Happy National Day! // my cover of “Home” by Kit Chan

“Celebrations Together”: Artwork by Khong Ka Yeung, Rulang Primary School

Happy 55th birthday, my dearest Singapore! 🎂☀️🇸🇬

Each year, NDP (National Day Parade) is special partly because of the songs that I grew up with. I remember singing the NDP songs in school halls, classrooms, on the bus, with friends, teachers, family, strangers—all in unison and at the top of our voices. Tanya Chua’s Where I Belong (2001), Stefanie Sun’s We Will Get There (2002), Kaira Gong’s My Island Home (2006)… Funny how I know all their lyrics by heart.

This year, on Singapore’s 55th, I want to do a cover of Kit Chan’s Home, which came out in 1998, the year I was born. It’s one of my favourite NDP songs. Earlier today, when I was thinking about how to write this post, I was looping Home and then, it occurred to me that this song says everything I want to. The moment the instrumental begins, it’s like my heart clenches reflexively with pride, homesickness, and belonging. Or as one Youtube comment says, it’s “the feeling whenever my plane touches down at Changi airport.”

To Singapore: Thank you for being my home, my sanctuary, my anchor, and the place I will always return to. In times like these, with closed borders, suspended plane routes, slowing trade, the rise of internet sovereignty, and stay-home quarantines within four walls, home takes on a whole new meaning.

This song is for you:

Home by Kit Chan (cover by Selina Xu) ❤️

Whenever I am feeling low
I look around me and I know
There’s a place that will stay within me
Wherever I may choose to go
I will always recall the city
Know every street and shore
Sail down the river which brings us life
Winding through my Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

When there are troubles to go through
We’ll find a way to start anew
There is comfort in the knowledge
That home’s about its people too
So we’ll build our dreams together
Just like we’ve done before
Just like the river which brings us life
There’ll always be Singapore

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

This is home truly, where I know I must be
Where my dreams wait for me, where the river always flows
This is home surely, as my senses tell me
This is where I won’t be alone, for this is where I know it’s home

For this is where I know it’s home
For this is where I know I’m home

Lots of love,

“Staying United”: Artwork by Goh Kate Lynn, Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School

a late-night love letter to taylor swift’s folklore

for taylor swift

when was the last time I listened to an album from the first track to the last, no pauses, no skips, no shuffling, no multi-tasking, and with my eyes closed? maybe it was six years ago when “1989” came out on my graduation night from nanyang.

folklore,” in its entirety, is sixty-three minutes. i can’t imagine trusting another artist this much, to take her hand and enter into a sonic world of her making, leading me through sixteen snapshots of her stream of consciousness. i can’t imagine either caring enough to discern each lyric in a song, afraid to miss a word. it isn’t often that words move me in a song; i’ve always been more of a melody person. but when it comes to taylor, her lyrics are everything.

i still remember at the age of ten when my classmate called me on the landline and screamed over the phone that i had to watch the music video for a song called Love Story this very instant — not a moment more, she was going to hang up now, and i had to do so in the next breath. i did. i fell in love instantly, with how i could hear an entire story in a handful of verses and how iconic a bridge could be (Romeo proposes, thank God). even now, i close my eyes and the flashback starts.

her lyrics have done more than simply accompany me through my childhood and teenage years; they amplify the highs and the lows, putting into words what i don’t know how to say — I’d Lie for how I would never confess a word about my crushes in elementary school, The Way I Loved You for new year’s eve resolutions, Come in With the Rain and Cold As You for angsty bus rides and fights with best friends, Long Live for vibrant encounters and nostalgic goodbyes, Breathe, If This Was a Movie, Back to December and All Too Well for nonexistent heartbreaks and youthful melodrama, Enchanted and You Are in Love for moments brimming with attraction and racing heartbeats. taylor isn’t the most poetic lyricist out there but the most relatable.

folklore” is a complete pivot from “Reputation” and “Lover,” in a good way. no more trap, slick synth-pop, EDM, radio-friendly bubblegum pop! taylor’s quiet storytelling is back, stripped to the bare minimum, the closest we can get to hearing how the song sounded in her head. it’s no longer as angry or dreamy as her previous two albums. it’s a sad, moody album — contemplative, introspective, and strangely (for a swiftie) no longer as autobiographical. as taylor herself writes, in her prologue letter below, these songs are an escape into fantasy, history, and memory. this time round, she inhabits characters, excavates their untold, innermost thoughts, and writes them out in the sky for all to behold. and maybe because she is in the skin of these characters, the lyrics are more vulnerable than ever — subtle but still plaintive, unencumbered enough to be truly intimate. the lowercase aesthetic of the album (every track is in lowercase!) suggests a chill nonchalance: at last, taylor swift doesn’t care; at last, she eschews the ‘I’ (à la bell hooks). she frees herself from the intense scrutiny on the self to simply tell a story.

