Fossil Poetry: Quarantine

A special, longer edition from Hong Kong and London.

Yi-Ling is in government-mandated quarantine in Hong Kong after returning from abroad. Sophie is self-isolating in London, where pubs have only just started to close. Here’s a special edition, for these crazy times—longer than our usual, but maybe some of us have more time on our hands? Sending health and good wishes to all our subscribers.

SH: On Tuesday I went to the British Museum wearing a mask. I walked from our neighborhood in north London about 45 minutes southwest. It was a mild and warm day, not quite sunny but not rainy, and the trees were blooming pink and white. I mention the weather because it’s contributing to the feeling of spring break apocalypse in this city, which has remained mostly open, which is just on the verge of closing. The farther south I got, the emptier the city seemed; I peered into the glass windows of Pret A Mangers and Starbuckses and saw my reflection, along with a few people at the window-seats, huddled alone over meals. I saw more masks than I expected, a first in London, where this weekend the pubs were overflowing in our neighborhood, healthy young people milling out and about. A few of my friends were in crowded bars last Friday night. Shame on them, I thought at first, but really it was shame on the government, which hadn’t yet told people to stay home.

The British Museum was not empty. There wasn’t a long line, but there were people filtering in and out, posing on its looming steps for selfies. Inside, it was peaceful, light streaming into the high-ceilinged atrium, but there were people milling in the gift shops and sitting at in its cafes. There were small clusters of tourists gathering around the Rosetta Stone and people milling around in King George III’s library. At the end of the day, the museum would announce that it was closing, but it hadn’t yet and I was vaguely horrified. I wasn’t the only person in the museum wearing a mask—I counted four, out of maybe 150, but those numbers don’t really mean anything. Unmasked people were looking at me a little funny, as if to say, if you’re scared enough to be wearing a mask, what are you doing at the museum?

Indeed, the reader might notice that I, too, was at the British Museum yesterday, no different from the people I’m describing with mild horror. I woke up in the morning and checked to see if it was still open. I had a feeling it was going to close soon—the Tate had closed all its galleries that morning—and also that if it didn’t, the museum really, really needed to close. I had the feeling that its continued open-ness deserved a news story, that I should “get to the scene.” I emailed an American news editor who’d never heard of me about the muddled messaging from the British government, the fact that the prime minister had more or less told people on Monday night to stay home but hadn’t actually ordered anything closed. I wanted to write about the confused mess this was creating in London.

I don’t really do this kind of thing anymore, by which I mean I don’t do much news reporting, going to the scene. There might be something hard-wired into me from days as a breaking news reporter. But I think my desire to be there was more basic than that, a sort of selfish impulse to witness, to be useful in my documentation of this terrible moment. I took a lot of pictures with my phone. I started making observations in my notebook like steady stream into Egyptian galleries and gentle din of voices and quieter than museum experience we’ve come to know. I started going up to people, introducing myself as a journalist, eliding the fact that I was technically speaking not really even on assignment yet, and asking what they were doing here. 

“I’ve always wanted to see the Rosetta Stone,” an American college student told me. “And also the double-headed snake, you know the one I mean.” His semester at Colorado State had been canceled and he and a friend had decided to basically extend their Euro trip spring break indefinitely. Was he scared about the virus? “No,” he said. “Maybe I should be.” 

It wasn’t really the right question that I’d asked him. Maybe: are you scared for other people? But I didn’t really mean to shame him, especially because I was here too.  

I talked to two young Brazilian tourists whose flight home through Italy had been canceled and were on a kind of indefinite layover in the UK. “We’re just looking for things that are open to do,” one of them told me. “It’s probably emptier here than at our hotel.” I couldn’t argue with that.

An Australian who was halfway-napping on one of the benches near the entrance told me he’d recently been at the Louvre with his family. When things had gotten bad in Switzerland, they’d gone to France; when it had seemed bad in France, they’d come here. “I feel like we’re just two days ahead of this virus everywhere we go,” he said. I told him I had the feeling that we’re more than two days behind, whatever behind and ahead meant in this context. He laughed and acknowledged that I had a point before asking me not to use his name. 

A security guard told me that he’d never seen the museum so empty. We talked a little bit about the senselessness of the prime minister’s announcement the night before. “He told people to stay home, but he didn’t tell us to close?” he asked. Later, I tried to calculate the number of people that museum staff who work in galleries must see in a given day. It seemed potentially astronomical, and I wish I’d asked.

I approached a young woman, also masked, who was sitting with a notebook at one of the café tables. She said she was a design student in London, originally from South Korea. She was here because her classes had moved online but their project hadn’t been postponed and it involved going to the museum and taking notes on some specific artifacts. She found this directive confusing, because she felt like the museums should have closed. She didn’t really feel like she had a choice. “I’ve kept checking this morning to see if it was closed, and it wasn’t, so I felt like I had to come,” she said.

