Essay

Homebound: I Self-Isolated for 6 Years. Now I'm Doing It Again.

Hong Kong–based writer and cook, Mandy Lee, shares about COVID-19 and its effects on her life at home.

Photo by Meredith Jensen

Home is a powerful place for all of us, and its presence feels particularly acute right now. But how do quarantine and isolation affect our perception of the space? Homebound: Dispatches on COVID-19 & How We Live asks this of three writers currently negotiating this reality in different parts of the world—Hong Kong, Seattle, and Florence. We hope their explorations can help us better understand our changing sense of home.


A March spring day is preciously brisk in Hong Kong. But I have no intention of going outside. With my morning coffee still hot to the touch, I’m standing in my kitchen amidst a mental confrontation with the raw chicken before me.

I feel solemn and focused, planning and scrutinizing my dedication of the next nine hours to a single, all-important mission—the roasting of this holy bird. It’s a simple dish that, over the years, I have turned into a whole-day endeavor.

But it’s quite alright, you see, there’s a countrywide lockdown. I am no stranger to this way of living—in fact, I’m somewhat of an expert on it.


From 2012, I spent six years in Beijing as a reluctant expat wife. Under the emotional agony of living here, surrounded by insufferable air pollution, I began the life of what I call an “escapist” cook. I started a blog, which later on became a book, documenting my retreat from being a social participant into a solitary kitchen fanatic. Cooking, once a harmless hobby, became an accomplice in my self-imposed social detachment. It has been four years since I left Beijing. Never did I imagine that, starting a month ago, I would find myself reliving that version of my life under an entirely different circumstance.

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“I relate to this at so many levels. Growing up in a very sheltered homeschool cult, not leaving the house for weeks at a time was normal fare. Just as I had started to adjust to America life as a free woman, I moved to an culture that I don't fit in with. It became easy to just stay home and cook. Obsessively. And now, I'm all practiced. It's a relief. I'm not having to force myself to attend play dates or hope for excuses to let me stay home from library story time. My oddity has become my strength.”
— CandidlyBethAnn
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This time, it has a name. COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus has created an unusual crisis with all the usual effects on society: confusion, panic, economic uncertainty. But what is unique about it, and unprecedented in our time, is a strange reality it has brought into our lives—forced social isolation.

Ironically, I am well-equipped. Long ago I had grown an agility in maneuvering through hours of the day alone in my apartment. The idea of a home not being just a resting stop, but a refuge—a fortress from the toxicity of external reality—has for years been entrenched in how I conduct my life.

It was only recently that I began to see, alarmingly, that as others are combating cabin fever, I've found myself cool and comfortable—preferring, even, to stay home in the familiarity of my routines. Cultivating yeasts, laminating doughs, roasting chickens.


Pondering, I rub sea salt into a buffer zone I’ve cleared between the chicken’s skin and its flesh, all the way to the backbone, eradicating blandness throughout. Using two toothpicks, I further lock down the chicken’s chest and cavity openings, sealing the moisture inside in a containment suit of its own skin.

The chicken will now sit inside the fridge in isolation, uncovered. For the next six hours, I'll count on the cool and dry circulation of air to eliminate unwanted moisture, the mortal enemy of all things crispy, from the skin. Though I’ve never been a practitioner of patience, sometimes things just have to run its course.

I sink and exhale into my couch. This snugness with being alone was once an indispensable gear in my long suspension, hovering one inch above the cracks into depression. But now I’m starting to wonder, at what point does a remedy become the driver of the disease itself? After all, we humans, a hopelessly herd-minded species, can develop an array of mental health issues after a prolonged unsocial existence—severing our sense of belonging, exacerbating apathy and indifference. It’s a process that we, also creatures of habit, could grow dangerously comfortable with in a self-feeding cycle as this one.


I go back to flip the chicken in the fridge when I recall the first couple years after moving to Hong Kong, a drastically different environment from Beijing. In my new home, I unexpectedly found myself having to make considerable efforts to leave the house. For the record, once I was out with people, I felt normal and at ease. But it was the invisible boundary between staying and leaving the apartment—more specifically, the absence of need to leave—that I finally recognized in myself. And it surprised me.

As an eternal extrovert, I had trapped myself in a comfortable mental prison of my own making. To be perfectly honest, till this day, I’m not certain whether I have made parole. Could this be an emotional epidemic, post-pandemic?

But now I’m starting to wonder, at what point does a remedy become the driver of the disease itself?

I still can’t answer this as I take the now-dehydrated chicken out of the fridge. I place a piece of foil along the ridge of the chest bone, where the chicken’s most vulnerable to overcooking, and nestle it, untrussed, inside a large, shallow skillet. The direct contact of the backbone with the skillet guarantees crispy treats out of this typically overlooked area.