the hazy mistiness of “folklore,” from its black and white album image in a forest (taylor diminutive amidst giant tree trunks) to the dusky piano by the flickering fireside in Cardigan, permeates the lyrics too. her songs this time are rambling, no longer as precisely engineered.

i love the ambiguity, the messiness, the open-endedness. what matters is not the kernel but the haze, as Joseph Conrad tells us:

…to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine

Heart of Darkness

my favorite points of the album are those hazy moments, lingering on the periphery of a chorus, hitting me in the gut.

***

the 1

the best taylor swift album opener since State of Grace (“Red”).

“In my defense, I have none / For never leaving well enough alone.”

the last great american dynasty

the delicious tidbits!!!

a life story in three minutes and fifty seconds. the devil’s in the details, truly — i guess when you own an infamous mansion with provenance, you can write a hella good song about even your house? reminds me of Starlight (“Red”), which is about Ethel and Bobby Kennedy.

i can tell that taylor admires Rebekah Harkness, her unabashed wildness, shamelessness at being called the maddest woman in town, and most of all, how she had a marvelous time ruining everything.

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green

the neighbor is Dali. i rest my case. she is a genius.

exile

one of my favorite songs on the album. the duet with Bon Iver is devastating. the analogy of exile for heartbreak is pitch-perfect.

I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?

You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out

I can see you starin’, honey
Like he’s just your understudy
Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances
Balancin’ on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

seven

the folksiest, most spectral song on the album. also a solid favorite. i love the whimsical whispers, the garden and space imagery (“Love you to the moon and to Saturn“), the wilderness and nostalgia. gives me sad, wistful Bridge to Terabithia vibes, which i cried over as a kid.

Please picture me in the trees
I hit my peak at seven
Feet in the swing over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
But I, I was high in the sky
With Pennsylvania under me

Please picture me in the weeds
Before I learned civility
I used to scream ferociously
Any time I wanted

august

surprisingly, the line that guts me the most isn’t the gorgeous sentence in the chorus— “August sipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine” — but the part in the bridge.

wanting is enough. so true, isn’t it?

Wanting was enough
For me, it was enough
To live for the hope of it all

this is me trying

And it’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound
It’s hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you
You’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town

the cinematic motifs have been constant throughout her career — If This Was a Movie! — and the line above is like a one-horse town moment.

and this one line: “I got wasted like all my potential.” oof.

illicit affairs

the last verse saves the song. i wish i came up with this line: “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”

And you wanna scream
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me
You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this idiotic fool that you made me
You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else
And you know damn well
For you, I would ruin myself
A million little times

invisible string

in chinese folklore, the lunar god of matchmaking connects a red thread of fate between soulmates (千里姻缘一线牵,万年修来共枕眠), no matter the distance — an invisible cord that may tangle (knots symbolize hardships and obstacles) but will never break, leading lovers to their destined encounter. the mythic imagery pulsates in this song, winding through curious, mystical, wondrous time.

also, the bridge is taylor swift at her peak:

A string that pulled me
Out of all the wrong arms, right into that dive bar
Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire
Chains around my demons
Wool to brave the seasons
One single thread of gold
Tied me to you

mad woman

makes me think of Wide Sargasso Sea (reviewed in on my desk) and Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. women and hysteria are perennially linked themes — madness is often essentialized as a female trait, a defiant subversion of the patriarchy that must be suppressed, and dubbed a “wrong” in the face of scientific rationality which grounds modern civilization. the mad woman, as a literary character that haunts the texts by numerous female authors and now taylor, is the author’s double, the incarnation of rage that finds no easy release without violent protest.

an excellent essay on the topic is Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

betty

teenage me would gobble this up. now, it just makes me nostalgic for the Tim McGraw and Our Song days, when i had short hair and was anxious about bumping into certain boys from across the bridge.

hoax

“Stood on the cliffside screaming, ’Give me a reason'” — listen for this single line.

another go-to breakup ballad for the ages. i love this song so much, gets better with every listen.

and thus “folklore” ends with these final lines:

My only one
My kingdom come undone
My broken drum
You have beaten my heart
Don’t want no other shade of blue but you
No other sadness in the world would do

***

like taylor, in isolation my imagination has run wild. how to pull from solitude the utmost depths of ardor? taylor confesses, weaving magic: embody other lives, dream about past selves, wonder about missed turns and broken glances, delve into parallel universes, brush the dust off aged secrets and forgotten desires, and follow the thrust of emotion towards its unfinished expression.

thank you, taylor, for your music.

and also, thank you to your music for always being so crushingly, achingly, gloriously romantic.

lots of love,

on my desk: thinking about race

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a regular feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’m reading, either for class or leisure. In light of the protests against racial injustice in the U.S. and around the world, I revisit a few formative works that have shaped how I think about race.

Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon

A tour de force. With an eruptive, immersive language, Fanon places the reader in an ironic situation, enacting a double role as both the offender and the offended, as the insulted and the insurgent. Think, for instance, of the the sheer shock and power of the opening enunciation of the chapter on “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” A little white boy cries, “Look! A Negro!” This moment of encounter fixes not only Fanon but also the reader in a subject position. Reading the rest of the book is very much a phenomenological experience.

Through personal experience, historical critique, psychoanalysis, and even Hegelian dialectics, Fanon reappropriates and reassembles the racism that black bodies experience and uses the language of racism to reassemble his agency. By mimicking the voice of racism, Fanon ironizes the mode of racist discourse, instantiating the power invested into the ontology: bodies are constructed; one is not born black but becomes black. Blackness, à la Fanon, is the body schema collapsing into an epidermal-racial schema under the white gaze and use of language.

If you’re interested… read The Wretched of the Earth, also by Fanon. He turns the psychoanalytic lens towards the colonial condition and the path to decolonization.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

My first taste of Baldwin. So many years later, his treatise on race relations in America still lights the way. His vision of what America must become burns all the more urgently amidst cries of making America great again. There is something quite gentle about his message (I think he is a romantic at heart), one which embraces love in the face of polarity and antagonism, emphasizes mutuality mediated through difference, and elucidates the sensuality of black people’s resilience (“To be sensual is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread”). His profundity is hidden amidst everyday detail.

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?

More than conjuring the image of the manor house set ablaze by ex-slave Clytie in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Baldwin also attacks the assumption behind “integration,” which in 1963 meant the acceptance of blacks by existing white norms and institutions. Instead, Baldwin challenges that it is black people who must accept the whites and accept them with love. America must be freed and renewed, its long-clutched innocence of origins itself a crime and a feature of white supremacy.

Provocatively, Baldwin champions love. Blacks and whites have a duty to achieve their country together, like lovers. At the end of the day, Baldwin chooses reciprocity, engagement, and understanding, painting an affective world in the context of racism and a history of antagonism.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!

If you’re interested… also read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (heavily inflected with Baldwinian themes + uses the epistolary form of a letter to the younger generation) and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.

Orientalism, Edward Said

A definitive work in my intellectual journey. I first came across it in Sec 2 when I was doing a literature project (with Zhao!) comparing Western and Eastern fictional portrayals of Empress Cixi. Said’s concept changed my worldview. Before coming across his theory, it had never occurred to me that literature could be demonstrative and complicit in a larger power structure that produces knowledge, fictions history, and essentializes an entire region (what Said calls the Orient is the Middle and Near East; in my own thinking, I naturally extend it to Asia as well) with discursive dominance.

Two years later, the book surfaced again in another research project (with Tianyi!) investigating how the post-9/11 Bush Doctrine legitimized the War on Terror through rhetoric. Orientalism, I realized then, is still very much alive, employed in media and demagoguery and manifesting in political realities with real-world repercussions.

Orientalism can be discussed…as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

According to Said, the West, or “the occident,” defines itself and strengthens its identity by producing an oppositional and premodern “orient.” The orient, then, functions as a sort of surrogate and even underground Other, as everything “other than” what the occident is. If the occident is modern, fluid, active, and masculine, the orient is backward, static, passive, and feminine. Orientalism, in short, exists for the west’s purpose — the occident authors, projects, entrenches, and disseminates an image of the orient so as to define itself.

It has been eight years since this book came into my life. From secondary school to JC to college, in countless papers, Said’s writings have shaped my own. As I write this, I’m hard-pressed to name another theoretical work more formative in my life than Orientalism.

If you’re interested… also look up techno-orientalism, what Roh et. al.’s anthology of the same name calls the “phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.” You can read my review of the Introduction to Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media below:

Another entertaining, incisive read on the techno-orient is Anne Anlin Cheng’s film review, The Ghost in the Ghost, in the LA Review of Books.

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Mae Ngai

Where does the “illegal alien” originate from? How has immigration policy changed over time alongside race? How does the nation-state evolve with the legal regime of citizenship, immigration restriction, and categories of racial difference?

