Before boarding his flight from Los Angeles to the Chinese city of Guangzhou, Xue Liangquan, a California-based attorney, knew he was having a bit of a headache.
To visit his parents in eastern Shandong province in January, for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Xue, 37, had already paid $7,600 for airfare. He had submitted negative test results to the Chinese authorities, as required for entry. On arrival, he would have to quarantine for three weeks.
Yet he could never have foreseen how much trial he would endure. Mr. Xue, through a Kafka-esque series of bad luck and clashes with China’s inflexible virus rules, would spend the next three months in quarantine, jumping back and forth between hospitals and hotel rooms.
If he was released from one round of isolation, he would be immediately ordered into another. By the time of his return flight, he would have had about two days of freedom in China. He wouldn’t have seen his parents at all.
“It was like a nightmare,” Mr. Xue said in an interview from California, where he returned earlier this month and wrote a blog post on the social media platform WeChat about his experience.
“I thought if I didn’t write it down, it would feel even more like a nightmare: like I had a bad dream in my bed in Los Angeles on January 1. I woke up on April 1 and was still in my bed in Los Angeles, and the time in between had just vanished.”
China has been adhering to some of the world’s strictest quarantine restrictions for more than two years, in its unwavering pursuit of “zero Covid”. Wuhan, the city where the pandemic started, was locked for two months. Shanghai, which is currently battling the worst Covid outbreak, has been silent for two weeks. International travel to and from China is almost non-existent.
The restrictions have been a source of much debate, both at home and abroad. Even the blog post of Mr. Xue, widely shared on Chinese social media, provoked polarizing reactions: some readers expressed disgust, others called it key material for a comedy film, and still others attacked Mr. Xue because he had returned to China in the first place. it as a selfish decision that risked bringing the virus into the country.
Mr. Xue, who was born in China and moved to the United States seven years ago, remains firmly neutral.
“I don’t blame anyone: no person, government, organization,” he said. “I can only blame myself for being so unlucky.”
His fateful journey began on January 2, when, armed with a negative Covid test, he set out from Los Angeles. In Guangzhou, he was tested again and then sent to a quarantine hotel. His room was a pleasant surprise – it even had a large jacuzzi. Maybe the next few weeks would be like a mini-vacation, he thought.
It wasn’t supposed to be. Just as he was about to lie down to rest, he got a phone call saying his airport test was positive. He was to be taken to a hospital by ambulance.
Mr. Xue struggled in his full body protective gear that had been left at his door. His breath steamed up on his glasses and the face covering. “All I could see were the drops of water that trickled down endlessly,” he wrote in his blog post.
He spent the next four weeks in a hospital, sharing a room with two other patients. He video chatted with his parents every day and reassured them that his symptoms were mild. He took pictures of his food to show that he was eating well. (In reality, Mr. Xue said, he only took pictures of the best meals so they wouldn’t have to worry.) He worked remotely for the law firm he founded.
On January 31, the eve of the Lunar New Year – China’s biggest holiday that he had planned to spend with his family – he watched the Spring Festival Gala, a televised extravaganza, in bed alone.
He had little contact with his fellow patients; no one was really in the mood to socialize, Mr. Xue said.
“At first I felt quite depressed,” he said. “All you can do is suffer. And, within your limited capacity, organize your daily life as well as possible. When you need to shower, shower. If you have to brush your teeth, brush.”
On February 1, he was released from the hospital – and transferred to another hospital, for recovered patients, for two more weeks of ‘medical observation’.
But even after that, his ordeal was only halfway through.
After leaving the second hospital, Mr. Xue to Shanghai, where he had relatives. (He had given up going to Shandong because the quarantine rules were stricter than Shanghai’s at the time.) The test he took there, as required by local rules, was negative. He was free for the first time in a month.
It took two days. On Feb. 19, Guangzhou health officials informed him that the only other man he shared a bus with from the last hospital had tested positive. That made Mr. Xue a close contact, which meant that he now had to be in hotel quarantine for 14 days.
Then, on March 6—the day he was to be released from that quarantine—he got another phone call. He himself had now tested positive again, an official told him. Mr. Xue demanded proof, but the official refused, he said.
“The hardest thing for me was the lack of certainty,” he said. “Every time I thought a phase had ended and I was about to be free, the nightmare returned.”
And so began another proceeding with which Mr. Xue was now all too familiar. Two more weeks in a medical facility. Two weeks later in a hotel.
Finally, on March 31, Mr. Xue was actually released. But exhausted by his ordeal, he had given up hope of seeing his parents and booked a flight back to the United States on April 1. The only relative he saw was his younger brother, in Shanghai.
Once Mr. Xue would have been devastated: living abroad, he said, had long cherished, even fixated on, the idea of home. But weeks of isolation had given him a new perspective.
“We want to go home to reunite, to reunite our lives that have parted. But if we tried and failed, I don’t regret it,” he said. “I still have to justify myself. I cannot sacrifice another three months for the sake of this reunion.”
Mr. Xue is sympathetic to the Chinese controls. The country’s population is so large and aging so quickly, he said, that living with the virus could be disastrous.
But he himself will not try to return until restrictions are relaxed.
“Otherwise I think I would still feel a little traumatized,” he said. “I’m actually quite scared.”
Liu Yi and Joy Dong research contributed.