Translator’s note: On the night of January 23, an hour before the arrival of lunar New Year’s Eve, seven cities near Wuhan, the quarantined city where the COVID-19 outbreak started, were ordered to shut down. Among their many subordinate districts is Wuxue, a port city around 100 miles to the southeast of Wuhan. As Wuxue locked itself down, Deng Anqing, a Chinese essayist and novelist, found himself stranded with his parents at the riverside village he grew up in. He started chronicling his life at home in a series of online journals, published here in English for the first time. Each entry is a daily vignette interwoven with Deng’s observation of his parents and villagers; put together, they show how the locals coped with the mundane reality of life under quarantine and how it made them more honest about all that’s invisible: the virus, fear, death, and love.
January 28, 2020
It turned cloudy after a few days’ rain and the concrete roads dried up in the air. The atmosphere relaxed a little bit: in the past two days every door in the community was shut, but on the third day of the lunar New Year holiday, I could see people sweeping yards through their opened doors, women with face masks gathering cabbages in the gardens, and a man standing on the road, his face mask pulled down, a cigarette hanging between his lips.
After staying inside for two days, my father couldn’t take it anymore. He was on his way out to the community gate to see the new flyer when I caught him from the second-floor terrace and called him back. He obeyed reluctantly.
“Where’s your mask?” I asked. “In my pocket,” he said. “Put it on now!”
My mother comes in and joins me. News about the epidemic comes up one after another. At some point she says: “If I’m affected, will you take care of me?”
Around lunch time, on my way down I found a bucket of finished laundry on the stairs. I carried them to the second floor and hung them up to dry. When I came down again, I found my mother in the kitchen, preparing lunch; she must have gone out earlier to do the laundry. I asked her if she’d worn her mask and she said yes. By the pond she’d run into Aunt Jufang, who invited her to pray at the Immortal Lü’s Temple. My mother didn’t want to go because of the epidemic, and Aunt Jufang snapped: “Nonsense! It’s not true!”
“How so?” my mother said. “Haven’t you seen the news? The government said things were very bad now. Better not go out.”
“I don’t buy it. What nonsense. I can’t celebrate the New Year, I can’t go to the temple—this is ridiculous.”
After she was gone, a woman who was also doing laundry there said, “The doctors are working their tails off at the hospitals, I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like. And that one wouldn’t stop complaining just because she couldn’t go out for two days.”
On the first two days of the holiday, the villagers were content to stay at home. By the third day, the illusion of peace had taken the edge off their fear towards the outbreak. More and more people were leaving their doors open, children were frolicking in the yards, old men were strolling about, smoking and chatting. No worries. No worries. Don’t upset yourself—they all shared the same view—After all, no one around us has been infected; after all, no one we know has died from it.
My father was no exception. He’d been watching TV at home on the first two days, but on the third day, before I could notice, he’d gone to the mahjong house and didn’t come back until lunch time. I said to him in earnest: “Pa, you can’t walk around like this. If not for your own sake, then for the rest of us.”
He replied: “Ai-ya, don’t worry. Everyone’s from the village. Who’s there to infect me?”
His patience ran out before I could speak again.
I’m beginning to realize that my father has resigned with his fate. When faced with an epidemic of this magnitude, he thinks that you’re unlucky if you’re infected, but if you aren’t, then there’s no need to scare yourself. Everything has been predetermined; there’s no running away from your fate. Wearing face masks and washing hands regularly are not only troublesome but also pointless, and he’s not the one who can take such precautions.
“If I’m infected, probably our whole family will be. We’ll have no end of trouble! That’s why we need to stay at home.”
This way of thinking—this sense of helplessness in front of one’s fate—probably prevails among the villagers, who view my caution as a young person’s “overreaction” and refuse to take it seriously.
The intensive coverage of the epidemic has numbed their senses. To be honest, they think it’s happening far away from them: Although the city has been shut down and everywhere people seem restless, the community has been peaceful as ever. They don’t know about the future, but it’s impossible for them to lock themselves inside for an indefinite period of time. For now, the epidemic gives them something to talk about rather than frightening them like an invisible beast. After all, it has yet to launch its attack on us and teach us a harsh lesson.
January 29, 2020
The topic of death came up in the conversation today. After dinner, I was chatting with my parents when they told me about Grandpa Fang. A few months earlier, he had been hospitalized following a stroke. After some treatment he was brought back home and has been bedridden since then. By the time my father visited him, he’d been unconscious for a long time, his life sustained by a ventilator. Without the ventilator he would almost certainly pass away, but his family couldn’t give him up.
If I were Grandpa Fang’s son, I, too, would struggle with the decision: As long as he’s breathing, Dad is still alive, even though there’s nothing but pain for him, living in a coma. I can sympathize with the Fangs’ dilemma, even if I’ve never had such an experience before.