Ngai looks at the U.S. In this book, she examines how national-origin, numerical quotas, expanding state authority, and changing notions of race (e.g. European versus non-European migrants) remapped not only the idea of “America” but also the nation’s territoriality and contiguous land borders. Ngai’s close reading of Supreme Court rulings such as United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), Ozawa v. United States (1922), and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) traces the logic of a legislative body over time, delineating its landmark moments and changing priorities of labor, geopolitical relations, and population census.

Immigration lies at the nexus between domestic processes and international empire. Demonstrated somewhat by Trump’s recent immigration order to restrict Chinese students and scholars, ideas of desirability, of exclusion, of legality, and of “alien” versus “citizen” are constantly shifting in service of the pressing political agenda of the hour. The subtle “racial hierarchy” underpinning the broader discourse on equality and rights (including voting rights) belies the unanswered question that Ngai unsettles and probes: How can a person be illegal, after all?

***

Currently reading mostly Chinese novels as well as Ready Player One. I’m a hermit, slow at replying text messages and away from my phone most days of the week. x

Stay safe, with love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

22

hi dear friends and readers, today i turn 22!!!!

today i feel very very loved and very very blessed. thank you to each of you — you know who you are — who have made it so special. i’ve waited seven years to play this song (so let this be the soundtrack to this blog post):

(taylor swift’s 22)

this day has turned out entirely different from what i expected. this morning, i woke up to my mom blaring a birthday song remix and dancing Zumba moves beside my bed. then, my dad sent me a video montage he made — it started with the airport farewell in August 2017 when i was hugging my best friends goodbye, as i was about to head into an entirely new chapter of my life far away from home. i remember crying when the plane soared into the darkness, a forest of lights diminishing far below, thinking anxiously about the weight of distance, the receding intimacy of everything i had grown up with, and all that the husk of ‘harvard’ promised. would i like my roommates? would i make good friends? would harvard ever match up to the years of yearning?

in the blink of an eye, i’m almost done with college. incredibly, my roommates have become my best friends, i have found friendships that are too precious not to last for life, and harvard no longer seems like an amorphous mass suffused with uncertainty, overblown with desire, and untouchable. instead, it has become the most unexpected incubator of ambitions, the wildest adventure, and the best house of minds. harvard has become a second home and, without doubt, the past three years are some of the best in my 22 years. (on a side note, thinking about this coming fall, i love my time there so much that i would hate to spend my last year far away from the people and energy that makes harvard, harvard)

and somehow, three years later, my friendships from home have stood the test of time. distance hasn’t changed anything. i am so immensely grateful to have so many constants in my life — people who i have grown alongside throughout our most awkward, idealistic, and undaunted years, whose friendships ground me as life throws us up in the air, who i will always hug close to heart. i’ve known some of you for 8, 10, 13 years. others, i’ve only known for 3 years, but i feel like i’ve known you for a lifetime. here’s to many more decades and more memories!! ✨

to my dearest Zhao, who put together a video of birthday wishes from my closest friends that made me cry, THANK YOU! I LOVE YOU. 22 is unforgettable because of what you did. words don’t suffice. thank you for for your bangin’ production skills (better than hollywood), for bringing together people i love across screens and timezones, and for loving me the way you do ❤️

back to my dad’s video montage: it ended with this family photo at the Changi airport, the blocky letters of DEPARTURE looming in the background. for the past three years, every moment spent with my parents has been transient. i was like a bird in flight, stopping to rest in a nest but leaving it behind again and again. on the heels of past birthdays came farewells at airports and in hotel lobbies, as I went off in pursuit of some semblance of adult life, eager to forge independence away from my parents.

today has none of the urgency that laced past birthdays. the past few months in a pandemic — like a clearing in the woods of days — has taught me a new relationship with time. i feel time pass gently, without burn. i feel grateful to the quarantine/circuit breaker, in a twist, for giving me treasured months with my parents. our family is finally all in one place, no goodbyes on the horizon (yet) and feeling the days wash over us with no countdowns. 谢谢最亲爱的爸比妈咪,包容我的任性,尊重我的梦想,鞭策我的成长,并给予我最可贵的陪伴。您们的爱让我勇敢地去探索世界,自由地选择想要的人生,并始终相信自己。因为您们,我看到了什么是理想与奋斗,什么是爱情最美好的样子。长大了的我只想像您们一样潇洒、善良、浪漫、热血,坚持自我。愿二十二岁的我依旧能让您们骄傲,不辜负您们的信任。您们是最伟大的父母。爱您们!!! 🐲🐯🐵

since the semester ended two weeks ago, i have been in a state of torpor, mostly indulging in leisure. i love idleness (and am a proud proponent of its value in creative realms) but i also know everything is only good in moderation. for the first time in a long while, i now have full autonomy over my time with no external structure or authority. i have no one to answer to. i have no goal that is imposed; i have to articulate it in action. the first few months of being 22 is free for me to define. i’m honestly not that great in terms of self-discipline (procrastination has been the scourge of my life), so needless to say, my biggest fear is that i will emerge at the other side of summer without having done anything. my public goal, stated here, is to draft another 60,000 words for my code-named work in progress, IDOL 2047. 🌝 this means 20,000 words per month from june to august. i will be tracking my progress on this blog. 💪 i’m thankful to have the space and time to think and write. 希望我对得起自己!

