Official HSE statistics place the population of ethnic Chinese in Ireland at somewhere in the region of 60,000 people. Many of these come to Ireland first as young scholars on a variety of different student visa programs. Today, I interviewed Changying , a woman who came to Ireland in 2002 on one of those very same student visas. She has lived here since this time and is now a nationalized citizen of Ireland.
On the 19th of January 2020 Changying returned home to China to visit family and celebrate the Chinese New Year. She and her young family stepped into the nightmare that is the coronavirus. Changying’s home is in Shangxi Province which is approximately 500 miles from Wuhan. She has kindly agreed to share her experiences of the trip and give us a birds-eye view of how China has responded to the unfolding crisis. During the month she spent at home Changying left her apartment only 2 or 3 times.
Changying’s birthplace is Tuiyuan, the capital city of Shangxi province and home to over 4.5 million people. To date Shangxi province has recorded 133 official infections due to the coronavirus. Changying has allowed us to use some photos she took during her trip to Tuiyuan and they are sprinkled throughout the piece. Most tell the tale of empty streets and a city in lock-down. This is her story.
GON: Thanks for doing this Changying, let’s start with a little background..Why don’t you tell me about how you came to be living in Ireland and about your work here etc?
CY: Well, I came to Ireland in 2002 as a student. I went on to do my college degree here in Montessori education after I studied English. When I qualified I got a job as a Montessori teacher so I decided to stay on in Ireland. I’m currently working in a creche in North Dublin as an assistant manager. Now my life is here.
GON: OK so you are living in Ireland for about 18 years – have you taken out Irish Citizenship or how does that work?
CY: Yes, I’m a naturalized Irish citizen so unfortunately I don’t hold a Chinese passport anymore. I’ve spent half of my life here so this is home for me now! – I applied for it because of my family – It’s easier for travelling for holidays
GON: Of course that makes sense. Have you family in Ireland?
CY: Yes my partner is Italian and we have two children.
GON: God you’re doubly cursed at the moment!!
CY: Yes, he was joking with me the other day saying when we go out lets not tell people where we are from! – His family are okay. They’re at home right now. His town is about 2 hours away from Milan.
GON: Lets dive into your recent trip to China, you certainly picked a very interesting time to visit as circumstances turned out! – what part of China are you from and where is it in relation to Hubei/Wuhan. If you can be as specific as you can with dates that would be brilliant?
CY: OK sure. My children, my partner and I went to China on the 19th of January for the Chinese New Year and we came back to Ireland on the 16th of February. I come from Shanxi province in China. It’s 829 Kilometers from Wuhan so it’s about 500 miles or so I think.
GON: That’s very specific thanks! – What is the name of your city in Shangxi province ?
CY: Taiyuan City. It’s the capital city of Shangxi Province
GON: Excellent thanks for that information. Now when you arrived in China on January 19th were people in your province concerned about coronavirus? One of the problems we have in the West is the amount of information that has been coming out of that region.
CY: When I arrived in China I heard people talking about the virus but we didn’t how bad it was until they announced that they were going to lock down Wuhan city completely. Then people started to get worried. Despite what Western people think about the Chinese government – this time I thought they were doing an excellent job. I mean the minute they announced that they were going to lock down Wuhan all the other cities and towns followed in China. Then we all stayed at home and watched the news all the time. All the shops and restaurants closed. The only place that remained open was the supermarket.
GON: I believe Wuhan went into lock-down on the 23rd of January. How did things progress over the course of the month that you were at home. Did your province get put into lock-down?
CY: Yes, every city as far as I know.
GON: Were factories closed down? Were people going to work?
CY: So basically everyone stayed at home unless there was something really important that needed to be done. Everywhere you go they would take your temperature and details when you entered a premise like a supermarket. Factories were closed as well except for factories that produce medical supplies.
On Chinese New Year’s Eve there’s a very important TV programme that nearly every Chinese person would watch at the time. It’s called the New Year Gala. This year they made it very short and showed a lot footage about Wuhan. That is when we all found out about how serious the coronavirus was. They were already showing many factory workers had already gone back to work. Many doctors and nurses had already gone to work in Wuhan. Also many builders flew in that direction to start building these hospitals. A plan was made immediately, I believe the minute they announced about the outbreak. I’m sure you’ve heard how fast they built the hospitals over there.
