Migrating from Pandemic China
"Why is it that we cannot live honestly and kindheartedly in our own homeland?"
As Covid Zero winds down, it’s worth reflecting on the personal impact that the pandemic and its attendant policies have had on the emigration wave triggered over the past few years.
The following is an abridged translation of a transcript from the 随机波动StochasticVolatility podcast, a popular culture-commentary show hosted by female journalists Fu Shiye, Zhang Zhiqi, and Leng Jianguo. Fu, Zhang, and Leng solicited responses from listeners on the topic of “goodbye, friend”, or 朋友再见, and received ten letters featuring bold and poignant stories behind those who have left thanks to Covid-19, as well as glimpses into how young Chinese people are wrestling with political and social changes since 2020. In the words of the hosts:
If rootless exile is the kind of fate we must accept today, we hope that all those goodbyes we couldn’t utter find a place to rest, and all those embraces we didn’t have time for find their way home in the form of sound waves or letters. We hope, too, that everyone is able to seek fulcrum in a state of constant uncertainty, so that we don’t lose each other en route this journey where none of us know the destination.
Hyperlinks and bold marks were added by the translator.
Liang 亮 — Germany
In April 2019 my dad was diagnosed with cancer; between then and his passing in April 2020, I spent a whole year saying goodbye. Fortunately, when I got the news I was able to take a three-month leave from work and fly home immediately. I took him to appointments, cooked for him, and took him and my mom travelling. After leaving home at 18, that was the longest I’d ever spent with both of them. As I headed out of the house after the Gregorian New Year in 2020, my dad was so weak that he could only watch from the window. Regrettably, we never hugged each other. When he passed away in April, the whole world was under quarantine and I wasn’t able to return from Germany.
From this side of the phone screen, I watched as my family sat on a boat and spread my dad’s ashes, mixed with chrysanthemum petals, slowly into the Yellow River.
In that moment, I wished I could be laid to rest like that as well.
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Xiaochi 小迟 — North America
The world I currently find myself in seems to have forgotten that there still exists a place like that, and no one cares about what’s happening there. This is far, far more painful than I’d imagined before I left.
What was it like before I left? In those final two months, the only thing I remember is running around different cities in order to see all my friends one more time. I must have stolen that period of freedom from the god of luck, because, fortunately, no forces beyond my control restricted my travels. I was leaving with a certain determination in mind and did not spell that out to many friends, but everyone understood and gave me their blessings. We took group photos and said goodbye — see you again, for sure — but in reality, with the long and deep embraces, everyone knew that it was the last time.
I can’t meet my friends anymore, but I can send gifts and letters. I mailed many things to my friends: my cherished merchandise, foreign books, and tchotchkes. It looked like I was trying to empty out my home. As I sent out letter after letter and delivery after delivery, I felt the reality of separation sinking in for the first time.
A friend said that it felt like I was hosting little funerals, leaving scraps of cicada shells for everyone.
“Goodbye! Don’t blame me for opening with a goodbye, because I really did come all the way just to tell you goodbye.” [Translator’s note: This is a lyric from the song “Three Thousand Years Later”, by Hong Kong actress and Cantonese-opera singer Lee Heung-kam.]
ooer — Amsterdam, The Netherlands
I studied in Beijing for my undergrad, and then came to the Netherlands for my first Master’s degree. I was funded by a national scholarship, and after two years of study went back to China to work for three years at my parents’ insistence. In those three years, I first experienced secondary trauma when volunteering online during Wuhan’s Covid-19 outbreak. It was just after my boyfriend and I’s one-year anniversary and we were just starting to settle down. In Shanghai, we built a stable life: there were restaurants we went back to again and again, supportive friends with similar circumstances and values, green parks where we could skateboard, pet dogs, and feel the river breeze, and fun exhibitions to go to. Though we planned to go abroad again after two years, the plan itself didn’t seem critical; it was more of a fanciful illusion, an embodied legacy of my attachment to a sense of mobility. From a microscopic perspective, our lives were certainly improving: we both got new jobs that ensured a relatively good quality of life, and mutual support from empathetic people insulated us from the sense of oppressiveness on a macroscopic level.
