Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Lin Shiyu
COVID-19 tales from Fujian, China and New Jersey, U.S.A.
Life seemed to be playing tricks on me. I went to China in January to visit my bedridden mother just as the virus started ravaging the country and returned to my husband and daughter in the United States in March when America became a battleground. Wherever I showed up, the situation became worse. A popular saying in the Chinese American community describes my situation: “The Chinese play the first half of the soccer game, the Americans play the second half, and the Chinese Americans play both.” It made sense in a way, but I felt more like I was the soccer ball getting kicked around.
By going and coming, I’ve felt the helplessness of an individual stuck in between cultures. But no matter how powerless I feel, I shall write my personal experience in this epidemic. It is my duty to save critical information from being lost to time.
The First Half
I Narrowly Escape the Virus
It all started on January 3rd, 2020 when my younger brother told me that my mother had been diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Surgery was scheduled for January 7th.
The surgery went well, but when she awoke from anesthesia, my mother looked pale and feeble in the video my brother sent. She used to be a strong woman, but now she smiled emptily and spoke almost inaudibly.
My heart was broken. I found the earliest plane ticket available and boarded a plane from New York to Fuzhou on January 15th. An elderly woman sitting next to me wore a mask the whole way. I found it odd but didn’t think much of it. I was heavily preoccupied.
I arrived at the hospital in Fuzhou at 10 pm on January 17th. My mother had already fallen asleep. In the dim light coming from the bathroom, I saw the outline of her thin body under the blanket. She frowned even in sleep. Her hair was matted and disheveled. Her head looked like a frightened hedgehog resting on a pillow. When I touched her feeble hand, my tears could not help but fall.
For the next several days, my father and I took turns taking care of her, day and night.
Some people in the hospital started wearing masks. A friend who worked as a doctor in Wuhan informed me that a mysterious form of pneumonia had started appearing in Wuhan. “You and your mother must be careful at that hospital!” She said. I thanked her but didn’t take it seriously. Wuhan was more than 600 miles away. Later, I heard that the eight medical staff who had first disclosed information about the disease were being disciplined for "spreading rumors." It felt like one more reason to disregard my friend’s warning.
I went all around the hospital every day. I went to the cafeteria for food and to various offices to see doctors or nurses. I helped my mother practice walking in the corridor. We had no idea that the novel coronavirus had already set foot in Fuzhou. The hospital my mother was in had already admitted several COVID-19 patients. In any event, I was fully preoccupied with my mother’s recovery. My father and I watched the drainage tube in my mother’s abdomen day and night. Whoever was on duty at night would get out of bed and check the tube several times. If it was blocked, we would fumble with it under a flashlight until it worked again. In our eyes, the whole world was hanging by that thin tube.
My mother recovered bit by bit. Everything went well, but she clearly needed to stay in the hospital for a while. On January 21st, however, the doctor informed us that my mother would be discharged immediately. He didn’t explain why.
On January 23rd, we heard on the news that Wuhan had been formally locked down. Everything made sense now. I thought of all the people wearing masks, my friend’s warning, and the doctor discharging my mother in a hurry. Under the calm surface, a biological storm had been gathering speed. I couldn’t help but shiver. Both my mother and I were vulnerable. She had just undergone surgery and I was tired from a long flight. Both of us were fully exposed to the virus in the hospital. We had only narrowly escaped.
Everyone is Worried at New Year’s Eve
Chinese New Year was right around the corner, but the family wasn’t in the spirit to do any holiday shopping. We just let the day pass on by.
My younger brother sat by the fire downstairs all day long, worrying about his business. My elder brother and his wife took charge of cooking. They did their best to keep food on the table. At meals, everyone chewed mechanically, making little effort to sustain a conversation. Only my 7-year-old nephew showed interest in food, especially his favorite braised pork. The scene reminded me of Van Gogh's "People Eating Potatoes." In the painting, a group of men and women in shabby clothes eat potatoes in dim light. Each wrinkle on their faces shows the suffering they’ve endured. It was exactly how my family looked.
