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How to survive coronavirus boredom? After visiting China, a Brookline woman offers tips

Yiyan Zhou and her husband, Julius Wu, in Shanghai.
Yiyan Zhou and her husband, Julius Wu, in Shanghai.

Yiyan Zhou is a familiar face to many students at Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. The Chinese-born educator was instrumental in setting up the school’s Chinese language program and now serves as a consultant on the campus. But when she stopped by to talk to students earlier this month, it wasn’t to cover her usual topics of Chinese language or culture.

This time, Zhou was there for a presentation on how to weather a quarantine. Having spent the early part of the year in Shanghai, she’d watched young people keep themselves busy during the most acute phases of that country’s public health crisis, and she had experiences of her own to share as well, having self-quarantined for two weeks when she returned from Shanghai to the Brookline apartment where she lives most of the year.

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Zhou described to the Newton Country Day School students what she observed in China. “In the lesser infected areas, for the first two weeks or so, everyone panicked, buying medical supplies, cleaning supplies, and rice. But when the panic eased and everyone began to settle into their seclusion, they looked for other alternatives.”

One of the more popular activities she observed among her acquaintances in their 20s was a newfound interest in food preparation. “A lot of young people in Shanghai mostly eat out or buy fast food,” Zhou said. “But during the quarantine period everyone had to stay inside, and food delivery was limited. Many people started learning to cook for the first time.”

They learned in a strictly contemporary way, Zhou reported — through livestreaming. One person would livestream herself making a popular dish, and then someone else would pick up the thread and do his own livestream with a different recipe.

Meanwhile, Shanghai’s large beauty industry tried to compensate for the lack of shoppers on the streets by asking their salespeople to offer cosmetics demos via livestream. People watched the cosmetics demos on their computers or phones and practiced new techniques with makeup.

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Another popular option was virtual tourism, Zhou said. “Travel companies that had to cancel tours did online versions that people could sign up for, and a host would walk through the sights explaining what was what.”

Exercise was also a popular draw during the quarantine period. Personal trainers and gym workers whose clients couldn’t travel to their facility created videos instead. There were even demonstrations of chair exercises people could do while they worked from home.

In early February, when Zhou returned to Brookline, where she now works as a realtor, she imposed her own self-quarantine to be sure she hadn’t been infected in Shanghai.

“I did a lot of cooking and a lot of reading,” she reported. “You start getting to all the things you thought you didn’t have time for. I learned some Spanish recipes and some French ones. Friends picked up groceries for me and left them at the door. I discovered fennel, which is not a common vegetable in Chinese cuisine. Now I use it in my stir-fries. I went through my entire music collection. When you can’t go out but physically you feel fine, you can use the time to get into a very relaxed state.”

Despite her newfound cooking talents and super-organized apartment, though, Zhou admitted that the best part of the quarantine was when it ended. “I’d missed the fresh air so much,” she recalled. “It felt so great to get out at last. The first thing I did was get my car inspected, and even that seemed like a wonderful thing to be able to do.”

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Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.