I walked home. The streets got busier as I went north. I was tracing the route of the 19 bus, my favorite bus in London, where riding the bus is usually one of my favorite activities. The high street in our neighborhood was teeming; the lines at grocery stores were long, etc. It was St. Patrick’s Day and there were people sitting outside in pubs, though the weather was starting to turn. Someone pointed and laughed at my mask, which I hadn’t taken off. When I got home I disinfected my pen and my notebook and my wallet and my phone. I took a long shower and I felt a lot of things—some shame about my bad social distancing and my ill-conceived plan for a story, some fear about contaminating my boyfriend’s apartment, some whirring feelings about getting it all down on paper. But mostly I just felt failed, less for myself than for the people I’d talked to, who had elected for good and bad reasons to come to a museum and put themselves or loved ones at risk. I felt failed by the government, nothing new, but I also felt failed by these cultural institutions that had kept their doors open too long out of some commitment to stoicism or fear of what closing would mean. Now they would close anyway, far too late.

YL: Yesterday, on my third day of quarantine in Hong Kong, I called a dear friend in Melbourne. I was frying eggs for lunch — with a digital tracker strapped to my right wrist so the health authorities could monitor my movements. He was cycling to a thrift store to stock up on DVDs — in case the internet went out because everyone was working from home. 

It was almost a year since we last spoke. There was a lot to catch-up on. The protests that completely upended the city that I called home, the wildfires that raged through the city he called home, and most recently, the virus that ravaged through what seemed like everybody’s home. We rattled through each event like a list of birthday parties slotted into our GCals. “So, I guess the world is imploding,” I said, cracking an egg into a pan. “You’ve used the word imploding three times,” he replied. 

What else could I say? I was running out of words. I no longer knew how to describe the jarring surrealness of living in the world today. You know the feeling. We all know it, now. It’s a kind of vertigo, a feeling of displacement. Everything is contingent, uncertain and in flux. Like we’re all standing on the edge of a cliff, and if somebody doesn’t act fast, we’ll all just tumble right off it. Or like we’re sitting by the television watching a tragicomedy unfold, and the showrunners are two old dudes in suits — one with bright orange hair and the other with a jet-black mane — but we have no idea how it will all end. Like we woke up one day in somebody else’s home but we’re not quite sure how to get back to our own?  

There’s a word for this feeling, actually. Solastalgia— a homesickness for a home that is being lost, eroded and transformed by environmental change. It’s the realization that you have two homes — the imploding world of teargas and wildfires and viruses — and the normal world of grocery shopping and high-school friends’ weddings and Netflix — and that for the first time, you can no longer keep them apart.

But as I watched the eggs set, we tried. We talked mostly about the ordinary things — the small and certain and good things. The article I wrote. The escape room he designed. Feelings. The friends we missed. The people we loved. Love. The dog he cycled past on the street. (Am I allowed to pet it?) The eggs I was trying to fry. (Shit, I can’t get the stove going.) The DVDs he should buy at the store. (Yes — Chicago, no — Mummy II.) We made plans to talk again. (Sooner, this time?)

It was good to hear his voice. At some point during the call— I was salting the eggs perhaps, and he was maybe turning at a curb — I felt at home. 

Reading and Writing

YL: Reading: Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Weather by Jenny Offill (both capture the current moment — writing about the banal anxieties of everyday life while living in a world in global crisis) Media Politics in China by Maria Repnikova, Union byChristopher Haugh (Chris, a friend and talented writer, writing an important book about American bipartisanism via the story of a road trip, at a polarized time) and 看见by 柴静(The environmental activist Chai Jing’s autobiography recommended by my little sis, whose Chinese is now far superior to mine.)

Writing: 

My feature on Blued, the largest gay dating app in the world and how LGBT life survives within the Great Firewall, after a gruelling and intense fact-checking process, was published in the New York Times Magazine. I just closed a longform piece for Harper’s on the Hong Kong protests, which will be published in their May edition. I am in the midst of wrapping up a research paper on applications of artificial intelligence in Chinese education, and am particularly interested in the transition of online learning and adaptive learning systems introduced by companies such as Squirrel AI.

SH: I’ve had a strangely difficult time focusing on my reading lately, even with more alone time on my hands. I guess, like a lot of us, I’ve been reading the news. I’m hoping this week will be better, but in the mean time, I was really moved by this essay by my friend Trisha Thadani about grieving amid a pandemic. I loved a weird escapist novel by Michelle Tea called Black Wave about San Francisco in the 90s, and also, somehow, a utopian view of the end of the world. Some writing: for The Economist, I reviewed some new Kehinde Wiley portraits, based off one of my favorite short stories, that left me feeling mixed. For NPR, I considered the fad of plant-generated music, and why some rescue animals go viral on social media and some don’t. Finally, a spot of brightness: a photo-driven piece for The New York Times, about the Herculean task of moving a piano in New York City.

