For the first time in about a month, Rong Cai got to spend Saturday afternoon with her family. As she made a lunch of shrimp and rice cakes, her son Allen worked on homework for his Saturday Chinese school, where he learns about Chinese language and culture. Meanwhile, Cai’s husband, Yanshun Liu, played board games with their kindergartener Matthew. Later, the family had lunch together.
It wasn’t anything too extravagant, but Cai said it was what they needed.
“We’re just so happy to be back to our normal life,” she said.
Starting February 4, Cai spent two weeks alone in her Cary home. That was the day she returned from visiting her ailing parents in Southern China. Her parents live in Kunming, a metropolis nearly 1,000 miles from Wuhan, which is the epicenter of Covid-19 — the novel coronavirus that’s now infected almost 84,000 people in 53 different countries.
Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cai quarantined herself for 14 days, the perceived incubation period of the novel coronavirus.
“Especially the first few days were hard, because I’m not used to staying by myself,” Cai said. “Then, after a few days, I got a little bit used to it.”
Before she got home, Cai's husband stocked the fridge with fresh groceries. Then, he and the boys stayed with family friends. During her quarantine, Cai only saw her sons in video chats — and once every morning, when Matthew would wave to her from the other side of her window.
Liu said it was a tough two weeks for their boys.
“It’s just like your family members are so close to you but you just can’t hug them, touch them or stay with them. You have to do this,” Liu said. “But on the other hand, I feel that it’s our responsibility to really keep the community safe.”
That sense of responsibility is also why the Cary Chinese School has moved its classes online.
With an enrollment of about 800 students, it's the state’s largest Saturday Chinese school.
Classes normally meet at Panther Creek High School, but that hasn’t been the case this month. For the past four weeks, teachers have adapted to hold class over video chat.
Sixth grade teacher and academic director Janet Wang said the decision to go online was spurred by parents in a group message on the Chinese messaging app WeChat.
Ultimately, the school’s faculty and staff voted not to risk it. Wang said it took only about a week for teachers to digitize their lesson plans.
“This is not something where we wanted to overreact and cause panic, but most of the Chinese organizations are trying to be responsible for our own community, and also for the American community,” Wang said.
Perhaps the hardest decision for community leaders came in late January, when they cancelled or postponed Chinese New Year celebrations in Cary, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and elsewhere. Chapel Hill Town Councilwoman Hongbin Gu equated it with having to cancel both Christmas and Thanksgiving in the same year.
“The New Year is a very big deal both in China and all around the world around the Chinese American community,” Gu said. “So, postponing that event is not a decision that we made lightly.”
Gu said the Chinese community is concerned about the public health of everyone in the Triangle, and she urged people to treat each other with a common humanity.
Still, there have been a handful of issues. The UNC-Chapel Hill Housing department recently sent an email to residents of the Granville Towers residence hall, reporting vandalism and verbal racial harassment targeting Chinese international students who live there.
Meanwhile, Gu said Chinese parents have told her their children are being treated differently at school.
“I've heard from some parents saying that their kids had been uninvited from their friends' birthday parties,” Gu said.
Back at their house, Rong Cai and Yanshun Liu said nothing like that has happened to their boys, though they have talked with Matthew and Allen about how to react if it does.
“We told them not to respond radically and not to get upset,” Liu said. “Instead, talk to the teachers.”