Coming Home: From Wuhan to Canada

My family left Wuhan on Monday night. Our son Adryan was picked up on the other side of Wuhan and then the hired bus met Emily, Wyatt and myself in front of the school where I teach. After that we headed to the airport, getting stopped at a checkpoint for the longest 40 minutes of any of our lives, we arrived at Wuhan’s Tianhe Airport.

This was by no means the end as any number of things could have resulted in us being denied entrance to the plane. Green ribbons were placed on our bags so we could retrieve them quickly in case we were turned back.

The processing took more than five hours for the 200+ masked and exhausted souls who had gathered together in this otherwise deserted international airport. Emily has prepared fried rice, so we ate our fill at 17:00 and then again at 11:30. Wyatt was not happy that he had to throw some of his Nasi Goreng (Indonesian for fried rice) away.

We had our paperwork from the Canadian embassy and our letter of permission from the Indonesian embassy. While Wyatt and I are Canadian, Emily and Adryan are Indonesian citizens. This was the first of the possible reasons we might not get on the plane. The second was the possibility that we might already be infected. As we filled out forms while moving through the line, we tried to stay focused, but the question remained; what would happen if one or more of us couldn’t get through. We made it to the gate. We were ready to step through to the boarding area. Then Adryan disappeared.

Neither Emily I had any idea where he was, so after calming each other down we asked the guard. Automatic sensors had flagged Adryan with a fever. He was in a room about 200 meters from our location, but we couldn’t see him. Adryan and the husband of a woman from our group were part of a small group of similarly flagged passengers.

We waited. Emily walked back through the gate while I stood with Wyatt, alternately deflecting and answering our 15-year old’s many questions. We agreed then and there that we would stay, all or none of us would board the plane. Emily persuaded them to test Adryan again. He was wearing a winter coat and carrying a heavy bag. After 10 minutes his temperature was low enough to pass another 10 minutes passed and Adryan appeared.

We made our way to the boarding area.

Sometime after midnight, we boarded the plane.

We sat together in the center row and waited expectantly. The medical staff and the flight crew, all Canadian military, was introduced and our obligations to remain masked and to self-report symptoms were explained. the large airbus was set up with an isolation area we’re anyone who became sick or symptomatic during the flight would be sequestered. The jet airliner taxied out and within minutes we were airborne. The first meal was a box lunch, as was the second. The masks made things uncomfortable, but safe. Temperature checks were scheduled, and the medical staff moved about; checking passengers, and sometimes to ask people to sit down, and sometimes to ask them to mind their children. The cries of infants and toddlers were the soundtrack of this journey.

We were asked to disinfect our hands with hand sanitizer after eating and to change our surgical masks. the old masks were collected by a suited medical worker.

We landed in Vancouver, but we didn’t leave the plane. This was my first time back to Canada since 2005 but sitting in the center row I didn’t see the city lights.

Vancouver was were some refueling would take place and some embassy officials would disembark. There were some minor personnel changes, but like us most were masked. The medical flight crew’s head to toe gear made recognizing anyone unlikely.

The trip, running like a military mission, did not brook delays and we were soon on our way.

We arrived at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, a Canadian Forces base located within the city of Quinte West, Ontario. in the dark on September 11th, Tuesday morning. In the rush to get off the plane most of the passengers had quickly grabbed their luggage and placed it in front of them.

We were no different. Border and customs officers appeared, and it would have been hard not to be intimidated by large uniformed men in masks. Individually, and as a group, they were efficient but polite. they let us know there would be a delay as passengers were brought off in shifts. They asked that no one remove luggage from the overhead compartments, but that had already been done. I moved our four bags to my seat and sat on top so to be out of the way. uncomfortable to be sure, but it kept the way clear. 30 minutes later it was our turn to disembark. We were brought off the plane in shifts until we had all walked down the steps, through a sheep-dip disinfectant for our boots, onto a bus, and then into a large hanger.

In the hanger, we were fed the most amazing box lunch/breakfast. Who would have thought ham and cheese on a bagel would taste like heaven. A wave of relief washed over everyone and small conversations began to spark. We are social beings after all.

We were processed, had our health checked, and our immigration status verified.

Things took a turn here. Our oldest son Adryan collapsed.

We were able to get him back to a chair, and he appeared fine. After about 20 minutes he collapsed again. This time he couldn’t get up. We called for a medic and within 90 seconds the team was there and together we got Adryan onto a gurney. The paramedics from Health Canada assessed him quickly. There were no symptoms of Coronavirus. The medical team diagnosed Adryan was suffering from malnutrition and dehydration.

In the two weeks that Adryan had been trapped on the other side of Wuhan, he had eaten what was available and had not drunk enough water. Adryan was brought to the emergency clinic where he was put on IV.

