Shanghai hospital visit

You would think that at some point I’ve taken enough COVID tests to prove that I’m safe, but no, there is always room for one more. I’ve had five tests over the last 4 weeks already. One test in Austin to make sure I wasn’t caught off guard in San Jose, 2 tests in San Jose (nasal/throat swaps and a blood serum test) that were required to fly to Shanghai, one in the Shanghai airport and another test when I left the quarantine hotel. Now, according to my company, I have to take yet another test in order to catch the train to Beijing.

It’s a little bit unclear whether I really need the test. Friends of mine recently took the train to Beijing and didn’t do a test nor were they asked for it, but the rules change quickly and frequently so I just follow my company’s guidance.

The instruction I got were just that: Get a COVID test within 7-days before you go to Beijing. Because I’m staying in Shanghai for 10-days my quarantine exit test was no longer valid, so I needed a new one. When I asked where I could get a test, I was told they are available everywhere and that it shouldn’t be a problem to get one. Not exactly the step-by-step instructions I had hoped for. I decided to ask my hotel’s reception and they pointed me to the local hospital which is just one block away from the hotel. I asked whether I needed to make a reservation and that wasn’t necessary.

I decided that Thursday afternoon would be a good time for the test and on the Wednesday before I asked my Chinese teacher to practice the following sentence with me: I need a COVID19 test report. I’m taking the highspeed train to Beijing. That came out as: 我需要一份核酸检测报告,我坐高铁去北京 时使用.  I worked on the pronunciation but just to be sure I also took a screen shot of that sentence and kept it on my phone.

On Thursday I walked over to the hospital. The Shanghai Changzheng hospital. It’s actually a very big hospital and takes up an entire city block and it’s at least five stories high. The initial entrance process was straightforward. Show your green health code and that gets you into the registration area. That area was massive, crowded and everything is in Mandarin. My plans to practice my pronunciation were immediately thrown overboard because there was no way I was going to make myself heard. There was an information desk in the center where I showed my practice sentence. They gave me a yellow piece paper and sent me to booth 11. 

Patient registration hall.
I’m registered as an official patient.

At booth 11 I patiently waited in the queue. When it was almost my turn, an elderly man pushed his way in front of me. My first reaction was what the heck but then it immediately dawned on me that this may be a common sign of respect. You let elderly people go first. I just let him do his thing and when it was my turn, I showed them the Chinese sentence. The woman behind the counter asked me for my id. That’s when I realized I should have taken my passport with me. Unfortunately, it was still in my hotel room, but I do always carry pictures of my passport and visa with me and I showed that to her and she was fine with that. After paying 25元 with WeChat (I’m not sure they accepted anything else) I was given a hospital ID card, a receipt and told to go to the third floor.

When I arrived at the third floor it was again very hectic. I waited in line for the information desk and when it was my turn, I showed them my sentence. They simply point to right, which was the other end of a long hallway. I tried to ask questions, but they didn’t speak English and more empathetically pointed to the right side of the hallway. I walked down the hallway in that direction and did cross booths that looked like blood drawing booths. I figured I’d ask them. They swiped my id card, after all I was now in the system, and in broken English told me I hadn’t paid. Confused, I showed them my receipt, but they were very persistent and told me to go down to the first floor to pay. I figured this was for the COVID test itself.

Back at the first floor I went to the information desk and showed them my receipt and id card. They pointed me up to the 3rd floor. I tried to explain to them that I had  already been there and that I had to pay for the COVID test, but they clearly didn’t understand me. I kept repeating that I had to pay and eventually someone got the message and told me to go to counter 3. At counter 3 the queue was much shorter, and it quickly was my turn. I showed them my practice sentence and told them I had to pay for my COVID test. They scanned my id card, charged me 80元, and I paid with WeChat and I got my receipt. Back to the 3rd floor.

At the 3rd floor they were amused that I was back again. One of the nurses got her phone out and showed me a translated message that said: go to the tent in front of the emergency entrance. That meant going back to the 1st floor, outside the hospital and around the block to the emergency entrance.

When I got to the emergency entrance, there was indeed a tent with a small queue. I got in line and waited for my turn. There were a whole bunch of notices at the front of the tent, and I took a picture of it so that I could translate it. A few seconds later the nurses started screaming and I wasn’t paying attention to it, nor did I understand it. Everyone was looking at each other and then someone pointed out that it was directed at me. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to take pictures and I had to delete them. So, I did but I still don’t know what those signs said. I never got the chance to translate them. When it was my turn, I gave them my id, they checked my name, gave me a receipt with a QR code and then took a throat and nasal swap. I then left, like the other folks did, and I assume that I have to get the report after 24-hours by checking the QR code.

