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‘Be grateful for your blessings’

Ex-local man now in Shanghai offers advice coping with COVID-19

Former Blair County resident Steve Bonta, his daughter, Elanor, and his wife, Zhouyue, live in Shanghai, China, and shared what their journey has been like during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bonta taught Spanish and English for 11 years at Penn State Altoona until 2016 and moved to Shanghai in August 2018. He teaches English and other language-related subjects in a private high school.

A few weeks before the coronavirus started, he married Zhouyue, who is from Chengdu. The couple, accompanied by Elanor, traveled to southwestern Yunnan province.

While in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, Elanor developed the flu. The newlyweds continued to visit the sites as the teenager recuperated.

“Then suddenly, things went sideways, as they say,” Bonta recounted in an email. “The news of the Wuhan lockdown and other extreme measures, along with the reality of a fast-spreading new disease, came overnight, and the next day Kunming — a city of 8 million people — was in virtual lockdown, with police and other officials prowling the streets, looking to round up anyone showing signs of any illness, be it flu, common cold or whatever. People were encouraged to report any signs that sick people were being harbored. Pharmacy personnel began watching for anyone purchasing medications.”

The couple kept Elanor and her signs of illness hidden out of fear that her illness would be reported, and the family separated as panic spread in Kunming, located in a remote corner of China, far from any American consulate. Fortunately, Elanor recovered in a week, and the trio returned to Chengdu, where the city of 16 million had turned into a “ghost town.”

Bonta and his daughter then returned to Shanghai and endured a 14-day quarantine. Instruction at his school has been online for five weeks. In addition to teaching, Bonta used the time to write several professional articles for publication. He has spent more time outdoors on the school’s campus, bird watching and hiking.

“Certainly, this experience has been transformative for me, as it will also be for Americans at home. Like any crisis, it has taught my daughter, my wife and me what really matters in life. Having lived in Asia before, I am no stranger to crises. I’ve seen civil wars, dengue fever epidemics, epic power failures, political instability and extreme poverty, but this event definitely tops them all,” he said.

But the positives abound.

“I’ve married the love of my life in the midst of all this calamity, my daughter and I have the opportunity to learn Chinese and the Chinese culture at a time when both are gaining importance all around the world, and I have a steady job at an excellent school that shows every sign of being able not only to weather this storm, but to prosper in the midst of world-altering events. … From a personal standpoint, although it may sound paradoxical, my daughter and I have never been happier.”

He acknowledges the economic hardships in Shanghai as many businesses have closed economic uncertainty looms.

His advice to Americans now experiencing similar hardships:

“Be grateful for your blessings, especially your family. You’ll be spending a lot of time with them, so be glad for the company and get to know each other better. If necessary, work to heal rifts and improve understanding.”

“You know that project you always wanted to do –that book you wanted to write, handicraft you wanted to learn, language you wanted to study, instrument you wanted to play or whatever? You should do it. You’re going to have some time on your hands, so don’t spend it all watching Netflix or playing video games. You now have a chance to be not just productive, but creative, to do something you were put here in the world to do, but that maybe no one will pay you a steady income for doing. Whatever your particular genius or talent is, work on it!”

“Focus always on the positive, including your faith, your assets, your relationships and the fact that we still live in an utterly marvelous world, at an incredible inflection point in human history.”

As he sees a new normal evolve in Shanghai, he is confident Americans will “resume your normal lives, to go back to your routines. Life will go on. The mountains and streams of western Pennsylvania will be just as beautiful. The Steelers and the Nittany Lions will still take the field. You’ll be able to enjoy the amusement parks and the Curve and everything else that makes life in the Altoona area worth living.

“But if we all come out of this better people, the world will not be the same. It will be much, much better.”

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