Emily, Wyatt and I were brought to our rooms in the Yukon Lodge, the VIP visitor’s hotel at the military base which had been refurbished and set aside for the 14-day quarantine of evacuees.

Within 3 hours Adryan was being escorted across the exterior quad by base personnel, looking quite stylish in his long white coat and Korean popstar hairdo.

Emily decided Adryan was to be our Drama King for the next few days. We had our first meal in the hotel, delivered to our room. Wyatt pronounced the WiFi excellent.

Our meals are all delivered, we have two temperature checks per day where we’re also asked about symptoms. when medical staff Health Canada and the Red Cross knock on the door we are expected to appear masked. this is not inconvenient, it is necessary. Coffee, snacks, and fruit are available in a common area. We have four one-hour periods a day when we can move about outside. These fresh air exercise periods are staggered between four groups.

The meals that are delivered are excellent and I’m eating things I haven’t had for years. The best was a small package of Dad’s Oatmeal cookies.

We have 10 days left in our quarantine. On Thursday morning the snow was falling, and we took Adryan outside to see his first snowfall. To see the world through their eyes, fresh, pure and hopeful.

We can’t help but be concerned about our colleagues, students, and friends still in Wuhan. The situation continues to worsen, and in other cities, friends are either locked down or self-isolating.  We are trying to keep the world’s attention on the situation. I continue to do interviews in the hope that aid will get through. The evacuees have put together about CAD $18,000 in donations for the Red Cross.

After this, we will travel to Toronto and spend time with friends. Tim and his wife Kisha are nurses, and they have two small ones. They had visited us in Indonesia just after they got married. Tim is also Wyatt’s godfather. Tim and I have been friends since high school, and even our short unremarkable stint in the military hasn’t dampened our friendship.

This experience has not changed my appreciation and love for China and her people. They will weather this crisis.

For Canada … Canada has stood up for us and brought us home. I’m indebted to our government, this nation, and the Canadian people. We are grateful to the people at Global Affairs and the Canadian embassy who put this evacuation together.

We are thankful for the medical staff and flight crew who brought us home. We have been in the care of the Canadian military, the Red Cross and the health care professionals who always stand on the front lines of these operations, and they have been brilliant, professional, generous and kind. They have gone above and beyond.

A special thank you to the Indonesian embassy in China who helped us to organize a private taxi, without which we’d still be in harm’s way.

To our friends, and family who’ve stood by us, offered guidance and listened to my inane prattle from time to time, thank you. We could never begin to repay the love and support you’ve provided.

Wuhan Ciayou!

We arrived in China on Halloween in 2017, more specifically my wife Emily, our youngest son Wyatt, and I arrived late after a flight delay in Hong Kong. We stood in the airport wondering where we were going to go next and not looking forward to sleeping in the airport. Eventually we got all that sorted, and we were set up in a very nice apartment and a very friendly neighborhood.

Soon I was teaching in Weiming Optical Valley campus in Guanggu, a district of Wuhan often referred to as China’s Silicon Valley for its abundance of tech companies. Wyatt enrolled in grade 9 at the new school. During my second year, the school hired our oldest son Adryan to teach math and science. Finally, our family was together earning a comfortable living and looking forward to the future.

I taught for two school years, and then after the summer holiday I moved to Weiming’s larger campus in Wuhan’s Dongxihu district. Wyatt enrolled in grade 10, and Emily adjusted to a new area.

Sometime after Christmas this year we learned of a new virus. It didn’t have a name yet, but we already knew its origin and that it had infected a few people from the market. Other than people who live close to the seafood market, no one else was too bothered.

On New Year’s Eve January 31st, we were planning to have an end of term dinner celebration at a local hotel. We were told later that afternoon that dinner would be postponed as some of the food had been sourced from the seafood market. Okay, we’ll eat at home. We headed home and had a nice dinner. We settled in for the night. Monday morning, we went to Tianhe airport. We flew to Shanghai for the beginning of our tour of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. It was beautiful. Shopping, eating, shopping walking, taking photos, and oddly enough – more shopping.

After the tour ended, we spent a couple of days with friends in Shanghai. Thanks Nancy Michael and Gabby. We took the fast train to Wuhan. Eight-hundred and forty kilometers and four hours later, we arrived.  Lots of coughs, sniffles and some sneezing in the station and on the train and then the station afterwards.  Oh well, that’s the price of traveling during cold and flu season.

We arrived home about 4:30 on Monday afternoon. It was nice to be back at our apartment. as nice as the hotels were, there is no substitute for your own bed.

On Tuesday morning both Wyatt and Emily had coughs and sore throats and I had a bit of a tickle. Normally we would just let it go, but the talk of this virus was becoming more insistent, so we decided to go to the clinic. We arrived at a mostly quiet clinic and were examined and diagnosed as cold, cold, and sore throat.  Take this, this, this, this, and don’t do that. Done and Dusted.

