Life in The Time of Coronavirus

Covid-19 plane flight boston to HK

The first time I heard the word ‘coronavirus’ was at our last dinner in Istanbul. (note: COVID-19 is the newest strain from the coronavirus family, but forgive my then-ignorance of epidemiology.)

“What virus?” I asked.

“It’s happening to a few people in China, but no one knows what it is,” J said.

“How do you spell it?”

I googled it. A smattering of headlines confirmed my friend’s announcement. WeChat was eerily silent. Usually, my grandpa would send me health tips and motivational pieces six times a day.

The next day, I bought three masks at the pharmacy beside the hotel before heading to the airport. They were dirt cheap.

At the newly built Istanbul airport, amidst the milling crowds, I was the only one wearing a mask. A spot of blue in a sea of blank, buoyant faces. People shot me quizzical looks.

Fast forward a month and a half. I’m now typing out this post on the transpacific 15-hour flight from Boston to Hong Kong. Practically everyone on my flight is wearing a mask. Many are also sleeping with their goggles on. Some are decked in full-out hazmat (hazardous materials) suits. Earlier on, the atmosphere at the airport was unprecedented. Tension lined every face. The terminal was almost ghostly, with only a stream of quiet, intense activity. The group of us flying together wore two layers of socks (the outer layer to dispose of after walking barefoot past the customs check), multiple disposable gloves, goggles on our eyes (or over our glasses), hats/caps/hoodies to cover our hair, and were each armed with N95s, hand sanitizers, and alcohol wipes (and hand cream, for me). I covered my seat with a blanket and asked for another. Before I put my bag on the floor, I covered it in plastic wrapping. We wiped down every surface before finally sinking into our seats.

New rituals and habits come quickly. My knuckles are red and raw from frequent washing and the kiss of alcohol. Never has flying, which often veers into the morbid with its own rules of death and disaster, felt so much like staring at the gaping chasm in the eye. We are neat rows of cattle on defense, suspending our breath beneath an invisible hovering knife. We erect barriers — polyester, rubber, territorial, epidermal — but we are only human.

***

I’ve read theories on the state of emergency/exception. Carl Schmitt. Giorgio Agamben. Walter Benjamin. The suspension of normalcy. The intervention of the sovereign (or the state, or the university, or any authority really) to transcend the law for the public good. A moment when rules are remade, when the abnormal is made into the new norm.

On March 10, at 8:29am, Harvard announced the move of all classes to online instruction and advised all students to no longer return to campus after spring break. A mere 20 minutes later, at 8:49am, Harvard followed that announcement with another: “Harvard College students will be required to move out of their Houses and First-Year dorms as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15 at 5:00pm.”

Essentially, the school was shutting down. The last time Harvard was disrupted on this scale was during World War II.

It has been five days since the move-out announcement. Rumors, insider’s stories, and emergency alerts have been flying across screens and schools. Boston might be under a lockdown starting next week, says one source. 40% of the campus is already infected, speculates another. Four hours before I leave for the airport, Harvard finally tells us that there is one confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus. Though they are testing only one close contact of that person, I think it’s a conservative estimate to say that the truth is closer to this: there is at least one confirmed case.

Reading about pandemics, plagues, outbreaks, contagion, and state of emergencies is wildly different from being smack in the middle of one that looks to be spiraling out of control around the world. Anxieties conflict: we want to escape from the looming portent (or reality) of community transmission on a close-knit campus, but the deeper, unspoken fear is “Am I a carrier?”.

As we stream across borders — we, the students from numerous campuses across the world that have shut down one after another — we bear our passports. Our countries take us in because they have to. Maybe that’s what home means. In times like this, citizenship becomes the real differentiator on a global scale. As globalization turns against itself, our identity paperwork determines where we can go or where doors slam shut in our faces; where we can get expedient, affordable healthcare or where neither testing nor solutions exist. How vastly different histories we live on the same earth. How similar the bodies we inhabit despite all the distinctions drawn by passports.

Surreal. Maybe that’s the only word I can summon. This reality in which we live is suddenly inflected with the extreme and tinged with the irrational. I wonder too if we will one day think of this surreality as very much a part of the norm. Will we, years later, look back and see this as the vague beginning to how humans had to renegotiate life in the face of increasingly unpredictable forces of nature? Perhaps, we are standing at a threshold.

