by Echo Liu
Covid-19 tales from Vancouver, Canada
I’m originally from Wuhan, but I rarely mention it to others. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, and in general, people from Hubei don’t have the best reputation. We are nicknamed “nine-headed bird.” The Nine-headed bird is one of the earliest iterations of the Chinese phoenix, worshiped by the ancient Chu people who lived in what is now Hubei. Somehow, this creature became demonized by people from elsewhere. The reasoning is that a bird with nine heads is a creature full of wicked schemes. They extend this negative impression to all people from Hubei, Wuhan included.
There are things about Wuhan that I don’t like, particularly for aesthetic reasons. I’m tired of the noise on the streets. I hate the high-decibel curses uttered in Wuhan dialect on city buses. I loathe the sloppiness of the women milling about in the alleys. I abhor the people crossing the road when crossing is forbidden, and the rubbish swept around by the wind. I think it’s a messy and vulgar city.
Moreover, I’m not strictly from Wuhan. I was born in a suburban area, close to where Thunder Mountain Hospital now stands. Due to the city’s boundaries enlarging over the past forty years, my hometown officially belongs to Wuhan now. But in the 1970s, there was a distinct line between the urban part of Wuhan and the rural part surrounding it. Although my town wasn’t far, it technically belonged to the countryside, so its residents were seen as inferior. In the eyes of a child, Wuhan was far away and unattainable.
When I was young, my mother would visit my uncle in Wuhan for the holidays each year. She would carefully place her gifts in two baskets. When the time came, she would shoulder a carrying pole with the baskets strapped to it. The left one held vegetables grown in our fields. The right held chickens and ducks we’d raised. My sister and I always lagged behind. We shouted and the birds in the basket squawked back at us.
The journey to my uncle’s house consisted of three legs. The first was a long-distance bus, similar to a Greyhound. All the passengers were peasants and got along with each other. The second leg was a bus from the outskirts to the inner city. The majority of passengers at this point were still villagers. They cursed when they bumped into each other, but still understood each other. The last leg was purely within the city. Most passengers were city dwellers. They despised the villagers with their carrying poles and baskets. They complained and cursed in urban slang. Mother would apologize loudly, but no one understood her dialect. She would tightly guard her baskets, which made the birds even louder.
Once, a middle-aged woman with curls pointed to my mother's nose and yelled, accusing her of soiling the bus. I was only seven or eight. I was terrified, hiding behind my mother and holding my breath. Ever since, we skipped the final bus ride and walked all the way to my uncle's house. That long walk was deeply imprinted in my memory. As a result, I’ve always seen people from Wuhan as snooty and unreasonable.
I couldn’t foresee at the time that I’d end up living in Wuhan, but I did. After graduating from college, I found a job there. I became a resident of the city and noticed that different parts of Wuhan have their own unique character. Wuhan can be divided into three parts geographically: Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. Wuchang is the seat of the provincial government. There are also a number of universities such as Wuhan University, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and Huazhong Normal University. Wuchang is more sophisticated and inclusive. When I interact with Wuchang natives, we mostly speak Mandarin instead of Wuhan dialect. I was convinced that the snooty and unreasonable people were in the other two parts of Wuhan.
The different parts of Wuhan are separated by the Yangtze River. On Sundays, I occasionally spent 50 cents to board the ferry and would spend the day aimlessly going back and forth across the river. Leaning on the railing, I watched Wuhan Pass get closer as Zhonghua Road drifted away. I went from the north bank to the south, then north again, reminiscing about my youth. Each time the ferry docked, the anchor chains rattled. Then the gate opened, and a flood of people and bicycles came gushing out.
There wasn’t yet a subway system or tunnels under the river. In that era, there was only the ferry and the Yangtze River Bridges connecting the three parts of Wuhan. I shuttled between worlds, always feeling like an outsider and wanting to escape. In 1999, I finally left Wuhan for Beijing.
When my daughter Yangliu Yiyi was 3 years old, my husband and I took her to Wuhan to show her our hometown. The three of us sat on the riverside, looking at the mighty river, watching the traffic on the bridge and the train roaring under it. I told her stories of the past, describing the buses and ferries crowded with people, the old vendors who peddled popsicles from Styrofoam boxes, her parents dreaming of the future...
Since childhood, my daughter always hesitated when people asked where she is from. “From Beijing? No… perhaps Wuhan?” She wasn’t sure. She was born in Beijing but neither of her parents were Beijing residents. It’s somewhat similar to my own situation when I was her age. Now she’s moved to Canada, which further complicates her identity.