to God, thank you for always guiding me with love, for surrounding me with people who inspire me, and for teaching me how much i don’t know but giving me the pen to write an answer on life’s canvas. because of You, i’ve realized that everything in my life happens for a reason. when so many things are spinning out of control, thank You for giving me the strength, the peace, and the faith to carry on. i submit myself to Your wisdom and arrangement. in these times of trial, when i see one set of footprints in the sand, i know You are carrying me.

to each of you who read this blog, thank you for stopping by, staying, and breathing in my words, however raw or unembellished. this is my 84th post. not including this post, i have cumulatively written 88,665 words on this blog. (the length of a novel!) i can’t imagine having this much to say about anything, and yet, time works its magic. each snippet, easily forgotten in memory’s dark chambers, are preserved in this tiny corner of the internet. this blog is my time capsule. i have never persisted in writing anything for this long, neither diary nor blog (the last one lasting for 880 days). thank you for being part of my life’s stories. x

from 22-year-old me, with love,

[Story] Third Space

Author’s Note: 4 photos, 4 vignettes! I’ve typed the scenes out just the way they entered my head when these images first came alive, each with their own stories.

The title draws inspiration from Prof Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the third space — disjunctive, hybrid, in-between spaces beyond borders that make ambivalent structures we take as fixed or homogenizing. Happy reading!

First came the white tents.

People stared at it as they passed – evening joggers, drivers from the safety of their vehicles, families out for fresh air.

Kids tugged at their parents, asking what they were. Not the pasar malam, the parents said. Not void deck weddings. Not funerals. But close. Incubators of death.

Yellow metal barricades fenced the perimeters. Unused turquoise-colored portable toilets stood at the side. When the wind came, the white flaps billowed, their insides still empty. Behind the sentry-like rows of tents was an utterly different skyline – a sleek patina of glass and metal, the silhouette of skyscrapers thrusting their fingers into the blue sky. They stared down at the eerie circus waiting for its opening.

She glanced at the tents on her commute to and from the office. Even as the city ground to a halt, her work in the essential services had not stopped. But she had no complaints. The city was kind.

From the moment when she had first heard about an infectious disease from her parents in Sichuan – 3 deaths, Hubei, seafood wet market – to watching the contagion swallow entire cities amidst chunjie, she had felt the choking sense of fear and the baptismal touch of luck. Lucky that she was out. Free from a land with so much pain and suffering. Lucky that she had left ten years ago without looking back and built a new life. Lucky that her family, especially her two-year-old, was safe in a city that was clean, efficient, and treated its citizens well. Lucky even now, with hundreds of cases a day, that her citizen husband flying back from the UK could be quarantined for free at the Shangri-La on the beachfront.

But these white tents.

From afar, she had watched the virus tear a hole through fabrics she once thought were impenetrable. She watched it happen like an ant would watch a crumbling sandcastle, perched on a nearby rock. Slowly the castle had begun to collapse, an invisible tide encroaching it from within. She watched as the rest of the world drew moats, fortified their borders, and quarantined its particles. No one thought the tide would hit them. They called it names, traced its causes to reasons of ethnicity, and hid behind porous walls.

But the ant had originated from the sandcastle. Although she was now no longer a member of the castle, she could not erase her origins. She had shared the secret shame that her people were bearing as the rest of the world blamed them for the tide. She had felt the flare of indignity and anger at the racism, the hypocrisy, the myopia.

Now, she stared at the white tents that were to house this city’s other. White tents that were to hide its ugly truth. An ugly truth that breathed in the city’s cultivated oblivion and the complicity of its citizens. An ugly truth, which now exposed in daylight, was to be sanitized and belatedly cloaked in folds of purity.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, she thought. But the white tents paraded and displayed their bargain in the open. This was Omelas, but she didn’t know how to walk away.

***

First comes the aperitif.

The man stares out of the window at the roiling blue and absent-mindedly says thank you as a glass of ruby red Campari is silently placed before him by a brown hand.

“What day is it?” his wife asks across the table, fanning herself.

“Seventy-nine,” he grunts. “We haven’t felt land for weeks.”

