Early in the evening of February 3rd, Josh and I stood beside Beijing Road, our bags in a pile on the sidewalk. It felt like a late spring afternoon with sunlight filtering through the trees. The street was almost completely empty and you could hear birds singing, a rare sound in this city of 24 million. Somewhere above us arpeggios from a trumpet floated out an open window as we waited for the Didi we had ordered to take us to Pudong International Airport.
Four days earlier, neither of us felt sure whether we wanted to stay in China and wait out the virus, or call it a day and say zàijiàn to Shanghai. We had spent almost two weeks inside our apartment, with trips to the Star Market around the corner and walks in the nearby sculpture park our only outings, with the occasional short run when the air quality permitted. The combined effects of the coronavirus and the Chinese New Year left most public places closed, and even though some restaurants and coffee shops did stay open, we agreed it was better not to spend too much time out and about. You know, just in case.
So we spent our days reading, watching Netflix, watching movies, watching YouTube, doing YouTube yoga, and cooking Brussel sprouts and pasta. Which isn’t a terrible routine, really. But we didn’t know when schools were going to start up again (at the earliest it would’ve been February 29), and, although I’m the very definition of a homebody, I felt restless and antsy. However, there was still a lot that we liked about Shanghai, and we were about to start new jobs teaching literature, with good pay and four-day weekends so we would’ve had a lot of opportunities for exploring China. It was hard to tell what the best thing to do was.
Then the front entrance to our neighborhood was closed and we could only enter and exit through the back gate, and we had to sign in and out (which proved quite challenging since our already-limited Mandarin was fading as weeks without lessons slipped by). Then the sculpture park, our one truly enjoyable outing, shut its gates for an unspecified time. Then the U.S. Department of State raised its travel warning to China from level two (“exercise increased caution”), to level three (“reconsider travel”), to four, the highest level (“do not travel”), with the advice that “those currently in China should attempt to depart by commercial means.” So we booked a flight to Denver, and it was cancelled twenty minutes later.
I don’t think that we were in any danger of getting the virus. A very small number of cases were confirmed in Shanghai, and we were cloistered in our corona-free apartment. But all the things that I liked about Shanghai were temporarily on hold. Exploring the city by subway, finding new restaurants, going to museums, reading at my favorite coffee shop, having Mandarin lessons, planning trips to other provinces—these were all on pause for the moment and it was hard to tell (is still hard to tell) when all of that could resume. So when the flight to Denver was cancelled, well, that made me feel like I’d rather not wait around for all flights to be postponed indefinitely.
With most flights to America either suspended or prohibitively expensive, we decided to head west, to the land of milk, honey and windmills. We booked a flight to the Netherlands on Friday, refreshing the airline’s website constantly throughout Saturday and Sunday, our breath bated, half expecting another cancellation. And on Monday, we left China.
Sitting in the back of a minivan on the way to the airport, we rode through the city in the gloaming. Unlike most of the underground traveling we did around Shanghai, this last ride gave us a chance to see the city. Not in its entirety, of course, but in larger swaths than how we usually got to see it. We could look behind us and there was the Oriental Pearl and the Shanghai Tower and that one building that looks like the Eye of Sauron at night.
It felt weird to be leaving just three days after making the decision, and sad, too. But at the same time I have never felt so relieved for a flight to board on time, so grateful for the crew who already have what sounds like the most exhausting job, now flying in and out of a country nervous with a novel sickness. After two temperature screenings at the Shanghai airport and one during a layover in Abu Dhabi, and after wearing face masks for over 24 hours, we exited the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and breathed in the windy, crisp Dutch air.