The Hou family in Beijing in January, days before alarm spread about the coronavirus.

The Hou family in Beijing in January, days before alarm spread about the coronavirus.


Courtesy of Elizabeth Sun

Lockdown life in the time of coronavirus can be tough, but 10-year-old Francine Hou's first moments post-lockdown were overwhelming. After spending nearly six weeks indoors in China, she finally stepped outside of a tiny apartment with her parents and little brother. 

“I felt like I was going to throw up,” she said. 

It was sensory overload after being cooped up inside. The smell of car exhaust hit Francine hard, she said. After a while, she asked to return to the apartment. 

Related: A California family went to China to renew their work visas. Once coronavirus hit, they got stuck. 

Two children play outside with face masks on.

Liam Hou, 6, and his sister, Francine, 10, venture outside after staying indoors for six weeks in Lanzhou, China. 


Courtesy of Elizabeth Sun

“I was so excited to bring them outside. ... They could feel the sun and run. It’s been so hard keeping them busy indoors.”

Elizabeth Sun, Lanzhou, China

“I was so excited to bring them outside,” said her mother, Elizabeth Sun. “They could feel the sun and run. It’s been so hard keeping them busy indoors.”

Sun also worried when her son Liam, 6, got winded after running just one block. “He was very slow,” Sun said. “It wasn’t normal.” But just a few days later, her son was bouncing back. A family video shows the boy sprinting down a street like his old self. 

Normally, the family lives in Alameda, California, near San Francisco. In January, they traveled to China to renew the US work visas of the China-born parents. The US Embassy in Beijing still has their passports, which the parents turned over to start the visa paperwork. The kids are US citizens. Now, a fairly routine visa procedure could take far longer than the family had planned. 

“We are just waiting and waiting,” Sun said. 

While they wait for updates from US Embassy officials, the family has stayed temporarily in Lanzhou, a city in northwest China, where Sun’s parents and siblings live and where the California family was when the lockdowns happened. Sun’s sister offered them a small apartment she owns in the city that happened to be vacant.  

Related: Is South Korea's approach to containing coronavirus a model?

The family was very relieved when the lockdown ended. But there is still a big challenge: face masks. Sun says they are required in order to be outside. “If you don’t wear one, an official or policeman will tell you to put one on.”

Yet masks are hard to find, at least where they are staying, Sun said. She rushed over when she spotted a woman selling masks near their apartment in front of a nail salon. Sun bought a pack of 50 disposable masks. That supply has now dwindled down to 20. The family must reserve enough to go out food shopping.

Four arms fist bump to show off their bracelets on their wrists.

The daughter, Francine, made bracelets for the family during six weeks in lockdown mode in Lanzhou, China. 


Courtesy of Elizabeth Sun

So even though they can go outside, they really cannot that often. “We don’t have enough masks!” said Sun. “We still stay … in the apartment.”

Unable to go outside much, they have started exercising indoors — running in place, doing calisthenics. I asked Francine, the daughter, her advice for parents if their kids are stuck inside for a long time. “Get them plenty of arts and craft materials,” Francine recommended. “And let them play plenty of video games and they won’t bother you.”

Related: Streets deserted as Italy imposes unprecedented coronavirus lockdown

Francine has also been writing poetry about the virus. One of her poems is a reflection on life being far from normal. An excerpt: