By Jeff J. Brown
Pictured above: Chara Vega Langlois Brown describing her and her Chinese friends’ and colleagues’ lives during the Covid-19 outbreak, both inside and outside China.
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Jeff J. Brown, Host: All right. Good afternoon, everybody. This is Jeff J. Brown, China Rising Radio Sinoland in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and if it the scene looks a little different. Well, it is, because this is the first live interview I have ever done here on this show in years and years and years. And it is with great pleasure that it happens to be with my younger daughter, Chara Langlois Brown. How are you doing here?
Chara Brown, Guest: I’m doing very well, thank you.
Jeff: We decided that we thought it’d be better if we both face the camera so you can see us talking. You know, there is so much ugly, ugly propaganda out there about the Chinese in China with the Covid-19. That’s now the new globally accepted name for the Corona virus that started in China. There’s so much ugly propaganda out there. And I started thinking, you know, I really want to talk to some people who are actually a part of this and are having to live through this incredibly challenging event.
And, so I’m contacting people in China and I hope to have others on the air.
However, Chara is actually here in Thailand. She can explain it to you as we get through the interview.
The title of this is, A Day in the Life of a Student Exiled Outside China because of Covid-19, a face to face interview with Chara Langlois Brown. So, Chara, please tell the fans out there a little bit about yourself and how your life became intertwined with China.
Chara: My name is Chara Vega Langlois Brown. I’m French American and this is my father. So, I moved to China about nine and a half years ago with my parents after the financial crisis in the United States. When I arrived, I attended eighth grade. And since then, I’ve graduated from high school. I worked for a year. And now I’m completing my undergraduate degree in Beijing Normal University and Human Resources Management, where I study with Chinese colleagues in Mandarin. So, it’s a true Chinese experience.
Jeff: You told me that untold hundreds of thousands of Chinese are exiled from going back home. Your flight’s been canceled to help control the spread of Covid-19. Were your tickets refunded and how is that being dealt with you and all of your friends and colleagues that are outside of the country?
Chara: So, I was actually planning on only traveling for about a month and I happened to decide this year to go abroad to travel during the Chinese New Year holiday. I turned out to be very lucky, I think. So, I whenever I arrived in Thailand, I met with a group of Chinese people who are actually living in Beijing. And, they told me that all of their flights had been canceled to return to Beijing, and that my flight might possibly also be canceled as well. And sure enough, that two days later, I got an email that my flight was canceled. And I was thinking, well, maybe I should book another one. So, I booked another one two days later, which was also canceled. But it turned out very well, because I was worried that if there is this Corona virus and I’m not supposed to return to China, then this money might just go down the drain. Truly, huge waste of a waste of money! I had purchased the no refund tickets, but there was a new policy in China that all originally non-refundable tickets were going to be refunded in this time period. So, they actually changed the entire C-Trip platform and they opened up like a whole new site where you can apply for non- originally non-refundable tickets to be refunded. So, they had this policy all across China.
Jeff: Yeah. It also happened to our 4-year-older daughter Maïa, who’s in the United States. She was going to go to Beijing next month, spend a day with Chara and then fly down here for during the Easter break. Her ticket was canceled because of Covid-19, and she also got a refund. Will tell us, when did you first hear about Covid-19? Where were you? And on social media with your Chinese friends. What were you all saying?
Chara: I heard when I was in Malaysia. At that time, I was traveling with one of my Chinese friends and I met her down in Malaysia, and she was telling me about this virus. The first few days, it wasn’t really a concern. It was just, you know, everyday news. It was only about three or four days later when we started to realize the really intense reaction online and the Chinese government that they were really trying to contain this virus, trying to corner it, and stop it from spreading. So, at first, it wasn’t much of a concern.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. And of course, you were doing all of this is all of this you’re doing in Chinese. So, you’re getting the real Chinese experience. Tell us about your friends from your class. Okay. Now you and many people untold -I don’t know how many- tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Chinese and others who are residents in China are stuck outside of China.
But, tell us about any friends and classmates who are stuck in Hubei, in particular, where the virus started or other cities in China. What are their lives like? What have you learned about your classmates and friends who are stuck in other cities outside of Beijing and can’t go back to Beijing?
Chara: Right. So, at first, I was really concerned, because I had a few classmates who are originally from Hubei and even from Wuhan. At first, they weren’t on lockdown and there were flooding out of the city. But one there was a complete lockdown of the province, eventually they closed the barriers. I mean, most restaurants are closed. Shopping malls are closed. Any kind of events where you could have human contact were pretty much canceled. And I was thinking, well, how can they eat? How can they, you know, get their life necessity items? I mean, that was really concern for me. And, what happened was they turned every neighborhood or house unit into like a safeguarded area. So, they have the guards at the entrance of each unit who don’t allow anyone to come in except for the people who are living in this neighborhood. If in a family there are like five people or six people, there is only one person who is allowed to exit the house once every two days outside of the neighborhood to buy some vegetables or hygiene products, etcetera. And, and apart from that, they can also order delivery where the person can the delivery man can deliver it to the gate of the neighborhood where they disinfect the whole container of the food and then the resident comes down and picks it up from the gate.
