Months before the coronavirus epidemic really hit the United States, I had an inkling that we weren’t taking this outbreak seriously enough. I couldn’t pinpoint the source of the discomfort, but I felt it — I knew we were closer to danger than those who had compared the coronavirus to the flu, or thought it would dissipate quickly, destined only to become a meme. I wasn’t the only one with this hunch. My dad started buying cans of Spam; my mom was obsessed with making sure I was submerged in hand sanitizer.
Back then, in January, this pandemic still felt far away enough to be funny. In a Chinese community thread, one person joked about who was most worried about COVID-19: Chinese American women, Chinese American men, the media, ICU doctors, primary care doctors, the government, and finally, the CDC. Many people in the Chicagoland area had already panicked and bought boxes of face masks, giving my mom grief as we drove around to every Walgreens and CVS within a 30-mile radius, trying and failing to get some for ourselves. But their fear was motivated by statistics about a place thousands of miles away. Our fear was rooted in something much more personal.
My mom and dad grew up in Wuhan, China. They spent their childhoods swimming in the glittering Dong Hu (East Lake) and getting perms in the ’90s. They met each other at Wuhan University, and my dad took my mom out for dinner at the first KFC that opened in the city. When my parents immigrated to America, they left behind my grandparents, cousins, seven great-uncles and seven great-aunts, and more relatives who still call Wuhan home. And for the past two months, our family there has been living in a city under lockdown because of the coronavirus — a lockdown that is only now beginning to lift, even as the virus makes its way around the rest of the world.Never again will I be able to talk about my parents’ hometown without the gears turning in people’s minds as they wonder: Isn’t that…?
Everything happened so suddenly. A week before Lunar New Year, on January 18, our family in Wuhan gathered for the first banquet that would kick off 15 days of celebration. Then, on January 23, two days before New Year began, the government announced that the city of 11 million was going on lockdown, which meant that public transportation would be shut down and millions of people would not be able to leave their homes. My relatives told me they weren’t even allowed to go to the supermarket for groceries. At one point, stores would refresh their online shopping page at midnight, so my aunt would stay up late to purchase the limited necessities that quickly ran out because of the delivery cyclist shortage. During a time meant for joyful family gatherings, people couldn’t even be in the same room.
One day in late January, I came home to find my dad back from the post office, having just shipped two heavy-duty construction masks overseas. He explained to me that two of our relatives in Wuhan had gotten kidney transplants and their caregivers had to go out to get the medication, but surgical masks were sold out in the city. The cashier at the hardware store had stared at my dad’s face, evidently noticing his Chinese features, and, attempting to be subtle, asked, “What are you going to do with those?” “I’m…doing some work on a home project,” my dad replied, though they both knew that wasn’t the case.
To me, Wuhan is the heart of my family, of my roots, and of a fascinating culture. I fell in love with the bustling, homey city in seventh grade, when we flew to China from Chicago and I was paraded to relatives’ apartments and dinner parties around a lazy susan in an effort to condense a decade of memories into a fortnight. A transportation hub during the day, Wuhan morphs into a culinary paradise of street foods during mealtimes: re gan mian, lotus root soup, glazed Hubei duck. My dad’s taste buds became expertly trained at detecting the degree of sweetness or pinch of black pepper in a dish. (Imagine his bittersweet melancholy upon moving to the United States and replacing spicy noodles with juicy Quarter Pounders, fried sesame balls with saccharine butter cake.)
But to the rest of the world, Wuhan is now the cradle of the coronavirus, the city with the exotic animal marketplace that supposedly infected humans with a deadly virus. Never again will I be able to talk about my parents’ hometown without the gears turning in people’s minds as they wonder: Isn’t that…? Never again will I express the passionate ferocity I felt on “China Day” in third grade, racing to the map at the front of the room and stabbing my finger into the heart of the country for my classmates to see.