Before my ex-wife and I returned to Beijing from separate family visits in Massachusetts and North Carolina, we faced an unusual but not uncommon coronavirus-related co-parenting dilemma: Would we quarantine together or separately? Years of separation find us mostly on good terms, but we feared close quarters. Arguments could stress our 4-year-old son. So we chose to quarantine apart. My son is staying with his mom.
I’m on day seven of isolation, halfway through the required 14-day coronavirus quarantine, and I’ve never been away from my son, who usually spends several nights a week with me, for so long. My ex lives on the 15th floor of a high-rise in the Fuli City neighborhood of Shuangjing, a populated residential area near the Central Business District. I live minutes away, in another building, on the 12th floor. Our son calls our homes “15” and “12” respectively. When he stays at 12, I walk him to and from a kindergarten where he’s the only Western student. This is how we’ve made a huge city manageable.
Now at a remove, I miss talking with him over dinner, laughing during bath-time, and sharing puzzles and books before bed. WeChat is my only line to him right now. We talk three times a day, often about superheroes and his latest LEGO creations, but I’d rather hold my son than hold a phone. While only a couple of blocks separate us, I’m discovering the difference between proximity and closeness. But the sacrifice I’m making by staying away feels both right and Chinese in the best way. This is how I Huàn Nàn Yǔ Gòng [患难与共].
The expression, fairly common here, suggests uniting in the face of adversity. Think of it as a collectivist rewriting of the Golden Rule. The Chinese might say, “Let’s huàn nàn yǔ gòng during this difficult time.” They mean it. Even in developed cities like Beijing, the Chinese have faced real adversity in the recent past. Communitarianism is deeply ingrained. The People’s Republic of China often faces criticism for lack of transparency, but the country’s reaction to the coronavirus — dubbed the “Chinese Virus” by Donald Trump — was not driven solely by the state. The virus has been contained in large part because the Chinese followed guidelines to ensure each others’ safety.
Many of the foreigners in Beijing and China broadly admire this about our hosts. Now, we’re seeking to emulate it. Some examples: Wen, a Taiwanese friend, briefed me ahead of the several-hour headache of health screening at the airport. Mitch, another American dad, delivered me groceries from across town on his bike. Wilson, the Australian brewer at my favorite bar, sent along a six-pack.
This all has me thinking about my son’s own experience with huàn nàn yǔ gòng, however subconscious it might be. When I check in on him over WeChat, I can tell his mom is keeping him intellectually and physically stimulated, ushering him through a daily obstacle course of spelling, plastic golf, and yoga stretches. In this way, huàn nàn yǔ gòng exists within our family. I have reacted by donating my solitude to my son’s wellbeing. His mom has donated her full attention. I’d like to think that he understands that on some level and that he feels loved.
In another week, our interactions won’t be limited to WeChat. We’ll roam outside, freely and without face masks, and celebrate over our first dinner together back in China. I don’t know how much our son will remember of his quarantining days. But I like to think he’s absorbing huàn nàn yǔ gòng while his parents are learning to show him how.