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Home at last from China: A foreign exchange student’s travel ordeal during coronavirus outbreak

  • ROZETTE RAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                People wearing masks leave the Tom Bradley International Terminal of the Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday, Feb. 2. Airlines began canceling flights between the U.S. and China earlier that day.

    ROZETTE RAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES

    People wearing masks leave the Tom Bradley International Terminal of the Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday, Feb. 2. Airlines began canceling flights between the U.S. and China earlier that day.

  • ROZETTE RAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                Jaden Taylor shows a photo of himself with the head of the international program at his school in China to his mother after returning to Los Angeles on Feb. 2. Taylor, 17, may have been among the last Americans to easily clear security and leave China after the coronavirus outbreak.

    ROZETTE RAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Jaden Taylor shows a photo of himself with the head of the international program at his school in China to his mother after returning to Los Angeles on Feb. 2. Taylor, 17, may have been among the last Americans to easily clear security and leave China after the coronavirus outbreak.

  • ROZETTE RAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                Jaden Taylor reunites with his mother, Karin Berardo, at the Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 2. Taylor, 17, may have been among the last Americans to easily clear security and leave China after the coronavirus outbreak.

    ROZETTE RAGO/THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Jaden Taylor reunites with his mother, Karin Berardo, at the Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 2. Taylor, 17, may have been among the last Americans to easily clear security and leave China after the coronavirus outbreak.

LOS ANGELES >> When Jaden Taylor, 17, pulled a mask off his face at Los Angeles airport Sunday morning and smiled at the customs officer, who gave him a thumbs up, it was much more than the end of a 12-hour flight from Shanghai.

He was taking the final step in a weekslong scramble to get out of China, where he had been an exchange student caught in an outbreak of coronavirus, which was rapidly spreading and causing fatalities.

“Oddly enough, the officer didn’t ask me a single question,” said Jaden, after exiting the airport in a hoodie with a duffel and two suitcases. “I feel lucky, I thought I was definitely going to be quarantined but it was so fast.”

His struggle, involving canceled flights, frantic negotiations across two continents and a series of checkpoints where authorities checked his temperature, was playing out for countless travelers trying to leave China as the world tries to seal itself off from the fast-moving virus.

Jaden, a former high school student from Portland, Oregon, was most likely among the last Americans to get out of China and clear security with ease. By Monday morning, American air travelers who had been to China in the last 14 days were being routed through one of 11 airports to undergo enhanced health screenings, with the possibility that they could be quarantined.

Each year, thousands of Americans and other foreigners travel to China on student exchange programs. Since last month, these students have been among those caught up in the widening health crisis. Because of the nature of their studies, often embedded with families across China, some of them are hundreds of miles from a consulate or embassy. With no preparation or road map to follow, many students have had to find their own way from far-flung cities to major airports for the return home.

American Field Service sent more than 300 students from all over the world to China, including about two dozen Americans, during the current school year. Jaden was the only American student placed in Anhui province, which borders Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Ultimately, the nonprofit organization decided to cancel all programs in China on Jan. 31.

‘It seemed like a fun adventure’

Bored with high school in Portland, Baden had hatched a plan to learn Mandarin and graduate early so that he could spend a year in China before college.

“It seemed like a fun adventure to a place that was completely foreign to me,” he said. “I would not know what to expect.”

He made the move in August, becoming the third generation in his family to go abroad as an exchange student.

In the city of Wuhu, he settled in with a host family and started school, planning to remain until June. He made Chinese friends and tried new foods, like turtle and cow stomach. As trade tensions between the United States and China escalated, he took it in stride when taxi drivers turned him away because he was an American.

It was early January when he first heard that the coronavirus had struck. Emails streamed in from his Chinese teachers informing him about an illness spreading in Wuhan, the capital of the adjoining province.

Around Jan. 15, the local coordinator for American Field Service and Jaden’s host family ordered him to remain inside at all times. “I was reminded almost every day not to go outside,” he recalled, adding, “The times I went outside, I had to sneak out.”

During one of those outings, Jaden, who was feeling under the weather, bought a stash of protective masks.

By Jan. 20, the virus had crossed international borders. China had reported hundreds of infections, and the death toll jumped from three to 17 in a matter of days.

Two days later, Jaden’s grandmother, Christine Berardo, sent him a WhatsApp message saying that she had been reading about the virus and felt sorry that it might affect his travel plans for the Lunar New Year.

“The virus has been found in my city so everyone is wearing face masks,” he told her.

‘Have some grit,’ his mother said

On Jan. 23, Wuhan, home to about 11 million people, was placed under quarantine and Chinese authorities closed off the city. “I was seeing images of borders shutting down and people not being able to leave Wuhan,” Jaden recalled. He began to worry.

So did his mother, Karin Berardo, 51, an investment manager in Washington, D.C. But she did not want to let on.

In a WhatsApp exchange, Berardo told her adventurous child, “to suck it up. Have some grit,” she recalled. “He had always been eager to conquer the world.”

