By JINJIN XU
New York City March 17, 2020
For the past few days, I’ve vacillated between panic, helplessness, and feeling like a prophetic, burning witch. I spent the first two months of this year watching the pandemic take hold of China—from the arrest of Dr. Li WenLiang for spreading “false rumors,” to Wuhan and the whole country going into lockdown, to my friends mailing masks back home to their families in China—sitting in my NYC apartment as the virus swept across Korea, Iran, Italy, making its way across the globe towards me.
The calm before the storm was unbearable. As normal life in New York continued, I felt desperately alone in my panic. During class one night, as my MFA peers discussed poems, I couldn’t understand their words. Meaning burst and rippled. I asked to be excused. After the longest subway ride of my life—sweating through a mask and fielding accusatory glances from the packed train, who all gave me a wide berth—I got home and burst into tears.
That night, I had planned on speaking to my roommates about preparing for quarantine. My anxiety ramped up as I realized I had assumed the responsibility of stocking up on food and essentials for all three of us. I didn’t know how to translate my panic into practical terms that they, as Americans, would understand. There were yet no useful terms such as “flatten the curve” and “social-distancing.”
I knew the pandemic was going to affect all of us. I knew we would have to wear masks and cancel everything and stay home. Was it from my experience at nine years old when the SARS epidemic hit China? I have a vague memory of staying home for three months. Or from reading The DeCameron and fantasizing about being quarantined with nothing but stories? More likely, it was from seeing life in China, then Italy, Iran, and Korea come to a standstill. And yet, I could not translate this belief to my American friends—that society can and will come to a stop.
It was then that I felt a clashing of cultures as never before. I felt slammed between what I could only ascribe to individualist and collectivist attitudes, even though such essentializing has always made me uneasy. Within me was an internalized social order: my every action will impact those around me; of course there is a collective, greater good.
I won’t be able to live with myself if I get you two sick, I tried to explain to my roommates, though we had just talked about how as an age group we were not likely in danger. I don’t want my parents to worry, I tried again. It would kill me if they felt helpless from abroad—who knows when travel will be allowed again?
And yet, my roommates and other Americans could not imagine the capitalist engine taking a pause because their own lives were not yet affected—society is not sick until they themselves become sick.
In Asian countries, public mask usage has been widely adopted since the SARS epidemic in 2002: Regardless of whether you are sick, you wear a mask for the safety of yourself and others. However, in the United States—not having experienced a pandemic of such scale in recent memory, and told by federal health agencies to save masks for essential workers—people infuriatingly channeled their uncertainty into racism against mask-wearers of Asian descent. My Asian friends gave voice to a terrifying dilemma: Should I wear a mask to protect myself from infection, or forgo a mask to protect myself from racism?
At stake were also people’s relationship to and trust in the government. The CDC’s initial messaging discouraging mask-wearing was contradictory and unclear. Followed by the dawning realization of governmental incompetency, this led to individual hoarding of masks, fueling greater anxiety and scarcity. A Singaporean friend said to me, People are not nervous here because they know the government will take care of them. The Shanghai government, too, swiftly re-allocated resources to hospitals, limiting sales to five masks per household—my mother had to get a slip from the neighborhood association to purchase five masks for the family.
While I felt the quarantine in China personally, Westerners were able to see it—as they have throughout history—as happening to an Other. With sudden loneliness, I realized that only those around me who also had family in Asia shared the overwhelming strain from the news. In the mix, perhaps, was also a sense of American exceptionalism, or a lack of imagination or empathy that produces the thought: What’s happening there cannot happen here. Of course, I am also implicated—I wasn’t affected by news from Iran or Italy or even Korea in the same way I was by news from China.
Before this, I would have scoffed at myself for using such easy juxtapositions of “collectivist” v. “individual.” But recent turmoil has exposed the bones of such underlying truths, while also giving me the unique opportunity to confront them. Through daily conversations, my roommates and I have established boundaries and plans for living together in isolation for the foreseeable future.
With them, I have tried to put into words the “collective good.” We have begun sharing tasks and clarifying communications: stocking up, rules for leaving and staying indoors, telling each other whenever we leave the house. As we shifted into full lock-down mode, we began having nightly check-ins to make space for our emotions, however difficult and conflicting they might be.