To all of you reading, and your loved ones, stay safe, take care, and keep well. 🙏💪

With love and prayers,

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on my desk: 1984, The Bluest Eye & more!

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’ve read for the week, usually for class. This first installment covers some of the books I’ve read from week 2 to week 4 of Junior Spring. 

Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

An immediate classic. So incredibly fresh and vivid despite the years between us. I never did like Mr. Rochester (in Jane Eyre) growing up and this book does not redeem him. Rhys has created a backstory for the madwoman in the attic, who only appeared in brief glimpses in Eyre. Yet, the novel very much stands on its own, almost cannibalizing the original with its ferocious exploration of the Creoles in the Carribean. It’s not a retelling, but instead a creative translation across tropics, temporalities, and epistemologies — of a white woman growing up in Jamaica during the time of the British Empire. How does Antoinette become Bertha, locked up in the attic? The chambers of your mind will never be quiet while reading this.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

1984 George Orwell

1984, George Orwell

Can’t believe it took me 4087823 years to read this classic. This is one book that has seeped into our collective consciousness and been normalized — we think of Big Brother when we articulate surveillance; we think of Room 101 when we describe a torture chamber, we now think thoughtcrime as not very surprising at all (politically unorthodox thoughts). The recent past, and even pockets of the present, is in a sense ‘Orwellian’. The policing of thought, interestingly, is tied to the policing of desire — of sex, of the body, of love. The subsuming of love and reproduction under the socialist agape of the state abhors us instinctively. Yet, Winston and Julia’s supposed ‘love story’ is never quite about love. It’s a temporary digression in desire that is rectified. The stark, satirical ending is a diagnosis of dictatorships — every authoritarian regime has power, but they want it to be bolstered by authority (which has to be gained). Even when totally secure of power, there is that eternal fragility and insecurity towards achieving ‘one body, one nation, one mind’ and the constant use of the language of ‘for the people’. At least, 1984 strips its authoritarian regime bare of any pretension or instinct for amelioration — the contradictions are there for all too see. Elsewhere, in real life, the masquerade goes on.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

a mercy Toni Morrison

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

A powerful story of suffering — as bond or bondage? — and wilderness, told through Florens, a young black girl enslaved in the early years of European settlement in America — 1682 when “Virginia was still a mess.”

The criticism of the capitalist apparatus of slavery is subtle but impossible to ignore.

There was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at [Ortega’s plantation] and a remote labour force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars.

The Puritan task of an errand into wilderness also takes shape through the stories of the women, each struggling to keep their internal wilderness restrained. But I’m left thinking, what is ‘wilderness’ in the first place? It’s nature and what was there before. Or is it very much a colonial construction, an attempt at legibility, of rhetorical erasure to justify their settlement (it’s raw, it’s clean, it’s up for grabs!), a patriarchal way of control and of domestication?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Painful to read. In the first few pages, Morrison tells you the entire story. And yet, we cannot help but read on, driven by the urgency and rawness of her language. It’s about a little black girl who just desperately, fervently wanted blue eyes. The desire is a sign of an internalized inability to recognize her own personhood, worth, and beauty. One thinks of racism in quiet, insidious ways: reifying the violence of the normative subject in the West (Pecola is “the good subject”). But also in terrifying ways: the cosmology of whiteness is still ever-present — I wonder if the pursuit of certain beauty standards reflects that even for myself. We could call it, as Profé Carrasco does, the cosmological conviction of racism:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Dark Princess W. E. B. Du Bois

Dark Princess, W. E. B. Du Bois

Part romance, part quest, Dark Princess is unlike anything else I’ve read. At times allegorical, often a blending of genres, it meshes sharp critique of local politics (flushed by money), of racism, and most piercingly, of the color line within the color line: peoples who are oppressed, or even with the same oppressor, will not understand their oppression in the same way. How do you form an ethical community of resistance across faultlines (class, cultural, racial)? What does it mean to construct international solidarity when there is an uneven experience of violence? Even now, the chasm exists: the cosmopolitan elite seeking to liberate the masses despite widening gulfs.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

A Woman Named Solitude Andre Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude, André Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude reads like part magical realism, part fairytale, part oral tradition. Yet, every once so often, historical dates and figures rupture the poetic shimmer of the language and we are reminded: all that we are reading — atrocities, revolts, humans treated like cattle, the cosmological upending of an entire continent’s lives — is in fact reality, or truth. The novel starts with “Once upon a time, on a strange planet, there was a little black girl named Bayangumay” (1). While the reference to “the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto” on the last page of the epilogue subtly ties two human holocausts together, Schwarz-Bart does it so much more sparingly and movingly than Philips.