The COVID19 testing tent.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but I think the process was more complicated because I’m a foreigner but, in the end, it was not that difficult. It just feels overwhelming because you are in the middle of it and don’t speak the language. The process as far as I can reconstruct is as follows: I first needed to register as a patient and get an id card. For this they charged me 25元. I then needed to see a nurse or doctor to make the assessment that I needed a test, followed by paying for the test and then taking the test. As a Chinese citizen you carry your state id card and since the government pays for everything so you can probably skip two of those steps.

With a bit of luck, I’ll get a clean bill of health and I can take the train to Beijing next week.

UPDATE: I asked various friends after I took the test how I could retrieve the test report. They were all telling me to go back to the hospital. This seemed somewhat weird to me. It was a very modern hospital and I suspected everything was online. That evening I started to navigate the hospital’s Chinese-only website. With the help of Google and Microsoft translation tools I was able to figure it out and get to my medical reports. The results obviously weren’t ready yet, but as promised, the next day at noon they appeared. As expected, I tested negative.

I tried to print out an official report but that didn’t appear to be an option. Instead I made a printout of the screen and folks ensured me that was sufficient even tough I was somewhat skeptical because it wasn’t very official looking. On Saturday afternoon I decided to go back to the hospital and ask for an official print out with stamps and all. The Chinese love their stamps. Every official document has at least one stamp, if not more. Quite often they include some impressive looking red ones too.

As I did the first time, I practiced with my teacher the sentence that I needed to a print out: 请问打印机在哪里. Like the last time, that wasn’t even necessary. Among the many self serve kiosks there were convenience service counters with actual people. I walked over and gave them my QR code, they printed the result, and put an official stamp on it. Voila, I have some that looks official enough to impress the folks when I check into the train station on Tuesday.

Microsoft Research Shanghai

While in the US there is a stigma about COVID and Asian people, here in China it is the other way around: foreigners are potentially contaminated and should be avoided. I was reminded of that today. I had made a coffee appointment with a mentee that I have in Shanghai. We agreed to meet in person, and we had decided on a time and place the next day. This morning he texted me that his wife is not ok with him meeting me. Apparently, the school his kids go to has the requirement that when you meet with foreigners who have been in the country for less than 21-days you have to report that. His wife didn’t want to deal with the consequences of that. While I understand the concerns and I didn’t take it personally, it does make you pause and think once the tables are flipped.

Today’s workday started out early. I’m still waking up early, 3:30am, do email and around 7am I jumped on a conference call, followed by a quick shower at 8am and a 40min subway ride to get to the office. I like to take my showers hot and I made the mistake of wearing a light grey polo shirt that is very absorbent. The problem with that is that any perspiration is very visible, and it made me feel very self-conscious in the hot subway. I was especially worried that people would be concerned that I had a high fever and tried to avoid me. I did get some strange looks but that may also have been my imagination.

The subways are busy. The only sign of COVID is that folks are more diligent about wearing masks.

Finding my way around Shanghai is an interesting problem. I’m obviously very used to using Google maps. While Google maps works, it isn’t very accurate here in China. That is because Google maps improves with more users and there aren’t many of those here because most Google services are banned. It’s really only foreigners that use it because their cell phone traffic uses home-roaming and goes back to the USA. I have been resorting to Apple Maps instead, which is ok, but the real app to use here is Alimaps from Alibaba. The draw back with that app is that it’s all in Chinese but with enough patience and taking screenshots that you can translate with a separate app you can get by.

Alimaps instructions on how to get to the Microsoft lab. Its easier to decipher than it looks.

I knew my trip to the lab coincided with John Hopcroft’s visit. John is a luminary in our field and a Turing Award winner. He is on the Microsoft Research advisory board, and he has been advising the Chinese government on improving their academic education system. He and his wife had just been released from quarantine the day before and they were already touring around. Since I was an honored guest as well, but one of significantly lower stature, I got to participate in all the private conversations with John. It was interesting to hear how he had been working with the Chinese government officials. I did get the distinct impression that some of the meetings with officials he described were more about the prestige of meeting with a Turing award winner than his specific opinions or insights.

It turned out that John knew Robbert van Renesse very well. Robbert and I had the same PhD advisor, Andy Tanenbaum, so we had a connection there as well. I had never met John in person before and I knew him primarily because of the automata and compiler textbooks I had to study in grad school.

Following the private meetings, John did a fireside chat with the lab. The lab has about 20 Microsoft Researcher’s and another 20 or interns/collaborators. They are all very young and early in their career and most of their questions were about career advice and John’s opinions on doing pure Research. Serendipity played a big part in his answers. Exposing these young researchers to luminaries in our field is a great motivator for them.

