Intrepid and coward
It all started when I was trying to attend a wedding that is 7,000 miles away. To keep this bridesmaid deal alive, I began putting food on a scale in March. I brainstormed what kind of gift I should buy: a ring with her name engraved? A silver bracelet with earrings? I keep going back to check the chat history we had, where I confidently told her that I will come back. But that was in 2019. In 2020, the pandemic has hit and shattered many commitments into pieces. Borders closed, cities shut down, people soon learnt to equip themselves with masks and hand sanitizer. As China being one of the few countries still insisting its zero Covid strategy, the strict quarantine programme has been imposed on everyone who intend to go back for a family reunion. Unfortunately, I am one of them.
To figure out China’s quarantine policy, I downloaded RED, or the Little Red Book, a popular social media platform that many Chinese young people use. Many international students post their quarantine stories with pictures there. After flipping through dozens of posts, I soon realized how naive I was to think that I could grasp the rules in no time. The quarantine program in China is chaotic: different cities have different rules. Most of the big cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou are doing 14+7 days of quarantine. Whereas other cities have 14+14 days and more. But in the end, it’s the neighbourhood who has the final say about how many days you need to quarantine. Afraid of international invaders like us who’d bring Covid to the entire community, many neighbourhoods extend the quarantine days without official document. In all the cities, each district has been divided into various grids, or Wang Ge in Chinese. Each grid has a grid staff who is responsible to manage the residents inside of the grid. They are your first contact who has all the updated quarantine information if you would like to go back to the community from abroad.
In their confined hotel room, thousands of people are littering frustrations on Little Red Book: the pricy flight tickets, the exhaustion from endless swab tests, the dirty bedsheet, the unknown pee stain on the washroom floor, the bugs found in the vegetables… Some were informed that they have to quarantine more days in their hometown right before they were released. Some didn’t get to see their family members because a sudden Covid outbreak happened in their hometown. Some got cyber bullied when they tested positive in China. Many of them missed weddings, funerals, or other crucial moments while fulfilling the quarantine duty. At the end of their posts, they all seem to have this epiphany: don’t come back unless it’s absolutely necessary.
I was terrified by those stories. Yet these people are the lucky ones. Many Chinese are stranded overseas because there is no direct flight, or they fail the covid test, or simply just don’t have the luxury to quarantine for more than a month. Like how I keep refreshing the Little Red Book when I wake up in the morning, there are probably millions of other Chinese people in different parts of the world also closely monitoring the situation, waiting for the better moment to go home. But when is the better time? We don’t know. We only know that we are going down a rabbit hole that filled with anxiety and depression. We don’t know whether we could pass the blood test and swab test; We don’t know which hotel we will end up staying; We don’t know if our beloved family members would still see us as part of the family, or as a walking Covid virus carrier who has the potential danger to infect the whole city. There are SO MANY what ifs. What if my plane delays and the green code expires? What if my local neighbourhood just extends the quarantine days out of nowhere? What if I want to jump out of the hotel floor during my days of isolation? What if I invested so much time and money into this, but I still failed to go home? What if Chinese government lifts its policy next year, and I become the biggest idiot who chose the worst time to visit family? There is nothing I can control. There is no one with me in this scary journey. I’m sitting on my bed, running all the horrible scenarios in my head. Waves of fear penetrated my body and soon drowned me. The heart is pounding stronger. Feeling like I’m out of breath, I quickly pushes the Little Red Book out of sight. Some distractions is what I need.
In our group chat, the bride-to-be starts to post her wedding dress try on, as well as behind photos of the wedding shoot. But besides compliments, I tried my best to stay invisible. At this time, I had ended my months long hesitation and booked the flight ticket next week. But I cancelled it right away when I saw a post on Little Red Book saying that some neighbourhoods in my hometown have extended its quarantine policy to 42 days.
Exhausted. Just exhausted. I am worn out by monitoring China’s forever changing quarantine policy. I feel like I’m a big failure who is incapable to make a decision. Whenever there is a change, I chicken out. Where is my limit? 14 days? 28 days? 42 days? What am I trying to prove here? That I am a loyal friend who is willing to make the sacrifice? That I am the missing piece to this wedding? I am sure the wedding would work out just fine without me. It’s me who need them. It’s me trying to prove that I haven’t been forgotten even though I’ve been away for six years. It’s me who desperately need a getaway to ignore all my problems, even if it’s just momentarily. I want to feel, feel the hugs and kisses, feel the attention from family and friends, to feel that I’m being loved. I am too homesick to the extent that I hate myself for not being brave enough to accept however many quarantine days that Chinese Wang Ge impose, for incapable of sticking to the decision I had made. Why? Why am I not ready ? And why do I have to go through this self loathing when I just want to go home, like everybody else?
After a week of my cancellation, I booked another flight. This time I had a better idea of how to book the Covid test. I submitted my green code application two days before the flight, then started saying goodbye to all the friends and coworkers. “I will keep you guys posted if I pass the test!” See, I’m still dangling the uncertainty to other people in case they see me carrying a big luggage crying on the street after I got rejected to board the plane. I stopped using the Little Red Book. Other people’s experience is just another layer of anxiety to me right now. Is it worth it? Should I go? Or wait? I don’t know. I only know that I can never move on if I keep dwelling on these questions.
Mask and face shield on, fog build up on my glasses. In the heat of my own breathe I squeeze the little hand sanitizer in my pocket. It's time to leave.
To all people who set out on this long and unpredictable journey: wish you only receive kindness and love on the way home