A Reflection on Two Years During in Pandemic in China

In December 2019, I decided to return to China for a short time. At the time, I wanted to go back for a quick audition. Since the Chinese New Year was looming, I planned to stay for 2 or 3 months and then I would embark my grand voyage as usual. A few days before I left for China, I saw a small news section below the headline on FinancialTimes. It said there was a new virus emerging in Wuhan that might explode into an unprecedented global threat. I scorned off such biased news since FT is renowned for spelling no just word on China. I set off the journey and told Sahand to come and visit me in a month during Chinese New Year as it would be fun. I was planning the trajectory to be transitory, not anticipating the dramatic change that would soon reshuffle my life.

In Shenzhen with Lucky

Beijing to Shenzhen to Chengdu: Onset of Coronavirus Outbreak

I landed in Beijing for an audition and I continued to gather friends for dinner, living the last bit of my superficial “globalist” life. Interestingly, while I am typing this article today (20.12.2021), I remembered this is precisely the date three years ago when I landed in Beijing. Three years ago this time, life was absolutely normal in Beijing and busy Beijingers were commuting every day in the extremely crowded subway in the least surprised way.

After the fun days, I finally booked a ticket to go back to Shenzhen, the warm ultramodern tip of Southern China.

At the time, going home was not easy for me. I spent half of my life going to boarding schools and living a lone wolf life. During the time I often arranged my own ticket and dragged a small suitcase around like a tiny boat in an ocean; I did not think much of my family. “Home” was a label I heard in others’ story but not necessarily in mine.

As I landed in Shenzhen, I built a mental wall around me and refused to talk to my family. I did not know what to say, and I was deeply self-conscious and self-pitying. A UPenn graduate that had no job but spent too much in the Middle East, I did not have the gut to face my family.

Precisely in the wary implosion, COVID-19, holding a reaper on its shoulder, tapped on the doors of our ordinary life.

One day I woke up as usual, suddenly my family members stopped talking and nobody was seen on street. The TV news played rolling headlines after headlines: outbreak of Coronavirus, already killed hundreds. Chinese central government acted extremely swiftly despite of the initial cover-up by the local government. Overnight, local government was replaced and the central government demanded Wuhan, a city of 11.08 million people, to be locked down in a shocking manner.

People were freaking out.

It was an incredible act to imagine an entire living city went into lockdown in peacetime because an unidentified and incurable horror with spooky eyes. My family and I especially felt the shriek as Wuhan is my family’s hometown before it migrated to Shenzhen. By the time the government announced lockdown, my parents and siblings were just leaving Wuhan by car. They left the border of Wuhan a few minutes before the government announced the lockdown and just a little bit before the provincial borders completely shut down.

Early days when people had to register their contact info before going into a shopping mall; not many on the street those days

When they arrived to Shenzhen, I refused to stay in the same house as them. As my parents recounted the “dangerous” story of how they “escaped” from Wuhan, I just felt them to be utterly irresponsible. What if you have already got Coronavirus? You are going to pass it to us, and you will be the reason Shenzhen being quarantined too.

I could not bear my family. During the time, I only talked to my boyfriend over the phone.

As cases quickly spread to the rest of the country, news in Wuhan grew hopeless. Cameras took the nation into hospitals, where this unidentified virus killed elderly, doctors, nurses, and whoever that came into contact. Couples being separated. Beloved being destroyed. Kind-hearted people being punished and killed for no reason. We saw the tears wandering around people’s eyes. We saw the sad and longing eye of the grandma lying on her deathbed and her husband of 60 years was not allowed to enter her hospital room due to quarantine. Doctors and nurses worked overtime, collapsed, had masks around their mouths for so long that it left scars. We did not know why the virus occurred nor we knew what was the virus that spread so fast. The country could not see light. There was no light.

In retrospect, I think most of the Chinese people would agree that “hopeless” was the word of early 2020.

In this silent and bruising darkness, I decided to leave home. Eventually, I settled for Chengdu, a cheaper city in Western China that also offers cosmopolitan amenity.

