Around me, the atmosphere soon turned tense. Songzi, whose streets usually bustle with the 300,000 residents who live in the city proper, felt like a ghost town. Announcements blared from radios, TVs and loudspeakers on patrolling cars, advising people to stay indoors, wear masks and wash their hands often. We played endless games of mahjong. When feeling stir-crazy, I took walks to get some fresh air; the park was totally empty. My relatives were glued to their phones and the TV, our only access to the outside world. The Internet frustrated me too much, thanks to the pervasive censorship. We kept getting into the same arguments: I’d point to the Chinese government’s data and say that thousands of people probably caught the flu every year — coronavirus wasn’t that big a deal. My relatives insisted that something had to be wrong: Why else would the government lock down the whole province? I didn’t have a good answer. Then we saw local officials setting up roadblocks on the routes in and out of the city and at major intersections.
Ominous signs piled up: My second flight to Beijing was canceled on Jan. 30. The next day, we learned that the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. The U.S. government had closed down its consulate in Wuhan and evacuated the entire staff, which upset me. I knew they must have been under some order, but I felt like they had abandoned all the other Americans in Hubei. I grew concerned that I’d be stuck in the province indefinitely.
Then the Fulbright Program ordered grantees to leave China as soon as possible. The announcement alarmed me. The program staff connected me with the U.S. Embassy, and as soon as I could, I secured a seat on an evacuation flight from Wuhan to an unspecified U.S. destination, scheduled to depart Feb. 3. The only problem? I was stuck hundreds of miles away, with the roads blocked. The local government wasn’t allowing anyone to leave Songzi unless they were medical personnel or transporting critical supplies. Even after I showed officials my U.S. passport, they were unmoved.
The next day involved a flurry of phone calls. I checked my phone obsessively, trying not to freak out — whenever I saw the embassy’s number flash on the screen, I felt relief and gratitude, followed almost immediately by intense exasperation. Over and over, the staff asked me the same logistical details: my passport number, information about who was driving me, the license plate of the car. But no one could tell me if they were making any progress in negotiating with the Chinese government; no one could promise me that I would make the flight. I was running out of time.
Luckily, the flight departure was pushed back to the evening of Feb. 4, and I finally got the go-ahead that morning. I was so happy to make the flight that I was unbothered by the email informing me that I would be subject to up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine in the United States. After obtaining an exit pass from the local government, I was on my way to the airport, speeding along an eerily empty freeway, shaving hours off the normal drive. I arrived at the airport in the early afternoon.
The evacuation emails had told us to bring food and water, and to expect multiple medical exams and a long wait. The Americans gathered in an airport rest area, ringed by shuttered shops, unsure what to do. We didn’t see any signs directing us or a single American official; the Chinese airport staff told me rudely that they didn’t have any instructions for us. The scheduled departure time came and went. A long line began to form at a darkened check-in counter, winding through the waiting area. But when I asked what people were waiting for, no one knew — someone just thought it was time to line up. Everyone was so restless, so desperate for something to do, that they’d lined up for no reason at all.
Finally, at about 2 a.m., embassy officials showed up. First, they tried to divide the passengers alphabetically for the two evacuation flights. People started to freak out: In China, spouses often have different surnames from each other and from their children, and they feared being separated from their families, especially if the flights headed to different locations. The staff realized their mistake and regrouped the passengers to keep families together. Then there were endless lines: We formed lines to get our boarding passes, then to drop off our luggage, for Chinese passport control and for security checks. When a medical team in hazmat suits arrived, around 3 a.m., we lined up some more: to receive wristbands, to have a number written on the band (mine was No. 178), to get our temperature taken, to have the temperature written on the wristband. A few times, we were instructed to line up by number for no apparent reason. Small children cried from exhaustion or fell asleep curled up on the airport benches.
At about 5 a.m., we finally boarded the aircraft, a converted Kalitta Air cargo plane with high ceilings and numbers duct-taped to the seats, corresponding to those on our wristbands. The staff set up hand-sanitizer dispensers and distributed, to my relief, the correct kind of N95-rated breathing masks. To be honest, I had felt safer, if claustrophobic, in Songzi — I was taking a risk by flying in close quarters with strangers who might have been carrying the virus. But when the plane took off, I relaxed and dozed. The medical personnel checked all passengers’ temperatures twice, calling us in rows to the back of the plane.
When we landed at Travis Air Force Base in California, shortly before 4 a.m., we evacuees cheered. People from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention checked our temperatures and handed us stacks of documents to read later. Uniformed federal employees guided us off the plane with flashlights. “Welcome home,” they told us cheerfully. One person even bowed to me, apparently believing it to be a customary Chinese greeting. They were clearly trying hard to make us feel comfortable.
In blissful contrast to the experience at the Wuhan airport, the processing on the American end of the journey was brisk. In a huge building that resembled an airplane hangar, we moved quickly through the makeshift stations: customs, passport control, hotel room assignments and keys, picking up a boxed meal. A shuttle bus brought us to the Westwind Inn, on the base. I couldn’t wait to take a shower and lie down.
Once I got to my room, despite my exhaustion, I reviewed the documents, including a CDC order with a supporting medical affidavit, mandating my 14-day confinement at the hotel. I found them comforting: I was somewhere safe, under the care of seasoned professionals, and in an environment where I could challenge the government’s decision if necessary.
On the first day, a CDC doctor told us we didn’t have to wear masks if we maintained a social distance of about six feet. Though we were free to move throughout the building and venture outdoors, we had to stay within the chain-link fence around the property. On each floor by the elevators stood a medical station where the staff did our twice-daily mandatory temperature checks and where we picked up our meals. If any of us noticed symptoms, we were to call a hotline, or find the Health and Human Services medical team on the first floor. Our hotel and meal expenses were covered by the government.
I found myself unable to concentrate on my legal research project. My blood pressure was abnormally high. When you’re cooped up because of an outbreak, the Internet can be a blessing and a curse. I passed the time on WeChat, WhatsApp and Skype, keeping in touch with my family and friends. I spent too much time trying to learn everything I could about the progression of the coronavirus epidemic. On Chinese websites, I scrolled through desperate requests for help, as people tried to find hospital beds for their loved ones. I watched disturbing videos of Wuhan residents being dragged out of their apartments and forcibly hospitalized because they had a fever; no one gave them documents outlining their rights. Meanwhile, in my hometown of Songzi, the government locked down residential buildings and forbade people to even go to the supermarket or walk their dogs.
Our own version of quarantine was surprisingly agreeable, in part because the federal employees were so compassionate and accommodating. When people complained about the food, our hosts immediately changed vendors. When someone pointed out that we didn’t have quarters to do laundry, they provided us with three kinds of free detergent. Eventually, we were allowed to buy snacks and other goods online and get them delivered to us, though the packages did have to pass through security first. I ordered vitamin C supplements. On Valentine’s Day, they gave us each a small gift with a paper heart, along with steamed buns for breakfast — a touching gesture, even though the buns didn’t taste great. One person on our evacuee WeChat group called them “the best worst buns” they’d ever eaten. People relaxed, some walking around without masks and letting their kids play together. Every passing day without symptoms cheered us even more.
On Feb. 18, I finally left the base and took a long flight to reunite with my husband in Malta, where he is a visiting professor. My sister back in Songzi told me that she hadn’t set foot outside her apartment in weeks. I feel grateful for being an American citizen, but I fear how the epidemic will unfold in the country where I grew up.
As told to Washington Post editor Sophia Nguyen.