My father kept silent throughout every meal. After he hurriedly finished his bowl of rice, he stood in front of the window, staring at the water below and chain-smoking cigarettes. My younger brother had planned to take my parents to Southeast Asia for Chinese New Year to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday, but the trip was canceled due to my mother’s surgery. A relative from the countryside had sent a huge pig's trotter as a birthday gift. After it hung from the roof for several days, my brother quietly regifted it to someone. I didn’t want to know who.
My mother was weak and had almost no appetite. Every day we coaxed her to sit at the table, where she struggled to eat even a few bites of food. Occasionally, she would eat as much as half a bowl of rice, which was always a cause for celebration.
Three days before Chinese New Year, my sister-in-law and I finally got our acts together and went out. We bought some essentials for the celebration, including two couplets. My nephew stuck them on either side of the gate. The red couplets added a festive vibe to our misery.
New Year's Eve arrived. My elder brother and his wife fixed us dinner. After we were seated at the table, we realized we’d forgotten to buy wine. We looked at each other in disbelief. How could we serve a New Year’s Eve dinner without wine? Finally, my elder brother went upstairs and came back down with a half-full bottle. Everyone poured a little into their glass. We made a toast. The clinking of wine glasses sounded duller than usual. After dinner, we chatted with Dad for a while and went to bed.
When I was little, our family would sit in front of the fireplace all night long. We would talk about how the old year behind us had unfolded and we would predict how the new year would go. Our mother stayed busy in the kitchen and kept serving us delicious food. Everyone talked and laughed. When the Spring Festival Gala on TV was over, my father and brothers would go out to the courtyard to set off firecrackers. It was tradition to set off firecrackers at midnight. We needed a loud bang to send off the old year and to welcome the new. Until then, the celebration couldn’t end.
The last time I celebrated Chinese New Year in my hometown was seven years earlier. I missed how we used to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Lying in bed, I cried myself to an early sleep. When midnight came, I was awakened by sporadic firecrackers outside. The whole town was celebrating except us. A year had officially passed. I groaned and went back to sleep.
At 6 o'clock in the morning, I was awakened by the high-pitched crow of a rooster. I put on fresh clothes, as dictated by Chinese tradition, and pushed open the window to let in the first harsh rays of sun in the year of the rat.
For better or for worse, a new year had come. I embraced its challenges and blessings.
Our Town was Locked Down
The situation was getting worse. Every day, the number of confirmed cases rose. Though Wuhan was locked down on January 23rd, 5 million residents had fled. It was easy to blame them for spreading the virus to other parts of the country, but I was worried about the 9 million who were still trapped in the city. From 1992 to 1996, I studied at a university near the South Lake in Wuhan’s Wuchang neighborhood. The city of Wuhan always evoked warm feelings for me.
Many of my classmates had stayed in Wuhan after graduation. How would they carry on with their daily lives? I wanted to send them something, but the courier company told me that Wuhan was closed to deliveries. I contacted a former roommate who now worked for our alma mater. She assured me that the school was taking care of her. Basic needs like fresh produce were being met.
Stories varied for people who had left Wuhan. Some successfully reached their destinations, but others failed. I kept reading stories of people from Wuhan or other places in Hubei Province being stuck in cars on the road. Everywhere they traveled, they were discriminated against. If they went to a place where they had no ties, they were refused by hotels. If they fled to where their families lived, their neighbors would block off their houses. Pictures began circulating on social media of cars with Hubei plates being flipped over and vandalized. The small town where I lived was also full of watchful eyes. In a WeChat group consisting of my middle school classmates, someone posted a list of locals who had relatives in Wuhan or had been there recently. The list included their names, phone numbers, and ID numbers. I was shocked by this violation of privacy.
One day, my younger brother became livid after checking his phone. When the lockdown began, a friend of his was taking his family on a road trip. He tried to get off the highway but were stopped by guards at every exit. "This fucking world!" My younger brother kicked the radiator.
I couldn’t imagine how they would survive. Did they have enough food and water in the car? Did they just sit in the car through every long, cold night? How did they fill up on gas? After I had returned to America, my brother told me that they finally were able to check into a B&B using his mother-in-law's ID. By then, they had been adrift for more than a month. They settled in a small town in Guangdong, near China’s southern border.
Our town issued passes to each family. Every household was allowed to have one person go out shopping every two days. On the first day, I wanted to go out and take some pictures, so I took our family’s pass. At the nearest crossing, two volunteers with red armbands stopped me and checked my pass, marking the date and time on it.
Our small town looked like it had been destroyed by war, minus the lingering smoke. The street was empty. Shops, except for supermarkets and pharmacies, were all closed. In front of every pharmacy, a sign announced: “Face masks are out of stock.”
On February 7th, the county government issued a notice that 4 suspected cases had been found in our town. Suddenly, a dark cloud covered our sky. Waking up the next day, I saw on social media that people were mobbing the supermarkets. A short video showed an elderly man laying across three bags of rice and crying out, “These are mine! Don’t take them!” My father snubbed out his cigarette and said decisively: “Let's go. Let’s grab some bags too!”
My brother and I looked at each other. Our generation had never experienced anarchy. In the depths of our minds, we still believed that societal order was intrinsic. “If people can’t find enough food, society collapses. And if society collapses, there is no way individuals can survive even if we have rice,” I argued.
My father was displeased: “You know nothing! You guys didn’t experience the great famine. Chinese people have to rely on themselves instead of the government.” He resolutely walked out of the door. My elder brother followed behind.
Half an hour later, my father and brother returned with five bags of rice. They piled them in the hall on the first floor. "The price of rice went up a lot. Luckily we grabbed five bags." My father dusted his hands and looked upon his spoils with satisfaction. Those five bags of rice kept us going for a long time. We still hadn’t finished them by the time I left for the United States.
One big problem was the shortage of face masks. For days, no one in our family could go outside even with a pass. One night, I complained about it on Wechat to a small circle of friends. The next morning, friends started showering me with face masks. A friend who lived in the United States went to several stores, bought 108 N95 masks and had them shipped to me in China. These masks were so precious I couldn't use them. I later brought them back to the United States and donated them to a hospital.
Fortunately, in the face of disaster, the kindness of humanity shone in every corner. Teachers at my alma mater gave away their rationed groceries to the old, weak, and sick. Several high school students from Hainan province crowdfunded to buy food for the people of Wuhan. Christians in Wuhan distributed masks and food in the street. I would remember these acts of kindness forever.
My Father-in-Law was Dying
There is a Chinese saying: “The roof leaks when it rains at night.” One morning in February, my husband’s elder sister called while I was eating breakfast. My father-in-law was dying. I dropped my food and rushed out the door. All of my husband’s siblings were gathered at their father’s home. He was curled up in bed, eyes closed, barely breathing. My sister-in-law told me that he’d been bedridden since he fell and had a slight stroke in January. He fell into a coma last night and had not eaten and drunk ever since. I touched his leg. It felt as hard as stone.
"He may not wake up. Let's go to his old house and get clothes for his funeral." In our part of the world, old people prepare for their deaths by choosing the clothes they will wear during their funeral. My father-in-law grew up in the countryside. When his children bought houses in town and moved him there, he left his funeral clothes in his old house. I offered to drive there and borrowed a car. When my sister-in-law and I were on the road, I realized I didn’t have my driver's license on me. Even so, I kept driving. The streets were empty, like fresh exam booklets issued to students. No one was sure enough to write anything down yet.
We got to the old house, dug out the dusty clothes, and drove all the way back. When we arrived, he looked even worse than he did when we left. His eyes were still closed, and his breath was getting weaker. I made a video call to my husband in New Jersey. Seeing his father’s life hanging by a thread, my husband wept. But what could he do? Even if he returned to China now, he would have to stay quarantined for 14 days before he could visit his family. It was very likely that his father would pass away by then.
