Life Under Quarantine: an American Teacher in China


An American physics teacher living in Nanjing, China shares his experience with the coronavirus outbreak response.

Interview Transcript (modified for readability):

Life Under Quarantine: an American Teacher in China

Contagion®: Welcome to Contagion® Connect.

In this episode, we'll bring you a voice from Nanjing, China. Seth Bourg is an American physics teacher who has been living in the city since August. He'll give us his unique insight on life under quarantine there, not only as an American, but as someone with the life experience to compare the interruption to society with New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Bourg: My name is Seth Bourg. I am a physics teacher out here in China. I'm in Nanjing, which is in between Wuhan and Shanghai. The city is about a 6 hour drive east of Wuhan.

I've always wanted to teach abroad. I never got to study abroad. When an opportunity arose, I jumped on it. I've been here since early August.

Contagion®: What was it like when the virus broke out?

It was weird because this happened right around the Spring Festival which is a big celebration over here. A lot of people were traveling, going abroad, or going home to see families.

Imagine having this outbreak during the middle of Christmas or Thanksgiving.

To top it off, when this started, I actually came down with pinkeye at the same time. So I was sick for a completely different reason while this began, so that didn't help.

I remember that a lot of people at first were thinking that this is mildly concerning, and then all of a sudden it blew up. It went from 0 to 100 really, really quickly.

Contagion®: Could you go into how that reaction changed over time for the people around you? How were government measures communicated as they ramped up?

Bourg: At the start, the government was trying to downplay [it]. It's just some sickness somewhere, it's not that big a deal. There were several doctors I remember who were speaking out about it and then, once it started to get bigger, the government flipped its script to “we are going full force on this.”

Anyone who would even attempt to hide this, I think the line was, “will be nailed to the pillar of shame for all eternity.” That was the rough translation I heard.

You did have a decent number of people who were pointing out “only a week ago you were trying to hide this.”

What really sparked flames was 1 of the doctors who raised the initial alarm ended up actually dying from the virus. That caused a lot of hoopla among some people that I'm that I'm friends with.

The government's response in terms of communicating it, they've been pretty good about saying what's happening overall.

There are different messaging apps that everyone's almost automatically signed into. They've been posting updates, they'll post out English versions and Chinese versions. And if they do post an only Chinese version, they'll ask people “if you know any ex-pats please translate this for them.” In terms of getting the word out there, once they decided that they wanted to, they were pretty good about it.

The messaging has also been kind of inconsistent at times, and a lot of it seems like they're doing things to just seem like they're doing things.

There’s been measures that have been taken that aren't necessarily going to actually help things. Now, some of it has been helpful and I think in in Nanjing this past at least week, there have been no new reported cases. In the end, we got there. But a lot of it did seem to be for show.

Contagion®: You mentioned some of your friends being upset. Are these all fellow people in the international program?

Bourg: My co-workers from abroad, they kind of knew what was going on with me. At the time when this first started breaking, that was when the biggest quarantine section happened. To put in perspective Nanjing is on par with a population of New York City, and when I would go to get groceries, it would be empty. There would just be no one on the street.

I didn't actually get the chance to interact with a ton of my local Chinese friends. The 2 or 3 that I did see were either actively upset by it or at least saying “we see what’s going on.” I have yet to meet anyone who said the government handled this perfectly. But my sample size is somewhat limited.

Contagion: You mentioned the grocery store, just going to the grocery store. So you're the only person there. What's that like? What's that procedure that gets you into the store?

Bourg: In order to even leave my apartment, I had to have a surgical mask on—everyone has a mask on. Also in order to leave the apartment about a week or 2 in, you actually had to have a card issued by the apartment complex that you live there. You had to carry a lease agreement with you to basically show “I live here, I'm not just visiting.” That was the only way to actually get back on into the area.

I had to have that on me, then I'd go to the grocery store itself and they have someone at the door with laser thermometers, and they would scan you. You had to pass through a threshold and if not, they wouldn't let you in. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I don't scan well on these things when they scan my forehead or my arm, they get an error message. I end up pulling down my shirt and they scan my chest and that works. I have to do that every single time I want to go get groceries. So that's been an interesting interaction.

