The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Shanghai’s covid lockdown is shaping my generation

A worker collects a swab sample from a resident for a coronavirus test in a neighborhood placed under lockdown in Shanghai on April 4. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)
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Xing Zhao is a freelance writer and translator living in Shanghai.

SHANGHAI — My dad called Monday, asking if I had enough to eat. When I told him I still had some groceries and five kilograms of rice (about 11 pounds), he was relieved. But he said that wasn’t enough. He had bought 20 kilograms of rice, plus 10 kilos of flour. “I have enough food to last me six months,” he said, though there is no covid outbreak in Wenzhou, where he lives.

There is no outbreak now, he confirmed. “But maybe tomorrow,” he said. “You never know.”

Here in China’s largest city, home to some 26 million people, a citywide lockdown to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus has been underway for about three weeks. More than 250,000 cases have been reported in Shanghai since early March. Residents are required to test every other day, even though the city has reported that out of all these cases, only one was considered severe.

Some people have posted online about food shortages, pleading for help. After more than two years of living with covid-19, none of us in Shanghai would have thought the lockdown originally planned for four days was going to last this long.

My dad’s house has a freezer large enough to fit a human body. I used to tease him when he talked about buying kilos and kilos of fish or beef to stock that freezer. We weren’t living in wartime, I said.

“People starved to death in the past,” he would reply. “The elders always told us that, and there will eventually be one of those days.”

Now we are living in those days. At one point, this was a battle against the virus. Now what is keeping us captives in our homes is less clear.

Early in lockdown, my compound received a batch of food supplies from the government. Since then, we have relied on the building’s group purchases, organized by neighbors. It’s a complex process that requires hours of scrolling through WeChat group chats every day and even some Excel spreadsheets.

This week, the vegetables I group-ordered with neighbors finally arrived. There wasn’t much, and I paid more than three times the usual price. After days of waiting, more government supplies came, too: masks and antigen test kits, a chicken and some pork, vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, onions and a carrot), cucumbers and mandarin oranges, a pack of noodles and five kilos of rice.

In recent weeks, I wished sometimes that I had my own freezer, but now, with the extra rice, my mind is more at peace.

For us Chinese, rice — both the grain and the word — stands for food, security, prosperity. Above all, it symbolizes survival. “Having rice, one can at least survive on congee,” my dad said, referring to rice porridge.

I am surviving. I am far from starved, as are many others in this city (yet). But I don’t know how my generation or younger ones will recover from this experience of scrambling for food, something we had never expected to do. How do we not emerge feeling that we will always have to buy everything in bulk?

On the phone, my dad named items I should buy that would remain edible for months, maybe years — “even when this is over,” he said.

The problem, of course, is that none of us knows when, or whether, this will ever be over.

This experience has brought me closer to understanding how generations of Chinese people before us lived through war, famine and other chaos yet still kept going.

I have been thinking recently about a song from the mid-1990s, “God Bless the People Who Have Been Fed,” written by Zhang Chu. Translated to English, some of the lyrics say:

God bless the people who have been fed

God bless the people who have their energy

We don’t ask God to be just or benevolent

We ask only for God to bless the living

For that, we will ask no more

Not for the sun to rise on time

Not to question whether there is a war on Earth

Please God bless those who are ready to betray themselves

Ready to be moved, never wanting to die,

Never have been heard of since

But begin to feel they’ve had too much to eat

Each time a compound receives supplies from the government, photos circulate on social media of these “Big Gift Boxes." People who haven’t received theirs yet complain in envy. When I finally received mine, I felt grateful. I carefully arranged each item, hoping to make it last as long as possible.

Then I remembered something an old boyfriend once said to me: “Treat them mean, keep them keen.”

I don’t know how Zhang Chu could have foreseen something like this when he wrote his song.

A 72-year-old woman in my building who tested positive was taken away in the night. Soon after, she was no longer spoken of in our group chats.

Those of us who are lucky to have food are now the people who have been fed, who try to keep our energy up, who ask no more, have never been heard of since. Maybe we’ll begin to feel we’ve had too much to eat until this food runs out again.