It’s late afternoon on a lovely, early summer day here in southeast China. As I pen this bit of prose, a cool breeze from a nearby open window caresses my skin as the sun moves slowly toward the horizon. I sit in my 25th floor perch in my small living room that overlooks my city of some 500,000 people and I feel incredible gratitude for all that is and all I have at this moment. I recently returned to work and I am grateful for this opportunity to be with people again and I look forward to seeing my students. I will make a run to the market in a couple of hours, as evening is settling over my city. People will be dancing in the square that has so often been my muse for writing and art and daydreams. The smells of garlic, ginger, and leek with hints of 5-spice coupled with the scent of steaming rice will fill the air melding beautifully with the happy and joyful sounds of families and friends enjoying a meal together. The neighborhood will be alive tonight…
It has been 5 months since my isolation began due to the epidemic here in China. That late January brought on so many incredible emotions for me, fear of the unknown and of what could be, loneliness and sadness, and then a confidence and satisfaction at my resilience at managing here by myself in a country that is not my home where I don’t speak the language and where I am a decided outsider. During this isolation I learned a good bit about myself, too, through a helluva lot of self-reflection and contemplation. Unlike Thoreau’s self-isolation at Walden Pond mine was imposed and controlled. Unlike Thoreau’s experience that took place in nature, I was smack dab in the middle of an urban Chinese city—an American, a guest living under strict government controls confined to a small apartment, albeit light and bright. Unlike Thoreau’s isolation there is no way to romanticize the isolation due to the virus that would later touch the whole world and become a pandemic. Much like Thoreau’s isolation, mine was also living an even simpler life and learning even more to appreciate my own company, and even still more lessons on acceptance of what is and of living in the moment.
At the lowest and hardest time of isolation I fell into a depression that stemmed from my loneliness and a sadness at what was happening. It was also coupled with a bit of fear because though the processes as directed by the government here were in my opinion well-drafted and effective, every direction was in Chinese and I had to work hard to translate everything I could get my hands on, so I would know what was happening and what I needed to do. Because I was alone. I had to muster up all my reserves of energy and healthy thinking and ways of being to move forward. There weren’t zoom groups for yoga or kibitzing with friends, or things like NetFlix Party, at least not that I knew of and certainly not in English. I could see what was happening for me and innately I knew what I needed to do and that was to nourish myself in every way possible. And so, I began to write more, to paint more, to cook yummy food and to enjoy my pets, to rest early and rise early and to try to keep a regular schedule for my days. Through it all I always had more than enough, and way more than I needed. I never experienced a lack of anything and I pulled through that difficult time, stronger, more aware, a bit more sensitive, and definitely kinder and wiser. Here we are, here in southeast China, just about midway through the year clearly seeing the light at the end of that dark tunnel.
Early May in southeast China is amazing. We don’t have daylight savings time here, so dawn and dusk come as they ought to, in a way, both earlier than what I knew back home. I wake early to bird song and the waking garden below. I pad my way to the kitchen to make a cuppa and to feed and water the MaoMao, The Chairman, and Penny. We sit together on the small balcony and watch as the morning breaks. Then it is Penny’s turn for a proper morning stroll, no more sneaking out in the wee dark hours since there was a time when some Chinese thought pets might carry the virus and I felt worrisome for Penny’s safety. As I walk my Penny pup around the paths of a lovely manicured garden, others are coming out to get in their morning steps, sometimes even in pairs or threesomes now. As the sky lights up in these early morning hours, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for all of us here coming through this time together, whole again. The flora is a great sight for once weary eyes… the wisteria that wraps around many pergolas here is beginning to bloom, and the day lilies in all their colorful glory move smoothly with the gentle morning breeze. The birds are even louder now that I am among them as they wake in the trees. The occasional feral cat runs through passing Penny and me by as they scurry for a sense of safety. Gardeners are beginning their daily work in the cool of the early morning and there is the scent of freshly cut grass and in the background the sound of water splashing from the end of hose onto bushes and flowers. There is the soft sound of moving water in the many fountains and pools of this beautiful garden and the really sweet sound and sight of my Penny pup boldly and innocently sniffing her way along in the refreshing light of a new day.
As the day begins in earnest, I freely make my way around the city again on my Vespa-esque e-bike and the streets are full of people and traffic once again. Delivery carts are piled high with parcels to be taken here and there. I spot the occasional food cart with steaming buns and warm soy milk, and the Āyí cooking up Jian Bing. I see mother-in-law’s hanging laundry on balconies, and I feel a sense of rejuvenation for myself and for my city. Most people wear face masks, and if I pop into a market or a restaurant my temperature is still taken and oftentimes my e-health code that monitors my travel and potential exposure to the virus is checked. Parks are open with this same ritual of checking temperatures and e-health codes upon entry. Amazingly, wonderfully this city is returning to some semblance of normal. That sense of rejuvenation is an amazingly beautiful and renewing experience.
Evening brings me to the market and those wonderful sights and sounds and smells that not only delight me but remind me that life really and truly goes on. The sight of families and friends gathering for a meal together or to exercise together, the couples’ arm-in-arm, kids on scooters and in strollers with momma and baba nearby… it’s all a reminder of just plain and simple, everyday goodness. Life knows best. Life is good, and it is getting better here in China as we slowly, methodically, deliberately, under great control, return to everyday activities that seemed so distant just a few months back in that time of isolation. I’ve become even more aware of the little things, the everyday even mundane things – they bring me joy and peace and I’m happy to just be. Five months in and it’s already been an amazingly full experience here in southeast China, this year of 2020. It’s already been a year that has gifted me immense personal growth and realizations at how truly precious each moment is, and of how much more I want to experience, to see, to hear and to enjoy.
Susan Bradley is an American living and working as an English Teacher in Taizhou, Zhejiang, China.