Ningning and I started working remotely. The lights were permanently dim—no one came to fix them. The app Dingtalk made micromanagement still possible. Ningning took a selfie every day to sign into work. She wrote what she had done that day under the daily report function. She worked a “996,” a work schedule named for its hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m., including Saturdays.
When she wasn’t working, Ningning would paint on old bedsheets and towels. She had little choice in her materials—her oil paints were back in Beijing. She cut the makeshift canvases into smaller pieces, each equivalent to a swab of paint. She’d then sew them into collages depicting the two views from her family’s apartment: balconies of those living opposite, exercising, knitting sweaters, sunning themselves; and the empty roads on the other side. The series would be called “Limited.”
It fell on volunteers to carry out the daily chores for those confined to their apartments. Ningning’s mother asked the local neighborhood committee if she could join the crews who wore red armbands just above their elbows. They took out trash, distributed natural gas for cooking, encouraged residents to stay at home by patrolling the neighborhood, sorted groceries, staggered deliveries to avoid cross contamination, and guarded the community gate. She was told she was too old. So instead she turned flour and water into shumais skins, sliced fresh noodles, made mantou for steamed buns, and flatbreads. She focused on looking after us.
I heard a similar story from Carina, a woman I met after I was evacuated from Shiyan, as a British citizen, to the U.K. We were in isolation together, at a conference center in Milton Keynes. I met her in the courtyard, our only open space during the 14-day confinement. Even with a mask on, she was glamorous. Permed curls hit her mid-back. Carina was the self-appointed grocery shopper for her family in Wuhan. Once a week, she went to the supermarket in sunglasses—an attempt to stop the virus from spreading through the eye. She sprayed her coat and shoes with alcohol once she returned, and kept a distance from her grandchild. Her mother, sister, brother, and sister-in-law were all still in Hubei. She missed her balcony where she grew hydrangeas. One day, after we returned to our rooms from the courtyard, she sent me Sam Smith and Normani’s “Dancing with a Stranger,” telling me to listen and dance to it in my room. In our separate rooms, we danced—together and alone.
Lavender Au is a technology reporter for TechNode. She is currently in the U.K., following evacuation, but usually lives in Beijing.