April 1, 2021 | Narrative
notes from 2020
January 20, Beijing
It was almost noon and the sky was pale brown with rolling sand. Unmasked, I stood at a bus stop on a wide, open road, choking on the Gobi desert as my friend took videos of the empty streets. Three days into Chinese New Year break, we headed downtown to brunch, putting on our newly-purchased masks only as we climbed into the crowded, city-bound bus. In many ways, that was the last day of 2020.
An hour and three transfers later, we sipped mimosas on a terrace overlooking the sprawling alleys of downtown Beijing, talking about exams and prom and my friend’s new boyfriend. In the end, none of those things would turn out the way we expected. Exams were cancelled by March and prom became a pipe dream. My friend would leave for Bangkok in February and never see me or her boyfriend again.
Of course, we didn’t know any of that yet. In fact, I was supposed to be in Wuhan the next day—the city where my family has spent every Chinese New Year since I was born. This year, however, my cousin’s wife who worked as an intensive care nurse in Wuhan called us the evening before our flight. “Do not come back,” she said after a 24 hour shift. Sitting in our living room, surrounded by packed suitcases, we asked her why. “Something is happening here,” she replied, “I have a bad feeling about it.”
Spring zoomed past without leaving any trace of its shadow. What I remember most clearly about this period of utter solitude was falling in love with rock music. As the magnolia tree outside my window blossomed, my bedroom became saturated with the voices of Kurt Cobain, Joan Jett, and the Stones. One night, after yet another numbing day of online classes attended in pajamas with the camera off, I turned up the volume of “Zombie” by the Cranberries. The shouting voices and throbbing beat roused a craving for action within me. Swinging and twirling, I danced because nobody was watching and my body needed to move. I danced because it was impossible not to. I danced to prove I was still alive.
The month I turned 18 was also the month I fell out of love with my city. All the people I knew went away—a period of mass exodus. I stayed home with a battered copy of Eat Pray Love and scrolled through photos of girls and boys on beaches, trying not to cry. Of course, I failed. I cried everywhere that summer. On the couch, in bed, at the park, while walking home from the subway at 1 a.m. after a rare happy evening, knowing full well that tomorrow was already crashing down on the city like a sledgehammer.
Sometime in June, things fell apart. Cases were rising again and the uncertainty was overwhelming. Something as trivial as a neighbor’s intrusively loud piano practice drove me mad. I was besieged in a room where “Für Elise” bombarded me from the ceiling and my parents’ yells crashed through the walls. Every day, I checked some 15 sources for infection and death rates around the world, and obsessively refreshed my email to see if the university had made its plans.
I was not supposed to be in Beijing anymore—that was the mantra of my despair. Every day as I woke up in that virus-stained city, my resentment grew. In June, I mourned the death of a life that could’ve been. It was clear when I stopped eating altogether and couldn’t get out of bed on my birthday that I’d stayed too long at the fair, so long that the tent had fallen and the ground folded in on itself beneath my feet.
Like a Prayer
Some days after writing an existentialist cry for help, the opportunity came for me to get a COVID test, which was required to fly out of Beijing. Armed with a big fat “NEGATIVE,” I left for a city that had just risen from the dead like Lazarus in the holy book.
The day I arrived in Wuhan the sky was gray and pouring rain. I stayed one night in a hotel room overlooking the Yangtze, alone. I ordered room service because it was cheap and I didn’t have an umbrella. That night, as I ate chicken and rice on a goose-feather bed, it felt almost okay. It felt as if I had finally fled the virus’s reach, not just the virus that attacked your lungs, but also the one that gnawed at your mind until it was Swiss cheese. I spent the last day of July in front of a hotel window, praying to gods I did not believe in, just in case.
Two days in Wuhan turned into a week which melted like smooth molasses into months. It rained every day at first. For a while, I didn’t leave my grandmother’s apartment except to get breakfast noodles from the vendors down the street. Those days were spent in a quiet bed watching Netflix and reading King. None of it scared me anymore.
When the rain finally stopped, I biked everywhere. The virus left almost no trace of itself except in the rows of fresh graves along the river bank. Summer slipped into fall as I wrapped myself in a soft blanket of loneliness. Insulated, I was grateful for the peaceful solitude of a city that could not atomize my existence. All fall, I biked until my thighs ached and went home to eat lotus root soup, each bite a return of warmth, long overdue.
In October, we drove west to the mountains in my uncle’s van. Everywhere, the roads shimmered. No one in the countryside wore masks anymore, and the air was rich with memories.
For ten days, we drove around the province and only stopped to indulge in fried fish and sticky buns. We’d been cooped up so long that it didn’t make sense to stay anywhere for more than one night. The only thing that did make sense was to drive and keep driving until we were not in Kansas anymore. To drive until disorientation, until we were lost enough to not know the right way home.
November came swiftly like the westerly wind and carried me home. I had hoped to run out the clock in Wuhan, but Beijing was calling my name.
“Graduation goggles” is what I call the nostalgia we experience when a period in our life is about to end, even if it was completely miserable. I saw everything through the lens of these delusional glasses. Beijing’s scything winds suddenly felt less abrasive on my peeling skin, and the sardine school that is the China World Trade Center became tinged with nostalgia. Why must everything regain its luster when it comes time to leave it behind? All winter long, Beijing desperately pleaded for me to stay, but I could not be fooled.
Goodbye to All That
Joan Didion once wrote, “It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.” I thought of these words as my plane rumbled into the dust-glazed sky on December 15, 2020. In the early months of this year, all of us saw something akin to a beginning; but I wonder, years later, when we look back over our shoulders at this devastating pandemic, will we be able to lay a finger upon the exact moment it ended? Will we have changed so fundamentally that there is no more “end” to speak of? Or will we forget and never look back at all?
I did not let myself believe that I was really leaving for America until Beijing faded beneath the clouds. Eleven hours into the flight, as the Laurentian Plateau of the Canadian shield came into view, I let out the breath that had been trapped in the back of my lungs. Goodbye, I whispered. With every exhale, my protective face shield fogged up a little more, so I closed my eyes and leaned back. In my ears, competing with the thunderous hum of the airplane engine, the 4 Non Blondes sang about screaming from the top of their lungs: “What’s going on?”