Women who left N.Y. for China amid U.S. coronavirus outbreak document their journey

“Because we're kind of in between these two cultures, we also understand both. So it feels like our experience could speak to both of the audiences.”

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By Natasha Roy

When the coronavirus began to spread in the United States, Feiran Lyu and Tianran Qian took three days to decide to pack up their New York City apartment and return to their families in Hangzhou, China. The U.S. had fewer than 200 reported cases when they left March 5, but their parents were concerned that few measures were being taken.

Lyu and Qian, who have been friends since high school and graduated from New York University last year, didn’t have health care, and they feared they wouldn’t be protected if the situation became worse.

Just a week later, the U.S. reported more than a thousand positive cases.

“I didn't want to come back,” Qian, 23, told NBC Asian America from Hangzhou. “I felt like I had to — also to reassure my parents — but then it also turned out to be the right decision.”

Feiran Lyu, left, and Tianran Qian, right, in New York. The two returned to Hangzhou in early March before the coronavirus outbreak worsened in the United States.Courtesy Feiran Lyu

Returning to Hangzhou

When they landed, Qian and Lyu underwent a 14-day self-quarantine at their homes. Lyu said her online deliveries and trash pickups were handled by social workers. Many Chinese businesses provided contactless services, including grocery delivery. In Hong Kong, hundreds of social workers, who would ordinarily provide counseling services to citizens, were instructed to assist with deliveries, as well. The South China Morning Post reported that a social workers' union voiced anger at the shift and asked the government to outsource the work.

But availability of these services helped reassure people such as Qian and Lyu.

“I think I feel so much safer,” Lyu, 24, said.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Quarantine policies in China differed by city. Many Chinese cities created monitoring plans that divide larger neighborhoods off into smaller units to make regulations easier to enforce, according to NPR. Qian's and Lyu's parents had to report their return to their residential complexes, which reported to their street districts, then to their city districts, and finally, their returns were documented by the city itself.

The lockdown on Hangzhou had been lifted by the time Qian and Lyu returned. At the time, Qian said, America was considered a low-risk country, so the two friends were able to quarantine in their respective homes. Shortly after, when the U.S. was deemed a mid-level risk, people flying in from America were required to quarantine together at a designated hotel.

While they were quarantined, they didn’t leave their homes. Lyu said that from her window she saw people going out and children playing outside, but everyone was wearing masks.

They felt the situation was under control in China, as there were specific measures in place to curb the virus’ spread. Everyone has a color-coded QR code on a smartphone app — first introduced in Hangzhou — that indicates their health status and tracks where they have been. They must display it in public spaces.

If a person has a green code, they are free to travel about. But if the code is yellow or red, they are required to quarantine.

“Every single step, there's someone,” Qian said. “There's just a very clear management system.”

Both Qian and Lyu said the differences between the way the Americans and the Chinese people were reacting to the virus were stark. Lyu said that before they left New York, it seemed that people around them were unaware of the virus’ severity. When they went on the streets, everything seemed normal. But when they checked Chinese social media, things were far more serious.

“It’s like we’re so haunted by these two realities,” Lyu said.

Though China has reported several days with no new domestic coronavirus cases, Lyu said people are still taking precautions.

“People are wearing masks, even though the government says in some public spaces when there are not so many people you can just take off your mask,” Lyu said. “But people are still very aware of it.”

Now, things are gradually returning to normal in Hangzhou. Lyu said stores are open and people are on the streets, but many people still disinfect their hands often.

Neither is sure when they may be able to come back to the U.S. Both were working at a store that sold luxury watches, jewelry, antiques and artwork in New York, but they quit their jobs before leaving. They don’t know when the U.S. could contain the virus and allow for their return.

“I mean, even if we want to go back right now, Chinese people still can’t fly to America at this point,” Qian said.

Documenting the experience on instagram

Qian and Lyu started an Instagram account to document their experiences. Lyu said a big reason the pair went back to China was because they felt people in the U.S. were lacking awareness and that the U.S. government was not taking responsibility to educate people.

Their Instagram page documents their travel to China, during which flight attendants took their temperatures, their QR codes and their first days outside after quarantine.

They wrote in a post that their fellow passengers voluntarily wore masks, disinfected their seats and ate meals at separate times to reduce the risk of droplet infection. They noted that flight attendants took their temperatures twice during the flight, and that every passenger filled out a form indicating their health status, travel history and contact information.

They also wrote that going through health inspections and customs at the airport did not take long.

“Everything was smooth, secure, and efficient, largely due to technology incorporated in the airport infrastructures,” the post said. “We felt safe.”

The page shows Hangzhou slowly returning to a sense of normalcy, and differences the two have noticed among countries affected by the coronavirus.

“What I feel when I was in the U.S. is that people were so afraid,” Lyu said. “They're kind of afraid of quarantine because they think what China did was authoritarian -- ‘they're putting people in their home. They're stripping out their liberties to go out.’ But actually, it's not that.”

One post shows city life in Hangzhou nearly restored. They note that people still wear masks to make themselves and others feel more secure.

“Now that people are going back to work and school preparing to start again, NO ONE wants a 2nd break out,” the post reads.

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Qian added that the page is not trying to declare what measures are better or right during the pandemic.

“Because we're kind of in between these two cultures, we also understand both,” Qian said. “So it feels like our experience could speak to both of the audiences.”

Lyu said she felt that Western media showed bias toward China, and that the two wanted to document their own experiences to show a different perspective.

“It's like our account is like a bridge between these two countries, these two cultures to let people see a different side of our country, of what's happening,” Lyu said.