GON: Was this plan for all the Chinese provinces or just Hubei and Wuhan?
CY: The government brought out another plan for each province to support a city in Hubei province. There are 23 provinces in China so each province would have to send out some doctors and nurses to the the city they are responsible for.
GON: This is excellent information Thank you. Based on what you are saying many people working in Wuhan had gone home for the Chinese new year and had already returned back to Wuhan before this TV announcement on the Eve of the Chinese New Year – as far as you know?
CY: Many people left Wuhan to go home for the celebrations and also many people were trapped in Wuhan. I know the government had to send out many planes to rescue Wuhan people who couldn’t get back to Wuhan. So all the people that were abroad went back to the city on those planes.
And then the new plan kicked in. In addition there were lots of celebrities donating money and medical supplies. In fact it is only in the last couple of days that some people have started to return to work but restaurants and most retail are still closed.
GON: That’s nearly 6 weeks at this stage
CY: Everyone that had to go back to work still have to follow strict rules about wearing a mask at all times and getting their temperature taken before entering their offices and factories. I call my parents everyday just to keep updated. Because now the situation in China is more stable they are more worried about me in Ireland!
GON: Okay. I want to ask you, as to what happens, when when a person is found to have a temperature when they are in a supermarket or in public. Do they go to a Hospital or to a quarantine site?
CY: Everyone knows exactly what to do if they have any symptom and each city has a few appointed hospitals specifically for the coronavirus patients. If someone was caught with a temperature when they are entering a supermarket they ‘d be brought to an isolation room until the ambulance arrived. I am sending you some pictures now, This is Beijing capital airport and I took it when I came back. Normally this airport would be packed but this time it was extremely quiet.
GON: We have seen reports in the west that these people are taken to emergency quarantine sites like schools etc..away from hospitals so as not to infect people. Were you or any of your family and friends tested while you were there?
CY: Well, that probably would be in Wuhan. In my city there weren’t many cases so everyone knew which hospital to go to. These specific hospitals would have been cleared out just for these coronavirus patients. In Wuhan obviously it would have been a bit different. Anytime I went to a supermarket my temperature was taken. I only left the apartment two or three times while I was home as far as I remember. Once, I went to get some treats for my children and the second time for toys for them. I think also I went out for a walk once but that might have been before the announcement.
GON: How do you feel about the situation in Ireland now that you have returned?
CY: I was expecting someone to question us when we came to Ireland but there was no questions asked at Dublin airport. In that moment I was puzzled and nervous. I felt safer when I was in China. I know many Chinese here are now thinking about going home if the situation gets any worse in Ireland. I read on the HSE website that everyone who’s back from China should contact them and ask for any advice.
GON: Did you contact them?
CY: Yes we called them but I was very disappointed. The lady on the phone took our names and just said if we had no symptoms we could get on with our lives.
GON: That’s strange considering the coronavirus was a big deal everywhere by February 16th when you returned. Did you call the Chinese embassy in Dublin?
CY: No I didn’t – to be honest I felt like giving the HSE a lesson after my experiences in China. I told the woman on the phone that we had people from Wuhan on our flight and probably not only one.
GON: So people from Wuhan were on your flight back to Ireland?
CY: Yes. I know there were people from Wuhan because I heard the airport staff asking this girl beside me if she had any symptoms when I was checking in my luggage. Also the staff had to call someone at the time to make the decision of whether they could let her fly. I remember telling my partner to take the kids away.
GON: Jesus that’s a bit scary isn’t it.
CY: Surreal. The whole journey on the plane was silent. No one was chatting with one another and everyone kept their masks on. So I was shocked when the lady on the phone from the HSE told us to get on with our lives.
GON: Was that a direct flight from Beijing to Dublin?
CY: No – Beijing to Frankfurt and then on to Dublin
GON: Did people get off the flight in Frankfurt? – Would you say many of these people then flew on to Dublin?