I heartlessly ignored the pleading cry of my grandma worrying the dangerous and uncertain situation outside home. I set off course.

Empty subway at rush hour in Shenzhen, one of the busiest cities in the country, during the early pandemic days

Chengdu, Chongqing, and 2020: Finding Hope from Despair, At Least Trying

Surprisingly, Chengdu was in a much chiller environment than the rest of the country. Perhaps the city is a bit far off from the economic centres. Positioned as the last important town in Western China, the city has traditionally been a ground for comforters. For thousands of years, the mountain-clad basin guarded its richness and earned the fame of nourishing some very useless emperors. One famous emperor is A Dou, the son of a powerful local lord. A Dou was nicknamed “the A Dou that cannot stand up”. People use the phrase nowadays to describe those that are lazy with no ambition. When I lived in Chengdu, I could understand. If I were an emperor, I would have not wanted to go to work but just enjoyed my life. Not to mention, the goofy pandas are also the staple of Chengdu. Their laid-back life pretty much sums up the comfort level in Chengdu.

A ray of rainbow in Chengdu

In general, despite of a few cases in the city, Chengdu has had a normal life like usual. I could go out and elderly still sat in the “fly noodle shops” and ate their noodles. People still chatted around the shops and played their chess. People did not wear masks on the street. Gathering size had been limited. Taxi drivers improvised a transparent curtain using plastic bags in between the front seats and the passengers. All in all, life was the same as thousands of years ago; people were just enjoying their time.

Uber driver improvised a “curtain” using plastics between the front seat and back seat in the early days

The pandemic had not hit the appearance of Chengdu’s economy, but it has halted the nationwide economy. Pandemic had deprived the otherwise popular tourist city its economic revenue, so I was jobless and not in a good state.

In China, roughly 5 million people lost their jobs in the first of 2020. I probably was not counted, as my prior half life was mainly in Western countries. Lockdown completely blocked off my career trajectory overseas and also forced me to be separate from my boyfriend in another country. I suddenly found my previously much self-appraised “globalist” life capsized in a global torment. Then, I had an IVY degree but no money to pay for my rent tomorrow. I borrowed money and had to pay the expensive daily rent as I was not able to accumulate an one-month instalment at one time.

During the time, I ate plain noodles. Sometimes I was able to upgrade my 6-8 yuan (=~$1) plain noodle to a 12-15 yuan beef noodle. It was during the time I found out in the Chengdu-Chongqing area, when you walked into a noodle shop and asked for a “beef noodle”, the default one is a spicy soup one with red chili oil floating on the noodle. Normally in the rest of China, a beef noodle is the nonspicy braised beef noodle like how you imagine. In the spicy Sichuan, you have to ask for a “white” soup base to remove the defaulted “red” soup base. In addition, people eat the spicy red soup beef noodle for breakfast. As a sweet-tasting Cantonese person, I was very shocked.

A typical “fly noodle shop” in Chengdu. Homemade easy restaurants.

Sometime into the spring, I decided to move to Chongqing, which is 30 minutes by train from Chengdu.

Chengdu in general is a much flatter city without too many skyscrapers. Chongqing, famous for its real estate development (and thus bubbles afterwards) encouraged by the hot money printed in the 2008 crisis, has a much pointier skyline along the Jialing River.

Storming in Chongqing

In Chongqing, my financial situation finally improved a little bit. With a combination of debt, sale of my previously owned luxury products, and slightly higher contract-based irregular paychecks, I managed to move into a serviced two-floor apartment in a high rise between a bustling commercial district and a lively residential area.

Despite not being well on the financial terms, I managed to enjoy the simple joie de vivre in a busted economy. Since I was not occupied by work, I was able to go to a small cheap facial once a while, hit the gym almost every day, and talk to Sahand all day long. Sahand was not doing well either, as his hospitality business suffered from the pandemic. Despite being thousands of kilometres apart, our hearts were close, and that fact was the starry night for me.