Your birthplace is part of your fate. Whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly, you cannot decide where you come from. What you can do is to reconcile with it, but reconciliation requires experience. Only after you have experienced more hardship in later life, can you see your hometown in a different light. That’s called having an open mind. I couldn’t achieve it by working for it. It just came along when the least you expected.
When you have an open mind, you see new subtleties in familiar things. In the years leading to my immigration to Canada, I went back to Wuhan every year. I usually stayed with my eldest sister. In the early days, she liked cooking delicious breakfasts for me, but I later insisted on going out to eat at street vendors.
If you have feelings for a city, cherish the taste of that city’s food. Taste buds are the most powerful and honest memory. Our wonderful days in Wuhan started with its famous breakfast dishes. My husband has a soft spot for Hot Dry Noodles: chewy noodles in a thick sauce made from sesame paste, soy sauce, garlic and spices. He said he couldn’t resist the temptation of that yellow, oily looking of the noodles. He always orders a bowl of Hot Dry Noodles with a bowl of plain rice noodles. After finishing the Hot Dry Noodles, he pours the plain noodles into the remaining sauce and finishes it all. I, however, must order a portion of Three Fresh Bean Curd. The dish consists of bean curd skins stuffed with a mixture of ground pork with mushrooms and ginger, served in a mild yet rich chicken stock reduction. I usually order a bowl of egg flower soup to go with it. After breakfast, I would spend the whole morning complaining about all the calories I’d consumed.
Friends who know that I’m from Wuhan often ask what fun places I’d recommend, but I don’t know how to answer. In the time of internet, they can easily find the information about any city online. They may just want confirmation from me that it’s worth their time. But that is the exact reason why I hesitate. In my eyes, Wuhan’s famed Yellow Crane Tower isn’t the same one that many ancient Chinese poets wrote about so passionately.
Once upon a time an immortal flew away on the back of a yellow crane,
What remains of the tale here is a tower bearing its name.
I look towards the direction of my hometown as twilight starts to fade,
A haze begins to mist over the river engulfing me in a homesick state.
This is a poem by Cui Hao written during the Tang Dynasty, but the Yellow Crane Tower currently in Wuhan was built only thirty years ago. It is too new and too fake against its crowded background of glass and concrete towers.
What about Guiyuan Temple? They might ask.
The original temple was built in 1658 but was destroyed in 1852. The one currently standing was built in 1895. As a Buddhist temple, it’s supposed to be a sacred place of worship, but today’s people come there to pray for money or promotions.
There are tons of tourist hotspots in Wuhan, but I don’t know how to appreciate them. I appreciate my friends asking me. Maybe they just want to find something to chat about.
It is really a shock that today, Wuhan is on the map because of a virus. People all over the world know it as the epicenter of the outbreak. As a Wuhan native, I couldn’t help but be overly sensitive. Everywhere I went, people asked me how my family back in Wuhan were coping. People verbalized their concern, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
Wuhan dialect became a popular topic too. One day, I saw a picture on the internet. It was a book called "Wuhan Dialect Handbook" compiled by the team of doctors and nurses who had rushed from other provinces to help in Wuhan. The other day, I watched a video of a random Wuhan resident cursing loudly in Wuhan dialect. His accent brought me back to the woman who cursed my mother on the bus. I found that I didn’t dislike him. He was so lively and energetic. He was as eloquent as the forever flowing Yangtze River. That bitter memory felt like home. It was part of how I grew up.
I miss my family and friends in Wuhan and in Hubei. When I get together with friends in Canada, I couldn’t help but seek out whoever else is from Hubei, and we form our own subgroup to share information and concerns. When the whole world was on high alert looking people from Wuhan, I was proud to identify with them. We calmly exchanged statistics, analysis, and developments on vaccines. Out of nowhere, someone brought up a song which we were all familiar with from childhood, and suddenly I was in tears. At that moment, I felt so close to the place I had run away from.
Wuhan is sick. Through the internet, it pains me to see the empty streets. No street venders selling breakfast; no steam rising from stoves; no sizzling hot frying pots; no horns honking in narrow alleys... Time has stopped in the city. Perhaps the city has leapt forward too fast in the past forty years and it now needs to take a break for its soul to catch up with its body. I believe it will recover to become its bustling itself. I believe that plum trees will blossom by East Lake again and that the cherries will flourish on Luojia Mountain. I will come to you by then.
Wuhan, see you in the spring!
Born and raised in Wuhan, China, Echo Liu (Liu Hong) lives in Vancouver, Canada. She is a publisher of children’s books, a columnist, and the co-founder of Whalekids, an educational app for immigrants’ families.