Later, like many friends, I watched Hong Kong’s vicissitudes of fortune from afar. My stance on the issue changed in a way I could not have pictured earlier due to events in September 2022, which forced me to seriously confront things. So my trauma deepened further after Wuhan. I became afraid of doorbells, door knocks, and even police cars in the streets with or without sirens. The fantasy of going abroad again became a real choice that would allow me to stay alive.
… When the plane was about to land, I looked towards the wide green fields of Amsterdam and could not help bursting into tears. I got off and connected to the airport WiFi. A message from a good friend popped up: “Walk straight ahead; don’t look back.”
My therapist suggested that I rethink through my relationship with my home country. She said that the way I describe it, China and I seem to be one and the same. That sentence pierced my heart and woke me up. Collectivism is deeply rooted within me: I can’t help but feel sorrow for these people, this land. But at the same time, I realized that if we are to seek freedom for a collective, we must first find sustainable ways to obtain a little personal freedom and space as individuals. That way, we can pull others into this fight to build a better future.
I’ve started to accept that in these dreadful times, one can have a conscience or be fully happy, but not both.
So I’ll settle for a conscience and occasional happiness. I’ll also maintain a level of privacy to protect myself. I really want to keep living, to live as a seed for a dispersed revolution. To live meaningfully, intentionally, vividly, weirdly, and colourfully.
I should end the letter here, but today my boyfriend’s grandfather died. Because of health code pop-ups he could not go to Beijing to help with funeral arrangements, and even other family members are having trouble getting there. When he told me over voice message that he would need to quarantine for 7 days even if he made it into Beijing, I felt homicidal. I was afraid of how much I genuinely wanted to kill. …
To be born on this land is to be born into a long and unending struggle, it seems. We must first struggle to gain a sense of self that diverges from so-called “mainstream voices”, and then struggle for some space to defend that sense of self. I don’t know how much I’ll ultimately achieve, or whether spending so much time resisting/struggling is fundamentally meaningless. But right now, I’m still being sucked into the black hole; I must gaze squarely into it and learn to handle my relationship with it.
… I hope you stay safe and healthy, and I hope that one day, we will meet each other without fear.
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Wenli — Melbourne, Australia
I left Lanzhou on March 3, 2020, and according to the app on my phone it’s been 979 days. In the nearly-three-years since so much has happened, both regarding the world and regarding myself, and the changes have arrived too quickly and too suddenly. My partner and I found work abroad, had a baby, and settled into a new home. All that bitterness and joy can only be shared with our family on the phone, and the baby can only say “grandpa” and “grandma” during videochats. I miss our family and old friends very much, but as time went on and information asymmetry deepened, the things we could talk about dwindled. As such, I’ve quietly fallen out of touch with many people. Goodbye, friends: I hope that one day we’ll see each other again and share bits and pieces from our lives.
Make it so that I can empathize with you and you with me. We can then walk along the banks of the Yellow River and see each other’s faces again.
We asked our parents to help sell our marital apartment in Lanzhou. Sorry, warm little home, for not saying a proper goodbye. It carried happy memories of our newlywed life and bright hopes for the future. I remember that when the baby was first born, I would comfort him by whispering, “Baby, our hometown is in Lanzhou and we have a house there; when we go back, I will buy a little bed for you and put it right next to mommy and daddy’s big bed…” Sorry, warm little home: we were planning to bring the baby back to see you, but we won’t be able to anymore. We hope that the new owners have a baby of their own soon and fill the home with joy and laughter.
The saddest part is that my maternal grandfather, who watched me grow up, is now 96. I’m afraid I won’t get to say goodbye; I’m afraid there are more apologies; I’m afraid that if I don’t say a proper goodbye, I will regret it forever. I’m afraid of never seeing the person I miss the most ever again; I’m afraid that my baby will never meet the person who’s always loved him silently.
I’m looking for some way to end this letter: maybe that I hope this world is going to be okay, or that I hope to return home soon, or that I hope things turn out better for everyone. But all of them feel so anaemic. I no longer dare to hope for things. Let’s stitch it all back together with love. Finally — family, friends, hometown, ancestral lands: I love you.