“But we’re finally docking today, aren’t we? I’m running out of deodorant,” she says, “and the electric toothbrush charger isn’t working. It has been a nightmare.”

It has been. He agrees. From flushing the toilet to the rocketing wi-fi bill as they scour the internet for news of the pandemic, the past few weeks have been the ultimate test of their thirty-six-year marriage. When the cruise had left Genoa, the world was peaceful. There was some unknown pneumonia in a Chinese city he had never heard of. At Cape Verde, all was good. At Brazil, it was business as usual. By the time they reached Chile, cruise ships were in the news. A large outbreak had happened on a cruise that docked in Japan. After they left Pitcairn and started drifting, he realized that their “cruise of a lifetime” was hitting bumps.

He speaks between bites of the seafood cocktail, “Damn this Chinese virus. Good thing we’ve banned them from coming in. Now if only our government will get rid of all the Muslims and Syrians. Expel them all.”

His wife stops picking at the octopus carpaccio and leans forward to whisper, “I hear it’s because the Chinese eat bats.”

As he is finishing his poached pear and his wife her baked Alaska, the intercom crackles. The captain’s announcement is not well-received at their table.

“We will be refueling and resupplying in Fremantle – not disembarking,” said the captain in his heavy Italian accent. “This is a technical stop and unfortunately, no one will be allowed off the ship. Rest assured, all passengers and crew on board are well and we will continue along our scheduled itinerary.”

His wife’s face clouds over. Like all husbands, he knows what happens when his wife’s estrogen levels fall. But surprisingly, the storm passes over. Maybe it’s the red wine. She gets up from her seat and beckons. “At least let’s get some fresh air on the top deck,” she says, her hand lightly touching the camera hanging around her neck. “And look at land.”

They lumber to the lobby and head to the top deck with its full view of the dock. The blue sky is dotted with patchy, sheet-like wisps of clouds, looking like his weathered jeans. The next thing he notices are the police cars. Police? Why are the police here? There are uniformed officials patrolling the gangway. They are too far to see clearly but he spots bulks in their arms, the size of toothpicks from a distance, like guns.

A sudden burst of noise bubbles up, staccato-like shouts puncturing the hum of the ship’s engine and the sound of the waves. He pulls at his wife’s sleeves.

“Hey, honey, watch this,” he says.

A small crowd has gathered at the dockside, holding huge signs. Many are old people. They are Australians, in sunglasses, standing resolutely under the sun. He squints.

GO HOME.

STAY AWAY.

GET OUT OF OUR COUNTRY.

He takes a step back as though he has been stung. The heat and the smell of sea salt tinged with sewerage nauseates. A coldness courses through his veins and yet, he feels that his skin is burning. Burnt raw. Or is it cracking? He doesn’t know. All he can think of in this moment is how they could say this to people like him. How dare they?

Beside him, his wife is still fanning herself in the shade and asking, “What are they saying? Can you read the tiny letters?”

He opens his mouth but no words come out.

***

First comes the self.

He walks down the same carpeted corridors, the chandelier hot and heavy over his head like a sentence about to be dropped.

The air is cold and dry but he knows he is sweating. The back of his shirt tingles. So does his throat. Is it an irritation? It builds up through his throat and propels outwards into a cough. Hurriedly, he pulls down his mask and pops a Ricola into his mouth. Did his lip touch his glove? He sucks on its sweetness like a drowning man clamoring for oxygen. Imprinting its shape against the roof of his mouth, he feels coolness lace his tongue. Ah, better.

When will they give him another mask?

He knocks on the door, E101. He should just leave the meal outside. Would they complain? Yes, they would. “The passenger is king.” It’s drummed into him. They always have questions. They pummel him with frightened eyes and demanding tones and then try to conceal it with a thank-you. Thank you for risking your life to serve mine.

The door opens. It’s a white woman, the wrinkles on her face like lines drawn with a black marker under the garish light. He looks at her ruddy cheeks, her lashes thin and transparent under the light, and her Santa Clara University t-shirt. An American most probably.

“How are you doing, ma’am. Thank you for your patience.” He hands her the appetizer.

“It’s later than yesterday,” she says, “but thank you. Can we get more bottled water?”

“I don’t have any with me now. That okay? My colleague is coming later with the main course, drinks, and utensils.”

“We’ve been asking and asking—”

He wants to tell her that she can boil her own water the way he does, huddled in a windowless cabin shared with another person six decks below. Mess hall buffet laid out in the open, shared toilets, plates that are reused. She can bless the gods that she has fresh air and TV and three meals a day prepared, delivered, and cleaned by people like him, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and—

The woman coughs. A wheeze. She turns her body inward.

