The Hou family’s trip to China last month was supposed to be an ordinary visit.
The US work visas for the China-born parents, Hua Hou and Elizabeth Sun, had expired. Renewing them meant returning to China to start the paperwork from the US Embassy in Beijing. The process, while fairly routine, could take a few months.
Then the novel coronavirus — and the subsequent shutdown of much of China — derailed their plans. The family landed in Beijing in early January and have since been unable to return to Alameda, near San Francisco, where they own a home and where their children were born.
Hou and Sun brought their US citizen children — Francine, 10, and Liam, 6 — to China with them.
“We decided to all come together,” Sun said last week in a Skype interview from the apartment in Lanzhou where they’ve been stranded. They thought the trip would also be an opportunity for the family to visit relatives, grandparents, aunts and cousins, living in different parts of China and who they had not seen in years.
They spent the first few days exploring the capital. They went to visit family in different parts of China, including Inner Mongolia in northern China where Hou’s parents live, and Lanzhou, a city in northwest China where Sun’s parents and siblings live and where she grew up.
Days after the family arrived, news broke of the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of at least 1,770 people in China since it first emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, a city in the central part of the country. The outbreak is also damaging the world's second largest economy, keeping workers inside and forcing businesses large and small to close until people are able to move more freely again.
Three weeks later, the Hou family remains in China. And like hundreds of millions of China residents, they’re on lockdown, unable to leave the apartment where they’re staying in Lanzhou. They don’t know when they’ll be allowed to come home to California and when their children will be able to go back to school.
Their parents are also trying to create a routine for their kids. After breakfast, the children complete several hours of schoolwork. “Math, Chinese characters, English. I really keep them busy,” Sun said. “The idea is, do something.”
Their predicament represents a collision of US immigration policy and a virus that has captured the world’s attention. Their timing, Sun said, was “unlucky.”
Before leaving for China, Hou accepted a new job as a senior software engineer with Amazon in Seattle. But to start working, he needed to leave the country in order to renew his US employment visa, which also allowed his wife to obtain a US work permit. The visa, known as H-1B, ties foreign workers to the employer that sponsors them — which makes it tricky for H1-B workers to switch jobs while remaining in the US. The Hou family’s lawyer advised them to leave the US and return with the new visa in hand.
However, shortly after turning in their passports at the US Embassy in Beijing in order to start the visa renewal process, the US Embassy closed. As of Feb. 10, the US embassy in Beijing and US consulates in China have suspended most visa services. US diplomatic staff and their families have been evacuated from the country amid the coronavirus outbreak. The family is not sure when their case will be reviewed.
“We said to ourselves, 'Oh, we need to do this legally, fix the visas and come back to China. We wanted to do it right, and now we're here and we're unsure about our future," Sun said.
“It looks hopeless right now. The US [embassy] office in Beijing — shut off. And they got our passports, so we cannot go anywhere.”
“It looks hopeless right now,” she added. “The US [embassy] office in Beijing — shut off. And they got our passports, so we cannot go anywhere.”
And they worry that the longer they stay in China, the more complicated their US immigration situation could get.
The small apartment where they’re staying, which belongs to Sun’s sister, contains one bedroom and a living room. The couple’s children spend their days building with Legos, playing Minecraft on their iPad, and creating intricate figures out of Play-Doh. They’ve also begun making short videos for TikTok, the popular social media platform.
Sun is the only one who has left the apartment in more than three weeks. Every few days, she goes to a nearby supermarket, walking through Lanzhou’s eerily empty streets. In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, their neighborhood has issued special permits for select individuals to venture out on short trips.
She also buys groceries for her elderly parents, who live nearby. They accept the food through a gate under the supervision of a security guard.
“I only see my father when I deliver the food to them,” Sun said.
It’s like this for millions of people in China right now. In some areas, visitors are only allowed if they register with security guards and have their temperature checked. In others — such as where Sun’s parents live — non-residents are not allowed in as a way to try and control the spread of the virus.
The kids haven’t gone outside at all.
“I think it’s going to be a long time before it fixes,” Francine said. “Every single morning my mom is like, 'Oh no, there’s like 4,000 more people are sick.'”
While it is difficult to shield the children from news about the virus — Sun and Hou look for updates daily — they do not want to cause them alarm. Yet the other day, Sun said, that her son, Liam, was crying. She asked him what was going on. He told her that an eyelash had fallen on his hand and he held it carefully — to make a wish. "I told him once that if you catch an eyelash, you can make a wish," Sun said. But his sister accidentally bumped into him, and the eyelash was gone.
"So he couldn’t make a wish," Sun said. "I asked him, 'What was your wish?'"
It was that the virus would go away. For now, that particular wish has not been granted and the family must stay put, far from home.