One especially difficult conversation took place last week regarding my roommate’s birthday party. Yes, she understood what it meant to “flatten the curve” but surely, seeing a few close friends is okay? There was perhaps no correct answer. But because I had set the rules, it was my responsibility to uphold them. I resented that. But, I took a breath and reminded her, these are rules we set together. All of us are in this together. I could only repeat it; I didn’t know how to inject a collective consciousness into someone not brought up with that sense of social order.
Since that emotional conversation, I have been learning to let some of my anxieties go. I realize that while I often assume responsibility for the wellbeing of those around me, I cannot, at the end of the day, control anyone’s actions.
As exiled Chinese writer Yan Lianke says, in his recent speech warning against China’s early declarations of victory against the virus and subsequent erasures of grief:
If we can’t be a whistle-blower like Li Wenliang, then let us at least be someone who hears that whistle. If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories. Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of Covid-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.
I want to be someone who remembers.
Macau March 19, 2020
Collapsing into a restless sleep upon arrival in my hotel room in Macau, I dreamt I was having a panic attack. In the depth of my dream, the windows of my room wouldn’t open and I couldn’t breathe. I woke, blurry eyed, facing the dead-bolted windows.
It’s true. I am locked inside.
Two nights ago, I woke in my New York City apartment to anxious texts from my roommate. I found her in the kitchen—she had stayed up all night going down a spiral of stats, suddenly grasping the immensity of the pandemic, how it would likely sink the economy and affect everyone’s livelihood.
We acknowledged what we already knew: We didn’t really have any stake in staying in this city, our temporary home. We needed to be with our families, at home. This is the privilege of being a gentrifier. We never belonged here, and we didn’t need to stay.
Just then, my parents called to check in. I told them my roommate was now thinking about going home to Seattle and had invited me to come with her if I needed to. No, staying put in your apartment is the safest option, they said. As fortune flipped between China and the U.S.—from me panicking about my parents’ health to now, the reverse—my parents had been torn about the “safer” place to be.
Up until then, the pros of going home to Shanghai had always been outweighed by the cons: the perils of traveling through airports and breathing recycled air for 15 hours, the exorbitant price of the plane tickets and the many transfers, the two-week mandatory quarantine in a government facility, the wave of Chinese students returning home, not knowing if my visa would still be valid to return to the US…
However, with New York on imminent lock down and more flights being cancelled every day, losing the option to return home became terrifying. The imminent collapse of the US health care system, the growing stories of racism against Asians, and the blatant disregard for public health as mask-less New Yorkers wandered the crowded sidewalk outside my window sent me into spirals of anxiety.
Policies between countries were changing daily. The United States and China might shut down their borders soon—already, only Chinese citizens were allowed to enter China. If I didn’t leave now, when would I be able to go home next? I decided to check the flights and saw that while all the flights to Shanghai were either cancelled or required day-long transits through multiple airports, there was one last direct flight to Hong Kong with a few seats left. The price was skyrocketing before my eyes. My mom didn’t need any more signs. Come home! She said. Come home and I will be able to sleep at night!
As soon as I arrived at JFK that night, I was surrounded by masked figures—Chinese families wearing raincoats and surgical gloves, students wearing swim goggles, suitcases wrapped in trash bags. Familiar scenes of how people have been traveling in China. Inside my mask, I sighed with relief, my people.
The airline workers, buried in chaos as policies between borders shifted constantly, were passing around sheets of updated rules to check against international passports. Snatching the last ticket to Hong Kong turned out to be an act of coincidental foresight—I have a Macau passport, and as Macau has limited international flights, all international arrivals of Macau citizens into Hong Kong would be transferred by the Macau government into a two-week quarantine in Macau. Not only are quarantine conditions in Macau rumored to be better than those in the mainland, I had also been nervous about the harsh public backlash against the influx of students returning to Shanghai from abroad—leading to a rise in COVID-19 count and overwhelming quarantine conditions. Now, my plan was to return to my family in Shanghai after my two-week quarantine in Macau.
