People planning a project with post-its on blackboard

Virus Diaries

Sally Bushell

Department of English Literature & Creative Writing, Lancaster University & ISF Fellow

Intensive Isolation

Two years ago, my eight-year old son and I went over to China for six weeks and lived in the middle of Hunan province hosted by a local university (Xiangtan) for whom I taught classes to teachers and gave public lectures around the region.

Six weeks does not sound that long, but it was a profound experience that we return to repeatedly and it feels to both of us as though we were there much longer than that. When I reflect on this I think it was because we were so plunged into an alien world and experienced it so intensely together. We lived for that time in one room. We could not travel independently and we ate our food at the University canteens. At night I would write my lectures in the dark after my son had gone to sleep using the light of the computer screen. There was limited news or access to the outside world and a time difference of 8 hours. We were the only Europeans on campus – and indeed in the entire province. When we were taken out on trips by our generous hosts my son was photographed and treated like a celebrity for his English looks. Once, when local children in the campus dining halls crept close and saw his blue eyes, they jumped back in fear.

So – strangely – isolation at home now, reminds me of that time in China, two and a half years ago. It is less exciting and daunting than that experience but it has much in common with it. On the one hand it is a strain trying to combine the demands of work with parenting and home-schooling– not unpleasant exactly but a constant underlying tension and a situation that doesn’t feel sustainable in the long term. And as a single parent I am also isolated from other adult company – apart from the occasional Skype. But at the same time my son is coping far better than I would have expected. He loves being at home all the time – even after the initial novelty has worn off. He works hard at his remote schooling with greater focus than in the classroom. He loves being able to spend longer than usual talking and gaming with his friends in the evening as his only social contact. He seems to have adapted almost unproblematically to the limits on his world. Perhaps the next generation are more robust, more able to cope with extremes than we are?

So, without idealising it, I think there is something precious about fully living together in this way, about sharing everything all day long. I can imagine us looking back on this time, two years hence, with a fondness for it and a strange kind of missing of it, just as we did with our China experience – not really wanting to go through it again, but acknowledging that it was special, that we learnt something from it.