By SANGEET SANGROULA
On January 26, I returned to Beijing from a friend’s place in northeast China after celebrating the Spring Festival. The high-speed train, normally full, was more than half empty.
It was not hard to see fear in the eyes of passengers wearing face masks. Authorities had told us to avoid close contact with people as much as possible to protect yourself from the virus, which had already infected 1,985 people and killed 56 others across China. Until the moment the train departed, I was hoping that the seat next to me to remain unoccupied. Luckily, no one came to claim it.
But could the absence of someone next to you guarantee you would be safe? Didn’t I hear that the virus could spread from droplets? I decided not to eat anything throughout my anxious six-hour journey. Returning to my dormitory, dragging my luggage through the cold night, I was stopped immediately by the front-desk receptionist who asked me was if I had been to Hubei recently.
I woke up to knocks on my door in the early morning of the fourth day after my arrival. It was a Thursday. Thursday was not the normal room-cleaning day. Monday, Wednesday and Friday were. Two dormitory staff ladies were standing on each side of the door. Their faces were masked. Without any formalities, one of them said in an urgent voice that they wanted details of my travel history.
“Did you come Beijing by plane or train? Have you recently been to Hubei?” she said in Mandarin.
I handed her my train tickets. She scribbled the details in her notebook and left. They would later check if the train I was on had carried any infected patients. The train had not.
The university campus was not on lockdown yet, but there were clear signs a lockdown was coming. White digital infrared temperature-reading guns appeared at the front desk of the dormitories one morning in the first week of February. Every time you entered the dormitory building from outside, the front desk staff pointed the gun on your forehead at close range and shoot.
“36.5 [degrees], OK,” the staff would say out loud with the OK hand gesture and let you go. Later, they started asking to use your wrist for temperature-taking, as the gun did not work on the forehead well due to cold weather.
Things quickly got worse. Soon, for the safety of international students. the university barred all visitors coming into the dormitories
By that time, I noticed many international students at Tsinghua were either leaving or getting ready to leave for their home countries. They had every reason to go. The infection rate and the death toll was fast increasing, like a plane that had just taken off. The university, closing campus classrooms for an indefinite period, was fast moving to online learning.
But some decided to stay for their own reasons. I had mine, too. I thought if 20 percent of the world’s population living in China can cope with the virus, I can. Also, the seriousness with which precautionary measures were being put in place everywhere made me feel safe. Unless I became utterly careless.
My journalism instincts told me I should stay in Beijing and witness first-hand the unfolding coronavirus outbreak that would go on to become a global health emergency soon.
On February 15, the university campus announced a lockdown just as other residential areas in most parts of China were doing in the face of the increasing infections and death toll. An A4 size paper printout hanging inside on one side dormitory elevator read, “Students living on campus are not allowed to leave campus, in principle, to minimize the rise of infection.”
Since then, I have been locked inside the campus. But it is not only me. In these trying times, everybody is locked somewhere, someway.
All we can do is to stay safe and save our sanity. I am trying my best to do what a student is supposed to do. I appreciate the measures the university has taken to ensure over 200 international students like me remain safe and continue their studies. But I miss the vibes the campus emitted when it was full of students. I miss the sound of tennis balls struck by rackets that I was used to hearing on my way to the campus canteens. I miss the sight of bicycles criss-crossing in different directions around the university.
From the window of my fifth-floor dormitory, I see Line 13 subway trains passing all the time. Day by day, I see the the subway cars getting more and more crowded. It is just a matter of time before these subways will start bringing back students to the university and things will get back to normal.
The new normal.
Sangeet Sangroula is a second-year Global Business Journalism student from Nepal.