In that dark moment, the words of God comforted me. "I am leaving you with a gift--peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don't be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)
Fortunately, my father-in-law regained consciousness that night. We were relieved for the time being.
On January 31, the United States issued a travel ban on China, and many international flights were canceled. If you were an American citizen or permanent resident, you could still return to America on certain flights. My original plan was to return on February 19th. When my departure grew close, I glanced at my mother lying in bed, as light as cotton, and I canceled my plane ticket. Next time I video chatted with my daughter in New Jersey, she asked me when I’d return. My heart was tense. I answered, “I don’t know.”
On February 22nd, my mother had her first round of chemotherapy. The side effects were severe, and she was extremely weak. One day, she went downstairs alone to get a drink and collapsed. Her head hit the ground and a huge bump grew on her forehead. My elder brother, my father and I rushed her to the hospital. Fortunately, a CT scan showed that her brain wasn’t damaged. At night, my father rubbed the bump on my mother's forehead with tea oil. When he was done, he pulled me aside and whispered, “Your mother is very afraid that you’ll return to the United States.” I assured him I would stay.
In the days that followed, I hardly thought about going back to the United States. I poured everything I had into my mother. This might be an opportunity from God to accompany her. Why not accept God’s good intentions?
Whenever I had time, I would go to the roof of our house to wash clothes and hang them to dry. In the sun, the rhythmic waving of clean laundry seemed to proclaim that there was some kind of hope in life. Looking at the distant mountains and the high-rises in front of them, I couldn’t help but think of my life in New Jersey. Just a month before, I was pruning the spring flowers in my backyard, going to English classes at the library, and volunteering to support domestic violence victims in a neighboring town. A typical quiet, orderly life as an immigrant. Now I was trapped in my hometown, an ocean away from my husband and daughter, not knowing when I’d return.
The four suspected cases in our town were ruled out. Everybody was happy that our small town was COVID-free. When the weather was nice, I took my mother to the vegetable garden. She sat on a stone, watching me pick vegetables and telling me old stories. The spring breeze lifted her hair, and color returned to her face, slowly but surely.
I was immersed in the joy of reuniting with my parents when one day, a friend of mine in the United States told me she ran into my daughter that day. I asked how she was doing. According to my friend, my daughter said that she missed her mother with tears in her eyes. The softest part of my heart was hit hard. That night, I booked a ticket to the United States in mid-March.
The day before my departure, a text message came in informing me that my flight was canceled. I didn’t know I should be happy or sad. I could spend more time with my parents, but I missed my daughter terribly.
I changed my flight and was anxiously awaiting an update. No more messages came in. My flight would depart on schedule.
On the day I left, my mother was hospitalized for her second round of chemotherapy. The doctor prescribed nutritional injections and she looked a lot better. Dad bought a meal from the hospital cafeteria and we ate it by my mother’s bed. She leaned on the head of the bed and smiled at me: “You’ve been with me for so long. It’s made me very happy. It’s time for you to go. Don’t worry about me.” I choked up.
When I was about to leave, my mother struggled to get out of bed. She walked up to me and put an orange in my hand. "Take it. You can eat it on the road."
I could only look down at the orange. I dared not look into her eyes.
The Second Half
America, I'm Back
Wearing a hat, a mask, gloves, and sunglasses, I slid into Fuzhou Changle Airport like an alien descending to earth. Many flights were canceled, and the airport was as empty as a wheat field after harvest. I only saw a few other passengers in the departure hall, all of whom were tightly wrapped up. Everyone looked like silent statues.
The statues stiffly went about their business, filling out their health and customs declaration forms, and passing their temperature and security checks. The wait time was strangely short. There were only ten passengers in total. I wanted to buy something to eat on my way to my gate, but all the shops and restaurants were closed, except a small convenience store that sold bottled water and bread. Finally, I arrived at my gate and found that all ten of the passengers I’d seen in the departure hall were going to New York. I sat alone, reaching into my pocket to feel the orange my mother gave me. It felt so precious now.
