Updated: Aug 17
by Li Ruan
Covid-19 tales from New York City, USA.
My parents in Beijing passed away a decade ago. The most profound impact that their deaths had on me was that I finally started calling Manhattan my home after years of living and working in the city. Over the years, my close friends and relatives have departed the metropolis and scattered around the globe. Their exits have left me with sadness and sometimes loneliness, but I remain in NYC.
On the topic of the end of life, I often jokingly say that I’ve planned to stay on the home front, in Manhattan, until my last breath. I mean it and have informed my husband of my intentions. The Big Apple has mothered me culturally, personally, and professionally. She is special and fascinating. I believe that she does not represent just the US, but the world beyond. I don’t think any other city on earth can compare to New York City in wealth and substance. This is why I have chosen her as my home.
Time flies supersonically fast and I have spent more than three decades in the States, with 30 years of that in NYC, including over 20 years in Manhattan itself. I’ve lived in the US longer than I lived in my birth country, China. It can be hard for tourists to understand why the Big Apple is so special. On a superficial visit to Manhattan, they easily spot the outdated infrastructure, the narrow, crowded streets, the expensive goods, and tiny apartments... It’s easy to draw the conclusion that there’s simply no quality of life in Manhattan. I might have believed all of this when I began living in this city, but later on, I felt in love with the treasure it could offer. The more I learned the city, the more I felt that its drawbacks were nothing compared to its brilliance. I dismissed any criticism as nonsense.
After my return to NYC in 1995, my American friends curiously asked me how I had felt about my first trip to Singapore, the well-known small city-state in Southeast Asia. “I found it too beautiful, too orderly and too sterile,” I would say without blinking an eye. They would always laugh and reply, "You must have missed the dirt in New York." I missed everything in the city. She is natural and real. She does not need to be overdone nor ornamented. New York City is stylish in her own way. To me, living and working in Manhattan is a privilege and an honor.
COVID-19 has turned NYC into the epicenter of a pandemic. According to a New York Times article, more than 420,000 New Yorkers fled the city between March and May. Since early March, some people I know directly or indirectly have been diagnosed with the disease. Some even have encountered the worst possible outcome.
In my 30-years of living in NYC, I have experienced eight or nine major disasters, including 9/11 in 2001 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I have acquired plenty of skills to deal with emergencies.
My husband Tom and I carefully finalized a strategy to manage any potential risks during a crisis. To keep our sanity, we would like to minimize any interruptions to our lifestyle, but also meticulously follow the advice of public health authorities. We decided to continue spending weekdays in Manhattan and weekends away from the city.
Actually, commuting between Manhattan and the suburbs was much easier than before. There were so few people on the roads that we could easily drive from Union Square to the Holland Tunnel in ten minutes. It took 30-50 prior to the pandemic.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of police ignited peaceful demonstrations in hundreds of cities across the United States. Protesters are demanding equity and justice for Black people. The protests have become more dynamic and a few ill-minded villains have hijacked the peaceful movement and turned it into a violent war. New York City is no exception.
Returning from a weekend away, we drove to Manhattan on the night of May 31. Coming out of the Holland Tunnel, Tom drove our normal route toward Soho. There were more people on the streets than we’d seen for the past two months. Most were in face masks, waving their fists, jumping and running. “We’re out of luck,” Tom sighed. This didn’t register with me, and I asked what he meant. “We’re running into the protesters,” he replied. We had tried to plan our return after the demonstration’s end to comply with the city’s 9pm curfew, but the protests had continued.
In the center of Soho, we saw people running east. I was shocked to see a group of people smashing a store on the ground floor of a pre-war building. They shattered the windows and threw goods out into the street. A crowd competed to grab what they could.
Our car was the only moving vehicle in the area. Tom carefully drove onto a narrow, old cobblestone road. Before we could catch our breath, a black Mercedes suddenly turned into our block, heading straight toward us. “Wrong way!” I yelled, but of course he could not hear me. And the car was flying away on the one-way street. “Like us, they’re running away,” Tom explained.