On the memorial day to commemorate the dead in pandemic, even the cheeky Taobao turned grey

While in Chengdu and Chongqing, there were many times I lost hope in life. I strode along rivers, half jogged, half walked, and had many impulses to suicide. I visualised in my head how I would end my life and be found in certain ways. At some points, I was pressured by debtors and they said some of the most malignant words to me and my family, threatening me on social media and on my reputation. In those dark days, Sahand was the only person I relied on and talked to. His love and devotion were the salvation for me. While my feet tittered to the riverbank, there was that light brimming in the dark. I asked myself, what would Sahand be left with? There was no value in my life, but I could not disappoint him.

There were many times I cried, but for the general desperation to find air in life, to the little joy that I still had him. I also cried for him, out of my appreciation to his heart of gold and his love. What did I do to deserve such an unwavering trust? I was not able to cherish it the way it deserved as I had no means, but I promised to give back. I vowed to care for him the same way he used to be tender with me.

In Chongqing

In Chongqing, I did not go to the normal sight-seeing such as those built for the early communist fighters, who held on to and was executed for their belief of communism, then a rather pure-spirited utopic idea. Living an ordinary life, I used my camera to capture the little things in life. Flowers. Many flowers.

Poor but reading intensely in Chongqing, and saving money for flowers, a probably bourgie habit that I could not afford

I observed the passengers in the hustle-bustle environment. As one of the two economic centres in the relatively underdeveloped Western China, Chongqing also sees many minority ethnicities and migrant workers from the mountains and other towns. Many of them have darker skins, shorter heights, and foreheads filled with wrinkles. They wear bleached clothes. You can smell their body odour, which is a mixture of sweats and grease, from afar. Under the bubble-stud skyscrapers, there are workers sleeping and gathering on public benches. There are hagglers selling caged puppies and kittens (I really wanted to buy and help one at the time, but I could not take one home as I did not have one). They used their labour value to make the GDP of the city that transferred into its grandeur enjoyed by others.

Despite the last mayor Bo Xilai was removed from the office in 2012, there can still see remains of his advocacy in the city. Bo did not hide his ambition to enter the Chinese top political unit politburo when Xi Jinping was about to ascend to power. Bo’s administration relied on a neoleftiest principle and devised “Chongqing Model”, which allowed the state to use its power to crush organised crimes (anti-black) and call forth a culture praising Maoism (pro-red). Economically, the city used state power to fund infrastructure, which led to both a high growth for the region and unnecessary real estate construction. I am not from Chongqing to comment on his policies, but in the city, there are still many citizens reminiscing Bo’s Maoist policy and thinking about the good o’ days when the city was growing in full swing, not knowing the bubbles that soon to crash.   

Spending a lot of hours at gym

Suzhou, the Lowkey Rich Watertown

Suzhou

Sometime in the winter of 2020, I decided to leave Chongqing for one reason: the city does not control its smoking behaviour. It is common for people to smoke inside of hotel rooms and nicotine may fuse anywhere. I do not smoke and I detest smoking. After negotiating with the hotel-apartment I stayed to no avail, I decided to leave. Having stayed in the comfortable Southwestern China for almost a year, I also began to realise why the duo cities Chengdu and Chongqing cannot compete with the Eastern cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, or my hometown Shenzhen. The big difference in economic level may not be caught up in short time, although Chengdu is rapidly climbing the league table. The relative lower GDP of Chengdu and Chongqing means the low wage and lack of high-value networking opportunity in the area. Almost a year down the road, I could still barely find means to support myself. I knew I needed to be in an environment rich in resources and opportunities, so I hastily booked a ticket to –

