When I was home, I didn’t know Covid was already there. Now, a couple of months later, everyone knows Covid traces back to my hometown. To me, however, those "couple of months" feel like a lifetime. Memories of my last trip to Wuhan are surreal, if I think about it. They document a vanishing way of life, a life in which I was concerned with ordinary matters — getting dinner and meeting with friends, that sort of thing — rather than world peace. I remember going to a temple with my mom. It was raining that day, and the monks cooked excellent green pepper stir-fried eggplants. I also rode the subway from my hotel to the airport just for fun. Weeks later, the airport was shut down, and the hotel became a field hospital.
Until it happened, I never thought it was possible to seal a city with 11 million people from the rest of the world overnight. What kind of administrative chaos preceded this order, unseen in modern history, I did not know. What kind of despair invaded the minds of the residents, having to fend off inflation and supply shortages, I could not imagine. Regionalism and discrimination seized the country: top trending Weibos included news of neighboring provinces bulldozing roads on the border with Hubei and migrants getting kicked out of their homes, as places revoked their welcomes for anyone, virus-carrying or not, from Wuhan.
Then, Asians around the world became targets of racial violence, challenging the equality and integration that appeared to be growingly thin illusions. I must admit, caught in the crossfire between “Wuhan Virus,” and “no, the virus is a biological weapon from the West,” I was barely indignant, just heartbroken. I couldn’t stop thinking about how helpless the people in Wuhan must have felt, as they were imprisoned in their flats where the only outdoors is a fifty square-feet balcony, where the half-full fridge might not last the coming weeks. Forgoing their freedom so that the rest of the finger-pointing world might live.
When I first came to the US, my thirteen-year-old self thought that I should reforge my identity in this place where no one knows my past. A new beginning of sorts. In order to pass as more ABC than FOB, I ought to not only change my accent and wardrobe but also conceal my birthplace. Wuhan? Too ordinary. No one would know where that is. Now it’s the most talked-about city in the world. Still, I would like to remind Google, who insists on filling in “virus” after “Wuhan”, that the city is so much more than where the virus was first discovered. It’s where the Revolution of 1911 started, which toppled 268 years of Qing imperial rule. It’s where the longest river in Asia meets its longest tributary. It's China's most important railway hub. It has hundreds of lakes and thousands of years of history and more breakfast variety than anywhere else in the country.
In the winter, plum blossoms were everywhere just as snow began to weigh on the branches. I used to play tag with my friends in the plum woods of my elementary school, and when it was time to leave, I would pick some flowers and take them home. Put them in a vase with water and the room would be blessed with an ethereal scent for days. When springtime comes, my family would climb up the Yellow Crane Tower, a historical landmark about which the Tang poet Li Bai wrote prolifically. From there, you could see the convergence of two rivers, the endless stretch of the city, the hustle and bustle of tiny cars, tiny ships, and tiny people. In summer, sweat would trickle down my spine as I waved hysterically for a taxi. It was also humid, and I can sketch a moment in my head: under Dad’s umbrella we were waiting for a bus in the rain, across from us shone the lights of the mall where I’d just had English lessons. In the fall, when the weather calmed down, we would go to East Lake (which used to be Mao Zedong’s favorite vacation spot) to hike and picnic. I loved going there, not only because of the lake’s immensity, but also because of the stars that filled the sky at night — in the pre-technology days, there were few things to look at besides the sky. It was easy to get lost in one’s head then.
As a child sitting by East Lake, I contemplated how stars were kinder than the Sun. They didn’t make me sweat. They weren’t menacing. I could look directly at them. But then, they didn’t provide much warmth on the chilly autumn night. When I shared my observations with my mom, she asked what I would rather be, the Sun or the stars. At the time, I said I would choose the Sun. It’s brighter, more unique, more powerful. It monopolizes the sky during the day.
Now, almost a decade later, I’ve learned that the Sun is nothing more than average compared to the stars, and that most of the stars I saw, on that night by East Lake, were probably tens, if not hundreds of times, more massive and hotter than the Sun. Yet, by some inexplicable chance, life was born from the Sun. Something extraordinary out of something absolutely ordinary. I’ve also learned that I would remain connected to the city I once deemed too ordinary, even as my relatives moved away, and that something extraordinary would sprout from that connection: recollections of a carefree childhood, the impression of waiting for a future to arrive — it could have been anything.
I read a lot about life in Wuhan during the lockdown. I remember the director of a municipal hospital recounting how he broke down sobbing on his way home on one of the first nights of the disease’s escalation. No one knew how to help the patients struggling to breathe. Chaos at the hospital seemed to block all slivers of hope. I think of the caregivers and first responders around the world: they all have normal lives, just like you and me. Those normal people witnessed death and hopelessness first hand, yet still put on a grin to encourage those in need. They combat supply shortage by recycling single-use masks and improvising hazmat suits out of taped garbage bags. From those ordinary but lovely souls, something extraordinary was born too: rescue, recovery, liberation. Life.
Wuhan is reopening now, 76 days later. Days and nights are returning to the way they were. Cars reoccupy the streets. Breakfast shops resume operations. People go back to work. The monotonous routine is back. The quarantine has made me realize that, in these tumultuous times, that monotonous routine contains familiar joy. Having a roof over your head and being able to see your family every day — so much to love already. Maybe criticisms of mediocrity are erroneous to begin with; they are byproducts of the pressure from society, the discrepancy between ambition and reality, and the fascination with feeling superior. But when we are busy chasing after something substantial, we shouldn’t forget to slow down once in a while, look around, and appreciate the ordinary beauty. The moments taken for granted. The dewdrops on Mom’s irises in the front yard, the soft fuzz of a hand-knit sweater, the sound of dreams hatching under the stars.
When I went back to Wuhan last December, I grew sick of hotpot, milk tea, hot dry noodles, meeting friends, greeting family — I had too much of those. They were such ordinary pleasures at the time, now they are luxuries beyond my reach. I can’t wait for them to be ordinary again.