The narrative distance (a detachment that’s no less passionate) brings a certain universality and oneness of human suffering to the story of Bayangumay and later, Rosalie who will metamorphose into Solitude. As Sarah De Mul terms it, the “forgotten holocausts” of the world in the case of this novel zoom into the brief span of years when the Africans enslaved in the Carribean vacillated between freedom and return to slavery, under the political machinations and Anglo-French rivalry of the metropole.

Caught between her yellow body and her black heart, Solitude is not just one “whose nation no longer exists, whose village has been destroyed and whose ancestors are dead” (64), but also one who loses her mother at a young age, abandoned with a yearning for Africa and Man Bobette’s secret. That Rosalie grows into Solitude, with her soulless eyes and her laughter is a soft yet powerful resistance. Her laugh — alongside the guttural laughs of other women, from her mother to the Congo woman Euphrosine — unsettles. In a land of “lies” (81) and “madness” (77), ruled by white men and (to a less extent) women, the unsettling nature of laughter represents a particular discursive contract that subverts — a moment of irrational recognition, rehearsed unexpectedness; it brings to mind Freud’s theory on jokes and their relation to the unconscious. In the face of such violence, Solitude mows over white men — surprised at the blood on her own hands — but ultimately, in the face of death, can only laugh.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

The Nature of Blood Carl Phillips

The Nature of Blood, Carl Phillips

The many different strands of The Nature of Blood reminds me of what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called ‘multinarratives’ in a multiracial and polycultural universe and also one particular mode of Friedman’s three juxtapositional comparisons: collage. Stephen, Eva, Othello, the Jews of Portobuffole, and Malka’s stories are put side by side, each in its own distinctive context, but read together for their in/commensurability. The form of the novel itself refrains from the prescriptive and the didactic. Instead, the collage of narratives across time and space presented to us puts the autonomy in the hands of the reader. What rises to the surface when we see things side by side, whether we choose to make that comparison ourselves, and what constellations/collisions we end up holding in our hands is ours. The novel is suggestive.

What I really liked about the novel is its almost palimpsestic nature of time, which reflects the traumatic nature of remembering, of repetition, of unknowability. The narrative time frame defamiliarizes known stories (I, for one, didn’t realize that Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was an intertextual piece) — for instance, Othello remains nameless throughout, and his own observations of Venice (full of “enchanting promises” as well as “betrayal”) flesh out his diasporic subjectivity which fleshes out all the invisible and unsaid blanks within Shakespeare’s play. Othello’s inability to see the parallels between him and the Jews living in the ghetto is made all the more stark given the coeval story of the Jews of Portobuffole happening in Venice. Similarly, I found myself spotting the ironic, painful symmetry in Malka and Eva’s experiences — the feelings of being dehumanized into animals (“monkey-people” for Eva; “cattle” for Malka); their flashes of first-person confession that drowns amidst their silencing within the larger society.

In their respective experiences of dislocation, trauma, dehumanization, and othering, there is sameness in their difference, and difference in their sameness.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔

***

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts? Do you like this new feature? ٩◔‿◔۶

Lots of love,

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2019: A Tale of Many Cities

Selina Xu Kaiping 碉楼

滚滚长江东逝水,浪花淘尽英雄。
是非成败转头空。
青山依旧在,几度夕阳红。
白发渔樵江渚上,惯看秋月春风。
一壶浊酒喜相逢。
古今多少事,都付笑谈中。

《三国演义》开篇

Roiling waves of the river flow,
Rippling tides sieve out heroes,
Wins and losses now hollow.
The earth lies here still,
Many sunsets come and go.

A snowy-haired elder perches by,
Seasons ebbing in his eyes.
History’s many tales
All washed down with wine,
Drowning in laughter with old friends.

(my translation)

Romance of Three Kingdoms Wuhou Temple 三国演义武侯寺

The huge stone engraving sits in a courtyard of the Wuhou Temple, carrying the opening verse of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Chengdu. Centuries ago, once the Kingdom of Shu. The Temple memorializes Zhuge Liang, who ought to have been forgotten by time — only a prime minister of a kingdom that lasted 43 years, dating back to close to two millennia ago; not to mention, China was split into three — no one could call himself emperor (帝), only king (王). Being neither king nor emperor, Zhuge Liang has posthumously found outsized fame. When I was a kid, my parents would say, Be as smart as Zhuge Liang. His is one of the first names that come to mind when one thinks of wisdom, strategy, or yin and yang (八卦). Ironically, in this temple named after him lies the tomb of Liu Bei — the King of Shu, who Zhuge Liang had served.

