Rafaella with mask

My experience of the Coronavirus in Italy and in Shanghai by Rafaella


My Covid-19 Chronicles

I am Raffaella, an Italian living in Shanghai, China. These two words put together – Italy and China – in this specific moment, might sound like an explosion in the mind of the reader. And yes, this is exactly what it has been for my family in the last two months: an explosive experience, and unfortunately it is not over yet, on the contrary, in many ways it looks like this might just be the beginning, the beginning of a new way of living our lives.

But let us start from the very beginning. We were traveling in Cambodia when the lock down started in the city of Wuhan and the province of Hubei. It happened during the Chinese New Year holidays, and this contributed to make it all worse. Traditionally, this is a moment when everybody is on holiday in this part of the world, and literally nobody stays at home. People either move to reach their families or travel somewhere, mainly to warmer countries, to spend a week relaxing on a beach or by a pool. We first decided to stay as much as possible in Cambodia, to see how the situation would evolve. When we realized that there would be no solution in the near future, we flew back to Shanghai, packed our bags with winter clothes, took the kids’ school material and ran back to Italy. It wasn’t an easy decision. Our life is here in Shanghai, our house, our friends, our cat, everything. We have been moving around the world for the last 14 years. Italy is the place where we spend our Christmas and Summer holidays, and where the children’s grandparents live, but, apart from that, we don’t really feel at home when we are in Italy. For this reason, as soon as we were back in Shanghai from Phnom Penn, even with the pandemic all around us, in our house we felt safe, and would have stayed, if the pressure from friends, families and my husband’s company hadn’t been so strong. I will never forget the feeling I had when I got on the plane: a feeling of sadness and of irrational guilt, as if I was betraying my host country.

The arrival in Europe (Frankfurt first, and then Turin airport) was weird and confusing. We were coming from a country where everyone was using masks and

gloves and keeping distances, to a continent where nothing had changed. On our flight from Frankfurt to Turin we were the only four passengers wearing masks. It was February 5. China was locking down. Europe was in total denial.

When we got home, we decided to put ourselves into self quarantine, because that felt like the right thing to do. Nobody around us seemed to understand us. We were seen as aliens. I remember spending my time chatting with my Italian friends living in China who had also run back to Italy. They were the only people who could understand how I felt. We all knew our country was in danger. None of my friends anywhere else in the world could understand me, and still feel the same now, nobody can really understand how I feel. Only my Italian friends who are back in Shanghai now can. Not even my Italian friends who flew back to Italy and decided not to come back to Shanghai can really understand it. We are kind of stuck together, our elitist group of “survivors”.

The day after our arrival, we were joined by my son’s girlfriend, an American who reached us from Vietnam, where her family was trying to understand whether to go back to China or directly to the US (they eventually flew back to the US, where they still are, waiting for a good time to fly back to China). We spent two weeks isolated, not even willing to be with other people, who were still talking about the virus as something they would never have to worry about.

Meanwhile, on February 4, distance learning for my kids started. Distance learning for students of the international schools spread all over China has nothing to do with the distance learning kids are now experiencing anywhere else in the world, for two reasons:

  1. 1)  for my kids it’s already been two full months since it started;
  2. 2)  when it started, most kids were traveling and never went back to China. International schools had to deal with students spread among tens of different time zones, making it hard to use live online classe for instance. Another simple example: my daughter plays the violin in the string orchestra of her school, and some of her classmates are still away from home, without their instruments,

therefore their teacher had to invent new ways of teaching. It’s been challenging, frustrating, but also inspiring and enriching.

My children have spent the last two months with very little interaction with their peers. I think this has been particularly hard for my son (her girlfriend left for the US after two weeks). He’s 17, a senior graduating this summer. Senior year is supposed to be the one year when kids get the best memories of their friends, before separating for college. As an international student, his friends will go everywhere in the world, his own girlfriend will probably go thousands of miles far from him. These two weeks they spent together in our little mountain village in the North of Italy might be the last time they spent together. If I think about it, it’s just devastating. So, we just try not to think about it, and not to talk too much about it.

When our self imposed quarantine was over, we experienced our only week of real freedom: hairdresser, nails, shopping, restaurants (lots of restaurants), and a lot of family time with grandparents and friends.

And then, on February 24, the nightmare started again. That Monday, when I saw the numbers rising in Italy, and realized what was about to happen, I will never forget what I felt, even if I wouldn’t be able to describe it: desperation maybe is the nearest word. I clearly remember crying because, for the first time, I realized that even my son’s IB exams were in jeopardy now, and not only the exams, but maybe even the start of the new academic year. All of his efforts, his admittance in his dream college, had all of that been in vain? I don’t know why, but the only thing I was able to visualize was my son’s college, maybe because the previous months had been so much focused on college applications.

Anyway, that was when we decided that it was about time to come back home. And we made it! We arrived just before it became so hard to enter China. On March 5 we were finally able to sleep again in our beds, one month after we had left. In my 15 years away from Italy, I had never spent one full month in my hometown. And that month was enough to understand that it will be so hard when it will be time to go back for good! We experienced how hard it is to be understood

and to be accepted as someone who belongs to a place but, at the same time, doesn’t really belong to that place. We also experienced episodes of irrational prejudice towards us, because we were coming from China and were seen by someone as possible spreaders. (Curiously enough, we are now experiencing the same episodes here, of prejudices against foreigners as possible spreaders of a second wave of Covid-19. Isn’t that funny?!)

We have just finished our strict quarantine one week ago. This time it was imposed by the government of Shanghai. We were not allowed to put foot out of our door for 14 days, had to report our body temperature twice a day, and leave our garbage out of the door every morning. Someone would then come and take somewhere where it would be burnt. We were amazed by the organizational skills of the Chinese in dealing with the quarantine. The Chinese will never end to surprise me. I am fascinated by this country and its people.

Shanghai is now slowly getting back to its normal life. Again, immediately after ending the quarantine, I went to do my hair, my mani-pedi, we went to our favorite restaurants, I hired a personal trainer because I gained 5 kilos in these two crazy months!!!!! Also, the economy needs to recover, you get great deals everywhere now in Shanghai, I would have never afforded such an amazing personal trainer two months ago.

But these things cannot prevent us from facing the sad reality: we are not out of the tunnel yet, and we cannot even see the light at the end of it. Italy is now living a nightmare worse than the one China has experienced. My family and friends are there, and we have to cope with feelings of worry, sadness, guilt (of being here, safe, going out for dinner, while they are there), and rage, crazy rage towards our government, who were not able to see it coming. We have a daily appointment at 5pm on Skype with my parents and with my sister. We spend a long time listening to my mom’s complaints and to my dad’s list of the various parts of his body that are hurting. We taught them how to properly use and dispose of a mask, and have started sending them masks from here. We have plenty of masks here, while you cannot find one single mask in Italy. It’s a real shame.

The other reason why I am aware we are not towards the end of the nightmare, but maybe just at the beginning, is that in this part of the world we are already seeing the first signs of a second wave of infections, and this awareness had the same effect on me as the feeling I had on that Monday, February 24, when it all started in Italy. At first, you go crazy, but then, slowly, you react, you metabolize, and you find a way to go on. This is the time in our life we are being the most resilient ever. I am so proud of my kids, their are our heroes, still smiling, still optimistic about their future, while I see myself more and more disillusioned and cynical.


Copyright © 2020 by Nadege Bourdin Fayard

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