A few blocks later, we saw a SUV leaning up against a pole on a street corner. The front of the car was badly wrecked, and a petite, young, white woman lay in the driver’s seat. A destroyed metal trash can lay in front of the car. Either she swerved to avoid the protesters and hit the trash can, or demonstrators might have thrown it. Two security personnel from the nearby university were trying to help her. The male security guard was on the phone. The female was checking the rear of the car.
Waiting for a green light on 4th Avenue and 12th Street, we encountered another group of protesters. They had facemasks on and some wore hats. Suddenly, flames jumped out of a trash can, and my heart jumped. The group dispersed immediately. “Call 911,” Tom shouted. I instinctively started looking around for my cellphone. It was in my hand the whole time. I called 911. In that split second, so many thoughts rushed into my mind. What would we do if they came to attack us? What if they flipped the car and trapped us inside? My hands were sweaty and cold.
I am rarely scared because I was by myself for so long before I got married, and I’ve always been able to handle thorny situations. But at that moment, I was consumed by fear. Thank God we were not far from home, and the rest of our trip was quiet.
What we had just witnessed “looked like déjà vu all over again," I said to Tom when we got home. “These things are too familiar. It’s just like China’s Cultural Revolution…” I went on and on. I never dreamed that protests would emerge here that resembled a movement from my birth country. Tom said he was nervous maneuvering the car to escape the craziness.
That night, a police helicopter circled so low and loud that it felt like we were hallucinating. It felt as if it was right outside our windows. Its engine noise competed with the endless sirens of ambulances, fire trucks and police vehicles. The phenomena lasted for a week and still happens on occasion.
When the stay-at-home order began in mid-March, city residents united every day at 7pm by opening their windows or standing in their balconies. They clapped, or whistled, or banged on pots and pans. Some played musical instruments like trumpets. The heartfelt sounds form a unique symphony intended to salute health and medical professionals. The event became a spontaneous and unifying daily norm, and people began looking forward to joining in. Unfortunately, after May 31, the cheerful music came to an end and has never returned. It has been replaced by the sound of protesters. This is a sad thing to me.
Late in the afternoon on June 4, we were slowly exiting our basement parking garage. As the car reached street level, I could not help but scream. We were stunned. The large wide glass windows of the main lobby were boarded up with plywood panels. The pretty building entrance now looked like a construction site. It was ugly. Has the violence really gotten to the home front? I wondered. Per the doorman, the management company had taken precautions to prevent the building from future attacks. I relaxed a bit. It made sense. The building is just a few minutes from Union Square, one of the main gathering points of demonstrations in Manhattan.
We turned south onto 3rd Avenue, toward St. Mark’s Place, as known as Japan Town or Little Tokyo. In the 1980’s, many Japanese people bought properties in the area and opened all kinds of restaurants and bakeries, as well as a bookstore and a supermarket. Today’s Japan’s presence is less prominent.
It was shocking to see plywood panels securing the stores along the 3rd Avenue. Some were boarded up because of protest-related damage, and some to prevent future damage. These unusual scenes followed us as we drove from the East Village to the West Village, and then south toward the Holland Tunnel.
In less than a week, miseries came pouring in one after the other. My emotions were like a roller coaster, and my anxiety level hit a new high. Manhattan became unrecognizable. She looked like a wounded soldier in a war movie. I felt an ache in my eyes and a pain in my heart.
It is said that NYC is a melting pot, accepting and tolerating anyone and anything. I am true proof of that. 30 years ago, she took me in without hesitation. She nurtured me and fostered my growth. She taught me and helped me apply what I’d learned in real life. She offered me unlimited opportunities to broaden my horizons. People often say they want to see the world. My three decades in the city have taught me that the world comes to NYC.
Manhattan is very sick. She is under the attack by both COVID-19 and protests. It is uncertain how long this will go on, and when she might recover. And who knows what she will look like if she recovers. There are countless unknowns. I am not clear on what I should do and how I should proceed. The only thing I know is that I should be by her side at this moment, to treasure her even more. Manhattan is my home today more than ever.
Born and raised in Beijing, China, Li Ruan is an educational consultant in New York City, after more than two decades as a higher education professional at US colleges and universities. She wrote this essay in Chinese and English inspired during COVID-19 pandemic.