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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

A Kansas City Chiefs Fan In China Offers A Glimpse Into His Alternate Pandemic Reality

020321_Kendrick Blackwood in China.jpg
For Kendrick Blackwood, a Kansas Citian in China, all the red decorations for Chinese New Year double as reminders of his favorite football team.

A year ago, KCUR aired the "coronavirus diaries" of a Kansas City native teaching English in China. Back then, his account of life in quarantine — including an eerily quiet Super Bowl watch party — seemed unimaginable. Now, the normalcy of his post-COVID life is what's surreal.

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Today, just hours after this article is published, Kansas City football fans will experience something strange, something they've never experienced before.

Last year, they got to see their beloved football team, past bringer of heartbreak, make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in a half a century — and then win. Going back as returning champs is doubly exciting, or so I've been told (I am admittedly not into football, though I do get a slight contact high when everyone is happy after a win).

This year's first is more of a downer. People won't be watching the big game at parties with friends or in bars packed with strangers-made-family by way of matching jerseys. At least, not if they follow the advice of health professionals. They'll be at home on the couch, in semi-quarantine, with only a couple of other fans nearby to high five — the same ones they've seen, and possibly shared a bathroom with, for about 300 days.

Kendrick Blackwood, for one, will be watching almost exactly the way he did a year ago, but that's only because the game will start at 7:30 on a Monday morning where he lives. Otherwise, he could actually throw a party this time around, because COVID has been mostly eradicated in his city.

Blackwood, who lives in China teaching literature at an international school, watched last year's Super Bowl from quarantine in his Shenzhen apartment while friends back in Kansas City innocently partied in a perfect illustration of the phrase, little did they know.

Kendrick's my friend. By the time he shared a photograph of himself watching the Chiefs while drinking a Corona (coincidentally, one of the most readily available brands of beer in Shenzhen), I'd been reading his Facebook dispatches from life in the land of the outbreak for about a month: masks, thermometer checks, empty city streets, and work-from-home orders getting extended again and again. As the prospect of coronavirus in the U.S. became a distinct but still hypothetical possibility, I invited him to share what we dubbed his "Coronavirus Diaries" on the air.

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This is a scene described in Blackwood's "Coronavirus Diaries," the daily walk around a deserted city with his dog, Asta.

That story, which ended with the 2020 Super Bowl, concluded with optimism; as of his final update, the number of new cases in Shenzhen, a city of 14 million, had gone down to six.

In the year since then, Kendrick's life has gone pretty much back to normal and in a nearly complete reversal, he's the one watching on Facebook, trying to comprehend what his friends back home are enduring. On the day we recently talked, the number of new cases in Kansas City was 43.

"It is the proverbial movie script you couldn't sell because it's too unbelievable," he muses on a Zoom call, at what for him is 5 in the morning.

A year ago, Kendrick and his wife, Krista, also a teacher, were relieved because, with school out, they weren't going to have to fake being sick to watch the game.

This year, they'll take a day off. They can do that with the extra time gifted to them as a gesture of thanks for staying in China during the outbreak, making them among the few teachers left to reopen the school after many of their colleagues had left China, then found themselves unable to return.

School, in Shenzhen, is normal. A few kids still wear masks, but even that has mostly fallen by the wayside. The youngest Blackwood, a junior at the school, is going to be in a play soon, a play that takes place on a stage, with flesh-and blood-people in the audience. Parents and teachers will get to attend. As a parent who can't step inside my 4-year-old's daycare to make sure he has his mittens at pickup time, the thought of it makes me weepy.

Kendrick says less than he used to on Facebook, for fear of rubbing it in.

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Kendrick, Krista and Cameron Blackwood hang out in a pub without masks, enjoying a domestic vacation in China over Christmas.

"We had a decision to make every single day for maybe three months," he recalls. "We had to decide: Are we leaving? Do we start planning to go away? Because we were getting a lot of pressure from friends, family, colleagues saying, 'You've got to get out, you're not Chinese, you don't know what is going on there really, it could get terrible and you're going to be trapped in it. So you need to leave.' Time has shown that would have been the exact wrong thing to do."

Blackwood knows that the rules imposed for the relatively short lockdown in Shenzhen would be considered draconian in the States. Many apartment buildings didn't let residents back inside if they left (and typical apartments there aren't roomy places to be quarantined).

Masks were required by law. Schools were completely closed for in-person learning. Restaurants closed for in-person dining. And even now, people's phones are unapologetic tracking devices; one of the few remnants of life under threat of COVID, for Blackwood, is having to show a code on his phone when he clocks in at school to prove he hasn't ventured outside of permitted areas.

When lockdown was new to friends in Kansas City, Blackwood reassured them, likening the experience to the quiet game. You get really quiet for a little while, and then you come back out, take the masks off, enjoy trivia nights at the local pub with people whose faces aren't pixelated.

That's how it went in China. But it went very differently here. And now, the Blackwoods may in fact be stuck. They've already been notified that if they travel home for the summer and can't make it back, they will lose their jobs. Kendrick takes solace in the knowledge that he's stuck in a place where his small family can thrive despite the pandemic, although he knows that watching the Chiefs won't be the big hurrah he wishes it could be. Then again, isn't that true for everyone?

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Watching the Chiefs in China isn't so different from watching the Chiefs in Kansas City right now.

"I would much rather go to my friend Jeff's house and eat barbecue that he's paid for and drink beer that he's paid for and try to find the spot up next to the basement TV, as close as I can get and drown out the crowd. I'd much rather do that, there's no question," Blackwood says. "But sitting down on my couch with my little family, enjoying half a Corona and some guacamole and cereal is going to be pretty sweet as well."

And when it's over, he'll shave his face and get fully dressed and walk out the door without a mask. COVID will be a distant concern. Just like it was for all of us in Kansas City a year ago.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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