One thing that’s for certain is that this too shall pass. Hong Kong, preceding the rest of the world when the outbreak came to a head six weeks ago, is now slowly but surely returning from a stagnant lockdown to its usual bustling pulsation.


I sit in front of the oven, watching, fixated, at the contraction of the chicken that happens almost immediately under 450 degrees Fahrenheit. I notice the blistering and occasional micro-burstings of fat mists unfolding like beautifully choreographed fireworks, until the golden-browned transformation of a bird into crispy succulence is complete.

As my husband, who has returned from work, and I gather around this marvelous fruit of patience and labor, the news proclaims that the protests that had once inflamed the public conversation about democracy and liberty (thereafter forcefully subdued, although unrelated to COVID-19) are searching for an opportunity to reignite. Hong Kong is still here, after a spin and a pause, exactly where it was left.

Yes, the world stopped, but it's all starting again—finding itself elated, once more, with the devil it's known.

How has your sense of home changed in the face of this global crisis? Share with us in the comments.

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37 Comments

Fit C. March 28, 2020
I lived in Kunming China for 6 years with my husband who was doing non profit work. I Started cooking and throwing parties for expats. I eventually opened a restaurant there because there was a need and it too was my solace. I understand 100%!
 
Salesister2 March 25, 2020
I can't get past the math. "From 2012, I spent six years in Beijing as a reluctant expat wife."
"It has been four years since I left Beijing." Keep getting distracted from the real story going back to figure out the timeline.
 
Nan G. March 24, 2020
I really appreciated the recipe for her perfect sounding chicken.
When I can go shopping again I will get those items I'll need to try it.
This article has really cut readers to the dividing of bone and marrow (as the Bible puts it.)
Readers are showing what's in their heart of hearts over it.
Some people are, sadly, quite cynical.
 
Anne J. March 24, 2020
First, I’m surprised by the subtle aggression in some of the comments on this very heart searching essay. Ms Lee has clearly lived a very interesting life and is sharing some thoughts that come to her from those experiences, while living through our current challenges. I read it as it stands, just thoughts, I don’t need her back story, the interweaving of the preparation of the dinner for her and her husband, with the musings on her past was subtly done, and I enjoyed it.
I live mostly in isolation because of a compromised immune system from ongoing oral chemotherapy. Usually I do go out for necessary tasks such as making groceries and picking up laundry and medications, all the while keeping a social distance as we now call it. My friends come over and visit but we sit across the room from each other, and certainly don’t embrace at coming and going. Now, however, I find myself in an even more isolated situation, no friends come over, my neighbors briefly shout at me from 20 feet away and I pick up my groceries, dry cleaning, and prescriptions at the curb without real human interaction. By nature, I am a very introverted person, in my professional life seeing patients I was “on” and appeared outgoing, but my default is a quiet private home life. This new imposed increase in isolation has led to what the author delicately had described as “hovering one inch above the cracks into depression”. Quite frankly I am now depressed.
The fears pushed on us by the media, the lessons in hand washing and cleaning groceries and worst of all the shudderingly terrifying math that this virus unlike regular flu which transmits from person to person at a rate of 1.something resulting in 10 levels 14 infected people, transmits from 1 person to 3 people so after 10 levels of transmission there are 59,000 people infected. This from a professor of medicine at one of the teaching hospitals in London not an ignorant politician, and therefore credible information. People must respect social distance, and the risks of this disease, but how do we avoid the concomitant depression for so many of us?
 
GigiR March 25, 2020
For those that have digital media, these can be channels to involvement that lessen depression. Plainly, do something that actively involves you. Learn a language. Do a workout with an instructor on the tube. Sing along to lists of songs on playlists. Dance like the star of your own show. Play on line games with friends and relatives. Scrabble anyone? Move your body! You are not the ONLY person who is at risk here. But you are the only person who can look after you. I am not immune compromised but I am like the billions of others who want to get through this plague. If there is anything positive you’ve ever wanted to do by yourself for yourself, do
It now. Learn something. Depression is a pool of stagnant water. Don’t dip your toe into it. Recognize that descent into the downer zone and back away. We all have to do this. Think of depression as another form of plague. With covid19, we separate ourselves to survive. That’s what this is, survival. Don’t let depression suck you in. It can be subtle and seductive. ‘Socially distance’ yourself from depression if you can, and from what you’ve posted about yourself, you sound strong and smart enough to do this. I wish you comfort in knowing you will come through all of this isolation. It will end. If there are limits imposed by other health issues, then that is just a limiting fact for you. You’ll manage that well, and that isolation my end as well. You can be the good solid shining example for many many people that it is possible to grow in the face of adversity such as this. Your example can offer hope to tons of others. I wish you wellness, in mind, body and spirit, and joy in life.


