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Months before the coronavirus epidemic really hit the United States, I had an inkling that we weren’t taking this outbreak seriously enough. I couldn’t pinpoint the source of the discomfort, but I felt it — I knew we were closer to danger than those who had compared the coronavirus to the flu, or thought it would dissipate quickly, destined only to become a meme. I wasn’t the only one with this hunch. My dad started buying cans of Spam; my mom was obsessed with making sure I was submerged in hand sanitizer.
Back then, in January, this pandemic still felt far away enough to be funny. In a Chinese community thread, one person joked about who was most worried about COVID-19: Chinese American women, Chinese American men, the media, ICU doctors, primary care doctors, the government, and finally, the CDC. Many people in the Chicagoland area had already panicked and bought boxes of face masks, giving my mom grief as we drove around to every Walgreens and CVS within a 30-mile radius, trying and failing to get some for ourselves. But their fear was motivated by statistics about a place thousands of miles away. Our fear was rooted in something much more personal.
My mom and dad grew up in Wuhan, China. They spent their childhoods swimming in the glittering Dong Hu (East Lake) and getting perms in the ’90s. They met each other at Wuhan University, and my dad took my mom out for dinner at the first KFC that opened in the city. When my parents immigrated to America, they left behind my grandparents, cousins, seven great-uncles and seven great-aunts, and more relatives who still call Wuhan home. And for the past two months, our family there has been living in a city under lockdown because of the coronavirus — a lockdown that is only now beginning to lift, even as the virus makes its way around the rest of the world.
Never again will I be able to talk about my parents’ hometown without the gears turning in people’s minds as they wonder: Isn’t that...?
Everything happened so suddenly. A week before Lunar New Year, on January 18, our family in Wuhan gathered for the first banquet that would kick off 15 days of celebration. Then, on January 23, two days before New Year began, the government announced that the city of 11 million was going on lockdown, which meant that public transportation would be shut down and millions of people would not be able to leave their homes. My relatives told me they weren’t even allowed to go to the supermarket for groceries. At one point, stores would refresh their online shopping page at midnight, so my aunt would stay up late to purchase the limited necessities that quickly ran out because of the delivery cyclist shortage. During a time meant for joyful family gatherings, people couldn’t even be in the same room.
One day in late January, I came home to find my dad back from the post office, having just shipped two heavy-duty construction masks overseas. He explained to me that two of our relatives in Wuhan had gotten kidney transplants and their caregivers had to go out to get the medication, but surgical masks were sold out in the city. The cashier at the hardware store had stared at my dad’s face, evidently noticing his Chinese features, and, attempting to be subtle, asked, “What are you going to do with those?” “I’m…doing some work on a home project,” my dad replied, though they both knew that wasn’t the case.
To me, Wuhan is the heart of my family, of my roots, and of a fascinating culture. I fell in love with the bustling, homey city in seventh grade, when we flew to China from Chicago and I was paraded to relatives’ apartments and dinner parties around a lazy susan in an effort to condense a decade of memories into a fortnight. A transportation hub during the day, Wuhan morphs into a culinary paradise of street foods during mealtimes: re gan mian, lotus root soup, glazed Hubei duck. My dad’s taste buds became expertly trained at detecting the degree of sweetness or pinch of black pepper in a dish. (Imagine his bittersweet melancholy upon moving to the United States and replacing spicy noodles with juicy Quarter Pounders, fried sesame balls with saccharine butter cake.)
But to the rest of the world, Wuhan is now the cradle of the coronavirus, the city with the exotic animal marketplace that supposedly infected humans with a deadly virus. Never again will I be able to talk about my parents’ hometown without the gears turning in people’s minds as they wonder: Isn’t that...? Never again will I express the passionate ferocity I felt on “China Day” in third grade, racing to the map at the front of the room and stabbing my finger into the heart of the country for my classmates to see.
Thousands of miles away from Wuhan, when it was then the epicenter of the pandemic, I felt an underlying disconnect from what my family was going through there. When my high school classmate joked about how all Asians should wear face masks, I cringed but said nothing. When a friend actually wore a face mask to school after his mom returned from China, he told me, “Everyone was staring. But since my parents insisted, I did it to reassure them.” I laughed when my little brother came home from school one day to tell me he had heard a beer company named Corona had changed its name to Ebola, then realized that he genuinely believed it.
