My Experience With The Pandemic: From Beijing to Paris

December 11, 2020
Clementine Assayag

Paris, France

Class of 2021

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Yes, the constant reminder of the pandemic, keeping us home, the overflow of information and numbers surrounding us, bringing our mood down, and give us a ‘darkened’ or fatalistic view of the current situation can be wearing and tiring. I know, and I share your pain.

But still, in this period of self-isolation, social distancing, and lockdown across the globe, I believe it remains essential that we connect to each other, speak out, and share our experiences about the ongoing situation: more specifically, it is important that we share our stories and struggles with social distancing or isolation, exchange about our mood swings at home or our tips to keep busy and healthy during confinement, so as to let everyone know, that yes we are isolated, but we are at the same time, all together.

The “COVID” pandemic is ‘global’ in every sense of the term; not only has the virus managed to spread across the globe, but it has also unfurled to a diversity of wide-ranging domains and societal mechanisms; from the healthcare system to the financial, economical dynamics, to ethical-political debates and newly generated environmental or productive issues over food, masks or gels shortages of supplies, the virus has put the whole world, as well as our lives, on hold.

When I first heard about the outbreak of the virus in the Hubei province of China, I was sitting in class, in my international school in Beijing. It was on the 17th of January, and we had just come back from the winter holidays and from the new year celebrations. One of the school nurses quickly intervened in the middle of one of our classes and kindly advised us to wash our hands more frequently, and use hand sanitizer, as a new virus had just been identified in Wuhan, less than 1200km south of Beijing. Of course, no one, at that time, could envision the extent of this sanitary crisis, how much of a global impact it would have, and how exponentially the cases would multiply to every single continent.

Nor I or my friends were at first, really worried about the situation. Only, a few days after the first nurse’s intervention in class, word starting spreading amongst teachers, that the school might be closed for a few days due to the alarming rate of new cases and deaths swelling across the country. On the 27th of January, students, kids, and teachers left school to celebrate the Chinese New Year, all expecting to see each other back in school, in less than 4 days.

The temporary joy or relief that came with the ‘prolongation’ of our break and the canceling of our exams was only temporary. Lockdown measures were starting to be enforced around the city of Beijing, further and further limiting our mobility around the city, and progressively closing restaurants, bars, cinemas, and malls, controlling the flow of people within gated communities and supermarkets. A lot of alarmed expatriate families in Beijing decided to take some of the last available flights back to their home country, in America or Europe mostly, where the situation was (at that time) safer, and less restrictive; my family included. With my mother already working and living in Paris, my family decided to pack our suitcases and join her in France where only 2 official cases of COVID-19 had been declared. The issue remained that my father was on a business trip in Germany, my mother working in Paris, and my little sister and I, under lockdown in Beijing (with a limited supply of pasta and pizza). Flights from Germany to Beijing were being canceled, one by one, hour after hour. My father took one of the last flights from Europe to Beijing on the 31st of January, and the next day, in the morning, we were boarding on a flight we had found from Beijing to Paris, with a transfer through Amsterdam.

The first few months in France were filled with uncertainty; as we didn’t have a home to stay in Paris, so we alternated between Airbnbs, hotels, and family houses. Both my parents were working, and my sister and I were still following our Beijing classes online. For about a month, my sister and I stayed with our aunt in the south of France, awaiting any news about the ongoing situation. Around that time, the number of cases started developing rapidly, as Italy’s healthcare system first started struggling with the outbreak of a new epicenter, leading the European wave of sanitary and healthcare crises that would soon hit France. The pressure to stabilize our situation started feeling more present, and around the end of February, I left my sister in the South of France to start a new school in Paris.

For a few days, my mother and I lived together in a studio next to my new school. However this first school turned out to be a disastrous experience; I was struggling to integrate this new faculty, so different and huge compared to what I used to know in Beijing. I was also angry. I was conflicted between the necessity and pressure to form a new group of friends, start a new life in this new school, city, and even new country that I was so unused to, and the never-fading hope, that I would eventually return to Beijing and go back to my ‘normal life’. To me, starting a new school in France, meant letting go of that hope I had and of the life and friends I had left in Beijing. In short, I was angry my ‘normal-life’ had been snatched away so quickly and abruptly from me and my family.

A few days before I went to school, my mother and I went shopping for notebooks, pens, and clothes; I had only packed my suitcase for a stay of a few days or weeks, and most of my books, well up to this day remain in my locker in Beijing. After only two days in that new school, I had to change to yet another area, due to my father’s job. I quickly left, and for two weeks, my parents and I were running from school to school to apartments, in order to not only find a new institute willing to accept me (I follow bilingual courses which makes it even harder to get accepted), but also a new apartment, where the four of us could reunite and have somewhat of a more stabilized way of life. I was extremely lucky to rapidly integrate into a new school, where I found a very warm, welcoming class and understanding teachers. My sister came back from the South to live with us in a hotel while I went to school and my parents went to work. Finally, we were reunited after months apart.

But of course, in the course of those few months, the sanitary situation in France (and worldwide), had only further developed and was becoming more and more of a critical and alarming condition, while the situation in Beijing was progressively bettering. After just a week in my new high school, the French President announced the closing of all schools in France, and a few days later, on the 16th of March, lockdown measures were also planned to be enforced. My family and I had only a few days to find a new place to stay in, as to not be confined to our hotel room. Again, we were extremely lucky to move into a new apartment with furniture, just a few hours before lockdown measures were enforced.

It’s been about three months now since we’ve moved in, and my family has decided to stay in France permanently. Our apartment in Beijing has been completely emptied. Oftentimes, either my sister or I will weep for the life we left so unexpectedly and rapidly in Beijing. Our bedrooms, our memories, our school, our habits, our home, our dog, and our friends, who we haven’t seen in so long, and to whom we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to yet. The social distancing, the closing of schools, and separation from our home have led us to feel quite isolated in a new country and city under lockdown. Especially now that sanitary measures are starting to lift up, and as people are starting to go back to a more ‘normal’ way of life in France, as well as in Beijing, the realization that our lives have permanently transformed in a matter of months is what’s most hurtful.

Yet, in this journey lays positivity and lessons to learn: this experience has been extremely formative and insightful in cherishing every aspect of the daily ‘normal’ life we often overlook. I also am very grateful for all the luck my family and I had in finding a new house and school, and when I think about all the people who lost their jobs or my friends whose families remain separated, friends who went under government quarantine in China for two weeks alone or people who lost close-ones to the viral pandemic, I am thankful. Family and friends have also been extremely supportive during the rollercoaster process I experienced. Overall, in a matter of four months, I changed schools three times and stayed in more than 7 different places. Sharing experiences with friends has greatly enabled me to remain feeling connected during this isolating experience as well as helped me provide others with my support. Sharing your journey is an insightful manner to connect with others and let everyone understand that we are not alone in this lonesome experience that is both psychologically, physically, morally, and socially challenging.

Even isolated, we remain united and connected across the globe; the pandemic should be perceived as a new opportunity to further relate with others on a new level, and develop a more supportive system with transparent and reliable communication between countries as to avoid such rapid viral diseases spreading. As borders close down and schools, social events, and outings remain intangible, I propose we connect through our

Clementine Assayag is a BBG from Paris, France, and is the founder of a charity organisation in China.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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