By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Gov. Jay Inslee spoke on live television ordering us to stay home to fight coronavirus. He was like a gentle parent pleading with his child. He never raised his voice. He was patiently trying to convey the urgency of his message, and mentioned no penalties for defiance. But the Chinese in China, who didn’t comply with rules and ventured out during a lockdown or didn’t wear masks during the virus outbreak, were dragged by security, beaten and locked up. Those images are still vivid in my mind.
However, China’s toughness towards the coronavirus fight appears to have worked. The virus is contained for the time being with no new local cases.
But the impact on marriages is astounding—the number of divorces in Xian, a city with a population of 12 million in northwest China, soared to 3.2% since its government departments are now back in service, according to several Chinese web sites. And it’s only the beginning of the year.
Wait a minute, doesn’t social distancing entice couples to be more intimate at home? Last week, comedian Stephen Colbert predicted the virus might create a baby boom in the U.S. What a contrast!
Americans assume that couples would have more sex because they’re spending more time together. We will find out if Colbert’s prediction comes true by the end of this year or early 2021.
Compare the two countries’ divorce rates—it is interesting to learn that China’s divorce rate was on the rise even before the virus, and it was on the decline in the U.S. Both have similar rates, about 3.2% per 1,000 people, according to 2018-19 statistics.
Whether COVID-19 will affect the U.S. divorce rate, remains to be seen. But it may not be as simple as a cause-effect of the virus.
Who do you want to be with 24/7?
Most people want to be with their family in times of crisis. That’s a choice. But in a lockdown and social distancing situation, you have limited choices on who you are going to be with. Someone might have to stay with people out of necessity, not because he or she is desirable. It could include a spouse, parents, and even children. Some parents have been open about preferring to be in the office than being with their kids all day, while others like it.
In a TV interview, an American doctor was asked how he felt about being at home every day. He said that being able to have dinner with his wife and two college kids every night, is a gift. What if your kids are younger, have high energy, and are rebellious? I am assuming the doctor has a big house with a family room, and each person has his own room, and no one has to share a bathroom.
China and other Asian countries have a different home environment. Americans don’t realize how fortunate they are. Because real estate is so expensive, it’s common to have two or even three generations living under one roof in China. China’s modern homes are pricey, smaller, and tighter. Personal space is impossible. Imagine living in that kind of household during a lockdown, day after day, for a month or more. Conflict and tension are sure to arise. Many might feel trapped, as if in prison, without much room to breathe. That’s how I felt when I was raised in Hong Kong over five decades ago. Things have not changed much regarding the housing crisis in many crowded metropolitan areas in Asia.
During my high school years, I shared a bunk bed with my grandmother, and a brother in the same 250 square foot room. Before that, I was in a windowless room, only big enough to fit a bunk bed. Our dining table was multi-purpose, for my homework, mom’s spot to sew clothes, and playing mahjong with friends. It was often impossible to study at home because it was so noisy.
In my senior year, I had to escape to Caritas, a Catholic organization similar to the Boys and Girls Club, to study in a cramped room, filled with over 100 people during the summer. You could smell the sweat in that room.
When I visited a Beijing university a decade ago, I saw how small the dormitory rooms were, and each one housed four students. One student said, if his roommate’s girlfriend visited him over the weekend, the other roommates had to get lost.
Now imagine three generations of a Chinese family cramped into a 400 square foot unit behind a store. There’s no wall separating the living room and bedrooms, just a curtain. That’s what I saw in Chengdu, China.
During the lockdown in Wuhan, food was delivered to people’s doorsteps. And they did not know what was going on in the outside world as they got their information from the state-owned television, usually full of propaganda.
Here in America, we have many sources of news. Our governor, county executive, and mayor appear on television and tell us how serious COVID-19 is. I believe every word they say. I trust the coverage on local television news and the Seattle Times. I don’t have to worry about fake news. We have to count our blessings.
Our grocery stores and pharmacies are still open. At least, we can still get out for fresh air, see people and walk around. It doesn’t sound too terrible. In strange times like these, it means a lot to be able to walk around in the International District, and feel the sunshine, even for a short time.
A reverse trend
I received a surprised text on Sunday from my former high school friend in Hong Kong, and also a University of Washington alum.
In her text, she said the Chinese government listed over 6,000 experienced doctors who have experience in treating COVID-19 patients. They are now available to provide information and service globally. Many of these physicians speak English too.
Suddenly, America and China switched roles. Americans used to be the experts in global health, and now China is leading the way after a health crisis. Would President Trump want China’s help? The world can gain so much if the two global powers would collaborate. Unfortunately, U.S.-China relations have been strained since last year’s trade war.
We chatted on the phone. A reverse trend happened. She said, “At the Hong Kong post office, people wait in line to mail masks to England, Canada, and America. Two months ago, many Chinese Americans raised money to mail masks to China,” she said.
“You can easily buy masks in Hong Kong (as the illness has been controlled). And prices have dropped a lot.”
To save masks and money, my sisters-in-law in Hong Kong locked themselves at home for days, typical for many Chinese families.
Never mind they missed their grandkids. Never mind they didn’t get to play mahjong for more than a month.
Only one person from each household was allowed to go out to do grocery shopping, and it’s usually the husband. They take the virus much more seriously than Seattle-ites, some of whom which I read about, organized private parties and everyone got infected, even though no one had the symptoms before. It didn’t occur to these folks that they can be a carrier of COVID-19.
She said, “As long as you wear masks, wash your hands and don’t touch (your) face, you are safe.”
I told her, many Americans are ignoring warnings about COVID-19. They congregate on beaches and don’t wear masks.
“In Hong Kong, people learned a hard lesson after SARS (in 2003),” she said. “In Hong Kong, if you don’t wear a mask in public, people stare at you with scorn because they think you are nasty, and spreading the virus. Americans feel strange towards people who wear masks, and discriminate against Asians who wear masks, according to what I saw on the news.”
Another reason American health officials don’t want the public to wear masks, she explained, “America doesn’t have enough masks to meet the demand. If the government tells everyone to wear masks, you won’t have enough for the doctors and nurses on the frontline.“
Please listen to Gov. Inslee’s plea. Stay home and save lives.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.