Disheartened, I wondered how many others believed in these myths, how some people in the US were worried enough to be racist but not enough to cancel a trip to the beach. Simultaneously, I understood their fears, understood their urge to blame a foreign city they had never heard of for canceling their plans and introducing the concept of social distancing (something that is, if not against the nature of all humans, certainly anti-teenager). I held in my complaints about the uncertainty of graduation while my 17-year-old cousin on the other side of the world prepared for the same college entrance exam that my parents had taken decades earlier — one that would determine the rest of his life — but this time, with only online courses and textbooks to help him study. I last saw him five years ago, where he showed me table tennis in the park and I taught him how to play Egyptian Rat Screw in a traffic jam. Now we are on opposite sides of the world, facing the same disease.
Last week, the US officially overtook China as the country with the highest number of confirmed cases in the world. I think it’s fair to say that most people here are — finally — as concerned as my family was back in January. And maybe people in the United States have started to understand that across the world, we are facing the same enemy. Wuhan may be known as ground zero, but it isn’t unique. The city is just a symbol — now, everywhere is Wuhan.
Wuhan may be known as ground zero, but it isn’t unique. The city is just a symbol — now, everywhere is Wuhan.
At the beginning of the US pandemic, my parents discussed the future in hushed, uncertain voices and I tiptoed downstairs late at night to play card games with my friends over FaceTime. Then every teen I know suddenly turned into a biostatistician or epidemiologist, citing flattened curves and peaks in the hopes that we could somehow convince ourselves our prom would still happen. Since then, some of my friends have been catalyzed by self-isolation; one friend cut her own bangs on day three, while we could only comfort her from afar. We desperately hoped that things would go back to normal, that we as high school seniors might be able to say our last goodbyes to people we didn’t even know we’d miss.
I realize, though, that nothing will ever truly be the same. My dad jokes that my parents’ 401(k) has gone down to a “301(k).” I tried to get my dad to explain what that meant; he just keeps making exaggerated expressions of agony, but I know he is worried. I feel myself enacting a false sense of normalcy, struggling with homework as COVID-19 news plays in the background, trying to bake pastry puffs next to a pantry with two weeks’ worth of nonperishables, fielding calls from our connections in China as they ask how bad the situation is, whether they need to send us face masks.
It's ironic, the sympathy I felt for my family in Wuhan without ever believing I would be in the same situation. Yet, the inkling of awareness I had months before COVID-19 hit my own country helped me more quickly understand the many layers this pandemic has uncovered — the power of globalization, discrimination, socioeconomic differences, bureaucratic pressures, and personal identity. China recently announced that it will be lifting its lockdown on Wuhan on April 8. Across the Pacific, my high school classes are supposed to resume that day after spring break, but the community doubts it.
Still, there is hope. During the peak crisis months of February and March in Wuhan, some people shouted from rooftops and apartment windows in solidarity, while others took to the front lines. After my uncle, who owned a car, ran an essential errand for a neighbor, many people in the city contacted him through Weibo and WeChat for help with delivering groceries, transporting materials to the hospital, and bringing patients to get medical care. Thousands of doctors and nurses risk their lives to save others. Unsung heroes, everyday civilians, are saving our lives at a distance. Even when we retreat into denial, looking for a sense of normalcy, the need for this kind of courage is certain.
As a resident of not only a nation, but a world, I hope we will come out of this stronger, more united. Being aware that we are living history is an otherworldly feeling. We will learn to appreciate the significant things and the small, hugging each other close. We will share stories with those in China, Italy, England, Iran, and many more about our universal yet unique experiences in isolation.
Like many Americans, I await a sign — any sign — of when this will all be over. No one can predict it, but meanwhile, I’ll be baking, keeping up with online school and the whereabouts of my friends (at home, of course), dealing with my little brother while calling my grandparents who are cooped up 7,000 miles away. It helps, a little, that they know exactly what I’m going through. ●
Nicole Tong is a senior at Naperville North High School in Illinois. She will be attending Stanford University this fall.