Unfortunately, I could not afford Shanghai. I took a detour and landed in Suzhou, the cosmopolitan yet historical town 30 minutes by train from Shanghai. With its more than thousands of years of history, many of which still exist today, Suzhou has a vibrant economy smaller than but no less exciting than Shanghai. Different from Shanghai, Suzhou has a much more compact social circle and balanced lifestyle. Elderlies may wake up early to get a noodle as breakfast, then proceed to a series of amusement. In a way, it is similar to Chengdu. The city is also famous for being a rich city for thousands of years, as it sold the expensive silk to other provinces and countries, accumulating the wealth for generations. The handsome wallet and gentle weather make the city extremely liveable. People enjoy artistic pursuit beyond money. In the past, some of the most corrupted dynasties also ended here. When I jogged pass the various lakes, rivers, parks, seeing the many fine little bridges and supreme architecture from hundreds of years ago, I again felt why. If I were an emperor in Suzhou, I would’ve not wanted to go to work again. “Mi mi” sound refers to the sound made from traditional Chinese musical instruments that used to be enjoyed by these corrupted emperors, who lost interest in defending their homeland against strong external enemies. Today’s Suzhou does not need to worry about the fierce nomads as the country is strong to defend the city, so citizens can play the music in public parks and indulge themselves in such “mi mi” sound every day.

Modern Suzhou

A little bit different from Chengdu, Suzhou people are not “lazy”, or to be more accurate, have a lesser interest in working. Suzhou has a vibrant economy alongside its magnificent culture and clean and modern infrastructure. Young people in Suzhou go to work and may stay overtime for work. The city is full of life, but not too much stress. Mothers ride e-scooters to pick up their children by the chase of sunset. Dinner smell float in allies when the moon climbs up. Lights in office buildings are likely to be extinguished after 12am. By 5 or 6 am in the morning, early risers start commuting and a new cycle of life returns.

When I just came to Suzhou, I had no money again. I found a rather cheap but four-star hotel that I loved to be my temporary residence, but only realising in a few days that the hotel did not have its certificate. When the hotel was shut down, a few other residents and I were forced out of the hotel with our bulky baggage at midnight. Then I had to scout for new places to live at a higher daily cost. My financial situation never improved to a level for me to pay a monthly instalment fully, so I had to live from hotel to hotel on a two-day two-day basis.

In the early days, despite I was changing residence frequently, I still managed to channel my work energy to free or minimally paid work online. I also went to Shanghai on a periodic basis, although every time spending a havoc. I still managed to see old friends and swing the networking force on that would prove to be very helpful in the future.

Old town Suzhou

Eventually I was able to find a somehow long-term housing by a few weeks for a month, so that I only needed to do house-moving per month. I never stopped going to gym, sometimes having to take a public bike for one hour as I could not afford the gym in city centre.

The time in Suzhou was solitude, but not lonely. Often-time when I recalled the good times, my memories went back to Suzhou (and soon Shanghai). I was not as penniless as I was in Chengdu or Chongqing. I was able to work on things I enjoyed, although earning little to no money. In the long bike ride in the Suzhou winter, I eagerly absorbed the landscapes and people into my eyes. In the quiet night, I walked in dark in my ally and enjoyed the air, as I lived in old town where elderly does not need night lamps. The town was charming enough to gift me wonders in many corners. I had a little bit money here and there, so from time to time I was able to try different affordable good restaurants in town by myself. Some readers may feel I lived such a lonely life, but it is not necessarily the case. It is not uncommon for a single person to eat in a restaurant alone, and often when doing things alone, I find the growth and strength inside of my heart and enjoy the food better. I am able to truly assimilate the experience and ponder over deeper topics with a wandering mind.

In Suzhou, every morning I biked for 20 minutes, and sometimes switching metro in between, to go to Starbucks or a café and sit to work for a whole day. In the evening, I reversed the travel, going to gym, then stopping at a cool restaurant on my way back. I also called Sahand all the time, sharing with him what I saw and experienced via texts and pictures. We were physically thousands of miles apart, but our hearts were close and I always felt that we would look at the same moon in the same time. Perhaps it was the city filled with residential life that taught me to make life beautiful to the maximum given the best I could regardless the materialistic situations I was in. Suzhou has made silkwork an art, a history a poem, a noodle a story, so I could also put a vase of flowers on my desk to make my life a song. Later years I regained financial independence and resumed my global travels, and sometimes Sahand even said in negative tone of me being too “boring” with no “adventures”. I knew in my heart that adventures are fun, but only if means and lifestyle provide for such occasion. What is beautiful and enjoyable is the “boring” ordinary days. The sunshine and breeze are beautiful, as long as they are here, everything is going to be okay.