John Hopcroft’s fireside chat. Folks are wearing masks out of a courtesy to John or perhaps because they were afraid to be close to foreigners who were just released from quarantine?

I was invited to lunch with John and the leadership team but I skipped that so I could take my Chinese lessons. That went around the lab like wildfire and folks were quite perplexed that I prioritized my Chinese lessons over meeting John for lunch. I was ok with that. I had already met John earlier that day and I did not want to break my stride of daily Chinese lessons.

In the afternoon I got to do my own version of a fireside chat. More a coffee side chat for just the Microsoft employee and interns. They asked me lots of questions about how Azure works, what are our challenges and opportunities, what are the industry challenges, what problems they should work on, etc. The folks asked very intelligent questions and were surprisingly well informed about what’s going on in the US.

The view of Shanghai center from the lab. Air quality was deteriorating quickly. AQI was 122 at that point.

Over dinner, with a small subset of the lab’s leadership team, the conversation steered more to what I wanted to accomplish over the next few months and the kind of problems that I think are worth solving. Next week I’ll get to repeat all of this in Beijing. It feels like this will be a great and productive summer.

My foray into money laundering

Sunday was a slow day. My body was still recovering from the abuse the night before. It was also raining cats and dogs in Shanghai, so it wasn’t a great time to explore the town. However, there were a few things I had to take care of, one of them was to get money on my Chinese bank account so I had enough funds to continue to use Alipay and WeChat pay.

In a previous blog I described how I got my Chinese bank account but the way I put money into it is a bit cumbersome. I use my US bank card at an ATM to withdraw physical money and then I use my Chinese card to deposit it on my local bank account. This has always worked but this time it didn’t. The culprit was a software change that required me to enter a 6-digits PIN code. My US card has a different length PIN code, and the ATM did not want to accept that. This put me in a bind because it’s the only way for me to get money in China.

I knew there were a few banks in the neighborhood, and I tried another. That bank didn’t accept US cards at all. Period. Somewhat desperate and thinking of other ways I could get money, I asked a friend of mine whether he could transfer some to me and I’d pay him back. While we were WeChatting about this I ran in to a Bank of China ATM and tried my US bank pass again. This time it worked, that particular ATM allowed a non-6-digit PIN code and I was able withdraw money. I then walked over to my bank branch and deposited the money.

I know that my “transfer” method is somewhat baroque, and I can probably just do a money transfer money into my Chinese account. However, I don’t remember the SWIFT code for my bank nor am I completely convinced the money would actually make it. Since I typically don’t need large sums, this method has worked well in the past.

Since this time around I need more money than I usually do (for travel, and I need a deposit for my apartment in Beijing), I figured I get into the money trading business. Because of Chinese’s closed banking system it’s difficult for folks here to get money out of China. I think you can only get $50K out per year and even that requires a lot of paper work. So, I offered a friend of mine that if he can transfer money into my Chinese account from his Chinese account, then I’m happy to transfer that same amount into his Western bank account. That way we can help each other.

I’ll figure out tomorrow if this works. I looked at my Chinese bank app and hopefully figured out the correct info I need to transfer money. My friend will try that tomorrow. If that doesn’t work, then I fall back to my more hands-on method of depositing money on my account here.

On my way back from the bank I walked through Nanjing Road. This is Shanghai’s premium shopping street with all the high-end fashion brands lining the street. Here it feels like COVID19 is a distant memory. Things are back to normal with lots of folks walking around, chatting, laughing and window shopping.

Nanjing road. Shanghai’s premier shopping street.

That evening I took the subway to meet up with a friend for dinner. I wanted to make sure that my subway pass still worked. It does and its a great way to get around. Especially when the roads are grid locked during rush hour. I have a transport card on my phone, it’s in my iPhone wallet, and hopping onto the subway is just a simple swipe. I didn’t even have to show my health code.

Update: My friend was able to transfer the money into my Chinese bank account. What’s more, it was there instantaneous. He WeChatted me that he had just finalized the transaction , I went into my app and it was there. No two day delay nonsense.

A night on the town

A good friend of mine, Thomas Molgaard, picked me up from the quarantine hotel and drove me to my Shanghai hotel where I was going to stay the rest of the 10-days. I was staying at the JW Marriot near people’s square. This is in the center of town with all its shopping centers. The check-in process was easy, I did have to show my health code (more about this in an upcoming blog) and I got a nice upgrade to a corner room with a gorgeous view overlooking people’s square.

A room with a view, peoples square.

