For USC junior Sunny Dong, Chinese New Year’s Eve was meant for eating dumplings, playing mahjong and watching the CCTV New Year’s Gala until midnight. It was the only time of year everyone in the family gathered together at her grandparents’ house in Beijing. The celebrations would continue for two weeks, and students would get a whole month’s break. “It’s not a time when you would worry about anything else,” Dong said.

The last time she celebrated Chinese New Year with her family was six years ago, before she left for high school in the United States. “I still miss it every year. I know my sister really misses me. It doesn’t matter what I do with my friends over here -- it’s just not the same,” said Dong. But this year, it wasn’t the same for her family back in Beijing, either.

“We only communicate with phones, but we don’t visit each other,” Sunny’s father, Max Dong, said over a call on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app. Ever since the novel coronavirus broke out early this year, life in China has changed. From a near-complete shutdown of schools and businesses to the new social norm of wearing face masks outside, the effects of the coronavirus could be felt in every region of China. To protect the older, more vulnerable, relatives from the coronavirus, Mr. Dong and his nine-year-old daughter, Zoe, held back on New Year’s gatherings this year.

Max Dong and his daughter Zoe, 9, light up a sparkler in 2014.
Max Dong and his daughter Zoe, 9, light up a sparkler in 2014.

Dong had planned to fly to Beijing to see her family for spring break. It would have been the first time she saw her family in almost a year. By the time her flight was canceled in early February, she already had concerns about her trip to China and whether she could return to the U.S. “I wouldn’t have wanted to go, knowing that there were traveler’s restrictions,” Dong said.

She made plans for another spring break trip to Seattle, Washington, but that soon became an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. With both plans scrapped, she began to prepare for the imminent spread of the coronavirus and stock up on groceries and supplies. “[The coronavirus] is affecting other parts of the world much worse than it is affecting [the U.S.] now. But it’s coming for us,” Dong said.

Other students didn’t see it this way. Many still planned to spend their spring breaks in countries like Spain and France, until President Trump announced a ban on travel from continental Europe, which he later expanded to include the United Kingdom and Ireland. “I understand that canceling plans is hard,” Dong said. “I’ve had to do it twice. But it’s not just about your personal belief that you can wash your hands often enough. You can’t stop someone from coughing in your face.”

Since the first known case in the U.S. appeared in late January, the coronavirus has been declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Several states, including California and Washington, have declared a state of emergency. But Dong thinks the U.S.’s response has been slow to contain the spread of disease, even following the mass outbreaks in other countries that had failed to control the spread of the coronavirus. “Even at this early stage, it’s super important to stop it from being worse, like it did in China, in Italy, in Korea,” Dong said. “I don’t feel safe here, knowing that people aren’t really doing anything about it, knowing that people who need to be tested can’t do so because testing kits aren’t available from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”

Dong’s father agreed. “I think Beijing is safer than L.A.,” he said, noting the government’s quick stop to domestic travel and surveillance capabilities for tracking patients, “but traveling is high-risk. Even if she could get a ticket, I don’t recommend Sunny come back.”

Despite news of the virus breaking out over Chinese New Year, families continued traveling in China to celebrate together, even coming from abroad. “That was the scariest thing of all, to wait until after [New Year’s] was over to see which people who went home to their city, their village, and brought the virus home with them,” Dong said. Later, China would impose a strict lockdown across the country to contain the spread of the virus.

In China, wearing a face mask is common courtesy when in public places. However, in the U.S., face masks are not a recommended form of prevention. With Beijing on lockdown, and masks out of stock in commercial pharmacies in the U.S., Dong’s father offered to send the remaining eight N-95 masks to his daughter. “My dad is very adamant on sending those face masks,” she said. “But I think they need them more than I do.” Still, he insisted on shipping them, although tracking updates stopped after the package arrived at an international mail station in Beijing.

Since attending boarding school in Birmingham, Alabama, Dong relied on WeChat to keep in touch with her family. But being away at school, she lost touch with some of her relatives. News of the coronavirus has helped her reconnect with her family across the world, she said. But it also reminds her of the distance between them, and how long it’s been since she was last home. “Now that I’m communicating with my family a lot more, with people other than my dad, who I sometimes speak English to, I’m struggling to find the words to say what I want to say [in Chinese],” Dong said. “The only time I ever use [Chinese] is when I read coronavirus news.”

“I don’t trust my family to tell me everything,” Dong said. Earlier this year, her dad was outside for a few hours clearing snow so Zoe could practice volleyball. Over the next few days, he developed a fever. He didn’t tell Dong until it had gone away. “It was just a normal cold, but hearing that was really hard. I’m sure he wouldn’t even have wanted to let me know, which is why I’ve had to make much more of an active effort to ask them about what’s going on,” Dong said.

Dr. Kelly Greco, Assistant Director of Outreach and Prevention Services at Keck, said that frequent communication with family can help forge the connection that can’t be crossed by distance. “Be flexible and creative,” Greco said. “If the choice is made for me where I can’t be with [family], I need to create some structure on a daily basis… Having that time set will help in terms of something for me to look forward to, and knowing that I will get that connection and support from them,” Greco said.

Even more, it is important to set intentional, open conversations, Greco suggested. “Family and friends make decisions without talking because they don’t want to burden or stress someone out. But we know that for some people, not knowing stresses [them] out,” Greco said.

The Dong family plays mahjong during a family gathering in 2017.
The Dong family plays mahjong during a family gathering in 2017.

Spring break wasn’t supposed to be this way. Dong had planned to introduce her boyfriend to her father, bring him to her favorite restaurants and show him around Beijing. Instead, she’s holed up inside her house just off-campus, spending her time cooking and trying to perfect a dalgona coffee.

For the time being, Dong doesn’t know when she will be able to go home again. It might be this summer, or it could be the next year. A lot of things could change by then. Zoe will be older. Another New Year could pass. She looks sad as she talks about her favorite part of the holiday, how fireworks would go off the entire night, and every night after. “You could hear them when you’re sleeping, you could hear them the next morning, and they’d gradually get quieter,” Dong said. “But it was never annoying. It was just a part of the celebration.”