 
Mary-Ann March 23, 2020
I so enjoyed this article! My husband and I have self-isolated since last week. Although I cook a few times a week pre-COVID-19, I have been cooking several times a day now. I find the routine comforting and the planning and creation of meals creatively satisfying. I hit the supermarket near us when it first opens, once very few days. I’m also comforted by the conversation that still continues on this site. Let’s keep sharing!
 
Robin March 22, 2020
I love Mandy and her blog!! She is super talented and hysterically funny. I think this is the chicken recipe.
https://ladyandpups.com/2018/10/11/how-to-make-perfectly-butterflied-and-crispy-skillet-chicken/
 
Jean March 22, 2020
Did you try as an expat? I have lived the life for 13 years. French Quarter? Air pollution is not that bad compared to issues in other counties. As one person said Food52 please put real stories from people who have no choice but self isolation
 
Debsnyderii March 22, 2020
Enjoyed this perspective, thank you for sharing!
 
2000lptraz March 22, 2020
Great read, thanks.
 
Nan G. March 22, 2020
We retired early and left So Cal (where I'd never even seen snow) for northern Utah (where it snows about 10 times a winter.)
We decided to stay in on snowy days in winter and do projects.
We sew, make furnishings, mosaic pots, and cook, cook, cook.
Now that we MUST stay near home we cook from scratch (and only out of our existing larder) every day.
Many or the food52 articles have been helpful.
I especially appreciate the substitutions asked for and answered in the comments section.
This article is also good for us.
Even while alone in our home, it is nice to see others dealing with this as well as they are.
 
Erin B. March 22, 2020
The chicken recipe is on her website. I've subscribed to her for several years - she's a little strange but also pretty damn funny, with odd colloquialisms and an off-kilter syntax to her writing. Her writing does make me chuckle. In the "about" section on her website, she alludes to having a buzz-cut hairstyle for reasons that aren't of her own making, upon which she doesn't elaborate. I think there may be more to her self-imposed isolation than she reveals here. Her recipes happen to be really great.
 
cookinalong March 22, 2020
I find this more puzzling than anything else. Since the article is about her "self isolation" it would be helpful to know why she did so. I kept wondering throughout the article about that and as a result, the lack of that info distracts from the impact of the piece.
 
Amneris March 22, 2020
This paragraph indicates why she self isolated for 6 yrs while in Beijing:
From 2012, I spent six years in Beijing as a reluctant expat wife. Under the emotional agony of living here, surrounded by insufferable air pollution, I began the life of what I call an “escapist” cook. I started a blog, which later on became a book, documenting my retreat from being a social participant into a solitary kitchen fanatic. Cooking, once a harmless hobby, became an accomplice in my self-imposed social detachment.
 
Robin March 22, 2020
I agree with Cookinalong, had the same thoughts. And the paragraph you cite (or any other paragraph) does not explain what was the cause of her 6 years of “emotional agony.” Was it distance from family, or language barrier. We are left to wonder. I checked her first 2012 blog posts, thinking she might refer to the self imposed isolation, but (unless I missed it) I did not read anything that would explain. Oh, well.
 
janet V. March 23, 2020
Ditto. Also, I get impatient with an article if I have to re-read a sentence over and over to understand its meaning. Guess I lack reading comprehension when the writer is overly talented.
 
Nancy March 22, 2020
Whether we like it or not, life deals us some amazing moments, depending on how you choose to handle them and what you choose to take away from an experience. While these are tough times for many, there can also be great opportunities, but only if you embrace them. Use this time to learn to cook or teach another. Nurture your families, entice them to the table with dinners that will warm their stomachs and nourish their souls. Sometimes cooking is my savior, being the one great accomplishment of the day. Don't miss this extraordinary time to bring a family together and what better way than sharing a meal that you have prepared? Isolation can be a true gift. Learn what is really important from this tragic event and glean whatever triumph that you might.
 
Aderck March 22, 2020
Enjoyed your article. Since my husband's diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma 15 years ago, isolation is part of our lives. It began with his stem cell transplant, confined to the hospital for two months. As there is no cure for MM, chemotherapy is ongoing and so his immune system is very fragile. Friends would often ask, where have you travelled lately or what have you been up to, answering was always difficult--staying home. I had to take early retirement to care for him and finally had time to cook and develop my skills to cook all kinds of new things. As long as I can get good food at the stores, I pour my love and energy into making wonderful food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Before COVID-19, we would wait till flu season was over and take a short trip to a nearby city with an impeccably clean hotel and restaurant and treat ourselves to a professional chef prepared delight. But now, I only go to the grocery store during senior hours with a mask and sanitizer, but still creating delicious food that heals the body, mind, and soul. And I am busy isolated at home with cooking, dishes, writing, felting, and caring for my husband. We all learn to compensate for our situations and discover new ways to live our lives mindfully, enjoying every moment.
 