The stewardesses who welcomed us on board were also heavily armored. We were like aliens from different planets convening on this plane, embarking together on a mission to save the earth. The only problem was that every warrior looked troubled. The passengers were scattered in different corners. Everyone had a row of seats to themselves. I could lie down and sleep, which was really nice. I paid for a seat in economy class but was treated like I was flying business class. I felt a bit guilty partaking of luxuries during a pandemic.
After the plane had taken off, I watched a movie called "So Long, My Son." It was about how ordinary Chinese people’s lives were being impacted by China’s one-child policy. Toward the end of the movie, a character who had lost her only son said to a friend, “Our lives will never go back to the good old days.”
This line brought up the sadness I’d tried so hard to bury. I looked down through the window. The mountains and the rivers were still the same, but I didn’t know if I would come back the same. Tears welled up and blurred my eyes. 2020 was like a sharp knife cutting our lives in two halves.
The 14-hour flight soon ended. When I saw the New York skyline, I said silently: “America, I’m back! I’m here to play the second half of the game!”
Back on March 4, I’d seen that New Jersey had its first case of COVID-19. Over the next few days, the number of confirmed cases kept rising. It broke a thousand in a few short days, but the federal government didn’t take it seriously. They thought it was just a worse form of the flu. Having been in China, I knew the virus was much more fatal than that. I was ready for battle.
Getting off the airplane, I saw staff in masks with serious expressions. A huge guy led us into a room where two lines of staff were waiting. On one side were people who reviewed our health declaration forms. The other line measured our body temperatures.
Finally, we were released to the arrival hall. The usually bustling hall was desolate now. It looked so vast that an airplane could drive straight through. There were sporadic staff members in the hall and most of them didn’t wear masks. The shortage of medical supply was obvious, and only frontline staff had them.
I walked outside pushing my luggage. I couldn’t see my husband’s car so I waited on the curb. JFK was much quieter. A few yellow cabs were listlessly parked on the roadside. The sky was still as blue as the day I came to America seven years ago. But under that mesmerizing azure, so many unthinkable things had happened. Back then, I didn’t know that there would be a trade war. Nor didn’t I know that my mother would have cancer. And I definitely had no idea that a virus would sweep the world. I stood under the familiar yet strange New York sky, feeling totally lost.
A familiar car pulled over and out came my husband. He pulled out a bottle of disinfectant and began spraying it at me just like the legendary monkey king wielding his magic wand. Then he asked me to change into a new coat he’d brought before getting into the car. “Hey, you owe me a hug!” I protested.
There was no traffic and we soon arrived in our small New Jersey town. When our car pulled into the driveway, the buds of my azaleas were bulging, and the daffodils were already in bloom. The scene reminded me of the verses from the Classic of Poetry, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poems dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC.
When I left here,
Willow shed tear.
I came back now,
Snow bends the bough.
Long, long the way;
Hard, hard the day.
Hunger and thirst,
Press me the worst.
My grief overflows.
Who knows? Who knows?
（Tr. by Xu Yuanchong）
My daughter heard me and ran downstairs. She stopped 6-feet away and shouted excitedly: “Mom, did you bring me tape?” I hadn’t seen her in two months. Her hair had grown fast and she looked taller. I refrained from embracing her and told her that I left my luggage in the garage, but she could grab the tape herself if she’d like.
I started my 14-day self-quarantine. My husband placed me in a separate room downstairs. He brought me every meal. My daughter’s school switched to online teaching in Mid-March. My husband began working at home around the same time. The three of us hung out in three separate rooms under one roof.
The Endless Distance, Countless People, are All Related to Me
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States reached a new high every day. One day it finally surpassed 100,000. The U.S. became No. 1 in the world. New Jersey, where I live, ranked second in the nation for total coronavirus cases due to its closeness with New York. Even in our small town, there were more than 100 cases at the beginning of April.