Joie de vivre with my boys

Shanghai, Lucky, and A Broken Leg

Suburb Shanghai, orange farms in Chongming Island

After a few months in Suzhou, I left for Shanghai, obtaining a six-month contract in an academic position soon to flounder. My wage reached a medium level in Shanghai, so I signed up for a one-year housing contract in the Shanghai suburb Baoshan closer to my work place. I spent the first 2 months of my wages for the apartment’s downpayment, only being fired after 2 months.

In Shanghai, life quickly filled up with work, meaningful projects, and cosmopolitan interests. As one of the biggest international and Chinese cities, Shanghai offers a phenomenal reservoir of opportunities and money for everything. In addition, the city expanded rapidly for decades that the once suburb Baoshan now has a relatively colourful “town centre” offering easy amenities and chains for its residents.

Sometime during March, my job broke off in a rather bad way. I sought to take legal actions after, only to learn that I was not prudent enough to sign a proper labour contract to protect my rights. Facing a long-term housing commitment and no sure future cash flow, I was again forced into financial distress. It was at that time, I found Lucky on the street.

In March, on the Sunday I left my firm, I saw this tiny lazy stray dog with long nails doing a sunbath down my building. Baoshan is not particularly cosy for wandering ownerless dogs, so I was quite surprised to see the worriless boy just randomly enjoying his sunbath on the street. I went up to him, patting him on the head, and trying to figure out how to better protect the dog. I left for home, but a few minutes later, I came back with a rope I stripped from delivery box. I circled it around his head and led him to walk to me. Eventually I hugged him into my arm and carried him upstairs to my shared apartment room. I could not allow him to be potentially hurt as an unclaimed dog, as the dog-police in my area is notorious for capturing unleashed dogs and kill them brutally (as the result of the extremely undeveloped animal protection law in the country). I called an animal shelter scheduling an afternoon pickup. One hour after, I decided to have him forever.

At the time, my financial situation was still a mess. I could not take responsibility, as I also knew I travel frequently and anytime I might quit the country to see Sahand or go for opportunities. However, my heart said, f*ck it, whatever it does, I keep this boy forever.

My cat and dog, Bao and Lucky

Life afterwards was indeed like that. I still worried how could I afford his and my food for tomorrow, so I always bought dog food on a daily basis as I could not afford to buy a cheaper big bag at once. Despite of the financial distraught, life suddenly had its meaning, vitality, joy, and balance. I had my dog baby, a long-distance boyfriend that loved me and supported me. He was not by my side, and maybe not anytime soon, but I felt close and beloved. Internal sweetness was in my life, and any other external environments and situations could be gradually reshaped. During the hard time, I relied on Sahand over the phone and relied on my dog physically. It was a simple, beautiful, plain, ordinary joy. It was also what life comes down to its core.

Interestingly, soon after I adopted my dog against all odds, my odds were improving. More profitable and interesting projects started to drop into my plate, and I began to gather more disposable income and gain much more materialistic power and strength.

Having more opportunities given by the magical city Shanghai was a blessing, but my best time was riding a bike around the various parks with my dog for hours after work. Because we lived in suburb, we had a vast green and my boy loved running around freely.

Lucky in the wild. This picture was taken a few minutes before I rode the bike and broke my leg.

By mid 2021, I was actively planning to fly again to see Sahand soon, and I tried hard to collect money for it. When everything was about to be ready, I broke my knee suddenly. On my way back from work one day, I attached Lucky’s leash to the front of my bike. When Lucky saw a car, he started racing, and my bike started accelerating. I tried to detach the leash, but acceleration happened too fast. Next second, my bike spun off control and I was thrown into the air. Gravity happened. My knee crashed to the ground. Immediately, I felt a tick inside of my knew, so I knew something displaced there. A massive pain grasped me and I could not stand up.

With the kind help of a few pedestrians, I managed to get on a taxi and went home. They wanted to send me to a hospital, but I refused, knowing that I did not have enough money for a generalist. In the car home, I could not resist crying as I felt unable to solve my issues. I had no one with me, despite having a long-distance boyfriend. I knew I was loved, but it was true that I had to face the difficulty by myself.

