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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2020 新春快乐 • Happy Chinese New Year

rpt

新春快乐!Happy Chinese New Year 🧧🥟❣️

祝大家鼠年大吉,心想事成,平安喜乐 🐹

A week ago I was making manti (Turkish dumplings) at a cooking studio in Istanbul alongside other students on the CMES (Center of Middle Eastern Studies) excursion.

Today, after waking up way past noon, I wander into the living room in my PJs and see my family making dumplings. On the dining table are a big bowl with chives and marinated meat, two rolling pins, squares of dough, round dumpling wrappers, and neat rows of dumplings like cute yuanbaos (ingots). Making dumplings from scratch alongside my parents is to feel tradition and love from the fingertips: wrapped and weighed on the palm; balanced between chopsticks and tasted between lips.

Dusting my hands with flour, I start making the wrappers with the rolling pin. With my left hand, I turn the ball of dough in a circular motion. With my right hand, I roll the pin halfway over the dough and then back. Roll, turn, roll, turn…

The last time I celebrated Chinese New Year with my family was 2017. Eating hand-made dumplings fresh out of the pot, drinking green tea and cider, peering at the Spring Festival gala (春晚) playing on the TV in the background, singing songs loudly, snacking on kueh lapis, almond cookies, and pineapple tarts… My heart is full.

As the coronavirus sweeps across China and various parts of the globe, this New Year is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. Amidst the festivity and laughter, I’m praying for those who are on the frontlines, combating this new pandemic, and those who are far from home, unable to see their loved ones. In the past week, the world appeared at times surreally apocalyptic: headlines of rising death tolls, colored maps of the spreading contagion, and news of entire cities sealed under quarantine.

But as we video-call my relatives, everyone’s cheeks are flushed with smiles and champagne, and the mood still buoyant with optimism.

This is the Year of the Rat, the first month of the new decade, a moment of crises and new beginnings. You can quarantine cities, families, and countries; but you can’t quarantine love and the human propensity for hope.

Spring will be here soon. 🌱🍀🌻

Selina Xu CNY dumplings 2

Selina Xu CNY dumplings

春节快乐!!!

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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Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

We tend to romanticize the past. For a while, I complained to friends that I was feeling the belated onslaught of the Sophomore Slump — call it the Junior Jetlag. Every seven hours, I would reminisce about my idyllic, fulfilling sophomore fall. But then, I went to read what I wrote one year ago — my pillow book: the pathos of November. MAJOR THEMES (tl;dr): Bad days, paper extensions, and all-out clumsiness. Turns out, last year this time, I fell down an entire flight of stairs in Quincy. HAHA. I must have edited out the memory from my head.

Ever since the (angsty) post about October unraveling, the universe has been sending me sparks left, right, and center. Grateful to everyone who has engaged in long conversations and hearty eating with me over the past two weeks.

ME: Life, you seem meaningless. I feel hollow.

LIFE: Catch this! Try this! Hear this! WATCH ME JIVE!

ME: (speechless and incapable of mustering a further complaint)

IMG_6775

LIFE.

Three Life Paths Appeared Yesterday

Over Louisiana Gumbo at Legal Sea Foods, Professor Graham Allison suggested to me Singapore’s unique position as a hub for independent analysis/opinions during this chapter of U.S.-China relations when the global discourse is increasingly polarized.

In a dusky café by a church, I chatted with a Singapore writer about MFA programs, novel-writing, and how we don’t fact-check public discourse in Singapore. She writes beautifully and two years ago, her incredibly honest post on her scholarship experience— Once Bonded — inspired me not to take the PSC scholarship. If you’re at that crossroads, this is a must-read. If you want to be a full-time writer, she said, be ready to accept that you will be poor.

The day ended with an absolute intellectual blast — a three-hour conversation with an ex-TF (teaching fellow). I came away with ten book/thinker recommendations after a wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion on intellectual history, internet sub-culture, Chinese politics, post-colonialism, speculative history, family diaspora, the culture of academia, etc. You are a good fit for grad school, my TF said, but every system has its own expectations. Don’t romanticize it and think you will have a lot of free time to write creatively.  