CY: Yes we all got off in Frankfurt and we all went out own way so I don’t know where the rest went. I had already made a decision that we should quarantine ourselves for 2 weeks when we got back to Ireland, before we left China, and every Chinese person I know, that has traveled recently has done the same thing. We believe it’s the right thing to do and we feel that we are responsible for Irish people’s safety as well. I know at least one other person traveled to Dublin from that flight as we were chatting on the Dublin leg of the journey. She was a girl from Shenyang actually but I didn’t talk to anyone else. I find the Irish reaction strange. While I was in China they had very strict rules for residents about going outside your apartment. Each family had a card for coming and going. Some estates would only allow one family member to go out 40 minutes a day to do their food shopping.
GON: This all great to know thanks…Okay…I want to move on and talk about the Chinese community in Ireland. Is it a close knit community?
CY: Oh yes, Chinese are all quite close to each other here. We look after each other. For example, when I was in quarantine I had friends bring food over and left outside of our door. Then when the first case came out in Ireland, every Chinese person went into panic mode, I heard rice was sold out in every Chinese shop on Parnell street last Wednesday. The next day I had a friend who bought me a big bag of rice over because they knew I was in quarantine.
GON: When you say you were in ‘Quarantine’ – this is the self quarantine you decided on yourself? Did your employer ask you stay at home?
CY: Well, I told her that I’d like to do it so she had no problem. I work with children so it’s better safe than sorry.
GON: So it was your idea? Was she not aware of the crisis?
CY: Well the HSE were not suggesting it at the time. Now the HSE suggest people to do the quarantine but there’s zero support for us.
GON: Has your employer been supportive?
CY: She’s Okay. I was supposed to go back to work today so she asked me to go to my GP to get a letter. She says she needs it on my file for the HSE. But first of all, the HSE said there’s no need for it if we had no symptoms at the time. Then they said they couldn’t provide any letter for our employer.
GON: Wow….typical Ireland. Probably afraid of getting sued!
GON: Did a GP give you a letter?
CY: Well, When I went to see him this week, he discovered my blood pressure was through the roof which I never had before so he said I could be stressed or it could be from the lack of exercise because I have basically been in quarantine for the last 6 weeks. I am frustrated with the Irish response so far, at the time when I came back I think everyone had already known about the 2 weeks incubation period but they didn’t consider applying in a widespread manner.
GON: So basically you have been locked up for a month in China and now 2 weeks at home in Ireland. Has your GP suggested you get tested for the virus?
GON: What do you think?
CY: No. I even asked him if the virus could cause high blood pressure and he said No. I don’t know but I’m not coughing and I don’t have a temperature which is a good sign but I feel like I’m on my own here.
GON: If it’s any consolation, so does everyone I have spoken to on the subject in Ireland that has been affected.
CY: Yes, probably true. I’d love to know what the Irish government is doing about it. Is there any strategy or plan?
GON: Good question. Well my opinion is there is a plan of sorts but no resources or co-ordination to implement it as of right now. I’m skeptical that we will be able to contain it. The government will end up simply try to manage it like the seasonal flu methinks.
CY: That’s how I feel. It’s not like the flu though. That’s the problem. Obviously I’m not a doctor but it takes no doctor to figure out how serious it is, if you heard any of the stories I’ve heard.
GON: Are many Chinese people in Ireland from Wuhan would you say. Is it a city that you heard about in Ireland before the outbreak?
CY: I don’t know anyone from Wuhan here but Wuhan is a huge city in China. My cousin went to university there. The Chinese government was really transparent about the situation at least. Here nothing is allowed due to GDPR.
GON: Well I feel the Chinese government knew about this virus in early December – I am not a big fan of the CCP I must admit.
CY: Now, that’s a deep subject. We still don’t know who knew and who didn’t at the time. I still believe it could be the local leader trying to cover it up rather than the President Xi Jinping. I’m not interested in politics but Chinese politics is even more complicated!
GON: Well I’m all for having a deep conversation on the subject!
CY: Haha very funny! – Let’s forget about the politics and talk about the virus situation here. I just like the way they made decision fast and put plans into action straight away. All the information was updated every morning on all the media.
GON: Well the virus is now very much political I would say. A communist regime can put in place restrictions a lot quicker than say a liberal democracy. So for instance if the Irish government were to try and force people to have their temperature taken every time they entered a supermarket the population might not support it. I do agree that from January 11th once the first death was announced the Chinese started to implement a lot of policies very quickly.. But if you are uncomfortable talking about it in that way we can move on..
