quarantine diaries: 14 days!

spirited away train no face

Chihiro and Kaonashi on train Spirited Away

On our way home from Changi airport, my face tightly clad in a N95 and my hands gloved up, the car hurtling towards my 14-day self-imposed quarantine in my bedroom, my mom casually mentioned, Isn’t there some famous writer who said all you need is a room of your own?

And money, I said. Virginia Woolf said that. 

Now you have that, my mom said, a satisfied look on her face.

But I’ve always had my own room.

That’s different. Now you’ll truly be alone. 

My mom was right. I would be completely solitary. Even as a teenager, at my angstiest, I had never once shut the door on my parents or barred them from entering my bedroom. I did most of my studying in the living room, spreading my books and handouts and highlighters all over the dining table that could seat eight. It took not being able to leave my room for the solitude to settle like a second skin.

Long story short: I LOVED IT. Never thought I was an introverted homebody, but I got used to this newfound solitude instantly and curled up in it. My quarantine could only be so comfortable because of my tireless, superhero parents who showered me with care and love. They even tolerated my incessant begging for snacks (i.e. chocolate) over phone calls and chat messages. We had prolonged conversations and negotiations over whether I deserved another piece of chocolate to be placed outside my door. Fun times.

Now that I’m officially liberated from my bedroom confinement, not much is different. My family is staying indoors on most days, taking a stroll around the neighbourhood (still bustling) in the cool, crisp night air, in the wake of afternoon thunderstorms.

So…what was it like being quarantined in my bedroom for 14 days?

I read and wrote, sang like a walking karaoke machine, watched my favourite music variety shows (and Secret Forest), and ate/thought about food.

Here are the books I read in full: Outline by Rachel Cusk, Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Living to Tell The Tale by Gabriel García Márquez, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. You’ll hear about them again soon in the next instalment of On My Desk!!!

I also read some essays (Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile”) and long-form journalism here and there (especially celebrity profiles, which are voyeuristic pleasures). As for my History & Literature junior essay, I’ve been reading (or more accurately, trying to read) all over the map on climate change (Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bill McKibben, Rob Nixon, Alan Weisman, Anne Tsing, Elizabeth Kolbert etc.), the Anthropocene, science fiction (Darko Suvin), hyperobjects (Timothy Morton), postmodernism (Frederic Jameson), posthumanism (Donna Haraway), romanticism (MOUNT TAMBORA and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and climate change’s connection with literature (Ghosh’s The Great Derangement is pivotal) in general. I’m floundering in this stream of readings, pulled in many different directions, and just trying to make sense of them all before April 13th when I have to submit a coherent essay.

I’m also back on Twitter (https://twitter.com/selinaxuxinyue), which is basically my reading board for pinning good, random articles I come across (for internet posterity). Come play ٩(^o^)۶

How did I eat???

My parents placed each meal on a wobbly black stool outside my door.

Super lucky and grateful for (a) my mom’s healthy, delicious (often self-innovated) recipes that I always miss terribly at Harvard (e.g. 红枣银耳莲子汤 snow fungus soup with dates, wolfberries, and lotus seeds! 紫薯小米粥 purple sweet potato millet porridge with rice balls and walnuts!! 自制黑豆黑芝麻糊 organic homemade black bean and black sesame paste!!! and then, my favourite Cantonese soups 煲汤 with all kinds of ingredients that I used to be picky about as a kid, but now humbly devour — ELIXIR FOR THE SKIN, truly); (b) my dad who brings home tasty Singaporean hawker/Kopitiam food (featuring recurring appearances of my true love, CHICKEN RICE). Behind every tiny square of this collage are the hours my plucky parents devote to making my meals and my quarantine as carefree and healthy as possible. So very blessed. Thank you, Father. 🙏🙏🙏

Selina Xu coronavirus stayhome quarantine meals

I can only think.

As public life grinds to a halt around the globe, cities go into lockdown, and markets crash, I have much to be grateful for. For little things. For family, for stability, for good health. For our first-world problems and what we can still laugh over (before/after quarantine memes, Zoom jokes). For having an oasis in the middle of a global crisis that can be a source of refuge, catharsis, and recharging. For a home that I can return to. For parents with autonomy over their time. For the biopolitics of nation-states that tilt the scales in our favour: as “the body of the nation” shuts its epidermal boundaries against the infiltration of pathological “bare life”, we — on the inside — benefit.

But for those in war zones, refugee camps, or conflict-ridden countries suffering from humanitarian crises, they are now footnotes and afterthoughts at this moment in history. Who do they turn to when everyone is reeling from the crisis in their own backyards? Even in Singapore, those engaged in face-to-face services, the leisure economy, and the gig economy are disproportionately punished. Those at the frontlines don’t have the luxury of retreating.

I have no answers. I only know that the coronavirus has ruptured the bandages and sutures over chasms, exposing deepening inequalities in their grotesque entirety. This pandemic cuts through the dispassionate voice of global capitalist reasoning to a reality that’s stripped bare of pretensions, leaving only pathos: mortality. At the end of the day, it’s about who gets to live and who gets to die. Maybe that reality has always been there, but we just couldn’t see it as clearly until this moment when the precarity of our own lives is plain as day.

Or maybe, we have all the answers, like Dostoyevsky said, and “it is the questions we do not know.” What can we change? Do we even want to do anything other than to hug ourselves close? What of our humanity and our imagination rises up, in the face of disaster?

***

To each of you who are reading, I hope you and your families are safe, healthy, and well. The world will tide through this together. Please take care. x

With love and with all of you in my thoughts,

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kaonashi no face spirited away peace

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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