Not typical — Singapore
For someone like me who doesn’t have a passport, even after paying so much for an agent and obtaining an invite from my employer [in Singapore], I needed to get someone who has a job and six months of social security payments to be my guarantor in order to apply for a passport. On June 6 [Jilin City’s] Exit and Entry Administration resumed processing in-person, so I woke up early and spent the whole day lining up, and finally submitted my documents right before they closed. Next, it was time to negotiate a start date, book a flight, and pack luggage. Everything was looking up until the night of June 19, when my residential complex announced that the whole city was going back into “silent management”. My heart immediately sank. I had to cancel my goodbye dinner with my best friend.
On the morning of June 23 my mom said goodbye to me at the gates of the residential complex. Neither of us brought an umbrella; we thought the rain would hide all that longing in our eyes. I did two nucleic acid tests in a row in order to safely arrive at the airport. I finally let out the breath I’d been holding when I landed in Singapore; before then, I was extremely worried that my health code would turn a different colour. Psychologically, I felt like I could not take another quarantine.
It’s been almost half a year, but I still remember that sense of anxiety vividly.
These days I work an unremarkable job, and I’ve met some kind people. Here in a foreign land and without family nearby, I don’t feel lonely, but I do miss my loved ones and dog. On the night of my birthday, I sat on some stairs and listened to a street busker sing; as I watched the crowds go by, I suddenly felt a stream of tears.
abluebabe — Shanghai
On Halloween eve I said goodbye to a friend headed to the southern hemisphere. This time, he’s not planning to come back.
I’m so incredibly happy for him, and also quietly jealous of his confident bravery and determination. In April we were both stuck in locked-down Shanghai, but in the middle of quarantine he found a rare opportunity to go to Hangzhou. Later he fought successfully for a working-holiday visa spot, prepared for English exams, and lined up required materials. From all that to planning the journey this month, everything fell into place with amazing orderliness.
I threw so many questions at him, as if I was saying a final goodbye. I know him well and knew that he’d have no trouble with my queries: Has he ever thought about his parents? Has he thought about how he’ll manage to stay there? Will he be lonely? Is it hard to give up all this? He answered them one after another, and I praised his courage and conviction again and again. “Those who have faith find success.” That I’m able to use one of the few remaining universal truths out there to describe my friend is a rare, precious thing.
Except that just when we agreed that this was for the best, he said calmly, “Actually, I really like Shanghai. But because of reasons (that we all know but cannot say), I have to leave home…”
I said I know.
I suppose we all know that feeling of unfairness:
Why must it be like this? Why can’t the bad guys disappear and stop forcing out good people? Why is it that we cannot live honestly and kindheartedly in our own homeland? Instead, we must become foreigners and exile ourselves into cyberspace in order to live honestly and kindheartedly, and in order to face reality candidly in intellectual ways. Once, a young person who resisted was made to write a letter of repentance for speaking out. In his apology to his parents, he said that if only he didn’t read so many books or find out so much information, things would have been better.
Why is it that for us, the price of avoiding suffering is becoming blind and deaf?
Yaolirong 摇粒绒 — USA
The day before I left home to study in America, I went for a meal with my friends. We said goodbye thinking we’d see each other soon. We didn’t say zaijian, see-you-again; we said “bye-bye”. Lightly, frivolously, without any expectations for the future. In a blink, I’ve now spent 15 months in the US.
I opened Weibo and saw the news from Hohhot; after listening to the audio recording from the apartment residents’ group chat, I was devastated beyond words. As I sobbed into my hands, my computer was playing a song by No Party for Cao Dong. They were singing, “Is it that human lives are really worth so little / or that disillusionment is our fate.”
I have no outlet for [talking about] the things happening in my homeland. I just feel like a privileged fuck.
sy — Washington, DC
I often tell people that there is no such thing as a perfect job or a perfect partner; or that gender discrimination on the job market isn’t actually that bad; or that even if the current social environment isn’t good, we can still seek integrity and peace within ourselves. But I know very well that most of the time, I’m lying. Neither life nor society will change; they’re rotten to the core, and you have nowhere to run.