I had to bite in the pain. After a night of suffering, I went to the hospital, crippling, holding a tripod as a crane, limping my way to the hospital. While at the very big and always crowded hospital, I limped my way uphill, checked in different departments, went into the wrong rooms, etc. Other patients, many of who were men, stared at me with curious eyes, but no one offered me help. The hospital ran out of wheelchairs as well. Coming back from the hospital, I still had to work, fed my dog, and took him out for a walk while limping on a tripod…

A few days after, my knee swelled to a fist size, and the doctor made it clear that I needed an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery. I had to tell my family. Once I told them, they asked me to fly back to Shenzhen as my social insurance was based in Shenzhen. After some weighing, I decided to wrap everything in Shanghai and flew home with my dog and cat.

Using tripod as the crane

Surgery, Shenzhen, and Afterwards

Shenzhen under my lens

Landing to the warm-weathered southern jewel was pleasant, and my mum and sister already waited to pick me and my dog and cat up at the airport. A second visit to the hospital confirmed an operation.

The night before an operation I stayed at the hospital, strolling on the internet on how an ACL surgery was performed and how people recovered. In the nervous hours, watching people documenting their journey pacified me. I found a little virtual community, although watching videos of doctors skillfully opening skin and cutting through bones did scared me. I asked for a sedative during the operation as I felt I did not want to know how doctors drill holes on my bones.

The surgery experience brought to face many profound topics and the ultimate meaning of life. It might sound dramatised, as an ACL surgery is only a baby surgery in the surgery world. For the person lying on the cold hospital bed waiting to be sent to the operation room, the experience reveals and entices deep thinking. At 8:30am, I was put on a bed with a number tagged to it. Then I was pushed to a waiting room, lying with many other patients in the same beds like breads waiting to be cut in a bakery. Then, one by one, we were sent into different rooms sorted by our bed numbers. The process felt like chicken sorting before being butchered, one by one, identified by numbers.

As I waited for the doctors and nurses to come, I looked at the ceiling, knowing that this might be the way when I leave the world at my end game. If everything goes smoothly, I probably will die in my sickbed staring at the hospital ceiling with needles stuck in my veins like this. Nothing sentimental about it. It is the way is.

The doctors and nurses were in a great mood and made the experience happy and humane for me. After taking a shot of half-body anaesthesia on the back, I was put into sleep. The lower-body anaesthesia also made me understand the uneasiness of mothers. I had the back pain for weeks and had the needle scar for a year and until today, I can still feel the bump from the anaesthesia needle on my back.

When I woke up, the operation was done, and I was sent back to my room.

After operation

I lied on bed, watching TV soap series that I otherwise had no time for, one episode after another. I did not really have the energy to chat with Sahand. I just adopted the passive way of getting my wandering attention focused. When the anaesthesia faded, massive pains stroke. In the evening, I had to ask for a painkiller shot plus painkiller pills. The pain was still grand.

It was during the process I reconciled with my family. As I lied in bed unable to move for one minimetre, it was my mum that put the urine bowl under me and cleaned my urine bowl. When I saw my mother, who was more than 50 years old, stayed up with me not complaining a single word and paying for my medical bill, the wall in my heart collapsed. The family could pay professionals to take care of an after-operation adult patient, but my mother did it for nothing. My wandering escaping years melted in the moment when I saw my silver-haired mother bending her back to remove the urine bowl. My world changed with the change of heart and attitude.

The man and his proud masterpiece, aka his owner’s broken leg

The day after, I was able to go home, reuniting with my dog and cat. Then, I spent weeks of lying in bed doing nothing. When you are suffering physically, you cannot work mentally. I could not just put a laptop on my bed to work since I could not focus, not while my knee hurt and while I was in bed. My mind suffered. It was not fun to know that days passed and I did absolutely nothing useful. I wanted to do something, but I could not do anything. Being futile and useless was not a good feeling for a healthy adult.