But why? Because of one book.

No one would remember Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, or Guan Yu, were it not for Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which, alongside Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, and Heroes of the Marshes, are deemed as China’s four great literary classics).

The temple is crowded with visitors. Every corridor, every statue, every inch of the bamboo-shrouded red walls are surrounded by bobbing heads and peering faces. Several of the famous generals whose statues loom are, in fact, fictional. So pervasive has been Three Kingdoms that legacies are invented and History reconstructed. Like everyone else chasing the words of the guide, my grandpa, my father, and I are devotees to a book that has grown larger than life — one that reigns over modern Chinese consciousness.

A Western pop cultural parallel that immediately comes to mind is Hamilton, which I caught this summer in New York. It celebrates history in the making and, in a musical spectacle, tears open the sinews of History to show us how it is written, construed, and remade. What captivated me most wasn’t those contemporary bits, but how it seemed that the audience was watching the arches and domes being constructed for a narrative-in-the-making. Letting the music wash over us was to partake in Hamilton‘s version of history; commemorating Zhuge Liang in a temple where a literary overture resides front and center is to blur the line between fiction and history.

You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Selina Xu Chongqing 磁器口

这个冬天,我最后的足迹遍布了各大古镇:从开平的碉楼到顺德的逢简水乡,从成都的宽窄巷子到锦里武侯祠,从重庆的洪崖洞到磁器口再到民国街。中国的大江南北充满了历史残留的韵味与商业化的喧哗。不经意间,我扑捉到了很多很多梦想篇幅的一小边角:阁楼酒吧和茶馆驻唱的歌手、执着于快要失传手艺的老人,还有能写出《三国演义》的罗贯中。我们如此平庸的活着,怀揣着亦伟大亦渺小的梦想,品味着人生百态——不正是舌尖上的人生吗?

在重庆山城里,我扶着爷爷,闻着火锅的味道,淌着长江的风,看着姑姑录抖音。爷爷给我讲了他在文化大革命时候的故事、1966年来看武侯祠时的光景,还有他在十六岁时独闯哈尔滨的孤独与憧憬。我想到了命运的波折和转机,以及上帝神奇的手。我的爷爷出生于浙江,在哈尔滨谋生,在四川成家。他的孙子如今在东京,而孙女风尘仆仆地终于从新加坡飞到了他的身边叽叽喳喳。

在东莞,我握住了年迈的外婆躺在病床上的手,嘴巴里是咸咸的。小时候,我在公园里骑车,外婆总是追在我的后面跑。她是全世界最善良的人,总是为别人着想,为别人流泪。现在,她想吃一颗巧克力,我却不能给她。在医院里,我想到了疾病与死亡,想到了我的青春意味着长辈的衰老,想到了自己的幼稚与无知。怎么这么快我就已经成为了大人呢?

Chongqing Peijie Hotpot 珮姐老火锅

In 2019…

I turned 21.

In 2019…

I draw a map of cities. I embraced the new year with fireworks in Taiwan, visited startups in Beijing and Shanghai, scaled the insides of a pyramid in Egypt, watched 9 Broadway shows in one New York summer, turned 21 in Los Angeles, crossed the deserts to Vegas, cried over a book in Halong Bay. The final days of the year are spent in a roundabout of cities — the frigid winds by the Yangtze River and the misty fog of Chongqing, laced with the smell of hotpot; in bamboo-shrouded temples and dirt mounds masquerading as kingly mausoleums; by moss-covered bridges and dusty ancestral shrines.

Despite milestones and numbers, 2019 does not strike me like a circle, or a period, or a threshold. I think of the year as a phase, a transition, a map of footprints, another collection of stories to catalog in the library of my life. I think of growth — uncomfortable, alienating, redemptive, then hopeful. I feel the surge of days, the flipping pages of years. I see the new decade open before me, first like a horizon, then like a ravine. The minutes tick like I’m standing at the edge of an unfurling abyss, on the precipice of the untold. My hair rustles in the face of time’s inexorable pull. A quiver, and we free fall into the roaring twenties.

