American stuck in China during coronavirus pandemic is back home months later


EVANSTON — American Kurt Mitenbuler left for what he thought would be a typical vacation to China last December, but didn’t make it home until nine months later.

He was planning to travel for a few months with his wife, who is from China, but when the pandemic hit China in December he had to stay put due to government orders.

Speaking from the couch in his Evanston living room, he said he’s thrilled to be home and is certain he will return to China again when the time is right.

“I read a lot; there wasn’t a lot to do. It’s like we were in prison,” Mitenbuler said.

He read at least 20 books, and he fine-tuned his culinary skills while surrounded by his wife’s family. Six of them lived in a 3 bedroom apartment for two-and-a-half months during lockdown.

While he spoke with WGN reporters several times via Zoom over the past nine months, he said he never once left the complex where they lived. Government employees told them to stay inside or risk arrest.

“A lot of Chinese cooking that I hadn’t mastered before, I now mastered. Dumplings and bowza buns and all this stuff,” he said.

There were deep cleanings inside the apartment building, and only one positive case of COVID-19 there the whole time, he said.

“The real heroes in Wuhan were the delivery guys,” he said, describing them as moving like a swarm of bees to deliver everything their family needed in record time.

While Mitenbuler was tested for the virus only twice during those nine months, he described the testing as a well-executed military operation.

“I was part of the 10 million people that got tested in seven days,” Mitenbuler said “Bang, bang, bang, everybody lined up, went through, all got the nucleic acid test.”

Within 24 hours, he said they had their COVID results, which were in turn registered with the Chinese government using a QR code. You went nowhere without it, and your health status is revealed wherever it was demanded.

“If there is one thing the Chinese are really good at, it’s documentation and data collection,” Mitenbuler said.

Mitenbuler said he finally made a pledge to get home for two reasons: he had a business to run and he needed to get home to vote; a top priority for him.

Now that he is home, he said a closer look at his rooftop garden is sort of representative of the trip he doesn’t care to repeat.

“I’m someone else now. I’m not sure who that person is, but I have a whole other perspective on the world now,” Mitenbuler said.


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