Grandpa Fang is the same age as my parents; his wife died of liver cancer a few years ago and his children are running their own businesses in Jiangsu province. Only one is taking care of him at home—the others can’t come back even if they want to, since Wuxue has been shut down. “If they had unplugged the ventilator before the lunar New Year, he’d have been buried properly now, and things wouldn’t have become so tricky,” my mother said.
I asked her what she meant by “tricky” and my father answered: “Now that his children are away, where do you find the people to carry his coffin when he dies? With the virus nobody wants to make the trip.”
“I thought it was all cremation nowadays,” I said.
“It hasn’t been required these recent years. People are still doing burials.”
My mother added: “Besides, the children are away and won’t be back in time for the funeral.”
I pondered over the situation and said, “If he passed away now, they would have to call the crematorium to take the body. His son would have to keep the ashes and wait until the epidemic was over to plan the burial ceremony.”
They nodded. My father started reminiscing about Grandma Fang’s funeral: “Blimey, what a grand funeral it was! Grand and proper! They hired eight Taoist priests to do the chanting, scattered ancestor money along the way to the burial ground, and put up a dazzling array of funeral wreaths. It cost them seventy or eighty thousand yuan—”
My mother interrupted him: “Aren’t you jealous of her! What a waste of money! What’s the point of squandering money away when one’s dead? It’s all for show. Better treat one well when she’s alive than put up all this nonsense after she’s gone.”
My father, struck speechless by her words, turned to me and said, “Qing-er, for my burial, my wish is simple—just have your brother lead the way with my urn, you hold my portrait, and your mother carry a shovel. The three of you can dig a hole for me wherever you see fit…”
Before he could finish, my mother burst into laughter: “Don’t expect me to carry the shovel and go through all the trouble! We’ll just scatter your ashes in the Yangtze River and be done with it.”
“I wasn’t joking!” my father protested.
“Leave me alone!” my mother said. “All this talk about death from day to night. I don’t want to hear it any more.”
Standing up with his hand warmer, my father said, “It’s like talking to deaf ears. Alright. I’ll get out of your way.”
It’s not the first time that my father has brought up his death. Whenever I called him from Beijing, he’d tell me that so-and-so had cerebral hemorrhage, so-and-so had a stroke, or so-and-so died recently. All of them were his same age. It’s as if he’s surrounded by thundering explosions that will reach him sooner or later. He’s scared, he’s nervous. And now the same thing is happening to his old playmate Fang.
A few years ago, when I was leaving home, he offered to show me the self-portrait he’d commissioned for his funeral, so that when the time came we’d be prepared. Now he’s bringing it up again. We’ve dismissed it with a joke, but it weighs on my mind. Indeed, it’s time for me to think about these matters.
He walks unsteadily, his back hunched, his face gaunt. But what concerns me the most is his spiritlessness. My mother once told me in private that his hands were getting too weak to pick up the mahjong tiles. “They told me that once, he got up from the mahjong table and the back of his pants was stained yellow….” I did a quick search online: the leakage problem is caused by autonomic neuropathy, one of the complications of diabetes.
The decay in his health drains away his energy. With me away in Beijing and my brother busy with his life, my parents live alone at home most of the time. My mother does all the household chores and works part-time jobs from time to time, while my father does nothing but take his medicines and insulin and kill time by watching TV and playing mahjong.
What does the future hold for him except for the further decay of his body and, ultimately, death? It hangs in the air like a punch that’s about to strike. It hasn’t yet, but it might at any time.
I worry about my mother’s health, too. Once, over the phone, she told me she was working part-time at a shipyard. When I asked for the details, she said that she peeled ship coating; the cabin smelled so horrible that her eyes hurt.
“Don’t go back!” I said. “Who knows how toxic it is!”
“It pays a hundred yuan a day and covers meals.”
“I’ll give you the money. Don’t go there again. Promise me.”
When she did, I continued, “You’ve given me your words, don’t go back on them later. And don’t save the money I send you. I can always make money by myself. You may have earned some cash now, but it’ll cost much more if you fall ill later. I’m not opposed to you staying occupied—you can do some farming with the little land we have, as an exercise. But I’m very much against you doing jobs that hurt your health.”
My mother sighed. “I just want to work for a couple of years when my health allows. I won’t be able to do much eventually, and I don’t want to depend on you two. I want to make as much money as I can.”
My heart ached. My mother has a lot of pride and doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone, especially me and my brother.
The highway before our community lies empty most of the day; occasionally one sees an ambulance flashing by.
My father falls asleep on the couch when we’re watching TV. My mother comes in and joins me. News about the epidemic comes up one after another. At some point she says: “If I’m affected, will you take care of me?”
Caught by surprise, I pause a little before answering: “Of course I will!”
I remember what I told her about a young man from Wuhan who was badly infected. His elder sister took care of him in the hospital for days before he recovered and returned home. I don’t know if I’ll behave like the young man’s sister. You never know how brave you are until you’re put to the test.