But, the airline representative told me Macau citizens were no longer allowed to travel through Hong Kong. I showed her the news that the Macau government had just extended the policy, but no one would listen—they needed direct confirmation from Hong Kong’s border control. Three hours later, I watched the last luggage spin away on the carousel, and the airline manager told me Hong Kong ground control had never heard of the policy I was referring to. I convinced them to call again, three times, but received the same denial.
Check-in closed. I called my parents, trying to keep my voice steady as I delivered the news. Then, five minutes before the gates came down, I realized a loophole: while they wouldn’t let me land in Hong Kong, transfers were still allowed. I immediately bought a refundable ticket from Hong Kong to Shanghai, transferring via a twenty-hour layover in Tokyo. With that, I was allowed to board the flight.
I arrived in Hong Kong at 5 AM. As soon as I exited the flight, an airline worker walked me to the Macau Citizens waiting area. A white Macanese of Portuguese descent was already waiting. My initial relief and optimism slowly wore away as we waited the whole morning for more passengers to arrive—mostly students like me returning from studying abroad. As noon ticked by, the Portuguese man started grumbling: I have been here since last night, you only gave me water and biscuits, I am a Macau citizen too! Everyone else was strangely complacent and quiet, waiting to be directed.
An hour later, they finally loaded us onto buses. We drove to another side of the Hong Kong airport and waited another hour to be cleared—we had to enter and leave Hong Kong borders, and then enter Macau’s. We drove across the longest bridge in the world—spanning Hong Kong, Zhuhai (mainland China), and Macau. At the Macau port, we filled out forms examination style—tables spaced apart—and were subject to questioning about our health history. Those with a fever or illness were immediately shipped to the hospital. After the authorities questioned me, I sat in a waiting room and watched the rest of the queue filter through their questioning for four hours.
At every stop, they counted our names and checked our identifications. Sometimes we were registered entering one side of the room, and then after sitting down, would be roll-called again. By the time we got on the bus to the hotel, it was 7 PM. A journey from Hong Kong to Macau, which by car takes at most two hours, had taken a staggering 20 hours. We hadn’t eaten all day. Even the Portuguese man had grown quiet.
On the bus, I discovered the hotel originally designated for quarantine—an old hotel by the Macau airport with no wifi—had filled up the day before, and just today a beach resort had been opened for the purpose. We stood for four hours outside the hotel as they took our temperatures again and assigned us individual rooms. Under the awning, breathing in my first fresh air of the past forty hours through the thin fiber of my mask, I realized this was the very hotel where my mother had self-quarantined for a month during an illness five years ago. I strained my ears for the sound of waves that would be muted outside my window for the next two weeks.
Lining up outside of the quarantine hotel with other students returning from abroad
Macau March 27, 2020
Five times a day, starting at 7 A.M., there are knocks on my door and I have to open. I am learning to distinguish between the frantic banging of the hazmat-suited man taking my temperature, and the rushed taps of the man delivering plastic cartons of hot food.
On my third day here, two medics knocked, held my head against the doorframe, and stuck a swab up my nose to test me for Covid-19. They said they will be back in a week to test again. If you test positive, they post all of your information online so you can be contact-traced, and you are transported directly to the hospital. The next day, I saw on Facebook that a man on my flight (52 years old, 30th case in Macau, a detailed travel history) was transported away from the hotel.
However, they do not notify you if you test negative. I spent the past few days not allowing myself to settle down, unpack, and establish a routine because I feared they might take me away at any moment. In bed, I watched the light change out my window, jiggling the deadbolt with my foot, cat-like, and slept until their knocking woke me. I did not have the energy to talk to anyone on the phone—I had little desire to speak, to make meaning—and the sound of my voice surprised me when I greeted the faceless man in the hazmat suit, who pointed a temperature gun at my forehead.
I spent long days inside Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I had filled my suitcase with new books, and yet, I only wanted to be held by her, whose books I have loved for many years. There was something reassuring about Ferrante’s voice in her lucid narrative. Perhaps because the story is recounted from the future, we know that despite the trauma of the characters’ present, things will be okay, that it has already happened, and there will be a day when things can be looked back upon and told from a distance.
