"Living in Wuhan during COVID-19" by Megan Monroe
I got a phone call in October, 2019. The woman on the phone asked me if I wanted to be a theatre teacher. When I asked her the location, she said “China.” Without missing a beat I said “Okay.”
Fast forward two months and I was on a plane to the city of Wuhan in the Hubei province. This was my first time abroad. I hadn’t even heard of the city before. Everything was peachy. I toured different schools, viewed theatrical performances, had had a flurry of meetings with different people.
During the students’ winter break, I ran a “Wintercamp,” in which I taught a handful of adorable second graders about the Earth, space, countries, plants, and animals. We’d have pillow fights with the classroom bean bags during lunchtime, play with puppets together, and sometimes even run around on the stagnant ship that resides just next to the office.
In Wuhan, I lived with my boss in an apartment flat. We shared a bunk bed. One morning she woke me up and told me that we needed to go to the grocery store before it closed, because the virus was serious enough that the city was going to be on lockdown. We bought an obscene amount of eggs and instant noodles. There were virtually no vegetables left on the shelves when we got there around noon. The metro station was completely closed off. Everyone was wearing masks. I’d only ever seen something comparable during the fires in Sonoma County. But that was nothing compared to what was happening in Wuhan. The grocery stores ultimately didn’t shut down that first day, nor did they for the next few weeks. But everything else was quick to change.
Living with my boss became hell. Almost every other business was shut down during this time, but she wanted to continue working. I was fine working in our home, but she eventually made us travel to the office a few blocks away every day so I would be more “productive.” I made audio recordings every day for our students to listen to, and they would recite the short story back to us in an audio file. I grew to be incredibly depressed, and would often sleep in. If I hadn’t sent the audio file by 9AM, I would get chewed out both by my boss and by the CFO of the company, who sponsored my stay in China. I got a text message one morning from the CFO telling me that I was not allowed to slack off on my work because of the virus. She was incredibly rude, and I retaliated telling her that living with my boss had been terrible for my mental health and that I felt as though I was always working. When my boss saw this, she asked if I’d prefer her to live at the office. Of course, I begged her to go. She had crossed so many boundaries in our home. One morning, she had even yelled at me to wake up and clean off our dining table, for no reason. I was fast asleep and there were some papers on the table. She didn’t even need to be at the table. It felt like she had a power complex that needed to be satiated. So, she left.
I was alone in my apartment for a few weeks. My boss would still make me come out to the office to work, even though the whole city was supposed to be self quarantined. I had to get my temperature taken every morning before entering the gated community that housed our office. One day, I woke up and decided I’d get groceries. When I went down to the lobby of my apartment and tried to head out, I noticed that the door leading to the street had been padlocked shut. I was trapped in my building.
I told my boss this, and she came up with a plan. She went through the underground parking garages and cane up the elevator into my building. I took a suitcase full of clothes and we headed back down to the parking garages together. It was dark and clammy in the structure. The lights were literally flickering as they would in a horror film. There was a poorly assembled, graffiti’d, plywood fence that was holding back what seemed to be years worth of broken appliances and garbage. We walked for about ten minutes, then came up a slope which emptied us out of the parking structure and right by the office. This was definitely illegal.
My mom could see that my mood had improved, though, being in a larger space with a balcony. I was getting more sunshine, and actually interacting with another human being on a daily basis. She told me to thank my boss for “giving her her [child] back.” She knew just as well as I did that my boss was the one who knocked the charisma out of me in the first place.
So now, here I was. No longer alone. I had my own room in the office as opposed to sharing a bunk bed back at the apartment. And I’ve been here for about three weeks now. I’ve lost count. All I know is that I’ve been in China for 111 days; 44 free, 67 in quarantine.