Love for ground zero: Thoughts from an American who’s lived in Wuhan, China

Largely unknown to Westerners until a month ago, the city of Wuhan in Central China has gone viral. It’s become a place synonymous with words like epidemic, quarantine, “black swan.”

While the global media has multiplied unfavorable views of the city, criticism against Wuhan has come from within China, as well. Consider, for example, the extent to which Wuhan residents have been shunned by their own countrymates.

Much of the unsavory press about Wuhan and the coronavirus is necessary. You really can’t tackle a global outbreak without focusing on some very disturbing realities. I get it.

However, having lived and worked in Wuhan since 2015 as a Colorado State University (CSU) professor, I see the city as far more than “coronavirus ground zero.” I’ve come to love Wuhan and its people. I was even preparing to return this semester to continue teaching courses in tourism management when news of the virus emerged.

Based on my experiences in Wuhan, I want to contribute to the global narrative by helping people unfamiliar with the city to see it differently. Without exploring the very real horrors, ongoing uncertainties, and ostensible shortcomings associated with the coronavirus in Wuhan, my aim is that readers will get a glimpse into what Wuhan has represented for me and millions of others before and beyond the recently descended coronavirus curtain.

To that end, below is a list of 10 things about Wuhan that I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy while working and living there before the virus outbreak. These range from big picture items down to rewarding, everyday experiences largely ignored in the recent media blitz.

Wuhan History / Economy

With a population of 11 million, Wuhan is located in Central China along the third longest river in the world, the Yangtze. (I usually say Wuhan is located between the pandas and Shanghai.) As with other regions in China, the city has felt the colonizing presence of multiple foreign powers in China between the 1840s and early 20th century, including Japan, Russia, France, Germany, and England. It was the site of the initial uprising leading to the overthrow of the last Chinese dynasty in 1911. In recent decades, Wuhan has experienced significant economic diversification / expansion due to domestic and international investment in automobile, tech, and finance sectors, among others. The city’s pursuit of improvement is summed up by its motto: “Wuhan – different every day.”

Wuhan Shopping

Contrasting with news broadcasts of Wuhan’s now grey, empty streets, I live in a usually bustling area of Wuhan called Jiedaokou. Day and night, the area is flooded with vibrant lights and well-dressed urbanites enjoying modern shopping areas and entertainment centers. I have immediate access to three massive malls just 10 minutes walking-distance from my apartment at Central China Normal University (CCNU) – the campus where I teach natural resource tourism for CSU (video slideshow here).

Western stores abound like Haagen Dazs, Sephora and Air Jordan, with myriad Asian chains like Uniqlo thrown into the mix. At the grocery store I frequent in one of the malls, I have access to loads of fresh fruits, mini-kegs of Danish and Belgian beer, German milk, Swiss muesli, and French wine.

Western Restaurant

Both in and around the malls near my apartment, there are also hundreds of restaurants: Indian food, Japanese food, Thai food, steak and burger joints, beer bars with really good tacos, genuine Italian pizzas (the Chinese owner prides himself on his authentic sauces and crusts), and the list goes on.

Chinese fare obviously abounds, as well. The scintillating, fresh flavors are impossible to describe (ginger, green onion, cilantro, pickled radish, and black vinegar add-ons are particular favorites). Suffice it to say I look forward to going back for wanton soup, sesame breakfast noodles, steamed buns, beef soups, and a host of other dishes like hot pot or Asian burritos wrapped with rice instead of tortilla.

Wuhan People

I didn’t know anything about life in China before arriving in 2015. I didn’t know that acquaintances in Wuhan would refuse to let me pay for my meals until I was settled. (I heard time and again, “You are our guest!”) I didn’t know that the Chinese were so curious about American culture. I didn’t know Wuhan policemen would kindly point out the best places to eat. I didn’t know students would be so eager to learn and support each other. I didn’t know my Wuhan friends and colleagues would enjoy sharing so much of their own history and culture (leading me on excursions in Wuhan and to other cities like Chengdu, Xi’an, Guilin).

In short – my view of China has been transformed thanks to the ongoing generosity, kindness, and respect of the Wuhan people toward me and toward Americans at large.