Terri S. March 22, 2020
Aderck, I am also retired (early), but not due to a health challenge of my husband, fortunately (it's because I got sick to death of 32+ years in the corporate cut-throat world). We bought our retirement home on the West coast and I have been there, enjoying the beauty, while my husband, who is not yet retired, comes home once a month from his corporate craziness. Until now. He came home this week to work from home for at least the next four weeks, and now, I am doing what you are doing. Exactly. Making meals to heal our mind, body, and soul. Dishes. Writing (I do proofreading/copy-editing freelance), and FELTING! I just had to respond to you. Today, I have started slow-roasting a pork shoulder for Cuban medianoche sandwiches. Yesterday, it was cacio e pepe with roasted cauliflower. Later this week; steak au poivre. I'm going to try to enjoy the time together exploring new recipes. And felting! I wish you and your husband well.
 
Aderck March 22, 2020
Do you have a website for your editing services? I may need those services in the future. And cache e Pepe reminded me of a time when I lived in Palo Alto before moving to the East Coast. There was a little restaurant on El Camino called Luigi's that had the best clam sauce linguine. Took me several years to duplicate my memory of the taste but now it is one of our regular monthly and favorite pasta dishes.
 
Amneris March 22, 2020
Amen, so true; we make do with what life dishes out to us and do the best we can to compensate and make the ride a lot more pleasant or as pleasant as can be.
 
Shannon L. March 22, 2020
It’s wonderful that he has you and that you have each other.
 
Patricia March 22, 2020
How very lovely. And well written, too. Thanks for sharing and engaging my mind in the middle of 2 weeks of staying home. As a contented introvert I am in a weird sort of paradise not having to feel bad about being happy to be home. I love the weaving you made with the Hong Kong freedom cause. Thanks again. Off to find your book now.
 
olivia.k March 23, 2020
“ As a contented introvert I am in a weird sort of paradise not having to feel bad about being happy to be home.” This! Exactly this. You have encapsulated how I fell into one sentence. It is oddly freeing not to feel guilty about staying home. I’ve been home for two weeks now (I started keeping my pre-Ks home a few days ahead of the school district announcement) and loving it so much I hardly noticed I hadn’t been out.
 
Marsha H. March 22, 2020
I would love a more detailed recipe for this chicken. How long is it cooked at 450?
 
Maggie March 22, 2020
Unfortunately, all the details are in the video.
 
Awilba March 21, 2020
This may take too long. I would boil a package of tofu and call it even.
 
Losi P. March 21, 2020
So she stayed at home to write a food blog? The details of her "social distancing" here are sketchy. Many people live homebound lives due to chronic illness and disability. Maybe this would have been a better article coming from someone who stayed home because they didn't have choice. Sick and disabled people will tell you in no uncertain terms what social distancing actually feels like. This article kind of pisses me off. Don't use the term self-isolation so lightly.
 
Jackie H. March 22, 2020
While I appreciate her sharing an isolating experience during these crazy times in order to help others, let’s not pretend that self isolating because afear to embrace the Chinese culture isn’t even close to what we are going through. I feel sorry for this woman. To have had the opportunity to live in a foreign country - on an expat salary mind you - and isolate yourself is shame.
 
barbara March 22, 2020
Negative response. No judgement of what someone else experienced.
 
Robin March 22, 2020
Agree!
 
Robin March 22, 2020
Apologies - I actually mean to reply on another post.
 
Robin March 22, 2020
Totally agree.
 
Robin March 22, 2020
Your comments are so insulting. I’m sure that she does not need your pity. Why are you assuming that she’s afraid to “embrace Chinese culture” — she was born in Taiwan!! Self-isolating is not shameful. Ugh!!
 
melissa B. March 23, 2020
Who are you to judge other people's life decisions? Maybe you have some self-examining to do!
 
Anne J. March 24, 2020
I think that there is room for all kinds of reasons to be forced into isolation from staying home. I come from the immune compromised/disabled group too but I don’t think we have a monopoly on self-isolation.
 
CandidlyBethAnn March 20, 2020
I relate to this at so many levels. Growing up in a very sheltered homeschool cult, not leaving the house for weeks at a time was normal fare. Just as I had started to adjust to America life as a free woman, I moved to an culture that I don't fit in with. It became easy to just stay home and cook. Obsessively. And now, I'm all practiced. It's a relief. I'm not having to force myself to attend play dates or hope for excuses to let me stay home from library story time. My oddity has become my strength.