Wuhu, about 300 miles northeast of Wuhan, was not officially quarantined but it might as well had been. Instead of celebrating the Lunar New Year with fireworks and festivities, people locked themselves indoors.

Except for those trying to stock up on food and masks, the streets were deserted; store shelves were almost bare. People glared at anyone who coughed, Jaden said. The images of a city in fear began to haunt him at night, and he had trouble sleeping. “I became very paranoid and anxious,” he said.

Friends from Portland; Berkeley, California; Baltimore and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; places where Jaden had lived, were reaching out on Snapchat and WhatsApp to express concern about the risk of staying in China.

With ample time on his hands, Jaden scanned news reports on Reddit and waited for emails from the State Department. Chinese friends shared information they were gleaning from Chinese media. The news was getting worse with each passing day, it seemed.

Back in Washington, his mother contacted American Field Service to get their assessment of the situation and to inquire about options for possibly bringing her son home.

“They said they were in close contact with AFS Beijing and were advising the students to just stay inside,” Berardo recalled.

On Jan. 26, after learning that 56 million people were under quarantine in China, Berardo contacted a program representative in New York to request that her son be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible.

Trying to find a way out

The next day, program representatives had a tentative plan to get Jaden out. It involved flying out of Shanghai, about 215 miles away. But there was no one on the ground to escort him there, Berardo was told. “They said they could put him on a train, but he would have to figure out how to get to the airport in Shanghai,” she said.

Berardo feared that her son might end up stranded in the one of the world’s largest cities, where many cases of the virus had been reported.

Still, in a conversation, mother and son agreed to give it a try. Ultimately, program officials found someone to drive Jaden to Nanjing, about 60 miles from Wuhu, where he would catch a flight to Shanghai.

Jaden was booked on an American Airlines flight that was to leave Sunday. But on Friday afternoon, the carrier announced that it had canceled the flight, as a spate of airlines began suspending their operations in China. He was rebooked on China Eastern Airlines leaving the same day.

“We calmed down for a minute,” Berardo recalled.

Jaden sneaked out of the apartment to say goodbye to Chinese friends and to take his last pictures of an empty Wuhu. His bags had been packed for two days.

He was scheduled for a 3 a.m. pickup but his host brother knocked on his door shortly after 11 p.m. A car was there to take him.

The only car on the road

His escort was concerned about potential delays if they encountered road closures along the way. Indeed, some portions were blocked, and the driver had to divert to side roads.

“I’m stressed and worried,” Jaden jotted down in a diary that he had decided to start to record his last hours in China. It was about 11:30 p.m. Saturday night.

“It’s pretty much pitch black everywhere and we’re the only car on the road,” he wrote. “I took my mask off for five seconds and the driver turned his head yelling.”

At multiple checkpoints, police officers pulled over the car and checked whether they were wearing their masks. Jared’s temperature was taken with an infrared temperature gun every time.

Shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday, as they approached the Nanjing airport, police stopped the car. People in hazmat suits instructed Jaden to get out. They checked his temperature once, twice, three times. Every time, they said, his temperature was too high.

Jaden was not sure what was happening. He felt fine.

“I didn’t know what I would do if they didn’t let me go to the airport,” he said.

Finally, one of the health workers retrieved a different thermometer from their supply kits. This time, they said, Jaden’s temperature was acceptable.

Arriving at a deserted airport

Four hours after they had left, they completed the 60-mile journey and arrived at a deserted airport. It was just after 2 a.m.

When he checked in for his flight to Shanghai, three hours later, the attendant at the counter told him that she could not check his bags all the way to Los Angeles because his flight might be canceled. Did he still want to go to Shanghai, the agent wanted to know.

Jaden figured there was no looking back at this point.

In Shanghai, he checked in for his flight. By then, his temperature had been taken at least a dozen times since leaving Wuhu.

The Los Angeles-bound flight left on time and was uneventful. He tried to sleep, but it was hard: He kept thinking about the five months his program had been cut short, the lost opportunities.

At Los Angeles International Airport, he joined the swarms of people who converged in the passport-control area after landing from all corners of the globe.

He entered the line for U.S. citizens, pulled off his mask and waited his turn. In his pocket, he carried a booklet of the U.S. Constitution, just in case he got pulled out of line by the authorities and had to reference his rights.

But when he got to the counter, the officer scanned his passport and returned it to him without asking a single question.

“At all the other kiosks,” he said, “anyone with a mask or who had traveled to China was being asked where they went and why. But not me.”

On the other side of security, his mother swooped all 6 feet, 3 inches of her son into her arms. “Hi, Mom,” he said. “I’m tired.”

He strapped on his mask again briefly as they left the airport — before realizing that he was no longer in the middle of a pandemic. He removed it, and they headed to a Chipotle, where he dug into two bean-and-cheese burritos. “This is heaven,” he said.

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