Dining Hall Pep Talk

“Why are you so hung up over a single bad grade? You study power and politics and systems and society. Can’t you see that you care so much about a grade because of conditioning from young? Getting an A used to matter, but does it matter that much now?” Marwah drills me.

She eats a piece of bread and I eat a slice of apple pie.

“Procrastination is not a waste of time. Total energy remains constant. When your kinetic energy goes down, the energy is still there. Except that now it’s potential energy,” she continues, voice crisp like a commander.

I nod, mesmerized by her oration.

She eats another piece of bread, slathering cream cheese. This time, I choose blueberry pie instead.

She tests me between chews, “You sit in bed looking at your phone for three hours versus you meditate by the river for three hours — which one makes you feel more guilty? Exactly, when you’re using your phone. We are indoctrinated by the older generation, who are wary of technology.”

A pause.

I said, “On a side note: when I’m with you, I always feel hungry.”

selina marwah mamma mia

MAMMA MIA! ❤

Global Consciousness

“I like that you situate part of it in China,” Professor Maya Jasanoff tells me over Faculty Dinner.

We have stories with a global consciousness about South Asia or Africa. Think: writers like Mohsin Hamid or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, most writers of Chinese heritage writing the anglophone novel have tended to deal with identity, traditions, and generational trauma. (A generalization, perhaps. Feel free to suggest titles that prove otherwise — would love to read!!)

“Perhaps, you could write that,” she says.

I clasp my hands and silently murmur a quick prayer there and then.

“That’s the aspiration,” I say.

Talking to someone who sees the world humanistically is powerful and inspires faith — faith in our capacity to see outside the bubbles of our identities and the limits of the present; to think intelligently and independently beyond echo chambers, demagoguery, and establishment views; to recognize inherent within our own subjectivity, our ignorance; to empathize, imagine, and understand. Professor Jasanoff makes me want to be ardently, unwaveringly a humanist.

Maya Jasanoff Faculty Dinner

A Dose of Tough Love

On our weekly Friday lunches at Leverett, I whisper furiously to Shi Le, “I need to hear harsh things. I need your tough love.”

“First,” she said, “you cannot take a second cookie.”

After I visibly wither under her gaze, she calmly continues, “Secondly, you need to stop getting out of bed at noon. Since you need to hear this, listen: THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

“If life unravels, ask yourself what you have control over. You can control when you go to eat and when you sleep. So do that. Structure.”

Selina Xu and Wong Shi Le

Tracing the Dots

For two nights, Xin Min sleeps in my room.

On the last day, as she zips her luggage and I shuffle songs, she tells me, “I’ll leave at 10pm.”

We talk about the five things we want in life. We talk about our threshold of fulfillment.

It’s past 10. Her luggage is ready by the door.

“Ok, I’ll leave at 11pm.”

We talk about how to hold ourselves accountable, how to test aspirations.

She sits cross-legged on the floor and throws me suggestions, “You should post more often on your blog. Put each complete scene on your blog. Build Insta.”

The room is cold and we are quiet. Our conversation is meandering, our voices soft. My hands are numb but I’m thinking, How rare it is that someone will sit down with you and interrogate your dream. Brainstorm your life like it’s theirs, just for a moment. 

“That’s what I admire about the liberal arts education, you have ideas all over the place,” Xin Min says, “like dots.”

“Like dots?”

“You have many dots. The problem then is how to trace them and draw them into a constellation.”

We leave the room at 12:24am.

Selina Xu and Lee Xin Min

On Halloween

In the airy atrium at the Harvard Art Museums, my creative writing professor Claire Messud paints for us the world of a writer over lunch — there are expectations (perhaps, gendered), reviews, time/sacrifices/choices when one has children, and how 99% of writers can’t pay the bills with writing. But, still, we write on. A girl talked about how she quit her job and started bartending so she could have more time to write.

As I poked at my salad, I wondered about this weird instinct that compels us to create and live in words. We inscribe our place in the world with a frantic pen. We anchor our life in stories and cup them in our hands, hoping that strangers will read. We surrender to one vivid and continuous dream after another.

If writing is easy, anyone can be a writer. I think it’s a holy life; a moonkissed mind, a conduit — by choice.

***

If you’ve read till here, thank you for indulging me. x

Sending you sparks! ✨✨✨

Lots of love,

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