Fortunately, the days eventually passed. I gradually reclaimed some movements and found ability to do something.

I did not just one operation but two! Another eye operation…

Tibet, the belle Xining and Chengdu

Life goes in a circle and sometime in April and August, I made travels to Xining and Chengdu. I have been interested in Tibetan cultures since youth and made a long travel in 2012 to Shangri-La, where I ventured deep down to the surrounding of Meili Mountain (Kawagebo in Tibetan).

Throughout the years, I stayed in contact passively with Tibetan content and a bit of the community. I wanted to shoot a documentary on the subject, meanwhile, casting an investing net to the region. Going to Xining echoed with an investment due diligence opportunity at the time.

I chronicled most of my work and seeing about Xining in the article here: https://zhuthegirl.com/2021/09/02/xining-the-biggest-western-chinese-multi-ethnic-city-travelling-in-western-china-tibetan-buddhism-gelug-school-kosher-food/.

Soon, for a documentary opportunity, I took the initiative to fly to Chengdu and met a whole new world from there. Xining showed me a growing multiethnic city that is diverse and sparse, different from the eastern contexts. In Chengdu, which I visited the second time, I instead came across a completely new community opening me an alternative world.

Chengdu trip started as I wanted to meet a person I wanted as the female lead in my documentary. The Tibetan young lady works in fashion. She launched a very successful Tibetan clothing brand 6 years ago while in college. She also introduced me to her business partner, a young Tibetan gentleman that also launched a profitable Tibetan street fashion brand roughly the same year. The duo then opened a live-streaming company, and their traction, catching the Chinese TikTok livestreaming boom, is phenomenal. Easily earning millions in days, their success story is a condensed subject of the industry development unleashed by the Chinese growth engine. The duo is of similar age to me, but has achieved materialistic success early on, making themselves and their family a comfortable home.

Tibetan food in Chengdu

For me, I was more interested in exploring stories and interpolation of their youth, identity, society, gender roles, religion, etc. for my stories. The documentary project fell off eventually, and I later instead assumed more of the role of an investor and consultant for their businesses.

However, since early 2021, my exploration into the contemporary Tibetan youth led me to see a world that most Chinese han, whether investors or filmmakers, do not see. I see the community’s vibrancy that is fostered by the modernisation and development of China and Chinese economy. An outsider may be curious to see the political dichotomy in today’s Tibet and China, and many may still relate to the history in 1949 and the aftermath. Many of the critiques are true, but the story is not that simple. Oppression in the community I interact with is certainly a too bigger word, but complete assimilation or “liberty”, depending on the standards and definitions used, may not be thorough. In the particular case of the fashion brand live streaming company (by Tibetan standard) I kept in contact with, Chinese economy gives it the opportunity to live a rich life. It is the power of modernisation, industrialisation, and digitalisation, a process that is universal to the world and not specific to a single culture. The duo’s subculture, within the sovereignty context called diversity, gives them a community (fan base, customer base) that champions for it. In a way, the two entrepreneurs have lost some parts of their identity, since all of us do, and not just because of political reasons, which cannot be denied either. Young people these days share more in common, via the social media they use the brands they wear the songs they listen to, than differences rooted in their culture, nationality, and political or religious believes. In the same time, we are all different in our upbringings, ways of viewing the world, and choices given to us and choices we make.

The last night I was in Chengdu, I left the city centre around 8pm to catch my late flight. Precisely after I left, the city found a coronavirus case in city centre. Given China’s zero-virus policy, that region was swiftly locked up. Fortunately, my taxi might have just left that area 10 minutes before the outbreak, so my health code remained green. I missed that flight anyways. I stayed in a good hotel close to the ultra-modern Chengdu Shuangliu airport. The next morning, I woke up as the first flights touched ground.

As I walked to the terminals and then found a place to sit down, I saw the sun beaming out of the landing field. Despite still being in the pandemic and being a far-away airport in Chengdu, the airport received limitless passengers busy for their different destinations. People were busy. Robots and machines were in different places helping guide the passengers. Last time I was in Chengdu in 2020, I was in a complete misery. 2 years later, my fortune was completely turned. The Chinese economy quickly rebounded, and history was giving people a chance, and I was fortunate to be a part at that particular time.