He watches it unfold in slow motion. Each cough hits a nail into his frame. He digs his toes, holds his breath, and musters his body. He manages not to physically recoil.

“Excuse me,” rasps the woman, who closes the door.

He nods and half bows. People on this ship are going to die. One by one. He sees their faces briefly as doors open and close in a clockwork sequence. At least one of them will not be here tomorrow. Maybe more. On and on he goes. The corridor covers the length of the ship. The doors stretch out ominously before him like cards. Seventy-two more. He grabs the handle of the trolley and pushes. His palms are clammy in the gloves but he will not take them off. Maybe it’ll be me.

When it is all over he heads back down to the bottom of the ship. Down and down and down he goes. Past the empty lobbies and the chandeliers that hurt his eyes, past the occasional glimpse of the ocean, past the grand suites, suites, mini-suites, doubles, deluxe, interiors, past the hallways with exposed piping, and into the belly of the beast.

No one wants to play with life, he thinks. Back in his cabin, he scrubs his hands in hot water until they hurt. The flesh of his palm is pink. Life on the sea sounded romantic, like a movie. “I get to travel the world,” he tells friends back home. “And I wait tables at a fancy restaurant with ocean views.” It’s like a dream, he used to say. True, the hours are tough (and tougher now) and he has to be away from home nine months at a time.

But this – on a ship with three thousand people, where the virus stalks and floats unseen like a ghost, where they are exiled from land tantalizingly close, where he has to work to protect and serve the rich people when death looms – is a nightmare. A prison. Why is he sacrificing his life when no one is protecting him?

He has to protect himself.

All of a sudden, he knows what he must do. He rehearses it in his head, holds his phone up, and begins speaking. A video message. He starts over again. After nine tries, he gets a smooth take.

He introduces himself and his job. On the screen is a man who is asking for protection. It’s him but unfamiliar. He has never spoken up like this before but this is for his life. He stumbles over his words:

“We need help. We need extra manpower from the Japanese authority or from different authorities who can come and help us. The virus somewhere in the ship but the crew must continue working and cannot leave. Yes, we are ready to work all the time but only when the environment we are working in is safe. Right now, we don’t feel safe. Every day, the number has been increasing and we are scared for our lives. On the first day of the quarantine, there were ten infected patients, but now it has reached up to 218. Very soon we will all be infected.”

He swallows and presses on, “I’m not sure if I carry the virus. None of the crew has been checked. We don’t know why the passengers are being quarantined but not the crew. They have been quarantined since day one. We, crew members, have been working and serving. Even now, there are about 1,000 of us who are still working and not isolated.”

He stares right into the camera. Inside his head, he is praying. This part is the most important – the lifeboat: “My family and friends back home are praying day and night that we can come home safe. Please somehow save us as soon as possible, before it’s too late. I want to tell the government of India, Modi-ji, please bring us back home safely.”

Will he lose his job? He is, after all, breaking protocol. Cautiously, he ends the video with a hedge: “I do love my job and my company, I don’t have any complaints, I just want to feel safe.” I just want to feel safe.

What’s the point of following the protocol when he doesn’t know if he will live? When the tides of history hit, no one can remain dry. He can only pray that he stays above water. When the virus has engulfed cities, he is but a speck that wants refuge. He is six thousand kilometers away from home, with people from fifty other countries, but reality tells him that they are not all equal. They are upstairs, he is down, down at the bottom.

He will not accept it.

His fingers dance across the screen, like punching the buttons for SOS. The video is posted. He exhales.

***

First came the rumors after Chinese New Year.

Just a bad flu season. Somewhere in China. Nobody thought much about it but he noticed the Chinese workers murmuring amongst themselves.

One of them was Lu, his body golden and glistening in the humid heat. The air warmed whenever he came close. Lu, whose name required the pout of lips to push out the tender syllable. Lu, who had once crossed over to the other side to offer him a swab of medicinal oil – a cool stroke on his rough skin – when he bruised his leg slipping in the shower. Friendships were tentative magnets, impossible from a distance – each country, each language, each color in its own orbit – but he leaned into Lu, feeling the shifts in air pressure, the pull of a foreign body, and the willing surrender of his own as it went limp.

They didn’t communicate through broken English, hand signs, or pictures. Their language was one of objects and touch. A can of Coca-Cola, flavored lips under the rain tree in the dark. A squirt of toothpaste, a quick flirtation of hands. A clothes hanger, a fumble of fabric behind damp towels. Two minutes and forty-three seconds left on the phone card, fourteen hours and thirteen minutes apart. They lived in different rooms, worked on separate sites, each with their own people. But their dizzying dance imprinted the city to his soul. The city was his canvas, witness, host. Where he had once been marked by his dark skin, dictated as foreigner, laborer, migrant worker, work permit holder, he was now touched, desired, recognized. To the city’s occupants, his body was predictable in its life story, expendable in its replaceability, nondescript in its multitude – everywhere, cleaning, building, eating, living, but anonymous. But because of Lu he was no longer one of many. He was the only. The city’s grammar had changed from transaction to the syntax of desire.