My mother nods. Laughingly, she says: “How silly of me. If I’m infected, probably our whole family will be. We’ll have no end of trouble! That’s why we need to stay at home. To live is more important than anything!”
Her voice wakes my father up. In confusion he asks: “What’s important?”
My mother makes a face at him and says: “You’re the most important! Are you happy now?”
February 3, 2020
Overnight the atmosphere intensifies again.
I awake to a loud noise, though from my bed I can’t hear it clearly. Through the window I see an electric rickshaw passing by our house. In the cart a loudspeaker is blasting an announcement, asking the villagers to stay at home as much as they can.
I get dressed and go down for breakfast. My mother tells me what she saw when she went out for groceries: Along with the minivan parked at the community entrance as a roadblock, someone has been assigned to guard the gate. Whenever people gathered to chat, he would step in and send them away. All the stores are closed, too.
By noon, two documents—“How to Prevent Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia” and “A Letter to All Citizens from Wuxue Municipal People’s Government”—have been posted on every house. A few days ago, the village officials delivered disposable face masks door by door and recorded the names of recent returnees and their body temperature.
The weather has been so good for days that one almost forgets how serious the epidemic is. Basked in the warm, generous sunlight and the mellow breeze from the river, sprouts of green grasses are popping up in the field. The villagers spread out their quilts outside their houses and prepare dried radish chunks from what they’ve harvested from the gardens and won’t be able to finish. Dogs chase each other in the wheat fields.
My mother comes back from the field with a bucket of freshly picked bok choy and asks me to call my brother, who lives in the city. “Does he have enough vegetables to eat? Ask him to come back and get some.”
“How? The city has banned all automobiles. He can’t drive anywhere.”
There’s nowhere for me to go except the Yangtze River Dam. The few of us there avoid each other automatically.
A few days ago, my brother drove all the way to Baimigang Gate to find the road closed. He and his two kids had to walk three miles along the Yangtze River Dame to get home. Now not only automobiles are banned, even people are discouraged to go outside at their will.
My mother sighs. “I wonder if they have enough rice to eat.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m sure they can get it from the supermarkets in town.”
The bus service from our community to the city has stopped for days. Without cars you can’t go anywhere. The highway before our community lies empty most of the day; occasionally one sees an ambulance flashing by. In the past my brother used to drive home to visit us from time to time, but now we haven’t seen each other for a long time.
In the videos sent over by my sister-in-law, I can see my brother jogging in the living room and my cousin watching TV on the couch with a bored look. I guess that’s how people in the city kill their time in the confines of their apartments. Life here in the countryside enjoys relatively more freedom: we can walk up and down in the house, and if we’re bored, we can stand on the terrace and enjoy the view of the fields and the village.
After days of self-quarantine, even I begin to find the boredom unbearable. I tell my mother that I’ll go for a walk. “Put on your face mask!” she says. “I know,” I say. I’m surprised to hear it from her, since she used to be the one who didn’t care about wearing masks. All I have is a pack of three face masks bought the night before I left Beijing. I’ve been saving them for my return journey.
Online face mask sellers don’t deliver to where I live, nor can I receive the ones sent to me by my friends. The only option left is the disposable masks provided by the village officials. Most of my neighbors are also using disposable ones; some of theirs are slightly better, but they still have to recycle them. None of us has disinfectants or can get hold of any, so basically we are living without any protection. All we can do is stay at home and leave it to our fate.
There’s nowhere for me to go except the Yangtze River Dam. The few of us there avoid each other automatically. It used to be a busy road, but now I can wander around without fear because there are no cars. I come to the edge of the bank and see that the river has dropped below the shallow dunes on the riverbed. In the distance a row of ships sit in the middle of the river against the fuming chimney of Ruichang Factory on the opposite bank. Upon closer look, I spot someone paddling over in a boat. It comes back to me that a few days ago, someone from Wuxue was stopped from attempting to cross the river in a wooden basin. I imagine he must have had some urgent reason to take such a risk.
On my way back I run into my neighbor, who’s on her way out. She greets me with a smile and says: “Scholar, do you miss Beijing?”
I say: “Beijing isn’t any better. I’d rather be close to home.”
“You read a lot. Tell us, when will it come to an end?”
“I don’t know either. I’m afraid no one has the answer.” I reply.
She sighs and goes back inside.
Back in my room, I make up my mind and start organizing. I unpack my clothes and put them in the wardrobes, then I zip up my suitcase and roll it into the corner. Scattered on the head of the bed, the couch, and my desk are books I’ve brought back from Beijing; I stack them in a pile and find room for them in my bookcase.
Because finally it dawns on me that I can no longer view myself as the guest I used to be, who stopped by for a few days before leaving again. This time I’ll have to stay here for a long time, not going anywhere; all I can do is wait, not knowing for how long.
Photos by Deng Anqing. Feature image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.