This was also the comfort of re-reading. I wanted to be embraced by the familiarity of deeply loved worlds—old friends who would keep me safe. Even as, in the books, the characters’ lives are irreparably ruptured: “Minutes and minutes and minutes that wouldn’t end,” Ferrante writes of a sudden earthquake that “expelled… the confidence that every second would be identical to the next” in The Story of the Lost Child. The rupture of their reality mirrored my own anxious uncertainty—the stability of this hotel room was a sham—and thus, the narrative held my fears, shaped them into a reality I could understand.
Minutes, minutes, minutes, the clock radio on my nightstand skipped ahead sporadically. The time difference between here and New York is exactly twelve hours, warping everything upside down. I drank an opened bottle of soymilk, forgetting days had passed, and collapsed from food poisoning. In between the five knocks of my days, I slept hungrily, grateful for the escape. In my dreams, the vividness of touch. And yet, I always woke right before my skin came into contact with another. My dreams, then, were about hunger. When I woke, I closed my eyes again, trying to go beyond that moment, scratching myself. My long nails were a testament to the passage of days. When I asked the hotel for a nail clipper, they said, no, it was too dangerous.
The more I lost the sound of my voice, the deeper I sank into my own silence. Perhaps that is related to my inability to write. Most days, it was exhausting to even think about writing, which I am realizing is connected, for me, to the pleasures of living, an aliveness, a desire to be heard, a belief that I will be heard.
Again, Ferrante’s narrators shook me awake: “To write, you have to want something to survive you,” says her friend to the narrator, “I don’t even have the desire to live.” These words struck me, affirmed my aliveness and unfroze a buried feeling: though at the moment, I did not feel very much alive, I had, and I would.
Now, as the desire to write resurfaces, a calm welcomes me. I realize that I am here. Thoughts bubble beneath the stillness of the page. I record images, give shape to strands of narrative, of meaning. Muddled days separate, come into being. I am here, yet also far from this hotel room.
In the afternoons, I sit close to the window and bathe in the sun. If I close my eyes, there is the illusion of being directly under it, outside. The boundaries between inside and outside are temporarily displaced. How illusory, the glass. I am reminded of the boundaries of a Japanese-style house, the dissolving borders separating our perception of inside from outside. The penetrating sunlight. I remember the scene from the movie “Parasite,” when the couple trapped in the basement emerges from underground to dance in the living room, the sun streaming through the glass to cast two dancing shadows.
Breathing fresh air for the first time after 14-day quarantine
Macau April 3, 2020
I left quarantine yesterday, but the laws changed during my stay—I would have to quarantine for two more weeks if I crossed the border into mainland China. My parents are in my hometown, Shanghai, and we decided I should stay at their old place in Macau to wait out the restriction.
I had only spent summers on this island, which, until twenty years ago, was a Portuguese colony. On the taxi from the quarantine hotel, the sudden loudness of my spoken Mandarin surprised me. I reached into hazy memories to guide the driver through unfamiliar streets as he ferried me into a past life.
I unlocked the apartment, opened the dusty windows to the season’s sporadic rains. In the hill behind the house, I stumbled upon a patch of tombstones with signs of recent visitation. Stacks of fresh oranges and still-lit incense shed ashes in front of the newly cleaned stone. Tomorrow, I realized, is Tomb Sweeping Day, the annual day of mourning and visiting ancestors. A numb, inexpressible grief cracked open as I recalled how people in Wuhan were still waiting in long lines to collect the ashes of loved ones—perhaps, so they could be buried in time for tomorrow. The bereaved were not allowed to go alone. Colleagues and community members accompanied them to keep their grief in check. Uncontained grief has the power to unleash unrest.
This news wasn’t available on the Chinese internet. I glimpsed it online here in Macau, where the internet is “freer” because the island is a special administered region. The Chinese internet, on the other hand, is currently outraged about Wuhan writer FangFang’s “Lockdown Diaries” being translated into English. While her daily documentations of lockdown had been influential—in fact, they inspired my own writing of these diaries—they also sparked a public outrage reminiscent of the cultural revolution’s collective fury. The news her work was to be published abroad triggered a defensive patriotism, which steadily rose as the virus made its way across the globe. FangFang’s observations were seen as a betrayal to her “motherland,” and she received death threats from millions who formed an online “army” against her.