Thomas had promised me a night on the town. The first stop was to grab a beer. Thomas has been living in Shanghai for 3 years now (this is his second stint in China) and he lives right in the middle of the French Concession. During the ride over we caught up, we hadn’t actually talked since November 2019, and Thomas filled me in on the Shanghai expat community and the situation in China. Not too surprising most Americans had left China but there was still a large contingent of Europeans. Thomas made it a point of calling out the apparently surprisingly large Dutch contingent who were mostly in finance or manufacturing.

The first stop was the The Bull and Claw. It’s a surf and turf restaurant in the middle of the French concession located in a traditional 1920 style villa with a little courtyard. They had a small but good beer selection, including an IPA from my favorite Beijing brewery 京A. Since I’ll be having ready access to that beer in Beijing, I decided to go for a local Shanghai hazy IPA whose name escapes me (no, it isn’t Boxing Cat). While we were having beers, Thomas looks over at the table next to us, goes what the heck, and walks over. It turned out that the GM of the hotel in Sanya (kind of like China’s Hawaii) that Thomas visited a few months ago was having drinks with his friends. The two chatted for a while and then we got back to our drinks. A bit later Thomas jumps up again and runs after a woman who passed on the street. That was apparently his American neighbor in Shanghai. The expat community seems to be closely knit here in Shanghai and they all gather in the French concession.

First beer after two weeks in quarantine.

The next stop was dinner. Thomas had selected a Spanish Fusion Tapas place called Tomatito on Hubin road. He knew the owner and apparently the chef cook is Dutch. The place was described to me as the unofficial Dutch embassy in Shanghai and it is frequented a lot by Dutch folks, although I didn’t hear any Dutch that evening. Now, I must admit that after the drinks started flowing, I wasn’t paying much attention.

Thomas had brought his wife Joanna along. It was immediately clear that Joanna and Thomas were working on expanding their family. Joanna told me that she was 5+ months along. That got us onto the topic of Chinese citizenship. China is not a birth right country, so her newborn would not become a Chinese citizen. He could become a Brazilian citizen (Joanna is Brazilian), a Denmark citizen (Thomas is Danish) and a UK citizen (because they officially live in the UK). I’ve only met one person before that had collected that many passports. In fact, that person had a 4th passport because she was also Jewish and managed to get an Israeli citizenship to boot.

Thomas and Joanna, great hosts!

Dinner consisted of lots of small Tapas. Everyone swore by the Salmon bombs although to me it was a toss-up between that and the grilled octopus. Since Thomas knew the staff well, we didn’t make a food selection. The staff just kept on bringing little plates of good stuff, some of it off menu. After we finished off the second bottle of wine, Thomas started ordering individual drinks. This is where things got hazy. I remember having a grapa, wiskey, another glass of tempranillo, and some other drinks that I could not identify. All good stuff but perhaps a bit too much. 

After dinner, I think it was 1:30am at this point, we ordered a DiDi (Chinese Uber) and for one reason or another it didn’t show up. The bell boy stuffed us into a waiting car that drove us to my hotel. I don’t think that was our DiDi and at some point, I must have ordered a DiDi too because I vaguely remember getting a call from a very angry Chinese speaking person. All I could utter was 对不起 (sorry).

The next morning it took me over an hour to convince myself to get out of bed to have breakfast. This was not going to be one of my most productive days.

自由 / Freedom!

The release process started last Tuesday when I got a WeChat message that indicated that I’ll get my COVID test on Friday morning 5:30am and that I had to be ready for it. So mentally that started the count down process for me and Friday couldn’t come fast enough.

On Friday 5:30am I was showered, dressed and ready to do this. At 6:15am they still hadn’t shown up so I WeChatted the medical team and they simply told me to wait. Around 6:30am they showed up. As usual, in full PPE and a cart full of glass viles. They were going door by door. By the time they got to me they first took a throat swap. They swapped both sides of my throat and my tonsils. The kicker came with the nasal swap. They stuffed that probe so far up my nostril that I almost felt it in my throat. This was made more uncomfortable by the twisting and turning for what felt like minutes but probably wasn’t more than 15 seconds. I’ve had quite a few COVID test these last few days, but none stuffed that probe so far back in my nostril.

Once the team left it was back to the same monotony where I got onto my morning US calls. Around 8:20am I got another WeChat message explaining the release process the next day. Provided the COVID test came back negative, I would be released at 3pm the next day (Saturday). I had to wait until I heard a knock on my door and then take all my belongings with me downstairs to the reception and settle my bill there. That’s also where I would get my health certificate. They were very explicit that I should not go to the upper floors and go straight down. They probably had some kind of packing order in the hotel because it looked like everyone on my floor (as far as I could tell) would be released on Saturday.

