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We are in the same Olympic city but remain a world apart

By Selina Wang, CNN

Two months ago, I called my grandma to tell her I’d be in Beijing for the Winter Olympics. She was thrilled.

But I explained that even though we’d be in the same city, I wouldn’t be able to see her. I’d be in a strict bubble, separate from the rest of China’s population. My grandma said not to worry. Just focus on your work, she said.

I lived in Beijing before taking up a posting in Tokyo early in the pandemic. When I left, I wasn’t sure when I’d see my grandma again. China’s borders have been virtually closed for two years because of Covid, and the government has accepted limited visas for journalists. The Winter Olympics offered a rare chance for me to return to the country.

Yet within the Olympic closed loop, it’s as if I’m traversing the city in a glass box, unable to experience the Beijing I know. Hotels and venues are surrounded by temporary walls, fences, and security. I’ve gotten used to seeing workers in hazmat suits — waiting tables, serving cocktails, or taking my Covid test. As I watch the familiar Beijing streets zoom by through car windows — a colorful blur of tall buildings, masked faces and delivery scooters — I long to step out just for a moment.

So when I noticed a bridge near my hotel that allowed Beijing residents to look down into the closed loop, within the temporary walls, I saw a window of opportunity to see my grandma. I dropped a location pin to my relatives, and told them that unfortunately, this was the closest we could get while I was in Beijing.

Still, my grandma was delighted, arriving 20 minutes early in her nicest winter coat. I yelled Happy New Year in Mandarin as loud as I could, as she’s hard of hearing, and jumped up and down. She took off her mask and smiled broadly, her face crinkling at the edges.

Our meeting was emblematic of the isolation the world has dealt with since the pandemic began. Early on, I was separated from my husband for nine months. I didn’t see my parents for more than two years. I spent months and months in various quarantines in Asia.

Now, even though I was finally back in the same city as my grandma, literally just meters away from her during the Lunar New Year holiday, I couldn’t embrace her. Tears started to well. It was overwhelming to see her face from a distance.

I took out my phone to video call her so she could hear me properly. How ironic it was that even in our face-to-face meeting, we still had to resort to a virtual call to communicate. Grandma told me she was mostly staying at home for the holidays, as there were no festivities to attend in Beijing because of Covid.

She recently relocated from Henan to live with relatives in Beijing to have heating in the wintertime. She was grateful for the warmth and was comfortable — albeit sometimes lonely — at home.

Despite the joy I felt in seeing my grandma, the tears continued to flow. It was a cathartic emotional release. She’s my last living grandparent, and it was heartening to see that despite the tumult of the last few years, she’s safe and healthy.

Olympic sacrifices

Throughout the pandemic, China has sealed off entire communities or cities over even a single Covid case. In some cities, like in Wuhan and Xi’an, residents have endured draconian measures.

At the same time, for many locals like my grandma, who haven’t lived in cities with major outbreaks, the strict Covid rules are just a way of life. They’ve accepted the restrictions, preferring the sporadic lockdowns and confinement to the skyrocketing numbers of death they see reported elsewhere.

I spoke to one of the Covid testers stationed outside my hotel. He sits in a small cubicle the size of a phone booth, wearing a hazmat suit, mask and face shield. Through the plexiglass, he told me that during his shifts that last at least six hours he cannot drink, eat, or use the bathroom. To prevent himself from needing to relieve himself, he doesn’t eat before his shift starts. He says it’s difficult to be away from his six-year-old son for so long, but he manages to video call him every day. Despite the grueling work, he said it’s all worth it to be a part of the Games.

On Lunar New Year’s Day, I saw little festivities. The only reminder was the red lanterns that dotted the trees outside the media center. That day, I noticed an Olympic worker standing at the edge of the closed loop, waving to her two young sons behind layers of barricades and fences. Her sons gripped the fence, yelling to their mother that they missed her and wished they could be together for the New Year. It was a touching moment that inspired me to meet my grandma the following day.

The woman told me this was the longest she’d ever been apart from her kids. Once in a while, they would meet at the edge of the park and wave to each other from afar. Local Chinese staff have been in the Olympic bubble since early January and will stay in it through the end of the Paralympic Games. After that, they’re required to quarantine for as long as 21 days at a government facility. Especially on Lunar New Year Day, she said it made her tearful to think about how close she was to her children, yet unbearably far.

I heard similar stories over and over again from drivers, security guards, restaurant waiters, and volunteers in the Olympic closed loop. They’ve all decided to live separately from their families for months, in order to be part of the Olympics. Some are frustrated by the confinement — disappointed they can’t get closer to the Olympic action. But most of them told me they’re proud and excited to help make the event happen, brushing off the personal sacrifice.

Worlds apart

For my grandma, the pandemic times are just a small chapter in her life beset with struggle and sacrifice. She survived The Great Leap Forward in China, when tens of millions died from famine. When she was pregnant with my father, she had to subsist on porridge, tree leaves and tree bark to piece enough nutrition to survive. My father grew up in similarly challenging conditions. He remembers the Lunar New Year as one of the rare moments growing up when his belly was full.

My parents attended graduate school in America, where they settled down and raised me and my sister. My grandma and grandpa, who were farmers in China, came to the US to care for us until I was in elementary school, while my parents worked. Grandpa walked me to school every day. Grandma’s handmade dumplings and noodles were sitting on the table when I came home. Grandpa turned our backyard into a vegetable garden. Grandma sat by my bedside when I struggled to fall asleep. They taught me to read and write Chinese. I even spoke Mandarin with a villager’s countryside accent.

As I looked at my grandma from afar, I could see an expression of pride on her face. In her eyes, I had succeeded as the product of the American Dream and her other “grand” children in China were living through China’s rise.

Increasingly, China’s rise is at odds with America’s — and many democratic nations’ — dream for the world.

The China my grandma lives in now is far wealthier and more powerful than the impoverished country she raised my father in. It’s also become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent.

The United States and its allies have boycotted the Games as a statement against allegations of human rights abuses that Beijing vehemently denies. Tensions are growing between China and numerous countries. Surveillance and censorship mechanisms have also become more sophisticated. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing some of my television reports censored in real time on TV screens in China.

At the Olympics, the pandemic has also given China the ability to closely monitor and track participants, including journalists. The restrictions we face reflect a country that has become more hostile to journalists, free speech, and generally any criticism of China.

In that environment, it’s harder than ever to tell stories about Chinese people. Many are fearful of retribution for speaking to Western media, even on non-sensitive topics. The woman I spoke to in the Olympic bubble on New Year’s Day — the one who was meeting her children — asked me not to use her name or show her face on camera, worried about the consequences of sharing her story. That sentiment makes it harder for the world to learn about the rich and multifaceted lives of China’s 1.4 billion people.

As I watched my Grandma’s peaceful expression from the bridge above, I told her I couldn’t wait to eat her dumplings again. I wanted to give her a big hug and climb over that wall — the barrier between us, symbolic of a nation increasingly separated from the world, even for the people who want to see the country and its residents thrive.

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