As I witnessed this outrage, I did not realize that a small army was bubbling under my own internet presence. I had been translating a few of my earlier diaries into Chinese for an editor of a Chinese publication who was curating a series of COVID dispatches from Chinese students across the globe. My father had cautioned me that the publication was pro-government. What’s the harm? I thought. Publications have to be pro-government in order to survive, and I am just writing about my own experience. Anyway, I won’t translate anything that feels too sensitive.
As I began translating my writing from English, I felt ashamed of my rusty mother tongue. Over the phone, I read the jumbled sentences out loud to my parents, trying to catch their asynchronous grammar. We deliberated whether certain phrases could be uttered on the Chinese web. Prior to this, my parents had only read my work through a translation app, and I had felt guilty yet liberated that so much of my life existed in a space unknown to them. When I complained to my mother that my Chinese wasn’t flowing the way it did in English, she began embellishing my language with sentimental flourishes, enmeshing my thoughts with her own. I had returned to be close to my parents, and I desperately wanted to share this translation process with them. Yet, my mother’s edits felt invasive, transgressing upon a language once private to me.
I do not know when we can be physically united, but I already felt I was losing the edges of myself. I stopped showing my parents my translations. I needed to reclaim my language alone.
When the translated essays came out, my heart twisted as I scrolled through the comments section. One reader said (translations my own): “Such western thinking, falsifying compassion and pretending you are sad to leave your friends. Look at this ignorance: scared to go crazy in quarantine? If you wanted freedom why did you return?” I kept scrolling, I couldn’t look away. Something compelled me to screenshot the evidence, to document it—but to what end?
I have always been aware of the internet’s nationalist fervor, but underneath the Chinese netizens’ verbal gunfire, I felt devastatingly naked. Still, I could not look away. “Complain, complain, complain, why don’t you stay in America, don’t return,” another reader said. More followed: “Two faced, your words are full of complaint and maliciousness”; “Hypocrite, the arrogance of students abroad, only thinking of one’s self.”
I do not yet know how to articulate the betayal and self-hatred that these comments planted inside me. My parents laughed off their vitriol as the norm of online worlds. I forced myself to laugh too—I can see its absurdity, and I’ve always wanted to be the sort of writer whose words had the power to trip censors. Still, I couldn’t shake this feeling of being cast out from an already unmoored homeland.
My Chinese friends tell me that’s why they always write under pseudonyms. I had been naïve to publish something so “sensitive” under my real name. The commenters took pleasure in directly addressing me: “You might bring the virus to your parents, and countrymen. If you have ethics, don’t return.” This stung, ironically recalling the “Go back to China” insults sparked by Trump’s “China virus” rhetoric.
I don’t respond. I am again escaping into my other language, English, to process and understand. I want to say their comments have affirmed my convictions to write, to realize the real fears stroked by language, and the precarity of existing between two languages at war. But this feeling of betrayal is fresh—my existence in both languages has been shaken, and I am uncertain of my place on either land. Now, I put a gentle ear inside of me and listen to the languages I carry, rupturing.
Reunited with my parents and attending a socially-distanced eclipse-watching event
Macau September 20, 2020
This pandemic summer, I decided to teach my mother to swim. She is terrified of water, as she is terrified of most things. She does not trust her body, bodies of water, nor my instructions.
My mother had complained that her achy knees were impeding her twice-a-day walks, the exacting regimen she’d imposed on herself post-chemotherapy, five years ago. I begged her to let her knees rest, but at nightfall, she would peer down from the balcony, toes tapping.
Inevitably, when she returned and sat rubbing ointments onto her knees, I would yell at her for walking too long. “I have to,” she would yell back, “Or else the cancer will return.” As her hands rubbed the knots in her knees, I would feel a phantom pain in my own two knees—my body has always been painfully linked to hers.
Unlike her, I feel most alive underwater, as if finally shedding the trappings of my skin. As soon as the outdoor community pool opened this summer, I spent my days longing for the moment I could peel off my daughterly responsibilities and dive into its coolness. One day, as I was untangling my wet swimsuit, to my surprise, my mother peered around the doorway. “Teach me,” she said.