We did a quick shop and headed home. Wednesday morning life, as it sometimes does, changed.

A full lockdown was in place. It was suggested that we don’t go out. Although we weren’t restricted to our apartment, we were advised in messages texts and phone calls to stay put. We bundled up and got out to buy water rice in a few essentials. Most stores had already closed on the Tuesday and people had left for the annual pilgrimage to visit family. After all was the Chinese Spring Festival. The streets were deserted.  Although I joked with Wyatt to watch out for zombies, I wasn’t feeling much levity. Then we turned the corner, and they were about 20 Walkers wearing quilted pajamas and an assortment of grey green blue and pink surgical masks. At least the apocalypse won’t be Monochromatic.

The most difficult thing about this isn’t the fear, it’s the inconvenience of doing things.  Shopping, taking out the trash, and staying in touch with people in new and uniquely annoying ways. Surgical masks, gloves, and a layer of clothes you must clean as soon as you get home, add an extra layer of complication to everything.

Unfortunately, it all begins to fray your nerves ever so little. the annoyance builds and you find yourself biting your tongue, or unfortunately not biting it soon enough. We have been getting on each other’s nerves. I can be a bit of a smart ass at the best of times and this is not a time for flippant remarks. I occasionally slip up.

Emily is very focused, and on task. She keeps the ship moving forward. The occasional gales of boredom, tension, and irritability are weathered. We stick to routines we get up early and make our beds. We use the bathroom. We do what we must do. Take a shower and brush our teeth. We have breakfast together like we do every day. The difference now is that we don’t leave the house and go to school. So, we do some exercise, read, watch videos, talk, and try not to dwell on things.

Emily has her Korean dramas. Wyatt has his studies and computer games to keep him going. Lately my focus has been on interviews. The first was with CNN’s Rosemary Church, the second with a UK freelancer, Shane Raymond. Then Hina Alam from the Canadian Press interviewed me, and the story took on a new urgency for our family.  If this situation wasn’t surreal enough already, it soon would be.  News outlets began calling, skyping, texting and tweeting requests for interviews.

During the interview with CNN’s Rosemary Church, the primary issue from previous conversations with Emily crystalized. The idea that we would stay was no longer just a vague concept, it was a direction to take. Emily and I had discussed what we would do, and we also talked about what we should do if things went south.  What should we do? We asked each other.  Only one thing to do, wait and deal with what happens.

Flying out without our family isn’t, and never will be, a viable option. We predicted that since Emily and our oldest son Adryan are Indonesian citizens, that Canada might not allow them on the flight. A few days later, our prediction came to be. 

We made our third trip out to the market. We saw even less people out than before. When we arrived at the store the door was locked, and a few people were standing close to the entrance.  There was a large orange notice on the door.  I couldn’t get close enough to use my phone or my translator to understand the note.

Eventually the doors opened, and people entered.  They weren’t rushed, but they were deliberate and focused. People bought their eggs, their milk, their water, and their rice.  They queued.  They weren’t jovial or conversational, but they were polite, patient and orderly. This is one of those instances where I reflect on the impact of technology in our lives.  As purchases are being scanned, most people are paying with their phones, using Alipay or WeChat-Pay. These are the two most popular mobile banking apps.   Anywhere else we’d be paying with paper money or coin, keeping people waiting longer and increasing the risk of infection from touching the money or each other’s hands.

On January 30th, I stayed up late to talk with Matt Galloway on CBC Radio’s ‘The Current’. Matt asked why we had decided not to join the planned evacuation.

I spoke about the 14-day incubation period and the fact that a asymptomatic people could unwittingly spread that Coronavirus. I mentioned the danger of being in the recycled air, for ourselves and for other passengers.

Matt asked if I could understand why other Canadian’s might want to leave.  ‘Completely, I mean you want to blow this popsicle stand and you want to go home. You’ve got a baby, you’ve got young children, you’ve got a life. You want to get out.

I do not judge anyone in that way. You make the decision for your own family.

Of course, the main issue for us is family. My wife Emily, and our youngest son Wyatt are here with me. Our oldest son Adryan, on the other side of Wuhan, has been effectively isolated since this began. No cars, no buses, no trams, no taxis, no subways – so he has no way to cross this enormous city.

On January 5th the Evacuees arrived at Tianhe airport, at least those who could arrange transportation. We later found out that the Community Services Department has set up a program with drivers offering free taxi service. We shared this information in our WeChat groups, and I shared it with as many media outlets as possible.

For us there will be no evacuation. Even though I am satisfied that safety concerns have been addressed, Emily and Adryan’s citizenship means that they won’t be allowed on the flight. We will wait this out in safety, and in the hope that this Coronavirus will soon die out.

Our hope is not just for our family, but also for the people of Wuhan. The average citizen and the front-line volunteers and medical professionals. They struggle to save lives. Wuhan Ciayou!