Around 2:45pm I heard the long-anticipated knock on my door. I quickly packed some final things (charger and notepad) and I was on my way. It looked like everyone else on my floor was released at the same time. There was a small queue forming at the elevator because a family who had quarantined with kids and 7 large shipping boxes had to load those into the elevator by hand and it didn’t fit all at once. 

We were all queuing up for a single working elevator.
Even when I was released from quarantine, protection was still paramount.

When I arrived on the first floor it became clear that the Chinese government had taken over the entire hotel. It wasn’t just a couple of floors. Everyone downstairs was wearing full PPE, even though it was the end of our quarantine. I was a bit confused about how to pay for the hotel, I got the impression from all the other folks that the only way to pay for it is by WeChat. That would have been problematic because I didn’t have 7000元 on my Chinese bank account. I texted a friend if he could transfer the money to me in case I needed it, but that wasn’t necessary. I showed them my corporate AMEX card, and they accepted that without any problem. That was a pleasant surprise because not all hotels do in China. See my previous blog.

Once that hurdle was taken, I went on to the next desk, and there they gave me an official certificate that I had successfully completed the mandatory 2-week quarantine. I then walked out of the hotel, a free man, waiting for a friend of mine and his driver to show up to take me to my hotel in Shanghai.

My official release certificate.

Confusion

Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference – Robert Frost

I didn’t think I would have much else to write about during my quarantine stay because all the days are pretty much the same but last week, I was thrown another curve ball that kept things …. interesting.

It was clear from the beginning that I was treading a new path with my trip to China. I don’t think Microsoft Research Beijing has had many internal visitors for an extended stay. Nor have we had many folks with a Chinese R-visa inside of Microsoft, so our processes are not set up for that. I was reminded of that last week when my admin started asking some questions on my behalf regarding my California tax compliance issues. That’s when the tax folks realized I would be in China until September, and they instructed me to come back within 90-days. This is not what I had in mind.

Before I continue with my China adventure, permit me to briefly rant about California’s tax laws and how it impacts me as a Texan citizen. I’m not a tax lawyer and I don’t claim to understand all the details, but I’m on the receiving end of a new process where for every working day I spend in California I have to pay taxes in California. My company will reimburse me for it and keep track of it but it’s going to be a major pain to deal with this. Especially in this case, because the only reason I was in California was to take my COVID19 tests so I could continue my trip to Shanghai. I’m not sure if this was California’s intention, but I’m going to do my utmost best to avoid going to California for business in the future.

Back to my China adventure. I was told to leave China within 90-day. The initial reason I was given was that it was because of tax compliance concerns. After some clarifications it turned out that the corporate tax folks were fine with anything less than 180 days, which made sense to me. The next concern was whether China would allow me to work for more than 90-days. I challenged that concern because the validity of my visa is a 180-days, and its purpose is to collaborate with folks in China. Limiting that to 90-days made no sense to me at all. This started another clarification round.

I just got the clarification back this morning. I am allowed to stay and work in China for up to 180-days on my R-visa. This is unique to my visa, and I can only engage in the following business activities:

  • Attending internal meetings, discussions and conferences
  • Attending client meetings
  • Undertaking sales activities
  • Attending training
  • Performing urgent repairs

The first two bullets pretty much cover what I intend to do so this is exactly the outcome I was looking for.

Throughout all of this, the tax and legal folks were extremely helpful and responsive. They quickly clarified the issues and resolved them. It did have me worried a bit last week. One of the reasons why I’m staying so long is that I want to amortize my quarantine time over as many effective working days as possible. I was not looking forward to reducing that. It’s another example of how I’m doing something unique (and fun!) that pushes the limits and we all learn from that.

Chinese lessons

One of my requests as part of going to China was to learn Mandarin. Especially conversational Mandarin. I had been teaching myself some Mandarin using textbooks and Duolingo, but the problem was that I didn’t get my pronunciation right. I could tell that when I heard myself back. I had a pretty thick American accent. The result of it was that I mostly focused on learning Chinese characters, a little bit of the sentence structure and some standard phrases.

I was reminded of how poor my pronunciation was when I was in Haikou, Hainan in 2019 and asked for the check:  买单 (Mǎidān). Even in that context, I was holding my phone with the WeChat pay QR code standing at the bar, they had no idea what I was saying. Apparently, my tones and emphasis were all wrong. Now, I’m not sure they weren’t trying to make a point to a crazy foreigner (疯狂的外国人), it can’t have been that complicated to figure out what I wanted, but it drove the point home. I needed help.