Seeing the rising number of diagnoses in New Jersey, I felt I needed to do something. I donated more than 500 masks that I’d brought from China (including the 108 N95s that my American friends had sent). I also started raising money to buy masks for hospitals and the rest of the community.
"The endless distance, countless people, are all related to me." I wrote in a fundraising letter. To my delight, I quickly reached my fundraising goal. I spent a few days comparing sources, and finally decided on two manufacturers in China. I ordered nearly 3,000 masks.
The masks I ordered from China began arriving on April 1st. Since I was in quarantine, I had them sent to the Chinese Association in our town. Many of my Chinese friends volunteered there. They received my donation as well as many others, then distributed the masks to hospitals, nursing homes, police stations, banks, post offices, and other places. My Jewish English teacher forwarded me media coverage on the donations we’d made and praised our efforts.
Those days, I received a couple of deliveries a day. I found that the delivery guys hardly ever wore masks and I worried about them. I sat in front of the window, waiting. When I saw the truck pull up, I grabbed a bag of masks and left it outside the door. When they rang the doorbell, I told them loudly from inside that the bag of masks was for them. They always thanked me.
My 14-day quarantine ended on April 6th. I was about to go out that morning when I received bad news from my hometown. My father-in-law had passed away the night before. My husband was devastated. We wept when we saw the picture of my father-in-law’s final moment. The nice, hard-working man lay in peace, wearing the clothes I’d picked up from his old house in the countryside. Our pain and anger knew no bounds.
Now I truly understood what I had written, "The endless distance, countless people, are all related to me."
Li Wenliang was a doctor in Wuhan. He’d warned his friends in a private WeChat group of the spread of a suspected new strain of SARS. His warning was leaked and circulated publicly. He was admonished by the police for spreading rumors. Li later contracted COVID-19 on duty and died on February 6th. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang provoked considerable grief and anger on Chinese social media. People mourned him and demanded freedom of speech. Many believed that early recognition and freer circulation of information could have triggered a quicker reaction both in and outside of China.
On February 9th, when I was still in China, I watched on social media that a memorial for Li Wenliang had been held in Central Park, New York. Most attendees wore black. They gathered in an empty space. White and yellow chrysanthemums were piled in the center. Messages from people who couldn’t attend had been taped to a nearby fence. The sky was bleak, and New York’s signature midtown skyline was in the background.
My friends forwarded me a picture of a poem written by Gao Yaojie. At 92 years old, she was part of an older generation of Chinese whistleblowers. 24 years earlier, she unveiled the truth of China’s AIDS epidemic and spent a long time under house arrest before she fled to the United States in 2009. How could history repeat itself?
Starting on March 27th, people in Wuhan were finally allowed to pick up their family members’ ashes. Photography was prohibited. I could only see official photos taken by a reporter from Caixin. In the official photos, misery seemed to have been mitigated. No one in the photos cried. They simply stood in line, waiting for their names to be called. Behind them, a slogan promoting socialist values was written on the wall. Everybody looked beat, humble, and obedient. Their crumpled clothes stood in contrast to the shiny marble floor. The photos accurately captured the status quo in China. It posed insignificant people against the country's grandiose narrative.
2020 is a watershed moment in human history. Looking out the window, the cherry trees are blossoming heartlessly. They have no idea what kind of sorrow humans are going through.
This spring was destined to be difficult and the second half of the battle is far from over. But I earned some combat experience in the first half, and I’m not so scared. I believe that humanity will eventually make it through this dark tunnel. “We’ll meet again,” Queen Elizabeth told the British people. “We will succeed - and that success will belong to every one of us.”
This time, we need more patience.
(This piece was first published in Chinese on April 22 as a part of the oral history project "Speak, Memory" founded by Time in New York, a WeChat official account. It was translated into English for Humans in Pandemic by Anna Wang.)