Jeff: And also, I’m sure it’s the same with friends in other cities. I’m talking to Chinese friends in Shenzhen. When one person can go out of the guarded 24-hour guarded area, they register their name, fill in information like which apartment or house they’re in so that they can control who is, and they have to have their temperature taken before they leave the compound. If they if they have a temperature, they have to immediately go to the hospital. And, if they don’t have a temperature, they can go on out. But, they also they cannot leave unless they have a mask. So, the amount of extraordinary coordination and cooperation that the Chinese are executing to limit the number of people being killed is just unbelievable.
Chara, when I look at media and social media in China, there is an incredible sense of solidarity as a nation like going into battle. Xi Jinping has called this a fight, a people’s war. He actually said that to Donald Trump last week on the telephone, which is the exact same words that Mao Zedong used when the Chinese helped the Koreans. What is your sense of the attitude of the Chinese? Do you think China will be stronger as a result?
Chara: Well, I was very touched by many of the reactions that people had. I actually was assigned a little task. I was supposed to translate a few of these videos from a Chinese application, TikTok, translate them and re-post them on the international TikTok to have a more positive voice of China across the globe. I saw some stories of people’s families being separated where paramedics are being sent into “battle” the Corona virus in Wuhan and they’re just very emotional because they can’t come back together and in fear that these heroes might die for their cause. Other people are doing good deeds and taking care of each other. Even strangers are coming together in times of crisis. So, watching these videos, I was crying because I was just so touched. Also, on behalf of my country, I feel really guilty. I just feel really sad about this whole situation. It really touched me, not only from my perspective as an American, but also some of the actions of international people as well that were very positive, supportive, and encouraging. And, not to mention, the sense of love for their country and nationalism among the Chinese really moved me.
Jeff: Do you think that China will become stronger as a result of this?
Chara: Well, I think it definitely really put them to a test of how well they can coordinate together. There were a few people who were questioning: “Is it really necessary to go to such extremes?” But I think for the most part, there is very, very strong sentiment that we need to do this. And, it was a very good testimony of their skills and how well they coordinate together.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. Can you tell us about what your school expected you to do during the epidemic? So, tell us about how you have to report in every day.
Chara: Right. So, during this whole epidemic, my school placed many responsibilities on us. The first thing they did was they asked us to report every morning our health condition. They ask us questions such as: What’s your location? What is your temperature? Are you having any kind of symptoms like fever, cough or fatigue? Did you have any contact with people from Wuhan? Did you have any contact with people who have symptoms similar to the Corona virus? So, I need to fill out this survey every day before noon. So, 11 A.M. here.
And, often I wake up really late and they’re calling me 30 minutes before the deadline. The dean of my institute as well as the representative of my class… everyone’s calling me! Asking “Are you okay? Are you okay? You have to report it immediately. We have to report back to our leaders.” So, it’s pretty incredible when you think about it on a large scale. I’m only one student, in one class, in one university, and they’re doing this across all universities, the entire student body. Not only the student body, but also employees in their own companies who are operating in the same way.
Jeff: Not to mention, all the Chinese students who are not only in China, but even outside China. They’re coordinating this on a mass national level, because they really care about. They really care about their students and their employees. It’s just amazing.
You know, last week, your temperature went up thirty-seven point seven degrees. What happened then?
Chara: Well, I did. I did have a fever. It went up to 37.4, 37.7, and then it went up to 38.2 and then it came back down to 37.2. So, it was really weird, always changing. And of course, I had to report this.
So, my dean, everyone contacted me because they can all see my results across the system. They said, “Well, are you okay?” They were really concerned about me. But then, they also said, “Stay away from your family and you need to go to the hospital.” And so, I went to the hospital. I think in Thailand, they’re a little bit less concerned for obvious reasons. And this I arrived at the hospital and I said I have a fever. And then they said, well, anything else? You seemed totally fine to me… And I had to explain I’m obligated to do this because of the policy. So, they moved me out to a whole another building which is destined just for any kind of flu or cold like symptoms. They took my temperature and it turned out to be 36.4.
So, anyway, I told my school that I went to the doctor and I was supposed to go back again if my flu was still up. I didn’t have a fever anymore. So, it turned out to be OK.
Jeff: Yeah. And another thing, she pointed out is at the hospital, they had created a whole separate area just for Chinese nationals where they had to go if they came, of course, that this can be explained by the fact that it [the virus] is only killing basically people who are ethnically Chinese. So, we don’t have much to worry about.