On the lorry to work one morning, his body still sore from the worship of hands, an argument erupted. Forty heads bobbed and thudded against each other.

“One of us is dead,” someone asserted above the din, “my friend said so. In the other big dorm. They don’t want to tell us that it’s coming to get us.”

Another man hushed him.

“It’s a disease! Like TB and dengue, but it spreads even when you just touch.”

“That’s a lie,” yelled a man from the back of the lorry.

Someone behind him moaned and started intoning a prayer.

He felt a hole opening up inside him, edges jagged with sharp, frigid fear and covered with hot, sticky shame. Did Lu know? Would things change? What should he do?

When they returned that evening, the entrance to their dorm had a standing screen. Someone told them it was for scanning temperatures though no supervisor monitored it. It simply stood there like something that ought to make them feel safe. Other things were also added: yellow tape on the ground, volunteers coming to distribute soaps and little bottles like glue which they explain killed germs and needed no washing, posters on the walls telling them to wash their hands often, and masks (which he began wearing on the spot but was stopped by a frantic volunteer).

One volunteer, a young woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses, spent five minutes trying to explain to a group of them something called standing far away. There was a virus, she told them, that either spread in the air through droplets or landed on things they touched. So they must keep a distance. She demonstrated with another volunteer. He remembered her instructions, two meters apart (“A space of three men between one another!”). He laughed. He couldn’t even fit a finger between his body and Lu’s, sometimes.

Afterwards, he headed to the mass kitchen for dinner. Where was Lu? In the day, they worked at different sites. Everywhere he looked, there were people. How could they possibly stay two meters apart? He ended up cooking shoulder to shoulder with his friend. Upstairs, in his room shared with eleven other people, he couldn’t even get to his bunk bed without squeezing sideways. He went downstairs to Lu’s floor. The Chinese workers stared at him. He asked if they knew where Lu was.

The faces stared back at him in a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension. Again and again, he repeated Lu’s name, his tongue savoring the contours of the syllable. And then, one person, who he often saw with Lu, waved him away. “Go,” said the man in sharp bursts of English. “Lu, no, sick.”

He slept outside that night in the basketball court, staring at the rain tree which had once gently mantled their secret. He didn’t even have Lu’s number. Where was he? When would they see each other again? Then, as the night turned colder, he suddenly realized what it meant. Lu was taken away. If Lu had turned sick, and their eyes, noses, lips had touched even just yesterday, then he too was probably carrying the disease. In the middle of the night, he felt Lu’s tongue on the tip of his lashes but when he opened his eyes he realized it was drizzling.

He considered telling the dorm operator; yet, he displayed no signs of any sickness. A week passed. Lu never came back.

Then, the nightmare descended.

One, 29, 67, 298, 654, 931. The numbers in their dorm climbed with no end in sight. Every day he watched from the balcony as people were taken out. Ambulances came one after another without intervals. No one was allowed to go out of their rooms except to use the toilet. Gone was his nightly brush with death. Where once inside a shower stall, behind the stump of a tree, and between bed sheets hanging dry on a balcony lay the whole world, now there were only claustrophobia and confinement. When his roommate was taken away on the eve of Ramadan, he felt the desolation of a catastrophe of his own making. He began praying to Allah five times a day, a ritual he had abandoned since first setting his eyes on Lu three months ago – body arching to catch a packet of instant noodles, the tendons on his arms rising and falling like the bob of his Adam’s apple. Forgive my sins, Allah. If I am to be blamed, let me suffer too.

His roommate sent him photos from his isolation facility. There was no trash, grime, insects, and hanging laundry in sight. Everything was white. The bedsheets and pillows were white. The toilet sparkled. No wrappers, dead insects, or plastic bags stuck in the shower drain. No leaves, mud, or blood by the sink. And so much space, all to himself. Just one bed within four walls. It looked like Jannah.

He felt a frisson of jealousy that mystified even himself. Intimacy like theirs survived in the wilderness, in bushes, grime, the buzz of flies, the sweat trickling down under the flickering fluorescent light, down a dark road that led nowhere.

He tried to drive away the images. The tenuous thread of faith lingered. Without the glaze of love, the myth was broken. The city was kind. He was alive. He could be grateful. It did not have to be a lie. As long as he didn’t open his eyes.