Thank you, 2019, for your blessings, lessons, wonders, adventures, and growth. Thank you, God, for showing me life’s difficult questions and inspiring me with the faith and strength to shoulder them. ❤️❤️❤️

Hello 2020!

Selina Xu Hongyadong 洪崖洞

May 2020 treat you each with love, ❤️

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winsome little nothings

Selina Xu Jewel Changi

S I N G A P O R E — engulfed in days of tropical thunderstorms and endless showers. The city is crying and I wake up to the pitter-patter of tears streaking a windowpane accidentally left ajar. The floor next to the window is slightly wet. I leave footprints all over the wooden floor, around my bed and books.

Early mornings are for eating round, white tangyuans soaked in rice wine, wolfberries, and dried longan, each ball soft and chewy with hot peanut and black sesame filling that cascades over my tongue.

I boil water myself and watch dark green Chinese tea leaves unfurl in the glass flask like underwater corals. I peel a hard-boiled egg and dip it in vinegar. I think of the green milk tea with golden bubbles from Koi, milk guan yin with white pearls from Liho, the cold soymilk from Lao Ban Soya Beancurd in the MRT underpass, and the constellation of routes I can take to each of them in the orbit of our family’s evening stroll.

When my parents aren’t watching, I sneak a pineapple tart from the container with a red lid. The sunflower-shaped pastry sits on my palm. The blob of sweet pineapple jam is washed down with steaming tea.

I find three types of red apples in the fridge, each from a different country. My parents know my favorite fruit. At home, I can scoop directly from ripe mangoes and pink dragonfruits, carving shapes and scraping the flesh. Hands sticky, juice on lips. The husk of the fruit left still on the dining table, nature morte.

Life doles me presents. I’ve forgotten the taste of milk in fried fish soup. Poached chicken in red chili. Fishcake in sesame oil. The rush of pleasure when singing songs at top volume and butchering high notes in the shower. The hum of neighborhood nightlife as I run around the LRT track, phone slick in my hands.

What can I hold you with? asks Borges.

Wet, splintered floorboards rubbed smooth by socked feet; warm rain on fingertips; late sunsets; the hiss and gurgle of boiling water; dewy green of cacti by the sill and rainforests in a dome; ambling down supermarket aisles dotted with Pokka, Khong Guan, Marigold, and Chinese New Year goodies; four limbs hugging a big bolster like a baby; yellowed pages of old books I’ve owned since I was twelve; loose leaves of paper damp with humidity; sweat. All these I offer you, murmurs my home.

Lots of love,

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Thanksgiving with Books and BBQ

Professor David Carrasco

With Profé Carrasco (from Hum 10)!

What’s in your magnitude?

What’s in your library?

What’s in your details?

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

This break, I’ve been on campus: empty cobblestone streets, a handful of lit windows in the wintry night, closed restaurants and libraries, vacant laundry machines — solitary, quiet, and kind of really nice.

I’ve been reading and reading and writing and writing. I’ve been to Widener more in the past two weeks than I have in my entire college career. Belated discoveries, two years late to be exact:

  1. Harvard libraries have no borrowing limit.
  2. Most books can be automatically renewed, up to five times.
  3. Each loan has the duration of an entire semester.

A heap of 13 library books on my desk.

What’s on my mind: Arjun Appadurai’s postnational imaginary, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, globalization theory, nationalisms (trojan nationalism, spectral sovereignty, long-distance nationalism…), cosmopolitanisms (plural!), migration statistics (the world on the move; a future where migration would be the norm), and my novel-in-progress which I’ve snubbed for the past few days (urgh).

Thanksgiving Day is in the details: 7 plates of beef, 238 new photos on the camera roll, the smell of barbeque on my scarf and my hair, tongs and chopsticks poking sizzling ribs and lean cuts on the charcoal grill, 3 types of matcha desserts, flushed faces under a red lantern, cool noir outside the timber panes, belting out Mamma Mia on ghostly pavements, and continuing the freshman tradition with Marwah. ❤️

marwah and selina 1

Thanksgiving. I think of things ending and starting. A semester that flies by too fast. We can’t even catch five days and cup them in our hands long enough to count them. I blink and everything is over. Two days later, Cambridge will snow. Two days after, classes will end.

The lantern burns bright. The glow accompanies me into the dark night. Thank you, you, and you for the rosy warmth and the guiding light.

And thank you for reading ✨

Selina thanksgiving

Lots of love,

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