You can just walk in and besides that, it's normal except everyone's wearing masks and there's not a lot of people there.

I know back in the states the big runs have been on things like toilet paper and bottled water and stuff like that. Over here, the big thing has been just fresh produce. Fresh fruits and vegetables get wiped out the moment word gets out that a store has resupplied. The only other thing that seems to take a hit every now and again is the instant dumplings.

I went to a supermarket once and there were none. It was normally a whole aisle, just completely empty. That was the moment for me.

Contagion: What other specific restrictions have you've been under in your daily life? And how are you sort of adapting to those? Who are you conversing with to keep busy? Is it mostly people online? Do you have people to talk to in person?

Bourg: The big thing recently has been learning because, again, I'm a teacher. This happened during our break. We were supposed to be back in mid-January. Now it’s March and we're still not back.

One of the things that has made this difficult is the government has kept pushing back when we would be able to come back. At first it was beginning of February, then it was middle of February, and now in theory we're going back next week, but that might change. Some places are April.

Living in China, the internet isn't amazing. When the entire country tries to get on to have school, that's been interesting.

We've had to try several different things just to communicate with kids. There's a lot of social pressure on these students to do well academically. And the pressure not to fall behind. Then you have some kids who took a family vacation to Thailand and just haven't been able to come back because all their flights got canceled.

For the first—I'd say 3 weeks—there really wasn't any interacting with people, everyone just kind of stayed home. You couldn't come into the school even if you were just by yourself. You couldn't hang out in public places. Restaurants and bars were closed. Malls were closed. It was a full shutdown and so there wasn't really a lot of interaction with anyone.

[I did] a lot of Netflix binging and stuff like that. At one point, I got bored and pretended that my suitcase was trying to kill me and so I gave it like knives and poses around my apartment because that was what I thought was funny at the time.

Contagion®: That’s Cast Away Tom Hanks level stuff.

Bourg: Oh, yeah, we definitely had some flirtations with cabin fever.

Contagion®: That's to be expected, totally understandable.

Are you allowed to leave the country right now? Say a couple weeks ago, would you have been able to go?

Bourg: Yes and no. I actually had some faculty members who thought that since we're going to be teaching digitally anyway, we're going to be off for a few weeks, let's actually just take a vacation.

So I have a few friends who went Thailand, someone went to Japan, which then got weird because Japan started getting infected. The trick isn't leaving the country. China doesn't care if you leave. The trick is coming back because a lot of a lot of flights are just being canceled.

Officially, am I allowed to leave the country? Yes, and depending on where I end up, I might have to go into a quarantine. But the trick is getting back in. I know we have several teachers who are trying to come back and they're going to be going into a 2-week quarantine.

There are even some apartments which will not let people back into their own apartment for 2 weeks. I had several Chinese coworkers who went home for the Spring Festival and were not allowed back to their house because they had been away and that the landlord was like “we're not taking a chance. Sorry you live here, but you can't come back.”

Contagion®: I imagine this might be more concentrated in Wuhan where the health system was more burdened. I'd be curious [to know] what the burden looked like where you are. But do you feel like the quarantine put you at greater risk in any sort of way?

Bourg: I don't feel like the risk was elevated. I do think that some measures taken were a bit more for show, so a question of “did they swing the needle either way?”

I know that the local hospital for a while shut down for only coronavirus cases, nothing else. Then they later opened it up to other cases. I had actually had some work that I had planned to get done in the hospital that has been postponed. That's the only case I can think of this actively inhibiting my health was medical resources all focused on the coronavirus and then other extreme immediate pressing medical concerns.

Contagion: Is there anything people can sort of do to be supportive if they know someone in your situation? What have you been doing to kind of keep your mental health in a as good a place as you can?

Bourg: My work here has been sending out regular messages, keeping communication open, and some of the message has been “hey, here's some things you can do if you're feeling stressed or if you're feeling some anxiety here.”

In a lot of cases there's not a ton you can do besides ride it out. Because again, it has this incubation period.

Just keep that contact open, keep that communication open. I've been able to talk with friends from home and talk with family from home and converse with them. That has helped just knowing that there are people thinking about you and knowing that there are people who have you in mind, because it is kind of surreal to basically have society just kind of turn off for a month and a half and that's basically what it felt.