For the last week I’ve been taking a 1hr lessons. Every day at 12:30pm, including Saturday and Sunday. I’m not sure I’m going to keep this up for my whole stay, but I figured that during my quarantine time I need all the distraction I can get. The lessons take place over Zoom. My teacher, Lancy, is located in Kunming, a city in southern China. She lived in New York for a while but returned during COVID when New York locked up to be with her family. As far as I can tell she was studying there. Her English is pretty good but it’s clear she is not a native speaker. Quite often we teach each other but hey her English is infinitely better than my Mandarin.

All the interactions are virtual. The face-to-face lessons happen over zoom and our out-of-class interaction happens over WeChat. That’s how I get my homework assignments and that’s how I submit my exercises. Yes, it does feel like I’m back in grade school. Even more so because the material she uses is literally targeted at kindergarten pupils. I get to learn words like baby, fox, rabbit, house, stand up, homework, etc. all accompanied by toddler cartoons. The focus right now isn’t so much on the words yet, it’s on simple sounds and their pronunciation, but these baby words are new to me and didn’t appear in my Duolingo vocabulary. It’s not all baby stuff, Lancy does add details, context and cross connections when I ask for them. I think she figured out that’s how I learn, by placing things in context, so she started to provide more of that which I appreciate.

Right now, all the lessons are focused on Pinyin and its pronunciation. Pinyin is a latinized version of Mandarin that represents the sounds of the characters. It’s easier to learn for Westerners and it’s also how you input Chinese characters on a keyboard on your phone. This is all aligned with my priorities. I asked Lancy to focus on spoken Mandarin first, followed by reading. In the end I want to be able to tell my taxi driver where to go, or order food in a restaurant. Writing the characters by hand, the calligraphy, is less important to me because when I write them, I’ll be using my phone or computer and Pinyin is the input method of choice there.

I had my first test yesterday (Sunday). I passed with flying colors, but I was kind of nervous about it. I was practicing words right up to the lesson. There are still a bunch of words that do not want to stick to my memory. I added these to my Pleco flash card collection so I can practice them on my phone.

Mid-way point

I started my 2nd week in quarantine today. I can’t wait for it to be over. It’s not so much the monotony of my daily life. Having a routine helps with that. It’s the lack of interacting with actual living and breathing human beings. One more week to go! I did WeChat with the medical/security team about when I would be released? They confirmed that it would be Saturday May 22nd, even though I arrived in the hotel on Sunday evening at 2:30am. It’s the day that you arrive in the country that counts, not when you arrive at your hotel.

Last night Shanghai changed the quarantine requirements. Instead of just 14-days in a quarantine hotel it has changed to 14+7. That is, in addition to a mandatory 14-day hotel stay you now also have to stay put for 7 extra days either at home or in a hotel. Apparently, the number of COVID19 cases have been increasing in China after Golden week. Golden week is the time of the year where everyone goes home to visit their family. Fortunately, because I arrived before May 16th this does not apply to me. I’m still a free man this Saturday.

That this extra precaution isn’t unnecessary was made clear to me by a friend. Apparently, the same flight I took but then the next day had one COVID19 case on board. That’s quite surprising to me given the precautions they take. Perhaps it was a false positive. In any event, I’ve been told that if that happens all folks who shared that airplane need to stay in quarantine longer. I lucked out there too.

I’m not quite sure what the release process will be on Saturday. According to the instructions I’m supposed to go downstairs after 7am to settle my 7000元 hotel bill. After that I will get a health certificate and I assume I’m then free to go. A friend of mine has already informed me that a getaway car will be ready at that time and that he has the weekend planned for me. I guess I won’t make any appointments for the following Monday.

The same evening of the day when I posted my working from quarantine post, my VPN to Hong Kong broke. The timing is somewhat suspicious but I’m sure it was coincidence. I suspect Saturday evening is prime VPN time in China. I tried different VPNs on different devices, but they all failed. The WIFI still worked, and I was able to get to local Chinese sites such as Baidu and Bing. I tried my corporate VPN and that worked. This (Sunday) morning (~5am) everything started working again. I was all prepared today to go figure out what’s going on, but I guess I have to do that another rainy day.

Talking about rain, the weather has been pretty impressive lately. With thunderstorms rolling in the last few nights lightening up the entire city. I’m on the 19th floor in a corner room and I have an 180° view of downtown and its quite a spectacle.

Other than that, Saturday can’t come fast enough.

Working from Quarantine

This posting is about me geeking out and describing the gadgets and technical environment I use to work from Quarantine. If it is too much feel free to skip it. 