Wuhan Public Transportation

Very few Westerners are aware of the quality of public transportation now available in China. In Wuhan, for example, the number of clean, convenient subway lines has risen from 3 to 8 over the last four years.

More impressive, of course, are the high-speed trains now linking Wuhan to other major cities nationwide. The trains are smooth – you pretty much hear and feel nothing while barreling along at 200-plus miles per hour. Given Wuhan’s location in Central China, I often avoid the hassle of airports and take a comfy bullet train to arrive in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, or Hong Kong in just four to five hours. America could learn from the Chinese and step up its train game in providing such efficient public transportation options.

Wuhan Coffee

As in much of the world, the coffee craze has hit Wuhan. New shops are continually cropping up with well-trained baristas doling out latte art and offering all manner of specialty drinks. I’ve developed a solid set of go-to-cafes minutes from my apartment, each with desirable / distinguishable features like a lakefront view or colorful chandelier and leather seat interior. Among my list of options, all within a 10-minute walk, are three of the now 100 (yes, 100!) Starbucks stores sprinkled across Wuhan.

Wuhan Beer

Like coffee shops, craft beer bars are springing up all over the city. Some are run by foreigners (e.g., Americans, Botswanans, etc.), although a growing number (and no doubt a majority) are run by Chinese.

These bars offer beer options from all over the world – bottled, canned, on draft. I can walk down the street, for example, to the bar owned by my Botswanan friend and his Chinese wife to find the Milk Stout from Left Hand Brewery out of Longmont, Colorado. Many nearby watering holes have another personal favorite on tap – the crisp classic Carlsberg from Denmark.

craft brewery and smokehouse just opened across town, as well, where they offer a solid list of beers and American-style BBQ made in-house.

Wuhan Universities

Wuhan has more than 50 colleges and universities and over a million college students – arguably one of the largest student populations in the world for a single city. The university where I’m stationed (CCNU) is considered a Top-100 school in China.

Other schools like Wuhan University have gained significant international recognition. A U.S. friend of mine does research there; he recently shared his views on life in Wuhan since the city was locked down.

Additionally, I was surprised to learn that U.S. News and World Report ranked one university in Wuhan – Huazhong University of Science and Technology, or HUST – higher than both Stanford and MIT in global rankings for computer science.

Wuhan Leisure

The area around my apartment has several gyms with swimming pools (membership dues ranging from 20 to 80 USD per month), as well as several movie theaters with IMAX and 4-D film viewing options. In 2020, Hollywood is projected to make more money in China than it does in the U.S. In fact, I and some friends watched “Black Panther” in 4-D several years ago, with moving chairs and scents of the African veldt enriching the usual 3-D viewing experience.

Just a short metro ride away from my apartment is the Wuhan Water Show. (Think Cirque du Soleil meets Chinese love story.) Known officially as the “Han Show,” viewers congregate in a giant dome with stadium seating, moving platforms, pools and waterfalls, grandiose music, giant high-def digital backdrops, acrobatic divers, and costumed dancers. It’s all in Chinese but entertaining for non-Chinese speaking foreigners.

Wuhan Safety

Travelling throughout China, I’ve been amazed at how safe its massive cities are. Wuhan is no different. I’ve found you can walk anywhere at any time of the day or night and feel completely safe. Completely.

It says something about China when you forget your 2018 MacBook Pro on a subway seat in Wuhan (which I did) and the laptop travels 1.5 hours to the end of the line (which mine did) without anyone touching it. (Selfies ensued with overjoyed police the next day when I retrieved my laptop from them at the terminal station.)

My purpose with this article has been to put a different spin on the Wuhan coronavirus conversation. I’ve intentionally ignored the bad and the ugly – recognizing and remembering what I love about a place now internationally renowned for all the wrong reasons.

If my optimism doesn’t satiate your need for nuance, you can always find articles and opinion pieces that depict Wuhan more, one might say, holistically or even critically.

Regardless of reader predilections, I honor those involved in the fight against this global threat. To employ a Chinese phrase meaning “Come on!” – itself going viral across Chinese social media and representing Wuhan’s fighting spirit – I say to Wuhan and the world: Jiāyóu 加油!

David Knight, Ph.D., Personal Blog. Love for ground zero: Thoughts from an American who has lived in Wuhan, China