week, and worked from home the other 4. Then 2 days a week in the office, 3 at home. This week it’s up to 3 days in the office, 2 working at home. Seems like a smart, cautious way to gradually increase the numbers of people at the office while also monitoring and controlling possible infections.
My kids are at home through all this. My son is young enough that the missed school doesn’t really matter, but my daughter in second grade has been doing regular online lessons since last week (with homework). It seems like she’s even learning something!
So we haven’t had to pay for my son’s tuition at all yet this semester, but my daughter’s was paid (a bit late, while they figured everything out). It’s unclear how the school semester is going to play out. I had a fun summer vacation planned in the US, but that’s all been canceled. I fully expect the school year to be extended into the summer to make up for missed school (and low efficiency of the online methods tried so far). Canceling summer vacation would be such a China thing to do, unfortunately…
It’s still cold outside, so my kids aren’t super stir-crazy yet, but they’re not getting enough exercise.
The main differences at home are:
The kids are home, all the time.
When you have food or packages (kuaidi) delivered, you have to go out to the front gate to pick it up (the delivery guys are not allowed in).
When you go in or out of the compound, you need to wear a face mask (I tested this going out one morning last week, and the guard wouldn’t let me out of my own compound without a mask on!).
Every time you come back into your compound, your temperature gets taken.
If you leave your own apartment and stay within the compound, no one really says anything if you don’t wear a face mask.
Some pictures of various apartment complexes around the Shanghai Zhongshan Park area:
Around the City
I got that haircut on February 19th, but for the most part, barber shops are still closed. The ones that are open are the small independent ones. The big chains like Yongqi and Wenfeng are all still closed.
Most restaurants have gone into “take-out only” mode. Starbucks, one of the first well-known brands to announce store closures, is a good example. After closing for 1-2 weeks, Starbucks reopened in “take-out only” mode. Just to step inside the store, you have to be wearing a mask and have to consent to your temperature being taken (this is the new norm for essentially any public building).
Still, many of the restaurants remain fully closed. I assume that many of the smaller ones will not be reopening at all.
I haven’t used any taxis (or Didi) at all yet this year, except for the airport taxi on February 10th. But public transportation seems to be working just fine. You just need to wear a mask, and there’s a temperature check for the subway.
Signs related to COVID-19 are everywhere, such as reminders that wearing a face mask is a requirement to enter a building.
In general, the overall atmosphere in Shanghai is resignation or possibly annoyance. There was some minor panicking going on over COVID-19 about a month ago, and I saw rumors flying around in WeChat, spread irresponsibly. But now things are a lot calmer. Obviously, economic worries are very real as well. We’re just waiting for things to go back to normal… if that’s what’s next.
I didn’t notice this until I looked up my old blog post, but it’s kind of funny thing that she’s wearing almost exactly the same outfits as Chloe Bennet was.
I’m well aware that little boys in China loooove Marvel superheroes (my own 5yo is one of them). Aside from Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc., they also love Captain America. I always thought this was kind of funny, since China is pretty nationalistic and has a complicated relationship with the USA. No one seems to think anything of it, though. And the love extends well into adulthood… plenty of young men are totally into Marvel superheroes, obviously (those movies sure do well here).
So this ad campaign makes me wonder how into female superheroes Chinese women are. Is that a thing? Or are they just two attractive Hollywood stars that wound up in ads in China?
All kinds of stores and shops in Shanghai have been closed for weeks. This past Tuesday, I went for a walk and noticed that a few barber shops were open. Yesterday I decided to finally get my first haircut of 2020.
It was a somewhat unusual haircut.
They took my temperature first. Everyone in the place wore a face mask (which has to be partially removed during the haircut to cut around the ears), and there was lots of disinfecting between haircuts.
Hopefully we’ll put this coronavirus affair behind us soon. March 2020 is looking much better than February!
It’s true that we Shanghainese don’t really celebrate Chinese New Year because there’s not really anything for us to do! Chinese New Year is just competing who can make the earliest restaurant reservation for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner [年夜饭], then lying around at home browsing WeChat Moments to see how the rest of the country is celebrating Chinese New Year…. We have no fear of the massive CNY migration [春运], and we’re not allowed to set off fireworks anymore. We don’t like the CCTV New Year’s Gala [春晚], and we don’t have any real traditional customs or local specialty foods. We have few relatives, and the ones we do have, we’re not on great terms with. There are no shops open or any people in the streets.
My immediate reaction was, “wow, this is so true! And sad!” I shared it with my co-workers, and a Shanghainese co-worker’s reaction was:
So true. Sometimes I envy those people crammed into trains just to get home for Chinese New Year.
[I had to take liberties translating 春运.]
This year my family and I will spend Chinese New Year in Japan (again). At first I felt uncomfortable with this. You hear Chinese people say all the time, “Christmas is like you guys’ Chinese New Year,” and while that’s not really true in many ways, it is true in that they both are the year’s biggest holiday in their respective cultures, they both mean a lot to the people of that culture, and they’re both meant to be spent with family. But then how could my wife be OK with running off to Japan (without her parents) instead of spending CNY in Shanghai with them? I would not be OK with blowing off Christmas in similar fashion.
One of the ways I’ve made sense of this cultural issue is reflected in the post above: the Shanghainese really do have a bit of a different take on Chinese New Year, and it has evolved rapidly in recent years (as evidenced by the role of WeChat in the original post). The Shanghainese are different.
My first Chinese New Year was spent in Zhuji (诸暨), Zhejiang Province. It was cold, it was crowded, it was noisy, it was non-stop eating and card-playing and tea-drinking chatting. It was undoubtedly very Chinese. It was pretty fun for me, but as an outsider, it’s not something I would really want to commit to every year (especially if it’s not with my actual family).
Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not a huge fan of Chinese New Year festivities. But as the traditions have faded in Shanghai and the holiday is left something of a husk of its former self, I can’t help but feel bad for the Shanghainese.