I love my gadgets. I always tend to buy the latest and greatest, if only just to try it out. When I travel, I take some of those gadgets with me but since this trip lasts months, I brought a lot of them along. This includes my iPhoneapple watchmy iPadmy Macbook air M1my airtags, my AirPods (yes, I’m a fan boy), my Microsoft Surface Pro X2 (which I like a lot too), a Lenovo work laptop, my remarkable2 tablet (great for taking notes), my blood pressure metermy temperature metermy oximeterBose headsets (both in and over my ear), various wireless chargers, and a small 2TB flash stick. Specifically for this trip I also bought a 2nd travel screen that I can hook up to my Surface Pro X2 and to my Macbook. For good measure, I added in a small portable projector to my collection so I can watch movies and project slides. Didn’t I tell you I like gadgets?

My work from quarantine setup.

Most of these gadgets connect to WiFi and since I’m from the US most of it connects to Google. It either uses Google services, or its Cloud, or Google analytics, etc. None of that stuff works here in China because they filter the internet coming into China for forbidden content. Google is on the non-grata list and its services are not available here. This is a real pain for foreigners like me. Apps and tools don’t work or have really long timeouts when they try to resolve google analytics domain names.  For Chinese folks this is not really an issue because they have their own locally produced versions but those are all in Mandarin. While I’m beginning to collect more and more Chinese apps, I’m not fully emerged yet.

To work around this obstacle, I brought along a small travel Wifi Access Point. The GL.iNet GL-AR750S-Ext and this has been a remarkable useful device. First of all, its tiny. It fits in the palm of your hand. It runs the opensource OpenWRT stack (a Wifi access point software stack based on Linux) but they skinned it and made the GUI more idiot proof. You can still get into the full OpenWRT environment if you download the appropriate packages. It even comes with an iPhone app to make configuration easier.

The nice thing about this device is that it acts as a proxy. On the one side it exposes a 2.4 GHz/5 GHz wireless network with a DHCP server and everything else you’d expect. On the other side it can connect to wired, wireless and even a 4G USB dongle to reach the internet. In my case I hooked it up to the wired connection in my room. I had hooked it up to my hotel’s wireless network but wired turned out to be more reliable.

Wired networks are always a challenge in any hotel. I suspect that’s because they aren’t used all that much. I often find broken cables that are inserted into the wrong wall outlet. In this case it wasn’t any different. I had to chase down the cables, unplug everything, and eventually I found the active wall socket (out of 4 RJ45 connectors) that gave me an IP address. I always carry my own retractable CAT7 cables around for situations like this so that I don’t have to deal with cable issues. The network I was on had a captive portal and I had to call the reception for the password. That didn’t work at first but by guessing the appropriate capitalizations I was able to log in. 

With that out of the way it was time to set up a VPN so that all my local traffic is sent to another place in the world before it enters the Internet. While I do have my own VPN’s setup around the world, in this case I chose to use Express VPN out of convenience. My own VPN setup is based on DTLS while my WIFI Access point uses the OpenVPN’s protocols which Express VPN supports. Express VPN provides access to VPN locations all over the world, but I chose to use Hong Kong because in my experience China really clamps down the bandwidth for outgoing traffic to other countries except for Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong is technically part of China, in Hong Kong Google and friends are not blocked.

That’s how I do it. All my WIFI traffic is automatically routed to Hong Kong over a VPN. I also made sure that my WIFI SSID and key are the same as I use at home so that I didn’t have to rekey any of my gadgets.

For the real geeks among us, I’m getting ping latencies of 67ms, a download bandwidth of 6 Mbps and an upload bandwidth of 5 Mbps. Obviously not anywhere near what I’m having at home, but it is perfectly workable, and I can even watch Netflix movies or do Microsoft teams calls. My only gripe is that Express VPN doesn’t provide IPv6 addresses. My own VPN setup does. If I need IPv6, I will actually fire up my own VPN on top of the VPN provided by the Wifi Access Point. After all, it’s all just IP packets.

UPDATE: Well, my VPN fun may have been short lived. This afternoon (Saturday 5/15) after a week of functioning correctly, my Express VPN and my personal DTLS VPNs stopped working. I’ll probably be debugging this weekend.

UPDATE2: It is working again. I found a different working VPN server for Express VPN. I wonder if this is going to be a weekly occurrence of updating my VPN server.

The Quarantine Hotel

My quarantine hotel, the Wyndham Shanghai East Bund, is located in the Yangpu District in Shanghai. It is a neighborhood just east of the city center and I can see the famous Shanghai TV tower and the Grand Hyatt, the hotel where I usually stay, from my window. It’s a 5-star hotel but it has seen better days. It’s carpet and wallpaper could benefit from replacement but it’s overall clean and spacious.