And finally, from Yi-Ling, some notes from the other side, both practical and existential, that she’s been asked to write about several times. Read on for thoughts re quarantine regulations, masks, WFH life, and the eroding state of journalism in China.

Hong Kong Quarantine 

After a multi-leg flight from Newark to Boston Logan to Tokyo Narita to Hong Kong International Airport, I was directed to several different lines of questioning in a choose-your-own-adventure process and have arrived home. To anybody going to Hong Kong/is curious about the process, here are the new quarantine rules:

Travelers from Italy, Iran, Northern Rhineland in Germany, South Korea, Hokkaido will be sent to government quarantine.(Apparently, the base in Lady MacLehose, where I had fond memories of mountain trekking and middle-school late-night gossip sessions during Year Seven camp.)

Travelers from Europe, the United States or the UK, will have mandatory home quarantine.I wear a wristband with a digital tracker embedded inside (think: ankle tracker for recovering alcoholics) I downloaded an app called “Stay Home Safe,” wear a wristband with a digital tracking device embedded inside and scan the tracker every day to prove that I am indeed home. I feel — all at once — annoyed (cooped up, unable to go for runs, fetch groceries,) impressed (that Hong Kong has such meticulous public health controls I place) and disturbed (by the potentially dystopian surveillance technologies this kind of thing can herald.)Every now and then, the health authorities will come and knock on my door. Welcome to the club.

To Mask or Not to Mask 

This confused me. On my flight from NYC to Boston, I was the only person wearing a mask. On my flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong, everyone was wearing a mask. Some wore rain jackets, goggles and hazmat suits, wiped their seats down with a Clorox wipe.  

I polled my medic friends, whose advice boiled down to this: masks make a difference, but not a lot. If you use them incorrectly, they are useless; if you use them correctly, they are kind of useful. American and European health authorities’ rhetoric —  “They don’t work, you don’t need them” — should really be rephrased to be — “Yes, they work, but they are imperfect, we have a shortage and frontline medical workers need them much more than you.” (This recent Op-Edin the New York Times by Zeynep Tufecki best sums up how to make sense of the confusion.)

WFH (Work from Home)or WDC (Working During Crisis)

I’ve been working from home for a long time. Even though the question that we’re all asking today is less “how do you work from home?”and more “how do you work from home while a virus wreaks havoc across the globe?” there are nonetheless some lessons I have learned from working from home over the last two years, which are: 

1)    Do the same thing every morning. It could be a 5-minute stretching routine, a 15-minute meditation or a three-hour bout of uninterrupted “Deep Work.” The point is, if you’re in for WFH for the long haul, you have to train your internal Pavlovian dog to follow a basic, sustainable routine. 

2)    Regulate social media use. I’m addicted to Instagram (honestly, HK government should give me a tracker instead for Instagram use.) I know this. Chances are — so are you. On one hand, you want to delete the app because it sucks you out of the present. On the other hand, we need it more than ever because it’s a crucial form of connection AND information. So deep is my addiction that I have taken to generating a random password, writing it down on a little piece of paper, and then hiding that piece of paper. Then, at night, I pull it out, log in and get my fill. (At desperate times, I’ve emailed a photo of the piece of paper to my brother as safe keeper, who is somehow wondrously immune to the allure of the gram.)

3)    Set up a workspace as far as possible from your bed. I guarantee that you will inevitably end up rolling around on your pillow. But you can delay the downfall.

4)    Call your friends. Call your family. Zoom parties. Netflix dates. (Watch Big Mouth with wine, highly recommended.) House Party (the app.) Now’s the time how to figure out how to connect with the people you love and care about in a meaningful, nourishing way. How can technology bring us together instead of divide us? What kind of tech makes you happy, and what makes you end up feeling worse? 

5)    It is OK to Drink Alone. (In moderation, of course.) 

The Eroding State of U.S-China Relations

The COVID-19 epidemic has and will continue to devolve into a full-on propaganda war. In China, the rhetoric has turned to greater, nationalist pride, gloating the successful conquering of a virus that governments around the world are struggling to contain. People will forget the lives lost, the suffering of Wuhan and the voices of the suppressed whistle-blowers. In the United States, bigotry and racism worsens. As Americans begin to panic, more people will look for a scapegoat to blame — and many will point fingers at the yellow, bat-eating people, their Chinese virus and their authoritarian government. 

So — for those of us who have dedicated our lives to fostering mutual understanding and equivocating between the lens of the insider and outsider — please, please, please keep at it. We need voices of care, empathy and nuance more so than ever before.  

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