Imagine leaving home for a brief family vacation and 45 days later – you’re still gone.
That’s what’s happened to auto industry consultant Andrew Parrish and his family.
The family lives in Shanghai, but they are stranded in Dallas because of the coronavirus outbreak in China.
“We really, really, really want to go home, but we’re not sure when it’ll be a good time to go back,” Parrish said. “It’s kind of like being a refugee.”
There are others in Parrish’s predicament, people, many of them his friends, who fled China in late January for refuge in Canada, the USA, the United Kingdom and Italy.
They have no idea if or when they will see home again, said Parrish, who keeps in touch with them.
Fear of the unknown
Parrish, 41, is a U.S. citizen who’s lived in China for nearly 20 years. He’s general manager for CMD Consulting, a Chicago consultancy to companies doing business in Asia. He has several auto industry clients including auto parts supplier Lucerne International in Auburn Hills and four other Detroit-based auto suppliers.
He and his family have been healthy, but their worry over getting the coronavirus is just one of many challenges to his return home.
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“Most of the direct flight links are not open any more, so it’s not cheap to get back,” Parrish said.
A 14-hour, one-way direct flight used to cost $600 per person, he said. Now the cheapest nondirect, 30-hour flight costs about $2,000 one way, Parrish said.
“Then you ask yourself are you making the right decision for your family?” Parrish said. “The uncertainty is the most unsettling thing about it.”
So is the fear of not knowing what he’ll face when he returns. American travelers can do a 14-day quarantine at home in China, Parrish said.
“But what if that changes where you have to go to a quarantine center and you’re not in control of your own environment?” Parrish said. “It’s basically the same thing as being on a cruise ship. You’re in a hotel with possibly other sick people, and it could spread faster. That’s not a situation I want to be in.”
Parrish said he first heard about coronavirus when he was in the USA on a business trip in January.
“I remember thinking, ‘I lived through SARS, this is no big deal. I’m not worried,'” Parrish said. “My experience with SARS was awesome because no one was on the streets.”
SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, was identified in 2003, before Parrish had his children, “so I enjoyed going out and getting everything at half-price,” he said.
Parrish soon realized that coronavirus was a far cry from SARS. On Jan. 23, he boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai. It was a flight he’d taken dozens of times, usually with about 280 people packed on board.
This time, there were only eight passengers.
It hit him that people were not flying back to China, Parrish said. He asked a flight attendant about the vacant aircraft, and she told him, “We’re empty on the way there, but we are full on the way back.”
Parrish’s plan was to celebrate the Chinese New Year and his wife’s birthday in China, then the family would fly to Bangkok on Jan. 27 for a weeklong vacation.
“When I landed in China, I realized this was much more serious than I thought it was,” Parrish said. “There weren’t any people out. At the time, there was no mandatory quarantine, but people all stayed in their houses.”
The family stuck to the plan and made it to Thailand for “a normal vacation.” By the end of that week, Parrish knew that the escalating cases of coronavirus in China meant he and his wife, Meng Lu, a teacher, would have to make a tough decision.
“Do we go back to China or go somewhere else?” Parrish said.
Parrish travels frequently throughout Southeast Asia and North America for business, meeting with customers. The Chinese government was talking about idling flights to the USA, he said, so that made returning home to China a bad option.
“China’s our home, and we love China. But you weigh things in terms of health and safety and your business,” Parrish said. “For us, the best choice was to come to America. Other friends have gone to Canada, some have gone to the U.K. You go wherever you need to go.”
Life in the USA
They landed in Chicago on Feb. 3. After customs agents screened them, they were allowed into the USA with no need to do a self-quarantine, he said.
They did one anyway, for five days, when they arrived at Parrish’s 67-year-old parents’ house in Dallas. That’s where the family of four has been ever since.
Parrish’s 8-year-old son, Aaron, and 13-year-old daughter, Shirley, miss their friends and their classes at Shanghai Community International school, he said. The school is teaching all students – even those still in China who are on home quarantine – remotely, Parrish said.
“Every day, the teachers upload the lessons, and we download the work and work with the kids on it,” Parrish said. “It’s amazing that both schools, private and public, in a short period of time, were able to get an infrastructure to support that. But at the same time, it puts an awful lot of stress on the parents.”
Then there is the culture shock of life in the USA. For one thing, they have all gained weight.
“We miss our friends, we miss our city, we miss our two cats. We miss having our normal life over there. It’s very different over here,” Parrish said. “We try to go out and find some food, and we can’t find the right food. I’ve put on a lot of weight here.”
Parrish said he’s gained at least 10 pounds since early February.
“The food here is more fattening and much bigger portions,” Parrish said.
Friends in China care for the family’s two cats, DianDian and Rougue, but Parrish worries that the dust and the mail are piling up.
Parrish’s homesickness might seem odd considering that China has been a communist country since 1949. But he’s loved it there since first traveling to Taiwan in 1999.
“I find it very welcoming to business, very socially comfortable and quite open, and the economic opportunity is unparalleled,” Parrish said. “You’d be surprised. It’s quite free. There are a few things that you can’t say or do. Political dissent is not encouraged. But as long as you stay away from that, you’re fine.”
Parrish has kept in touch with his fellow coronavirus refugees. Some have it worse than others. One couple left China around the same time Parrish and his family did, only they took refuge in northern Italy and are trapped there.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared a national emergency and signed a decree early Sunday to put 17 million people across northern Italy under lockdown. By Monday afternoon, the entire country was put on lockdown. NBC News reported that Italy has had the most fatalities outside mainland China.
Another pal is in Los Angeles. This friend’s wife is pregnant, due to give birth in May, raising the question, “Do you travel with a pregnant wife? They’re living with their in-laws,” Parrish said. “They’re stuck here. I think he’s realized that.”
Parrish said he takes it day by day. His near-term goal is to stay healthy and “keep the ability to be as mobile as possible and stay away from high-infected areas, and that’s all hard to do because you want to go home, too.”