My room in the Wyndham Shanghai East Bund hotel.

As far as I can tell there are only quarantined guests in the hotel. I tried to see if I can book the hotel online, but it was marked as out of service. While in the hotel, you are deprived from all human contact. My understanding is that even couples are split up as well as couples with kids. The kids go with the mom.

I occasionally get to see a glimpse of my fellow inmates when I pick up my meals. The hotel serves 3 standard meals a day. Breakfast (~7am), lunch (~11:30am) and dinner (~5:30pm). Your temperature is also taken twice a day. Around 9am and 2pm. This is the only interaction you have with a human being and few words are spoken. For the meals they just knock on the door and leave those outside. By the time you get to the door, put on a face mask and grab your food from the table outside, the minders are already long gone. You really only get to see them during the temperature check and even that is quick because they are very efficient. They have a runner that knocks on your door, followed by a nurse with an infrared thermometer who takes your temperature by pointing it at your forehead. Its over in seconds and I barely get the words 你好 and 谢谢 in. Of course, they are all in full PPE.

Time for my daily temperature check. The nurse is in the back while the runner is getting everyone ready.

The rules are very strict. You cannot leave your room for 14 days. You and everything in your room, including your luggage, is treated as contaminated. The only thing that can leave your room is garbage and from what I can tell that’s treated like biohazardous material too. They do not service the room or replace bedlinen/towels/etc during your stay. The two bath towels and two hand towels you got at the beginning is all you have for the next 14 days. They provided a tray of 24 water bottles. Again, that’s all you get for the next 14 days. If you run out you can boil water from the sink (yes, that’s what the instructions said) or you can order it online.

I can order things online, but they too come with many restrictions. This is somewhat of a rare privilege because I’ve heard other quarantine hotels don’t do this. The instructions make it very clear that ordering online is a privilege. It is immediately revoked if you try to smuggle in forbidden items such as tabaco, alcohol, prepared meals, kitchen appliances, etc. Apparently, they do check and open up the packages before they deliver it to your room. Since nothing can leave your room once it enters, you cannot return packages.

I have a room with a view.

The toilet, another output, also has a whole routine associated with it. When you check in, you are given a box full of chlorine tablets and strict instructions not to consume those. Every time, after you have gone to the toilet you are supposed to drop in one of those tablets and let it sit there for 1 hour before flushing. While this may disinfect your output, it doesn’t take away the smell. That can linger for quite some time afterwards, so this is not the most pleasant aspect of the quarantine. This may not be the best segue way to the topic of your input: Food.

The food is pretty bland. Breakfast consists of some buns, an egg, a yoghurt or a soy-milk drink, and typically some fried thing with vegetables inside or corn on the cob. Lunch and dinner are pretty similar and typically include a large portion of rice, one or two vegetables, a meat dish (pork, chicken, duck, beef, or fish) and some tofu-based dish. All meals come with a piece of fruit, either a banana, a Chinese peer, or small mango-like fruit that I’ve had before but don’t know the name of it. I knew beforehand that the food would be boring, so I took snacks with me from the US. Some nuts, freeze dried fruits, some salty snack and energy bars to help me get through it. I can highly recommend that.

My daily meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The first couple of days I was pretty much out of it because of jetlag but now I kind of have settled on a routine. Each morning I wake up around 6-6:30am. Every other day I take a careful shower so that I don’t flood my bathroom like I did the first day. At 7am my meetings start with my teams in the US. My admin has carefully arranged it so that most of my meetings have been compressed to a 3-hour window between 4-7pm PST. That is 7-10am my time. It doesn’t always work; I’ve already had a 10:30pm and a 12:00-2am meeting that I couldn’t avoid. Hopefully I won’t have to do too many of those but that’s the price I have to pay. Between 10am-12:30am I do emails and practice my Chinese.  That’s followed by a 1hr session with my Chinese tutor at 12:30pm. That’s one of the first things I got scheduled while I’m here. After that session I go back to answering emails and other work-related stuff until they take my temperature around 2-2:30pm. When that’s done, I’ll try to get some exercise in. Since the room is spacious, I can walk around a bit, like a caged tiger, and I’ll try to put in 45min while listening to a book or podcast. I’m able to walk a distance of over 2 miles. Not much but enough to make my move goals. After that its back to work related activities until dinner around 5:30pm. In the evening I’ll read my book(s) or watch a documentary until I’m ready to fall asleep.

For my next blog entry, I’ll geek out and describe my work from quarantine setup.