But, I appreciate that her professors, friends, and classmates were worried about us, making sure that she stays away in case she was sick. I really do appreciate that. Well, that is really amazing. You know, you were supposed to have gone back to school two weeks ago. With students scattered all over the place, how are you all and your teachers continuing schooling?
Chara: Well. So the funny thing is, there’s like a saying going around the Chinese social media platforms which is: During this whole epidemic, all the Chinese people are becoming professional cooks -you know, because everyone needs to cook- and all of the teachers are becoming live-streaming celebrities. And, that’s because everything is going online.
So, all of the universities, or at least the ones I know, the leaders had a conference and then they decided to make all of their courses available on these Chinese online teaching platforms.
And, I have yet to experience that, because my classes officially start on the 24th.
Jeff: OK. I thought they’d already started. And I don’t know how that’s going to be. I assume it’s going to be very much like your experience teaching online.
Chara: And, so they what they did is they sent QR codes into all of the WeChat groups and you’re supposed to scan and enter the WeChat group of whatever courses you have already selected where they will send the information on these courses. I think they will be more automated. If you don’t have time to go to class exactly at this particular time, you can also, you know, just complete the homework and watch the videos and complete the task within a week’s time.
Jeff: Wow. Amazing. Of course, this is being replicated millions of times for millions of Chinese students, not only in China, but all over the world, who happen to be out of the country when the Corona virus hit.
Chara: And, there is also a joke going online which is: “Mommy, Daddy, I’m going to graduate from Peking University and Tsinghua University.” You see, these two are the best universities in China, and it’s kind of the dream of all students to go to these universities. And well now, it can become accessible to all high students. So, this epidemic might also increase education accessibility.
Jeff: So why not? I know you’re applying a master’s programs at Tsinghua University. So, this might popularize online education. You were told that Capital Normal University has completely canceled all classes for the rest of second semester and is going 100 percent online. That’s just mind boggling for me. How do you think the Covid-19 outbreak is going to change the way Chinese learn in school?
Chara: Right. So, I heard that from my friend who is studying at Capital Normal University. She’s an international student, so it might be particular for her situation. But, she told me that they have already decided she doesn’t need to come back to China for this entire semester. She’s not attending offline. She just went back to France and she’s studying online. It makes me wonder… I was expecting mid-March to go back to China. But now it might be possible, like mid-April or even this whole semester might be completely online.
Jeff: Right. You’ve been online and collaborating in WeChat groups, social media groups, so you can share information with your classmates, etc., so it’s believable. I think it’s going to have a huge impact. I think it’s going to radically, radically transform Chinese education. And as you said, you know, it could do what Mao Zedong did during the Cultural Revolution, that is popularize education in areas of China that that have a hard time going to school.
Chara: Right. I’ve been working in this online teaching business for many years, particularly English education. And from my experience, I was able to reach out to students even in the most, you know, impoverished areas. I mean, they all have phones, most of them, I would say. They live in remote areas in China, where there’s not much to go around, especially foreign teachers. Not many foreigners are willing to go and work in those kinds of conditions. So, in my experience, it was very positive when I received videos of children who are learning from the videos I’ve made and etc.. So, I really can see how this could really work out in the long term. Not only need English education, but all courses.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, with A.I., virtual reality and big data, they could even have chemistry labs and everything else.
What are you and all your classmates doing about paying apartment rent and other fixed expenses like utilities and bank loans? How are the landlords, companies and banks handling this?
Chara: I don’t know about banks. But, I have seen many apartment advertisements online because no one is going back to Beijing. They’re looking for people to rent out their apartments. So, I was actually looking for apartments. I saw how on apartments seeking platforms and they’re dropping the prices.
I mean, most people are not returning to Beijing and they’re looking for people to rent out their apartment.
Jeff: It’s unbelievable. Have you talked to any have you talked to any friends who have already had an existing lease and how that’s going with their landlords?
Chara: Oh, I think they just need to pay. I think there’s not really any exceptions. I was very lucky because I actually was desperately looking for an apartment for this semester. And, I found three apartments. And it just turned out that there was some kind of weird situation or circumstance that caused the landlords to not be able to rent the apartment to me. I was a little bit upset, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because now I might not even need to return for these six months. I’m really lucky.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. You were lucky enough to be stuck in Thailand where we live. And, so you not having to pay for lodging and have much lower daily expenses living with your mother and me. But how are all the Chinese dealing with all these added costs being exiled outside of China?
Chara: I mean, they just have to take it. Most of them are living in cheap hostels or maybe looking for friends who are living outside of China. But I think there’s not really much they can do apart from the airplane costs. There’s not much they can do to reduce costs. But, I know that since there are less Chinese tourists traveling now, who actually a large portion of tourism in many countries, visa prices are dropping to attract more tourists. And, I assume maybe other traveling packages as well might have decreased in price.