Chengdu Hilton. From penniless to Hilton, which I went all the time before the pandemic, I guess I learned the lesson.

Summary

The purpose of writing this article is for sharing. The essay can be personal, but exposing a personal story may also give you inspiration and strength.

The two years in China, initially being forcibly imposed by the outbreak of a rare pandemic, gave me perspective and resilience. In the pandemic, I unfortunately lost many things from an otherwise privileged position. I was near to become homeless. I lost health. Lost a family relationship. Lost finance. Lost physical proximity to my boyfriend for two years. Fortunately, I was still much gifted than many, as I at least still had a roof. I still had a life. My family was still there. My relationship although strained, was still there. I was not in a warzone, not in a poor area, not in extremely dire health. It really proved that humans are highly adaptive animals, and the magic is that we can do it no matter what. As long as I am alive, I can do it.

Through my own poor financial situation, I also came to understand a world that otherwise was not open to me – how the poor thinks. Of course, I can never think like a poor, since I have been educated to think like a rich, and in a way that mindset, which is already a significant endowment not available to many, is what eventually helps me crawl out of the flat S-curve runway. However, when I had to worry where to get money to buy my next meal, how to pay for my rent tomorrow, when I had to use layers of toilet tissues during period because I could not afford tampons, my thinking was tense and short-term. In addition, I was in debt. My energy was so focused on my next bill, so I had no mental space to think about the bigger, the more sustainable, and eventually more well-rounded life strategy, and make the better, smarter, and eventually “righter” decision. Towards the end of 2021, I found an aha moment reading Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Poor Economics. I do not mean to compare myself to the study object of the book, which is the extreme poor in Indian slum enclaves. However, with myself having experienced a time of relative strained financial health, I then understood the depth of development economics’ research. My financial might, insurance, debt-equity structure, access, choice of city to live, etc. matter. Coming out of the storm for now, I learned into my heart that the power of money and power itself are important. Without the hard things, I cannot save myself or my family in storming weathers. Without the economic foundation, no dreams come true.

Time in Shanghai

Within China, I also managed to travel domestically and saw the vast diversity of the country, ever enlarging my understanding about the country’s subcultures, economics, social issues, and politics. I also saw one billion ways of living a life. I got to feel how macro economics reflects in real life, the most pronounced of which must be the empty buildings in Chongqing. I got to know that the bubble is true, not just a number on newspaper.

In retrospect, I also witnessed how a nation and a society faced the shock on a macro level, and how it quickly rebounced. The rapid growth of China is unstoppable. Wherever I went in China, I was equipped with a mass adoption of technology. Robots, apps, interactive display, new tech products… they mushroom. With such a national growth, a company not being able to make millions in months can be considered hopeless or off the trend in China.

Recently, a friend that wanted to go study in Japan two years ago posted about how his flights were cancelled three times and he was forced to stay in China. Now he lives in Shanghai and he believes that his destiny has been permanently changed. I say, if he chooses to go to Japan, he can still go now. Nothing is too late; he can still act now. Time changed something, but not his insistence. God gave us a wall for us to bang on not to force us to back out, but to test whether if we really want the thing behind.

As we adapt to the new-normal of and co-existence with the pandemic, things altered but unaltered. It is just a matter of attitude. Do we see love, hope, conviction, or do we see despair, stagnation, and hesitance?

Adversary tests truth. Only if the world is upside down and the sun falls from the orient, we see through the cloud and capture the essence. Pandemic gives us a chance to step back, for some, stepping meters back, so we can better view priorities. Difficulty ahead of the nirvara is an opportunity for pivoting out of the previous modus operanti; transition of growth path is very hard, and seeking new growth path is pain, but not choosing a new growth path makes one die in complacency. Crisis breeds hope. The free fall ahead of dawn is the premiere for flying at sunrise. May you all have the strength to believe in love and light and fall and fail forward.

In Chongqing, and chasing light

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close