By Devika Koppikar, Special to the AFRO

Devika Koppikar decided to return to China, choosing to be under quarantine for 14 days rather than be stuck outside the country for months. (Courtesy Photo)

Devika Koppikar, the former press secretary for the late Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, is chronicling her experience being quarantined in China due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).  As a precaution, the local authorities are requiring anyone who traveled out of and back to China to stay in their home for 14 days, the incubation period for COVID-19’s manifestation.

This is her account of the quarantine.


Days 7 to 14:  I’d like to thank all the readers who are reading and sharing my story on their pages.  It’s hasn’t been as dramatic as my regular life but stay tuned. I attract drama like a magnet and not even a quarantine can keep it away from me.  

Day 7:  Fahrenheit to Celsius 

About midway through the quarantine, the HOA brings a doctor who takes my temperature.  It’s 37 Celsius, so not a fever at all. The team then gives me an old-fashioned thermometer (with mercury) and requires me to take and record my temperature twice a day.  I cannot figure out this ancient tool, so I just use the digital one I brought from the States. But they want me to record in Celsius, so I finally put to memory the formula for converting from Fahrenheit to Celsius:  F – 32 x 5 ÷ 9. I have also mastered the exact temperatures that denote a fever, hypothermia and the normal range: in both the metric and English systems. 

The old fashioned thermometer, digital thermometer and my temperature record in Celsius. (Photo by Devika Koppikar)

Day 8:  Grieving Kobe

I hear from a few students, a group of young men, who love basketball.  They tell me they were shocked to hear of Kobe Bryant’s death and write how much he meant to them.  I’m uplifted. In China, young men love NBA basketball and I’ve often caught them watching games on their phones in class.  I do what I must to run class, but I secretly cheer them on. Here are these young, wealthy Chinese kids who look to African American athletes as their role models.   In fact, when they select English names, many pick names like Shaquille, LeBron or Kyrie. Imagine calling attendance in a class full of Chinese students with names popular in the African American community

Kobe Bryant on sidelines with TEAM USA, the United States Olympic basketball team, in Manchester, England, July 2012. (Photo: Christopher Johnson / Wikimedia Commons)

It’s moments like this that give me hope for the future.  Racism may be deep, but this generation is building long bridges.  

In that moment, Congressman Cummings words echo in my ear as I reflect upon my mission in China.  “This isn’t about you, this is bigger than you,” he would say.  

Day 9 and 10:  A friend in need

My Afro column has gone viral, at least among my friends on Social Media.  I hear from people I haven’t heard from in years. It’s comforting to know so many people are thinking of me.  Amidst this outpouring, an acquaintance from long ago alerts me that a common friend (one I’m very close to) has relapsed into acting out their anger issues.  I’ve often been this friend’s lifeline, so I get pulled into intervening some help for this friend. In addition to preparing for online classes beginning on Day 10, this crisis consumes me for some time.  Just like that, I go from being Henry David Thoreau to Dr. Phil.

Day 10:  Kitchen Accident

After complaining about getting sweet bread, an expat friend tells me of a local bakery that is currently serving customers.  So, I order and receive some delicious, fresh European-style olive bread. I’m devouring it one evening while watching the old sitcom 227 on YouTube, a show that gives me a good belly laugh.  Suddenly, I have a near-choking incident. I mean, while I don’t exactly choke, the bread sticks to my throat and scratches it as I’m swallowing.  I can breathe, but I panic. I’m uncomfortable and in pain. Should I go to the emergency? No, I decide, as I’ll break my quarantine and will have to rewind back to Day 1.  So, even though the internet is slow, I look up techniques to ease my pain. What if I don’t make it through the night? I hang in there and drink some soda as the internet sites suggest. 

The olive bread that scratched my throat, sending me into panic. (Photo by Devika Koppikar)

Days 11, 12, 13:  Taboo

Luckily, I wake up in the morning though a bit groggy from a rough evening.  But God has blessed me with another day and my panic was just that: panic.  

I move forward with my day:  grading paper and posting lessons on our online course interface.  

In China, even though we teach an American curriculum, we are advised not to ever mention the three taboos:  Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square. I’m in their country, so I respect that. I don’t teach history or any subject mandating the mention of these, so this hasn’t been an issue for me.

Until today.

Traffic picking up at the canal behind my house. (Photo by Devika Koppikar)

In posting an assignment on intercultural communication for my Honors English class, I ask students to visit a website that inadvertently mentions one of these taboos (I rather not say which one) in one of the site’s sub-pages. The site is for tourists and makes no reference to the controversary in question whatsoever.  Nevertheless, a student misinterprets it and sends me an email telling me he’s offended. He also posts a link to the website on his Social Media, which catches the eye of the local education bureau. I’m now on the defensive, explaining myself to the school administration.  

Oh God, what is happening now?  Have I chosen to weather this quarantine in vain?

I haven’t had a moment to process this when something grander intervenes.  Maybe my host government is watching, but something greater is looking out for me.

My company’s academic dean calls and says, “no worries.  The school is supporting you and you’re off the hook.”

Nevertheless, I spend the next two days covering my basis and sending emails to school officials to ensure them that I had no ill intensions.  I will not take anything for granted. These efforts pay off as the school remains steadfast in its support.

I thank God and ask readers to continue praying for me.  

Day 14:     Quarantine Finale Eve

Is it over so soon?  I had planned on reading a book, writing a book, sewing back missing buttons on my clothes and going through old papers for purging.  Okay, I did some of those things. But I still have so much more to do.  

Now it’s 9 p.m. and the sun set hours ago.  When the sun rises tomorrow, I can step outside.

Where I will go when I walk out tomorrow. (Photo by Devika Koppikar)

I wonder if this is how Nelson Mandela felt on the eve of his release!  I know, his situation was worse, but I can only imagine what was going on inside his head. 

I think of all the things I can do tomorrow: I can take the trash out instead of waiting two days for the HOA to collect it;  I can take walks in the evenings when I’m feeling down and I can buy and eat the types of yogurts, fruits, salads and breads I want.  

Also, I haven’t spoken the little bit of Chinese I know in more than a month (since I was traveling).  Back to saying Ni hao (hello), xie xie (thank you), ‘Wo laoshi’ (I’m a teacher) and meiguo (America).  

I wonder if everyone will still be as friendly.  

Things are not back to normal yet.  I must always wear a mask when going outside.  My friends who are not quarantined say that 90 percent of all restaurants and malls are closed, you can only do take-out at KFC, Starbucks and McDonald’s and many of my closest friends are still stuck in their home countries.   

But I hear that the coronavirus rates have declined, quarantines are being lifted, many stores have re-opened and with spring coming, the virus is expected to dissipate.

Maybe not today or next week, but things will be back to normal soon.

All right world, I’m stepping outside.