When I was younger, I was in New Orleans for Katrina. And it had a similar feeling to that, people were trying to go about their lives as normally as they could based on the circumstances. But just because of those circumstances, it was inherently difficult. After a month or so, it can start to get disconcerting. If you know someone who's in that position, just try to send out those lifelines of normalcy as much as you can.

Contagion: You were living in New Orleans during Katrina. What do you see as similar or different about that in this kind of experience?

The similarity is what I just alluded to. We have a system that we almost get complacent with and you can used to. “This is how the world works.” We all hum along and do our own thing and society goes X, Y, and Z.

When you have this major event that just throws this wrench into everything, it really throws you for a loop.

I remember moving around a lot from Alabama to Florida to upstate Louisiana. I had a lot of friends that went out to Texas for a month or 2. So just being stranded and being kind of up in the air and not really knowing what's going to happen. Again, there's been some from the Chinese government, but there’s been a lot of radio silence. In a similar way with New Orleans just “when is the water is going to recede, when can I go back to my house? When will my school open up again?” That level of uncertainty is definitely similar.

The one thing that I think is noticeably different about this one—and I would say for the worse—is mistrust.

With Katrina, this big disaster happened. We were trying to help people get back on their feet. Whereas with the virus because it's spread person to person there is this level of suspicion. I had friends who had gone back to their small towns to go see family for the Spring Festival. They were telling me that some people have really just gone and destroyed the roads into and out of towns. No one's getting in. No one is getting out. And I know back in the states there has been certain xenophobic hysteria with quarantines from country to country and who can fly where.

Contagion: What are you most looking forward to once this part of your experience is over?

Bourg: For those first few weeks, basically time was meaningless. Nothing. There was no schedule, nothing was really happening. I became nocturnal for 2 weeks, I’d just go to bed at 3pm, wake up whenever. When the school opened up—not for classes, but you can come in and go to your office and check your email have access to stable internet—that was really, really helpful.

It said “life is back”—not to the full extent but definitely more so. I’m looking forward to getting to see my students again, getting to walk around without pretending I'm in a surgery room the entire time. And enjoying it. I will say that since it's starting to turn into spring here there are a lot of flowers blooming there are a lot of trees opening up.

There are a lot of parks in the city, and we're now getting to enjoy the beautiful parts of the city. I'm definitely planning on staying in China. I'm looking forward to getting back to the things that drew me here and getting back to the things that were interesting and exciting and worthwhile.

Contagion: That's great. And those first couple of weeks, I mean, that sounds kind of dark, right?

Bourg: Somewhat literally. There was nothing to do but wait, you couldn't see anyone. Some places were giving passes where you can leave your apartment x times a week to go get food and besides that you have to stay in your apartment. I know that in Wuhan itself, it was even worse.

Nothing was open, no one was allowed to meet, you could only go really where you lived.

It's funny now, restaurants aren't officially allowed to open but you are allowed to get delivery from them. What's happening is at dinnertime people will go to the restaurant and order their food and they'll wait outside the door. They’re technically not going inside the restaurant, they're just grabbing their food. There’s been things like that where society finds a way.

I mean, just the what passes for a gas mask has definitely been interesting. There have been a couple people with those giant inflatable Halloween costumes that cover you—the giant T rex costumes, people have been wearing those. There have been several cases where I've been walking by someone wearing a mask and they'll start coughing and take off their masks to cough and spit it out and then put the mask back on!

Contagion®: I'm just going to open the floor to if there's anything else about your experience you want to share with Americans, anybody around the world, really?

Bourg: What’s working best here is, don't be stupid. Don’t pretend nothing's wrong. Take extra precautions, but also don't go overboard with things that you don't necessarily know will help.

It’s about simple things, washing your hands. Little things like that do end up going a long way. Whereas bleaching everything in sight won't necessarily help make you any safer.

Just make good simple, smart decisions about who you're spending time with and what you're doing. Don’t go out to big crowded places if you can help it. But don't be afraid to set foot out of your house.

Contagion®: Thanks for tuning in to this Contagion® Connect podcast. Be sure to like, share and subscribe. And for the latest infectious disease news, be sure to check out

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