Since going away to college seven years ago, I’ve gotten used to seeing my parents once, at most twice, a year. “We are finally going to be together for a while,” my mother had said happily on the phone, listing the various ailments she would fix—my migraines, clogged sinuses, lack of boyfriend, sleep schedule.
In May, when the borders between the mainland and Macau opened, my parents packed up their things to move here, because they too have Macau passports. I would have had to quarantine again if I had gone to the mainland. I spent the three days before their arrival cleaning, knowing that they would immediately spot the flaws.
I cleaned to calm my nerves. Whenever we reunite after a long period apart, I find our initial, forced familiarity strange and lonely. I do not know how to arrange my limbs in relation to theirs. With foreignness, we circle each other, unused to sharing habits and space again. I’d fallen into a deep silence in the months prior, my only interactions brief and with strangers behind masks. Gradually, I’d even stopped calling friends, folding myself inside my own solitude.
At the border, my parents were delayed for a night—they had forgotten to register for a COVID test prior to arrival—which led to more frantic cleaning on my part. When they finally walked in the door, my mother immediately said, “How dirty the taps are!” Her predictable ability to arouse my annoyance was, in its own way, comforting.
We looked each other over with hesitant politeness, which I tried to break through by joking about something obscene. They laughed, shushing me—how are you still so childish?—and an order of intimacy was slightly restored. My mother began to assert herself, “Look, this is how one cleans.” I complained, as usual, that she was being controlling. “Let a mother teach her daughter,” she said, and I felt the solitude around me slip away.
Soon, of course, our three bodies began to merge. 一家三口, the modern, Chinese nuclear family: a family of three mouths. In other words, the age of the lonely, spoiled only child, a product of the one child policy. And soon, in our small apartment, I sensed the doom of our impending entanglement. Clustered around the dining room table three times a day, I felt the glue of my mouth unable to open without theirs also opening. We have become one organism, speaking over, on top of each other, dissolving our borders.
But I already knew this would happen when I chose to return. The challenge, each time, is to learn how to maintain my sense of self, which grows clearer the longer I am away. Up to now, I’ve escaped to the pool, where the boundary of my body crystalizes against the cold, held together by the water’s chlorinated rush.
In the beginning, only six people were allowed in the pool. Now, when the sun is out, it is often just my mother and me. My neighbors are afraid of their skin darkening, so their faces peek out from the many-storied windows above like mice.
At the side of the pool, my mother adjusts her swimsuit. “No one can see you in the water,” I assure her. But she isn’t convinced.
I coax her to dip her toes. She abides, before pulling her foot back from the sudden cold. She says, “Let me take my time getting familiar. I have to no longer be afraid.”
A year ago, on my last trip home, we had taken a series of photographs together—my mother and I hand in hand, my taller frame looming over hers. She had said to me, “The roles of daughter and mother have reversed.” Now, I say to her, “Put one foot before the other, lower your legs, belly, chest, neck into the water, follow me.” She shivers as she enters, letting the water overtake her, grasping my arm.
I decide that learning to breathe underwater is the first step to not being afraid. Side by side, we grab onto the edge of the pool. “Put your head in, blow out bubbles,” I demonstrate.
She is afraid but determined. After a few false starts, a long gurgle of bubbles springs from her lips. Underwater, she seems to be singing. I dive below, holding her hands, and see that her eyes are squeezed tightly shut despite wearing goggles.
I turn her onto her back, tell her, “Relax and trust the guide of my hand under your back. Splay out your limbs.” I tell her, “Stretch them far, far, look up at the sky. Breathe in and out.”
“Is your hand still there?” She yells. I lie, “Don’t worry.” But she keeps grasping for me, and when she realizes my hand has in fact slipped away, fear envelopes her. “Help me down! JinJin!” she yells. “You can do it by yourself,” I say, “Just trust that through the water, there is land, right there.”
But fear is suffocating. She grabs my wrists, clings to me. I push on the small of her back, she kicks her legs frantically, swallowing water, yanking the front of my bathing suit for balance.
In the water, I hold her upright. I tell her, “Trust the water, it is there to catch you.”
JinJin Xu is a filmmaker and writer from Shanghai. Her debut, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, won the inaugural Own Voices Chapbook Prize.
Headshot by Xu XiaoPing.
Photos by the author.