Jeff: Yeah, I heard some unbelievable headline. In Hong Kong, a four-star hotel was offering rooms for $12 just to get some people in the hotel. I think that even included breakfast. And they were just hoping you might eat lunch and dinner there, too. And the headlines in Thailand, same thing, tourism has fallen. It has just actually cratered. And so, I’m sure the cost of housing has gone down too.
And if they get out, if they get a place with a little kitchen. Or here in Thailand, food [prices] here are very, very reasonable. They bunk together and get four, five or six a Chinese in a dorm-like lifestyle, I’m sure the costs are doable. And then, of course, also the Chinese have the highest savings rate in the world. And, I can imagine that all money is also moving very fast across WeChat pay and AliPay.
Chara: I also wanted to add that I actually had a friend who I used to work, the moment she went from Hunan back to Beijing. She arrived at the company. Everything was normal. And they said, “I’m sorry, you’re being laid off.” Because, they didn’t have enough during this whole epidemic, and they lost so much money that they had to lay off any of the nonessential employees. So, she was laid off and apparently half of the employees from that small sized enterprise as well. This is an online teaching company for English, and this has had a big impact on them, just because during that time, they had to pay all of these salaries and they had to support so many people. And they couldn’t really make videos from afar. It was just a little bit harder to, you know, at the beginning try to coordinate and it definitely had some cost damage.
Jeff: I can imagine. Unbelievable. Well, the Chinese suffered through 110 years of Western rape and plunder during the century of humiliation and fought off the Westerner’s and the Japanese to gain their independence in 1949. I think they’re going to come through. When is Beijing Normal University saying you can go back home? The sudden rush for plane tickets is going to be intense.
Chara: Well, I don’t know. Everyone is on standby waiting for the notice. They made me pledge. They told me I have to pledge that I will not return to Beijing Normal University and I will not return to Beijing. At first, I wasn’t willing to pledge because I was a little bit I was worried l maybe won’t be able to extend my visa. I was thinking I might need to go back to Beijing eventually before the notice comes. But the dean of my institution, came to me and she said, “Well, we need you to pledge right now, because we need to report to our leaders.” And I said, “Well, I need to look at all of these things.” And she said, “We need you to pledge, you just can’t come back no matter what, not until the notice comes through.” So, I said, “Well, OK.” -I didn’t really have a choice. – I said, “I pledge I will not go back to Beijing or Beijing Normal University before I’m noticed otherwise.”
There are a lot of workers have returned to Beijing, but students are often the most protected group of people. I mean, they’re high priority in terms of security. So, I think not all of the workers had to do this, but I think for students, that’s probably how it went down.
Yeah, but I’m not sure about the plane tickets. The Chinese government came up with a policy that no company was allowed to raise or make extra money from in consequence of the epidemic. So, like anything like face masks and disinfectant, plane tickets, whatever might have a growth in sales due to the epidemic, they were not allowed to raise their prices according to the Chinese government policy. So, I think that the plane tickets might be hard to buy, but I don’t think that the prices will be more than normal.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. Well, a couple of weeks ago there was a pharmacy -I think it was maybe in central China- which got caught jacking the prices way up. And of course, China now has the social credit score, the social credit system and a very, very active and fast responding social media network. So, the owner got reported and to make an example of him, they charged him a three million yuan fine, that’s 400,000 USD. I’m sure it put him out of business, but it sent out the message loud and clear: “Don’t screw the people over while they’re struggling.” In fact, there are even pharmacies or factories producing in mass and selling them at wholesale cost. Not only that, but thousands and thousands of Chinese are shipping, shipping millions of dollars’ worth of masks, gloves, and food and everything from all over the world. I’ve seen photographs of hangars full of stuff. And then the Chinese airlines are volunteering because their business is way off, and so they’re using their airplanes. China Eastern, China Southern, China Airlines and all these others are actually flying into these hangars and bringing all this food back for distribution. So, it’s not just an internal Chinese people’s war, it’s a global people’s war for all of the 50 million Chinese outside of China, so that’s a huge mass of resources and money to help the people back home.
Any last comments, Chara?
Chara: No, just Wuhan Jiayou! Zhongguo Jiayou!
Jeff: I know she said, “Go Wuhan! Go China!”. We actually see these signs in Chinese here in Chiang Mai outside of restaurants and stuff. Well, Chara, thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing your real-life China experiences with us. And you can stay here as long as you want.
Chara: Yeah. Bye bye!
Jeff: Bye bye everybody outside of China Rising Sinoland. Please make a donation. You know, I do. I put a lot of hours. She can tell you.
Jeff: My poor wife’s a keyboard widow. And I put in many hours to produce something like this, so please make a donation via PayPal, email@example.com or Fundrazr, https://fundrazr.com/91a6sb?ref=ab_78aX23. Bye bye, everybody.
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