Travel

Shanghai to Okinawa to Seoul to Florida: Our Coronavirus Escape Route

We flew to Okinawa with a Pack n’ Play and a few sets of beach clothes on January 18th, right at the start of my husband’s two-week Chinese New Year vacation. I remember my husband briefly mentioning something about a virus in China, but it was far from Shanghai so I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Our return flight to Shanghai was scheduled for January 25th, just two days after the news about the lockdowns of Wuhan and surrounding cities hit. On the night of the 24th, we were packing our bags and reading the constant updates about what was happening in China. The lockdowns sounded scary, but it wasn’t affecting Shanghai so we were still on board to fly back.

We didn’t want to go back to China because we just had such a good time in Okinawa- not because we were worried about the coronavirus.

But then, I read something startling. Shanghai Disney was closing. If Disneyland was closing, this was serious. I got nervous. What if we flew back into Shanghai and got stuck? What if they shut down transportation to Kunshan, the place right outside Shanghai where we live (lived)? About five minutes after worry started to set in about going back, I got a text from my parents in Korea offering a room to us if we didn’t want to go back to China in the morning. My husband and I had been discussing extending our stay in Okinawa, but it’d be expensive and then we ran the risk of not being able to get back into China if we waited.

We decided in about ten minutes that we would book a one-way ticket to Korea to ride this thing out. I was able to get a $99 flight the night before on Expedia using my phone. Going back seemed too risky. I needed to have prenatal checkups in Shanghai which would involve two-hour commutes from our apartment in Kunshan. Rumors were already spreading that the metro between Kunshan and Shanghai was going to shut down. So, off to Korea we went.

Goodbye, Okinawa!

We ran into some brief trouble while checking in for our flight to Seoul at the Okinawa airport. Our status as residents of China was highly suspect and our one-way ticket from Japan to Korea didn’t make sense to them. At the check-in counter, they ran away with our passports to take pictures of our Chinese residence permits and eventually let us through. It was already becoming a bad time to have recent travel history to China.

We were extra careful on the trip to make sure we wiped everything down and kept our hands washed. We chose to wear masks because my daughter and I just can’t help but touch our faces.

She thought wearing a mask was fun!

We were so relieved once we got to Korea. The news just kept coming about the coronavirus situation worsening in China. Transportation was shut down. Videos of people getting beaten by police for not wearing masks were surfacing. We narrowly missed getting trapped in China.

When we arrived in Korea, we had only one week left of vacation before my husband was due back in Kunshan for the second semester of school on February 3rd. Our plan was just to wait and see how things played out. If school was to resume, he’d go back ahead of me and our daughter. A few days into our stay in Korea, we got a notification that schools in Jiangsu province would be delayed until February 17th. This was exciting because now we had lots of time to spend in Korea!

It snowed while we were hiding out in Korea!

Then news came that school in Jiangsu province and Shanghai would not resume before the end of February. We started to wonder if we would ever get back into China. Worry set in about our apartment and some crucial things stuck inside of it. I hadn’t packed all of our important paperwork for our vacation to Okinawa. Some of our most beloved stuffed animals were sitting all alone there.

Meanwhile, our phones we’re getting constant emergency messages about the virus in Korea. Then the news hit that the church in Daegu was the epicenter of a huge cluster of cases. As the days went by, we quit going out. Cabin fever had really set in. My husband had been tasked with trying to teach his high school history classes online with absolutely zero resources. No laptop, no textbook, no real guidance on how to set up an online learning platform. The school was floundering trying to work around the shutdown, and it was a tough time for teachers and students alike.

My mother teaches in Korea at Camp Humphreys army base and she too had to transition to online instruction once members of the US military started testing positive for the coronavirus. We were all trapped in inside. We began to wonder if we should fly back to the States before flights started getting canceled.

We ultimately decided we couldn’t hide in Korea forever as were we there on 90-day tourist visas. I couldn’t use any local hospitals or doctors for prenatal checkups because coronavirus patients were everywhere. I was pushing 17 weeks pregnant with no real plan on where in the world I was going to get care and give birth. We decided we needed to retreat back to Florida.

My mom quickly booked us flights for March 4th. I was sad to be going back because our plan to live abroad had just exploded. We made it only six months in China. Our original plan was to stay for a couple years so our daughter could be fluent in Chinese before we left. There was so much uncertainty swirling around us. What would happen to our things in China? What was going to happen with my husband’s job? Would we be able to access his Chinese bank account from the States?

Then, a few days before our flight out of Seoul, news started coming of countries banning people with recent travel history to Korea from entering. We got really nervous again. Our flight did end up getting canceled, but luckily we were rebooked onto another. The layovers were horrendous on our new itinerary, but the goal was just to get back onto US soil at that point. We anxiously watched the news for flight cancellations and quarantine policies in the US.

At the Incheon airport in Seoul, we were asked if we had been to China in the last 14 days. That was the extent of the “screening” we went through. It was surprising how relaxed everything was there.

When we arrived in Detroit, we were not allowed to deplane until 10 people were randomly selected for coronavirus screening. They called names out and all but one person came forward. They held us there while this one person hid from the flight attendants. Finally, they told us to all get our passports out and they’d check each one as we exited the plane to find the last person called for screening. They effectively called that person’s bluff and she acted like she just hadn’t heard her name. The rest of us weren’t laughing.

I couldn’t believe that a plane with almost 400 passengers landed in Detroit on March 4th and only 10 random people were being checked for fever. Was the rest of the world not taking this as seriously as Asia?

The immigration official had some trouble figuring out that January 18th was more than 14 days away from March 4th so she held us for a moment while she asked her supervisor about our “recent travel history.” He snapped at her that January 18th “was a really long time ago” and she let us go.

Success! Back in the US. I nearly cried. But, I cry at everything now that I’m pregnant. I bawled at the Texas Roadhouse at Camp Humphreys when the waitstaff started dancing to Cotton-Eyed Joe, so me crying can’t exactly be used as a measure for anything.

After 33 hours of travel, we were back in Florida. A little defeated. Very tired. Massively relieved. We were never instructed to self-quarantine, but we’ve elected to do so on our own. Now, 8 days after our return, Florida has seen several cases, including one in our county. We are watching as a third country we have lived in this year descends into a coronavirus-fueled chaos. Schools are closing, sports are canceled, toilet paper is selling out.

Pro-tip: If you run out of toilet paper, you can use a washcloth. You’ll just have to do more laundry, but no one’s dying from that.

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