Shenzhen: August 20202

I live in Shenzhen, China. It’s been two years and it’s gone really quickly.  

This is the longest I’ve ever been outside of the UK.

Here in Shenzhen, Covid started way back in January.

When the news broke –  when they stopped covering it up  –  I started noticing more people wearing masks in the street.

Then by the end of January the government had locked down Wuhan. 

Shenzhen was never officially under lockdown. It was a kind of semi-lockdown and it was hard to get in or out of the city without being quarantined. 

 For that month people weren’t leaving their homes  much. The streets were empty. 

China is usually always busy everywhere you go. Places that are normally full of people were just dead.

I was only going out once or twice a week just to get food.  That was it.

I was always able to leave my apartment  it was just a personal precaution not to leave. 

For a lot of people the outbreak has been awful. They have lost their jobs, lost family members and maybe caught the virus themselves.

But for a lot of people – including myself  – I think it wasn’t too bad. It  just meant being at home a lot. 

I didn’t really mind too much. I’m kind of a homebody anyway. 

Cat on balcony Shenzhen
The cat isn’t mine but wandered in from a neighbour’s flat before I started back to work.

Things eased up early/mid March and I started by new job mid March.

Before that I was freelancing at home. 

I like living alone. But there were some days when I did get a bit antsy and felt I needed to get out for a walk. 

 For the most part I was pretty relaxed and only really felt nervous when I was out.

When I was inside it was just kind of like having time for myself. It was pretty stress-free.

Very few people living in Shenzhen are from Shenzhen. 

Because it was Lunar New Year most people went home back to their home towns and just didn’t come back.

I didn’t see some of my neighbours  for at least 2-3 months afterwards. It was  really quiet around my apartment block. 

mezzanine bed and stairs, Shenzhen

I live in a studio flat. It’s basically  a kitchen, living room, bathroom.

So it’s kind of like one big room, but there is an upstairs where the bedroom is…. a mezzanine.

And there’s a balcony as well, where I can see a lot of trees.

I’ve lived here for pretty much the whole two years.  

The building is owned by a rental company and they were quite transparent about everything. They sent messages every day about….. cleaning.. and what kind of sanitation they were doing.

There were never any cases reported in my building.  I always felt pretty safe.

My mandarin is OK I am conversational now and I use it at work.  There are not really many expats where I live and even if there were… everything is in Chinese. 

kitchen in Shenzhen apartment

Back then, if I went out when I came back I would thoroughly wash everything.

First thing: I would wash my hands and change my clothes.

I might even wash my clothes and would thoroughly wash anything I brought in with me.  I would leave it  for a couple of hours before I put it away… not sure that really helps. 

Now… I still wash my hands first thing when I come back, but I don’t really worry about all that now. 

 Although I wouldn’t say it’s completely under control in China, because there have been some cases this week.

It got to a point in April where there were no new cases. It just felt safe, like it was before. 

I think  facemasks will stay, they are still everywhere. You cannot go out much without them.

But, I wouldn’t say people have changed much in their behaviour. 

It’s kind of ironic because although it started here people very quickly went back to their old ways.

They started going  to restaurants again and  still crowd around…. they still don’t leave a metre of space. If you are waiting in line there are people right behind you.  

Because it got under control so quickly in China the effects haven’t really been that lasting compared to the UK, or America, or elsewhere in Europe.

book and tea on balcony, Shenzhen

I never got bored.  

For me personally, the best thing is that since the lockdown I’ve started reading every day. I’m always reading now.  

Reading books has really helped me with anxiety and it feels like it will be a lifelong habit.

My family wanted me to come home.

My nan even offered to play for flights. I thought: if the Foreign Office are flying British  people out then I will go. But I was never going to take my own flight.  

I was really excited to start this new job and my life is here.

There was just no way I was thinking of leaving. 

If I were to leave mainland China I wouldn’t be able to come back in  – even though I have a residency permit.

They are not letting anyone in unless you are a Chinese national. 

 Some of my ex-colleagues took holidays during Chinese New Year and can’t get back. 

green trees view from Shenzhen balcony

The really nice thing about this apartment  is that the balcony looks onto trees – not buildings.

Also, it faces the west so it’s quite  nice… the light is very nice all day. You see the sunset. 

When I was feeling a bit antsy it was nice to look into nature.  

Obviously a lot of  people don’t have that luxury like I do. 

 It was quite a long winter in Shenzhen, it was actually pretty cold  most of the month so it  was quite nice to sit on the balcony.

It didn’t get too hot. 

Chinese New Year orange tree on balcony, Shenzhen

When I moved in there was a mattress, but no bed.

There was a couch and some tables and a wardrobe. It was pretty much furnished  – apart from the bed.   

 I have bought a lot of stuff from Ikea because I used to work near it,  so it was easy  for me to go. 

I don’t want to stay here forever and I don’t think I will stay beyond the next two years.

I’ve bought some stuff for the apartment to get me through.

When the time comes I will try to take as much as I can, but I’m sure I will give a lot away to people. 

Recently I bought a cast-iron pan.

I have always cooked anyway but I cook way more now because there were no restaurants open and I didn’t want to get take-away. 

 At home, I cook a lot.

cooking meatballs, Chinese food

Most expats move around a lot.  

They don’t really stay in one flat  for more than a year. But I’ve been quite lucky because I have found a place I really like.

My neighbourhood has a lot of trees…. and it’s not far from the station.  

reflections of trees through balcony,  Shenzhen

The flat itself is really nice – it’s more space than I need. It’s why I haven’t left. 

I’m probably going to stay here for another year, or at least until I leave Shenzhen. 

I have a lot of issues with the Chinese government but I think the response to the virus has been right. 

 Office workers can all work from home but frontline people, like supermarket workers, work every day, doing their job, risking their lives.

coffee table and fruit in apartment Shenzhen

Even though coronavirus pretty much under control here there are still a lot of people who are afraid to do certain things like travel or go to cinemas.

The economy is not operating at full capacity.

In China they are calling it the 90% economy.

Because it’s been so bad in the rest of the world this is going to affect China as well and the economy will become more inward looking. 

Places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are really good as preserving the culture.  In Shenzhen it’s kind of all shopping malls and construction work – constant construction work.

It’s  building itself and destroying itself. 

There was definitely a period when  some streets were completely closed but now they are open again.

The cinemas are open. There is nothing still closed that I can think of now.

One thing about Shenzhen is that it was really easy to go to Hong Kong.

Being British I could go as many times a week as I wanted.

I would go about once a month. But I can’t do that now and I’m stuck in the mainland. 

We’ve got the October National Day holiday coming up so I am probably going to go to Inner Mongolia because it’s away from the big cities. 

Man in reflected street view Shenzhen

Living in Shenzhen, I miss family, number one. I miss the UK weather….. and I do miss being cold. 

I miss the kind of freedoms that we take for granted.

It’s such as police state here and it’s got so much worse since the outbreak.

There are constant checks and constant  directives telling you what to do and how to live. It’s pretty hard to escape.

I miss being able to go places and experience quietness as well. You don’t get much of that here.

People don’t really care about the noise,  they just accept it as it is.   

In Shenzhen and  China you are constantly ‘on’. You work long hours. It’s hard to switch off at night.

There are always other things going on. It’s hard sometimes to find the time to be social. 

For people like me,  who have been really privileged and in a good position, it’s been a really nice pause. Time to reflect.

All photos by respondent

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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