CY: Maybe it is political perhaps communism might suit China because of the large population but I don’t know much about it unfortunately. Politics and religion just make me sad… They rather separate people than keeping them together I feel. I’ll just give you an example of the type of information we were getting when I was at home in China. Everyday we received updates to our phones about what was going on with the virus. Numbers to call if you are not feeling well, certain hospitals that need volunteers for blood donation etc.
GON: In fairness that is pretty impressive. Okay…let’s change course a little bit now. Do the Chinese community in Ireland feel they have been treated badly since the outbreak. You know that people look at them differently?
CY: Yes, I forwarded a video on Facebook a while ago. A Chinese girl was called China virus on the street by a group of teenagers. There is a lot of this kind of stuff going on in Dublin at the moment. I also know nearly all my Chinese friends have masks prepared but they are scared to wear them because they will be more likely to be attacked.
GON: That’s very sad to hear. It also reminds me that the Irish media haven’t reached out to report on the Chinese people living in Dublin and the rest of the country. And actually source information from them. I can tell from talking to you that the Irish approach to the outbreak doesn’t impress you much, tell me how would the Chinese approach the situation here would you say?
CY: I will give you a small example. I know there are already a few schools that have closed here. In China these students who are quarantined wouldn’t be able to stay at home and do nothing for these two weeks. After the virus breakout the Chinese government immediately set up an online educational system straight away and all students would sit in front of their computer at home to learn their lessons. All the classes, homework was done online and all the parent teacher meetings was done online. No one was allowed to miss a thing but how many Irish students that are at home have access to that?
GON: In China would these students not be sent to a quarantine facility?
CY: Well, no they can quarantine themselves at home until symptoms show. No one would force you until symptoms show. At any rate, I know I’d want to be treated straight away once symptoms surfaced and I have heard it’s not a pretty death.
GON: Yes I have heard that too and seen some videos online, it’s definitely not a pretty death. Tell me how are your parents and what do they and your siblings do in China? What do they work as?
CY: My dad is a doctor and my mum is retired. I don’t have any siblings
GON: Your Dad must be a busy man?
CY: My Dad went to work everyday during the time I was there. Fortunately his hospital isn’t one of the coronavirus hospitals.
GON: Has he been one of the doctors called to help in Wuhan or anything like that?
CY: No, They usually pick the younger doctors. In his hospital there were 5 doctors chosen to go there.
GON: Are those doctors all OK? – I hear that a lot of medical professionals have got the virus.
CY: They are Okay so far. Everyone is really proud of them, they are doing a fantastic job in my province. No doctor from Shangxi province has been killed as far as I am aware.
GON: That is good to hear. Sure the Chinese are one of the most hardworking people on earth. No surprise there.
CY: Thank you
GON: So have you heard of any other Chinese returning to Ireland that were on holidays out there during the last month?
CY: Yes, I know a few people who went back home and have come back to Ireland. They all self quarantined themselves like I did. Most of them are finished that now and everyone’s life is getting back to normal. I’ll send you some pictures from the Airports and trains to show you how empty the place is and how seriously everyone is taking it.
GON: Brilliant thanks!!
Changying and myself spent a further 10 or 15 minutes chatting about the photos she sent through to me. You will see them dotted throughout this piece. It paints a scene of a city and province in lock-down. There is no trace of complaint in her words regarding the level of restrictions that were placed on her and her family. One can only marvel at the stoicism of a people that can endure this, largely without complaint. I was very struck how responsible the Chinese community in Ireland have been, especially ones that have recently returned from the motherland. Without fail they put themselves in self quarantine on arrival back to Ireland. The fact that the HSE and our public health authorities were of no particular assistance is sadly not much of a surprise.
In the last few days the Chinese government have been slowly starting to get people back to work. The economic hit of having close to 700 million people in lock-down or quarantine has been enormous. A picture Changying sent to me summed up the Chinese attitude and resolve of the people. It is a picture of Chinese workers queueing to have their temperature taken as they returned to work on Monday for the first time in many weeks.
Finally, I would like to thank Changying for sharing her experiences with Combat Arena and hope that she will soon be able to return to work and resume her life.
Written By: Gerry O’Neill
The name Changying is a pseudonym and used for the purpose of keeping her identity anonymous.