BEIJING - For 14 days, we were in a long-distance relationship across a hotel hallway.
Since mid-March, the Beijing city government has required all incoming overseas travelers, including Chinese citizens, to undergo "observation" and a two-week quarantine at one of a few repurposed hotels. You pay out of pocket for room, board and covid-19 tests.
My partner and I live together in Beijing. Yan is a photographer, and I am a comic-book artist. We had been in the United States on an artists' residency. On our third attempt to get home, after canceled flights and closed borders, we flew here from New York via Seoul at the end of March. It was an expensive, desperate last shot. We'd clocked entire working days on the phone with airline customer care, their hold music burned into our brains. The journey was a tense 30-hour ordeal, a paranoid whirl of tests, forms, interrogations and waiting. Quarantine in a hotel felt like welcome relief by the end, despite costing each of us the equivalent of $100 a day.
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We arrived at our assigned hotel - the Pullman South, a giant, squat, gray slab - with a police escort. The rules were strict. One person per room. No one, not even married couples, could quarantine together, so we were led to our separate quarters by staff wearing full-body protective suits and masks. We were three rooms apart, on opposite sides of the 11th floor. We could not leave them under any circumstances. If we leaned past the door frame at the same time, we could wave to each other, but not talk. Every day, we called reception at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to report our body temperatures. Our meals were left outside our d
oors, heralded by a stern knock.
The filmmaker Courtney Stephens once wrote that "isolation, like movies, has different genres." To us, the two-week stay was a dark comedy. The genre: weird Wes Anderson. Think "The Grand Budapest Hotel" meets "The Lobster."
Nothing is Normal
The first few days felt like a strange dream. Everything looked normal at the hotel. There was a room-service menu and a disappointing minibar; you could hear the staff gossip in the hallways, going about their usual tasks. But seen through the peephole, they were all dressed in full gear - coveralls, boots, goggles. Our floor was locked off from the rest of the building. My room felt like a film set, a thin re-creation of a real hotel. When we called reception, management insisted on greeting us as "esteemed guests" before telling us we would have no access to amenities outside the room.
For 14 days, we don't see any faces. No deliveries are allowed from the outside world.
From the peephole in our room, we see hazmat-suited staff engage in mundane, everyday tasks: cleaning, clearing trash, refilling empty supplies. They are the only people we see.
In the first week, two medical staff members arrive to test us for covid-19 and hold up a printed list of instructions to minimize communication with us.
Nothing is normal, yet great pains are taken to make everything seem so. Letters from the hotel are still written in impeccable corporate babble.
They always begin the same way:
Time began to act in strange ways. We felt real jet lag and then "quarantine jet lag" as our lives moved from China Standard Time to what felt like no time zone at all. Order was established by a piece of furniture that became the most important object in our two-week limbo.
This low table is placed outside every room, acting as a barrier and gateway.
Food is placed on the table three scheduled times a day.
In the fixed, repeating loop of our quarantine life, the meals that arrive on it are our only conversation starters.
The table provides a "lonely impulse of delight" - something, anything, to tell the days apart.
Halfway through the quarantine, China held a national day of mourning to honor the victims of covid-19. Every day, we saw the sun move across the sky behind the traffic intersection outside our windows. The number of cars increased daily, a sign that Beijing was slowly going back to normal. The rush hour traffic offered an odd sense of comfort when seen from afar.
All we can see and hear from our perch are glimpses of the Chinese flag at half-mast and coordinated blasts of car horns and sirens. The city just outside our windows feels distant and alien.
Our disconnection from the world still can't keep the constant, draining stream of virus news off our minds.
Our daily life is punctuated by alerts and notifications, watching global case numbers go up like a timer ticking.
Staying in the Pullman South was a privilege, but there was an in-between-ness to this temporary life. It was mellow and comfortable, and yet had a pervasive disquiet that prevented us from truly feeling at home.
Hotels are meant to be transitory places, and ours resists us settling in. We're here for 14 days, yet our suitcases remain packed.
We put the fullness of our lives on hold. We live lightly, as if stuck in an airport on a layover.
Yan and I are in contact constantly, using every app we can find and adopting every technology we can access to feel connected.
We try multiplayer games like Animal Crossing, room-to-room phone calls, Zoom video chats and coordinated movie-watching.
Resuming work proves challenging. Parts of our creativity come easier - the meditative calm of coloring or editing .
... but our brains feel clouded in static when we try to start something new. We joke that the hotel is jamming our creative signals.
For our last day, we were asked to be ready by 8 a.m. After a final temperature check, the tables outside our room were pushed aside, and we were allowed to leave.
We left through a side elevator, still being watched by staff in hazmat-style suits in the hallways.
After leaving our rooms, we are given two envelopes at checkout.
One holds a document with a QR code and medical certificate that confirms our quarantine time and virus-free status.
It's needed to enter any housing complex, mall, office building, restaurant or bar in Beijing.
The other contains a parting gift from the hotel: coupons to discounted lunch buffets for future stays at the Pullman South.
"Thank you for your patronage," says the accompanying note.
We left the Pullman South a month ago. For a while, every mundane Beijing experience felt thrilling. There was a rush to being stuck in traffic or queuing up for milk tea. With masks on and QR codes ready, we returned to a semblance of normal life.
When we think back to the hotel quarantine, there is one incident that stays on our minds. On our last day, in the hallway outside our rooms, the staff told us that they would have to quarantine themselves for 14 days longer after the last of us "guests" had left. With this system of hotel quarantine still active, the hotel staff have likely roamed those corridors for 3 months now. All of which begs the question: "Who quarantines the quarantiners?"