Shanghai Lockdown Diaries: Day 20.

Hello, friends.

I’m writing to you from Shanghai, where things are not as good as they could be. But also not as bad as they can be.

The past 20 days—and two weeks before that, when our district went through “soft” lockdown —have been surreal. I’m not one to dwell on the negatives, so I’ll offer a hopeful message of what it’s like to be locked down.

To start, most of the factual reports you’ve read online are likely true. If there’s anything you want to ask me about some minutiae of #lockdownlife—ask away. I’ll do my best to respond.

I’ve been referring friends to the Plain English with Derek Thompson podcast. A few days ago Thompson released an episode on the Shanghai lockdown. He and his interviewee mostly get it right. They also pose some interesting existential questions about China’s future. I recommend you give that a listen.

Shanghai contains 25 million people. The fact that the whole city has been ground to a halt is astounding. Astounding in terms of policy and implementation, but also in the willingness of the populace to remain compliant.

There’s a lot of political wonky theorizing and human psychoanalysis that I could use to explain the situation, but I’m no expert. I’m simply experiencing things with my own eyes and ears.

What I will say is that it’s amazing how the human spirit manages to adapt under exceptional circumstances. This “new normal” is something I’ve not personally experienced until now. Some say it’s reminiscent of Wuhan in 2020.

My wife and I are built for these sorts of scenarios. We’re both introverted people who appreciate social interactions, but not too much of it. We are grateful to have each other, because I can imagine the situation being an order of magnitude worse for folks living alone.

My personal mental wiring leans towards solitude. I enjoy spending time with myself. Whether that’s writing, reading, working out with a YouTube video, or recording a podcast with someone halfway around the world, I enjoy being introverted. I’ve Zoomed with friends over the past 5 years for non-work situations, and that hasn’t changed during the lockdown.

Having pets—two cats, in our case—means a great deal right now. It makes you remember that you have these lives that are entirely dependent on you. Our cats are living large, enjoy a surplus of food, and might be eating better than the average Shanghainese. I’m happy to have them around.

Not having our parents around in Shanghai is a major relief. We’re super grateful to “only” have to take care of ourselves and our two cats. I understand, on an intellectual level, that it’s luck. Good fortune? We’ll take it.

We try our best to help our neighbors. If you’re reading this and based in Shanghai, don’t hesitate to reach out. Chatting goes a long way.

At the beginning of the lockdown, our primary challenge was getting access to food. But through personal resourcefulness, the help of our neighbors, and paying 3-5x normal market prices, we’ve tapped into the Shanghainese “black market” of goods. We get essentials delivered to us and have realized happiness in the unlikeliest of situations.

Joni Mitchell once sang: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Til it’s gone?” We surely didn’t. Receiving shipments of goods we used to take for granted, such as bottled water, coke, and snacks, have become causes for celebration. Today we secured a bunch of bread and that completely brightened our day.

We’re quite happy with our food and life supplies, even if I do have to be a bit conservative with the sponge that we wash dishes with. We’re down to our last few pieces and they do wear out over time—and I’ve washed a ton of dishes in 20 days.

The lockdown is an opportunity for seeking clarity. I’ve called loved ones and family over the past few weeks, as I always have. I’ve begun scheduling my life around housework and chores – because we previously had hired help and that’s no longer accessible. I’ve leveled up significantly in cleaning the house. We prepare and eat three clean meals a day, and I’ve lost two kilograms of (mostly) fat, while preserving the muscle via indoor workouts.

Our apartment complex is loosely managed and contains a relatively small number of families, so that’s been good in the sense of maintaining our freedom. Bad in the sense that we can’t rally together to do larger group buys, so we ultimately pay a bit more for our food. But who’s complaining?

In terms of what truly matters, spending significant time with my partner has been a blessing. We’ve been arguing less, because the day is about moving forward and getting all the things done. I’ve effectively controlled my temper on most days.

Hell, I’ve even controlled my emotions at work better, due to putting it all into perspective. One of my superpowers, if I can call it that, is to reflect on what I’ve said and done. I can take myself out of my ego for just a minute and think about what’s objectively the right thing to do, or feel.

In work situations, I’ve mellowed out. I knew that the environment around me created major stressors, and saw how it impacted my interactions with people in negative ways. When you see the problem, you learn to deal with it.

I’ve openly shared my current challenges with colleagues. I find that it’s better to be honest with them. There’s no shame in that, and work has been a good distraction from what goes on outside my window.

Again with the “keeping things in perspective” theme, I’ve avoided doomscrolling through social media, including WeChat, for Shanghai lockdown gossiping and speculation. I don’t fault anyone for doing that, especially if it serves as a coping mechanism. But it was just adding more noise to my life. I was thinking about cutting down on social media pre-lockdown, anyway.

I’ve conscientiously involved myself in work-life projects that serve as mental relief. I run an interview-based podcast called Humans of Magic. Over the past 1-2 months, I’ve ramped up production of this show and started working on a special “This Ukrainian Life” episode, where I talk to Magic players about their experiences in war-torn Ukraine.

It’s been informative to hear from Ukrainian folks about their first-hand experiences. Some have become refugees. Others live in daily proximity with air alarms and bunkers. I’m glad to have the opportunity to use my podcast to tell their story.

It turns out that being locked down is a lot easier to deal with than being locked down and fearing for not only your life, but the lives of your loved ones. Perspective, as they say.

The truth is that all things will pass. My mortality, my health, my mind, my lifetime achievements, and this lockdown. I’m reasonably certain that I’ll look at this phase of my life as just something to navigate through, ultimately inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. If this is the biggest thing I’ll navigate in 2022, then it will be a good year. I’m sure of it.

Don’t worry about me—not that I assume you are. I’m writing this as much for me as I am for others reading it.

Life is beautiful; life goes on. Take care of yourself, won’t you?

Peace,
James

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