This week, I removed all antigen test photos from my phone. For over two months, we had to do self-tests and share them in the building’s WeChat group, and cleansing my phone of them felt almost therapeutical.

It’s not just our phones that are healing, so are we. Now we have our freedom back for almost three weeks and it’s easy to think everything is back to normal; we can walk outside again, we’re seeing colleagues again in the office, the subway is going again, and even the zoo is open. We can sport again, even if our muscles feel sour afterward due to this two months break.

It’s not that we must take a PCR test every few days, or that we can’t dine inside restaurants yet. Package deliveries aren’t smooth yet. That’s fine. It’s even fine we see some other compounds being locked up; on the scale of Shanghai it’s quite rare, and hey — it’s not us. Even not being able to leave Shanghai for another city or province without quarantine doesn’t weigh heavy on my mind, nor does a potential lockdown.

What makes me feel ‘not normal’ is the two months we went through — a light wound yet one that runs deep and takes time to heal.

April and May. Not the boredom nor the physical discomfort of not being able to go out for a run or walk. It was the stress of the real possibility of being infected and being sent to the quarantine camp — no privacy and comfort for two weeks. We felt that stress for weeks, for instance the day after we took noodles and cooking oil from the hands of our neighbor — the same neighbor who just tested positive. It’s the stress from positive cases on the floor above and below us, in buildings all around us. It was the police car with its emergency lights on parked beneath our window in the night, the megaphone call each morning to quickly quickly quickly go down for a PCR test. Quickly! Don’t waste the time of the volunteers!

It was the insecurity of which food we could buy or when. The disinfection spray we used on boxes that came in, the rope we used to take deliveries through our bathroom window. It was a call from an unknown number and me being reluctant to pick it up because it could be the CDC telling us to pack our bags because we’ve tested positive. Even our release wasn’t clear. Rules kept changing and right until the last minute nobody knew for sure whether we could go out on June 1st or not.

And foreigners got an extra dose. I didn’t have my passport for almost three months because it was getting a new visa sticker, the bureau obviously also being in a lockdown. If something happened to my family, it was incredibly difficult to get back to the Netherlands. I’m already nine thousand kilometers away from home, three years since seeing my family in the Netherlands. My grandmother’s funeral took place while I couldn’t even cross the street.


Almost nobody in Shanghai talks about this anymore — not at this detail, and I also struggle to put it down into words. People say the lockdown was “太吓人” (Too frightening) but that was the situation; they rarely talk about how afraid or stressed it made them feel. (Alex does though, interviewed by Chris, and talks about the stress of her being separated from her pets. And it’s one of the best personal descriptions of the lockdown — painful but also beautiful because there’s so much love for her animals. I can hear the stress in her voice still — see it in her eyes — and with hers, I feel my own.)

These feelings also come to me when I see my sink and I’m reminded of the plastic bags I put there to block the airflow. When I see the staircases, the compound, the place where that police car stood. Most of all, I’m reminded of it when I go outside, because I see what we didn’t have for 61 days.

Maybe we tell ourselves it wasn’t so bad; it was only mental discomfort, not physical. People around the world have it worse, even others in this lockdown. This is true, yet at the same time I want to own my own feelings, not numb them in comparison. There’s always a bigger tragedy. The dabai’s — like ghosts in the night — still roam in my head, and so do the fences and tarpaulin that went up around the compound, or buildings locked with tape or chains. It’s the topic of Chinese class, and every new word and sample sentence relates to covid. I’m watching a movie (even though it’s shot before 2020), I’m still surprised they’re not wearing masks.


While I’m deleting those antigen test photos, I’m seeing the months of April and May pass by again. Cooked meals, pages from books, groceries, the view from our window, the PCR tests. I don’t want to forget, because this now is part of me, and because I learned real life lessons from this lockdown. (Which, by the way, I don’t think can be shared. They’re all true but extremely cliché. Everybody has to discover these for her or himself.)

But the photos bring it all back. Some I delete, some stay.
We’re going back to normal, but I’m not there yet.