I’m trying to make peace with helplessness. I don’t want to escape this feeling of powerlessness, because it would make me feel like I no longer possess the sense of subjectivity and value that’s essential to being human. Of course, I can’t escape; where would I even go to completely escape? Even if I choose to go abroad, I still hear voices from back home. I can’t be blind to the suffering of my friends, family, and compatriot kin. I often hear teachers and parents from the older generation saying that young people today can’t take pressure or handle things, but in reality, today’s social environment and economic pressure are more severe than what their generation experienced.
Zipei 子佩 — Kashiwa, Japan
Because of the pandemic, I delayed going abroad and stayed with my supervisor to work for a year after graduating from my Master’s. My colleague was a graduate school classmate who wanted to apply to my supervisor’s lab for her PhD. We ended up renting an apartment together across the street from the university. … Because I really liked her, I deeply cherished our time together and wanted to spend the year living to the fullest. We made our little rental apartment our home: we built a closet and a bookshelf together, she bought a Nintendo Switch, and I bought a projector. The company I was nominally associated with gave out rice, flour, and cooking oil as holiday benefits, so we started learning how to cook together; occasionally, we bought braised duck necks and coke from the deli after work. On weekends we went swimming and skating, and ate all the delicious food around Guangzhou. She taught me how to play It Takes Two and Overcooked, and if it weren’t for me she would have never read Dream of the Red Chamber or Margaret Atwood.
It seems that because of the pandemic and many factors outside my control, I was able to enjoy that little period of transition. It was as if a pre-filled hourglass had been turned upside down: as bits of sand fell through, one felt especially moved to cherish time. I don’t know why, but it feels like under current conditions, this kind of drifting, fragment life will become the norm. The idea of a permanent, lasting existence seems illusory, reunions are short and sporadic, and separation becomes more frequent. But maybe it is precisely because of all this that I want to cherish the short time I spent with someone I loved.
Prometheus 普罗米修斯 — New Haven, USA
Because of my parents’ business and having relatives scattered around the world, over the years I’ve lived in many cities, towns, and countries, and I was always transferring schools. I’ve never completed a single form of schooling in one institution: I transferred during preschool, elementary school, junior high, senior high, and university. I joke that this must be a curse, but my mom’s perspective is that people always strive for better places.
Indeed, for a family that’s not from a big city, the fact that we were able to settle in Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou and have relatives immigrate to America is extraordinary. We come from a town where girls aren’t even included in family genealogy records.
I don’t know if these goodbyes have made me stronger, enriched my life, or made me more successful. But I always feel that I don’t belong to anyone, any country, or any kind of stance. I am an outsider. I’m bothered by problems of macroeconomics, international relations, and social issues, because I’ve seen too many complicated things and received too diverse of an education.
I can’t identify with yes-or-no answers. I don’t know where I belong.
Maybe I belong to the human race.
Some comment-section wisdom…
“To know that there are people on this same land who seek freedom and dignity, and who manage to find some security in the meantime, is comforting. For a powerless person like me, these stories are truly helping me save myself.”
“Some people stay because they don’t have resources or methods, and are forced to stay.”
“I believe we won’t regret knowing what is happening, knowing what it means to be a human being, or deciding to say goodbye to everything and go into exile.”
“I’m also in Lanzhou. … I used to believe that my homeland needed to find compromise with my ambitions, but now I’m tolerating my homeland’s betrayal.”
“When the amount of absurdity accumulates while the power of individuals weakens, and when forces defending the status quo overshadow those that seek new grounds, the question of how to build, or protect, quietude in private feels so anaemic. Because today, even today, we still have to repeat: in order to survive.”
“This land that I love deeply hurts me again and again. Would it make me feel better if I tell myself that the most beautiful things call for the deepest pain in exchange? … My physical body will go far away, but my soul is already too tired to escape.”
This is the song Yaolirong was listening to:
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Echoes of "You can't go home again" by Thomas Wolfe but with Chinese characteristics.